Monday, 17 November 2014

Messing About with Illustrations - Elizabeth Kay


I wanted to be a writer from the age of four, as soon as I realised that there was such a profession. And all through junior school I seemed to be on track; my headmaster put me in for every children’s writing competition there was, and I won a variety of delightful prizes provided by various companies such as a crate of creamed rice pudding for a story about a cow.

Senior school was different, though. Although nearly all my teachers were excellent, the one who had a real down on me was my English teacher. I would try to do experimental things in my stories, and I remember one in particular which came back with a red line through the whole thing, an F as the lowest mark she could possibly give, and the comment “You can’t do this”. I’d written a story about an escaped tiger, and was trying to build up the tension by switching scenes at crucial moments. Unfortunately this was the person who had the power to decide whether or not I took A level English. She took one look at me as I lined up with the other hopefuls and said, “You? I think not.”

And that was that – I went to art school instead of reading English, which was what I’d really wanted to do. Ten years later I re-wrote exactly the same story as a radio play, and heard it broadcast on Radio 4 as an Afternoon Theatre. The teacher concerned had died by then, so she never knew, but I did visit my old headmistress who said, “Why didn’t you come and see me about your A level? I’d have overruled her.” But when you’re sixteen you wouldn’t dream of doing any such thing, and as far as my parents were concerned teacher always knew best.
Art school in the sixties was the place to be, though, and I had a whale of a time. I did become disillusioned by the end of my course, when it became apparent that it wasn’t what you did but who you knew – and how well. The writing world seemed much more attractive – you wrote your story and sent it off, and no one knew what you looked like or how old you were or who you slept with. My first success was a short story for The Evening News, followed by my first radio play. Entering Broadcasting House as playwright in my twenties was heady stuff, and just the first of many different writing incarnations I’ve had.

Art school wasn’t wasted, however. Not that I learned anything visual of value, as it was all conceptual art and being able to draw was terribly old hat. I learned what I didn’t want to do, and being a natural rebel what interested me was the most unfashionable medium of all – watercolour. And it’s this that has been incredibly useful for self-publishing. I don’t have to employ anyone to design my covers. 
I don’t need to pay anyone to illustrate my books. And I can do exactly what I want, rather than putting up with an illustrator who hasn’t read the book and gets a lot of things wrong. Having said that, Miho Satake, the Japanese illustrator of The Divide books, was absolutely wonderful and got every single detail spot on.

One of the delights of getting older is that you don’t give a fig for what anyone else thinks. I’ve always been interested in wildlife, and so these days I can unite my favourite activities (apart from writing) under one umbrella - travelling to obscure and fascinating destinations, wildlife photography, and detailed and precise watercolour.

Since the advent of digital photography I’ve been able to take photographs that are good enough source material for paintings – and I’ve even been commended in photography competition. The other advantage of taking your own pics is that you avoid copyright issues. Paint programs are wonderful for refining edges and getting rid of small mistakes, and one-fix photography applications can be very useful. On my recent trip to Komodo I experienced the best snorkeling of my entire life – partly due to having invested in a prescription face-mask, and actually being able to see as a result, but also because I have an underwater digital camera, so I can just fire off shot after shot in the hope that I get something. And then I can get rid of the inevitable blue tinge in Paintshop Pro…

 

And if you can’t afford a holiday to Galapagos or Rwanda, there’s always the zoo. When I was a kid zoos meant bars and wire mesh between you and the animals. These days there are open areas, where there’s a just a moat between you and them, or glass – and a lot of digital cameras have a facility for taking photos through glass.


Trouble is, I’m spending more time painting at the moment than I am writing…

6 comments:

madwippitt said...

Loved hearing a bit about your early career! What a shame about the teacher (it was only due to one of mine that I got round to writing my first book) - but hurrah for proving him wrong, and for doing art college! I LOVE your covers: your artwork is stunning. Is that your grasshopper too? Fabulous! Although I do also rather have a soft spot for my copy of The Divide which has a double front cover with a eye peeking through a hole ...

Jan Needle said...

i was booted out of portsmouth grammar school after two terms in the sixth form on the grounds that i wouldn't pass any of my chosen A levels, one of which was english. they weren't far wrong, i guess. when i took english A level aged 25, after eight years as a journalist, i scraped by on the lowest grade. i often wonder about scholastic achievements...

Bill Kirton said...

I envy you your talent for water colours, Elizabeth. I've tried, found it fascinating and absorbing, but the results were disastrous, embarrassing.

Your teacher anecdote will probably resonate with most of us. My own involved winning the English prize at school but hearing the result announced in a way that suggested it was either an administrative error or the end of literature as we then knew it.

Lydia Bennet said...

Schools are usually much more sensitive and supportive these days and have been for some time - but perhaps having something to fight against can be as much a spur as support, with creative pursuits at least! your expertise in several fields is a gift that must enhance your life as much as your work, Elizabeth.

Dennis Hamley said...

That rang a few bells, Elizabeth.I've spent my writing life with Browning's attitude: 'I give you truth split into prismatic hues and fear the bright white light, even if it is in me.' Poetry is an art which I wonder at and envy those who can write it so marvellously but, apart from the odd piece of pastiche verse, I can't begin to attempt. And I'm sure it's because of harsh words and judgements from an English teacher when I was twelve. I spent a large part of my working life trying to do something to sharpen up the critical faculties of a small minority of English teachers. It was a thankless task. My daughter's history teacher told us, one month before her A level exams, that she had no hope whatever of passing. She got an A. Ah well. But Val is right. Despite Gove - and, it now seems, his successor - schools anre far more sensitive and supportive than they once were

Susan Price said...

That really is a beautiful grasshopper!