Dave Gray is the man behind the illustrations in the fantastic children's book, The Unstoppable Maggie McGee, written by Juliet Clare Bell. He sits down with us and tells us a little bit about his work.

Dave, how did you end up being involved with the production of Unstoppable Maggie McGee?

I’ve known Juliet, the author behind Unstoppable Maggie McGee, for a while now on the local children’s writing scene. We are used to viewing each other’s work and making suggestions for improvements.

When she mentioned the project, I jumped at the chance! Not only is it a very worthy cause but it’s also a really magical story full of imagination. There were lots of opportunities for creativity in the illustrations which is really important to me. Juliet has a brilliant talent for getting to the heart of a story, and by working with the patients in the hospital, she drew from their experiences and told the story in a really sensitive way.


What was your inspiration for the illustrations in Unstoppable Maggie McGee?

I love the simplified style of illustrations like Hergé’s The Adventures of Tintin and I’m always trying to give my work a bit of a classic feel. I really wanted to blend the real world hospital with the imagination of Maggie so that readers are drawn into the story. I spent time photographing the hospital and meeting with children who had received treatment there.

The staff put in so much extra effort - it’s a truly magical place and I really wanted to capture that. I also wanted it to have a bit of a timeless feel so that it has a lasting appeal and could reflect the experiences of any of the children who have visited or stayed in the hospital over the years or will do so in the future.


How does the creative process work when producing the illustrations for a children’s book?

In traditional publishing, the writer and illustrator work completely separately and the illustrator will only get input from an art director or editor. With Maggie McGee, Juliet and I had the chance to work together and bounce ideas off each other.

The first step is taking the text and drawing very small thumbnail sketches of the scenes and characters. It’s important to sketch and not be too tidy at first - ideas will develop and change so you need to be able to use the sketches as stepping stones to the final images.

After I’ve completed larger sketches of the whole book, I put them in order and see if they are working. I’ll change lots of bits and bobs with the pages, creating several versions of each. I also try out different characters before starting to ink the sketches. I move onto the computer at this point and I have a screen that I can draw directly on to.

I work with many layers adding colours, washes and different brush effects. Keeping items on separate layers allows me to change things easily and move them around to make them work better. For example, if I decide I’ve made a character’s head too big, I can simply shrink it! If I was working traditionally on paper, I’d probably have to start the whole drawing again which would take much longer.

The problem with working on a computer is that I still want my work to have a hand drawn feel so I spend a lot of time trying to make it look like it wasn’t made on a screen! The whole process takes months and lots of late nights - illustration work is much more intensive than most people imagine. The illustrations have to really tell the story and the characters and scenes have to look consistent throughout the book.


How does it feel to be a part of The Big Read 2016, especially seeing your work brought to life with your very own BookBench?

The Big Read is such a fantastic idea and I’m so proud to be a part of it. Reading is really important and anything we can do to inspire young people to read is time well spent. The BookBench was such a wonderful project to work on. I’ve never painted anything so large before so to be able to have that opportunity was amazing, although it was very challenging at times!

I’m used to having an undo button so working with paint and brush can be a little nerve-wracking.


What impact do you think The Big Read will have on young people living in the West Midlands?

I hope that it will inspire young people to really explore the world of books and develop a lifelong love of reading. Reading is one of the most immersive, educational and important skills we can develop. Books help us to see things from other people’s perspectives and develop empathy, which can sadly seem like it’s in short supply in world events these days. Reading is so key for helping our young people’s prospects and helping them reach their potential. I’d love it if we saw young people in the West Midlands really getting into books through The Big Read.

See Dave in action here working on the artwork for the book's BookBench as part of The Big Read:

Meet Dave & Juliet on Thursday 11 August as they hold children's workshops throughout the day in our Atrium! To find out more about the event, click here.

The Unstoppable Maggie McGee is available to buy now.