Illustration Inspiration: Alison Jay, Illustrator of My Bed is an Air Balloon
The Children’s Book Review | January 24, 2019
Alison Jay has a first-class degree in illustration from the London College of Printing. She worked in animation before moving on to children’s illustration, for which she works in quick-drying oil paint. She is well known for her children’s books—Welcome to the Zoo was selected as one of New York’s Bank Street’s best books of the year in 2009. William and the Night Train was nominated for the Kate Greenaway Medal and won the Transworld Children’s Book Award. Here we learn about her newest book with Julia Copus, My Bed is an Air Balloon.
I make art because…
I think, like most children, as a child I always loved experimenting with pencils, paints and crayons. I also loved making things out of clay, plasticine, used packaging etc.. So mainly I make art because I love it so much. I am very rarely really happy with the end results of my paintings — I can always see the problems or how it could be better. Sometimes, though, pictures turn out quite well and that is very satisfying, it spurs me on to try again and again.
My latest published book is …..
My Bed is an Air Balloon by Julia Copus. For me this was a dream book to work on. I loved the manuscript and the strange creatures in Julia’s poem. I have never illustrated fantasy creatures before so this was a wonderful opportunity and a first for me. I have painted many fantasy balloons over the years (lots of fruit and vegetables for some reason) and have always enjoyed painting landscapes from above. I was lucky enough to go on a flight in a hot air balloon some years ago — it was amazing seeing the world from that perspective. I would love to go up again one day.
Art medium used….
To paint my illustrations I use alkyd paint which is a quick drying oil paint. I like to paint on watercolour paper, it seems to give a softness which I like. I sometimes add a crackle varnish to give the painting an aged look— but not always … it depends on the book and if the aged effect is appropriate.
If I am working on a book I usually start by drawing tiny thumbnail scribbles of lots of different ideas and ways to illustrate the text. I can usually tell straight away if a composition will work at that tiny stage. I then draw the picture slightly larger but still very small and work through the whole text until the book is very roughly drawn out. I often email those small roughs to the publisher for comments and amendments. When the thumbnail roughs are approved, I enlarge them on a photocopier to a slightly bigger size than the final print size. I trace off the drawings onto thick watercolour paper, re-drawing and improving the details all the time. After that, I begin to paint the illustration, usually starting with the sky or background and gradually adding all the elements and details until the painting is finished. The paint takes overnight to dry completely, which is when I sometimes add the varnish.
I am inspired by….
Lots of different things inspire me — art and music, also nature, landscapes, old houses and different seasons. Like most people sometimes I see, read, or hear something that really resonates with me. It could be a piece of music, a painting, or walking through the countryside and noticing different skies and light on the landscape — anything can inspire me to try different ideas. I love old paintings especially one with lots of details in the background. I find them so intriguing it feels like peering into the past. I sometimes add the crackle varnish effect on my pictures to try to give that sense of age.
My favorite place to create and illustrate is …
My little studio, which is a small upstairs bedroom. I have been working in here for about ten years now and it has everything I need to paint and draw. My studio has quite a large window overlooking a central garden with trees and shrubs, I often stare out of the window daydreaming when I am trying to think of ideas for pictures or books. I love this little room because it has everything to hand. Although, being a very untidy illustrator, I seem to make a huge mess—I am ashamed to say that my desk and floor are usually covered with drawings, books, papers, paint tubes and sketch books. Then somewhere in the middle of the chaos is at the illustration I am working on. Occasionally, usually on a bright sunny day when the mess looks at it’s worse, I will tidy everything up — I love my room more when it is tidy.
My most used art supply is …
I think that would be Daler-Rowney bristlewhite paint brushes size 1. Sorry to advertise (other brushes are available) but they are my favourites. I seem to wear them down quickly … so I need a constant supply.
Illustrator idols …
I love lots of illustrators, some from the past and some contemporary. My favourites include Beatrix Potter, John Tenniel, Edward Ardizzone, Lane Smith, Loise Brirely … gosh I can’t stop! One of my all time favourites would have to be Edward Gorey, I really love his dark sense of humour.
All time favourite children’s book I didn’t illustrate …
That is an almost impossible question but with Edward Gorey in mind it might be “The Dwindling Party” written and illustrated by Edward Gorey. This is a pop-up book written in verse about a large Edwardian family, the MacFizzets, who visit the sinister Hickyacket Hall grounds and gardens. On every spread something happens to a family member causing them to disappear until only one little boy is left. It is very darkly amusing to me as an adult and I think slightly older children would love it, very young ones might find it disturbing—I’m not sure, although, I loved slightly scary creepy books when I was very young … all children, like adults, are different.
A literary character to create art with …
My first thought was: ooh “Cat in the Hat” would be such a fun and exciting character to work with, who knows what we would create together!? Then I thought about the unholy mess we would make, worse even than my own mess. I don’t think I could ever clean up after that chaos. My second thought was Arrietty from “The Borrowers.” I love adding tiny details to the backgrounds of my pictures, sometimes the figures, animals and trees are just a couple of millimeters high but imagine the tiny details Arrietty could paint for me.
Currently working on …
A non-fiction book called “The Pig War.” It is a true story about the San Juan boundary dispute. In 1856, San Juan Island was occupied by American and British settlers. A pig from the British camp broke loose onto the American camp where it started feeding on Lyman Cutlar’s potatoes. Lyman shot the poor pig then offered to pay the British owner. A huge dispute blew up over the price and escalated so out of control that America and Britain almost went to war. This is only the second factual children’s book I have illustrated, the first was for the same publisher and was about Belva Lockwood’s life. I am really enjoying working on this book, there are lots of tall ships and quite a few portraits of the captains, colonels, and generals involved in the dispute. I always enjoy illustrating different subject matter.
I do not have a website, but I am represented by The Organisation, so my work is on their website. I have an Instagram page @alisonjay17 and an Etsy shop, The Alison Jay Gallery, where I sell prints and some original paintings. I don’t get too much time to paint individual pictures but I love the freedom sometimes to paint whatever I like as one-offs and then hopefully sell them or make prints out of the images. I am hoping to bring out a range of greeting cards in the new year which I will also sell in my shop.
Written by Julia Copus
Illustrated by Alison Jay
Publisher’s Synopsis: From the bestselling, award-winning, much-loved author of Welcome to the Zoo and ABC, a beautifully presented book with two front covers. The text can be read from front to back and vice versa. The mirror form poem meets in the middle in a stunning centerpiece image as the two children in the story (twins, one in an air balloon, the other a sailing boat) meet in the clouds!
Ages 5+ | Publisher: Faber & Faber Children’s | October 30, 2018 | ISBN-13: 978-0571334841
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