Jessica Tickle, our featured illustrator for the month of October, builds her illustrations the way a composer builds a piece of music. The layers of visuals weave together like the strings and horns, complementing one another and creating a rich woven world we wish we could pitch a tent in and stay forever.
Jessica’s book The Story Orchestra: Four Seasons in One Day (one of the first books we ever curated!) captured our imaginations and our love of all things whimsical and nature-worshipping; we knew we had to chat with the creator for more. We spoke to Jessica about the enchanting ways of the natural world, the freedom of digital art-making, and books that make you want to dance.
We all at Literati fell so deeply in love with your book The Story Orchestra: Four Seasons in One Day, and it’s become a staple in our Welcome box curation. You have such a palpable grasp on nature, specifically the many qualities of light one finds outside through the seasons and hours of the day. What is your process like in capturing these environmental details?
I really love the natural world and being outside, I go on lots of walks and, being a freelancer, they are often at very different times of the day so I get to see early mornings, some (very) late nights and all the bits in between too! This has definitely helped me to discover the way light can change a landscape and make it look like a whole other place! But I also think I’m drawn to light. I love making things glow in my work and playing up the lights and darks in the color palette. I think light can add so much depth to an illustration but it also makes it seem otherworldly. When I see an artist who uses light well I almost believe I can walk into the image! There is something truly magical and almost spiritual about that.
The layers of details you bring to each spread in your books are stunning! Can you talk a little bit about how you plan and organize such an intricate page?
Thank you! It’s funny, but even four years on from when I started I haven’t changed my routine! I used to work with pencils and paper (now I work mostly on the computer) but I still very much work in the same way! I start with the background usually painting a quick wash of watercolor, which I then scan in to the computer. Then on top of this I’ll work in some texture and play with the color until I have a strong, textured sky that suits the piece. Then I work in the trees and foliage followed by the people and then finally I get to do my favorite part, which is all the tiny details like birds and flowers and playing with the light! In between all this I’ll intertwine textured brushes, more washes of color and sometimes even pencil marks so that in the end the work looks deeper and fuller. This really works for books like The Story Orchestra series. The books are quite big so they need lots of detail to fill the pages! As you can imagine, there are a lot of layers! I think my record so far has been six hundred and something.
What, in your opinion, makes a successful book for children?
I really love children’s books that make you react. Whether they make you feel emotional or laugh out loud, I think if they can do that then they’ve done the hardest part! I think this is often a combination of a brilliant story with equally brilliant illustrations, I don’t know if you can have one without the other. But I also think the author and illustrator have to enjoy making the book, you can always tell (I think) where the storytellers have had fun with it. There’s an energy to the words and pictures that makes you want to follow the book until the very end. I think these elements sound easier to do than they are! I find making a series of illustrations flow with energy incredibly difficult, let alone writing a fantastic story. It’s a really long and tough process but when it works, it’s magic!
Can you tell us about a past project of yours that’s especially close to your heart?
A couple of years ago I got to work with the writer John Agard on his book called Come All You Little Persons. I love his work and I’d always wanted to illustrate a poem, so it was an incredible opportunity. The book also has a message, a subtle but beautiful message, about all of us coming together and celebrating the fact that yes we are all different but we are also all joined together on this one very beautiful planet! It was a joy to illustrate such a life affirming, happy book. It was a true joy to work with John, too!
What has been your favorite interaction with a child about your work?
I always love seeing children dancing to the Story Orchestra books! Sometimes parents will send me videos of their children reacting to one of the books and it’s just the best thing! One of the videos I was sent is of a two-year-old girl looking at the pictures and pressing the buttons herself. She feels sad when Isabelle drops the pot and she feels happy and starts to dance at the Spring Festival! It’s incredible watching how she picks up the mood of the music at such an early age! Music is one of those amazing things that we all understand and react to instinctively and there is so much wonder in that. I think we are made for music as much as music is made for us (if that makes any sense).
What are the picture books by others, new or old, you’ve found yourself most drawn to? What do you love about them?
I always seem to be drawn to books that celebrate the outside world! I love Emily Hughes’s books, especially The Little Gardener. It’s a cleverly simple story with a fantastic message: If you work hard, something will grow. I also think her illustrations capture what it is to be a child in the outdoors, they are wild and muddy and grassy and almost make me want to live outside in a tent forever!
I also love Victoria Turnbull’s Pandora. It’s, again, about taking care of the world around us, but she illustrates it in such a beautiful, subtle, and emotive way. The story always makes me cry and I can’t figure out why which only adds to its wonder! I also recently bought a book called Miss Jaster’s Garden. I fell in love with Niels Bodecker’s illustrations on Pinterest and had to order one of his books but I didn’t really know what it was about which only added to its charm! Again, it celebrates nature and being outside, but it’s also about the friendship of these two completely different characters (one being a hedgehog)! It’s a sweet book and also a little bit quirky, which I love!
If you could illustrate any story at all, what would it be?
I used to say Peter Pan a lot as it’s one of my favorite stories of all time. However I have seen so many beautifully illustrated versions of Peter Pan that I don’t think I’d be able to think of anything new to add to it! I really love the Noel Streatfeild books and I’ve always thought they would be beautiful to draw, especially Ballet Shoes, which was my favorite story when I was little. I’d also love to illustrate a story about a garden because they are so much fun to draw (and I’m clearly drawn to them)! But I think my dream project would be to illustrate a big book of very different poems, maybe abstract poems! Although I can imagine I’d want to spend years and years trying to get each one right — which might not be ideal!
What can you tell us about what you’re working on next?
I have just started work on the fourth Story Orchestra, which is amazing. I honestly didn’t imagine I’d still get to be doing this three years on. I am over the moon that they are so loved! The ballet we’re focusing on this time is a true classic as well so I’m really looking forward to the next six months! I also recently finished work on a magical picture book about a kiss. I even got to design what a kiss might look like which, as you can imagine, was a lot of fun! Also in the works is a picture book written by Lisa Mantchev called The Perfectly Perfect Wish. It’s a truly warm and beautiful story with a fantastic message, I’m very excited to bring her characters to life!
You’ve met the illustrator, now see the books! Sign up for Literati’s monthly experiences and get your hands on bookish loveliness at www.literatibooks.com.