Interviewed by Nicola Cayless
Better Reading spoke with author-illustrator Gwyn Perkins about his first foray into both writing and illustrating a children’s book. A Walk in the Bush is funny, heartfelt, and celebrates Australian flora and fauna, all through the eyes of Iggy and his Granddad.
Better Reading: Congratulations on the release of A Walk in the Bush! You’ve dedicated this book to your granddaughter Sabene – did she inspire the story?
Gwyn Perkins: Thank you! She did. I designed the story to be read to a small child and Sabene, having just turned five, was my imagined recipient. I posted her my very first advance copy, which her teacher read out to the class, and I think Sabene felt special. Later she told her dad that she wants to learn how to read her book all by herself.
BR: The story follows Iggy as he spends the day in the bush with his granddad . . . but he’s short, brown and furry, and has a tail! Why make Iggy such a quirky character?
GP: Cats don’t talk, which makes Iggy perfect for a picture book, as the images really drive the story. Had Granddad needed to make conversation, it would have muddied the simplicity of the book’s communication. The story is framed around an adult and a child, but because Iggy is so small, little kids can identify with both characters.Quirky, funny things are remembered because they are unusual, so that was the inspiration behind Iggy. Also, I have a cat.
BR: Are you yourself a fan of bushwalking? Why did you think it important to write a picture book about Australian flora and fauna?
GP: Bush strolling rather than bushwalking. None of that serious stuff, although I have trekked a few times. At Easter I usually stay with friends in the Blue Mountains, where I seem to have earned a reputation for guiding people on walks that go on for much longer than they were expecting… but they still come back each year. I’m determined to try the National Pass – a memorable and important walk out of Wentworth falls – before my knees become too stiff. Australian flora and fauna is some of the nicest in the world. If A Walk in the Bush encourages people to do a little more exploring of what’s around them, then that’s good news.
BR: Have you written as well as illustrated a picture book before? What was the process like of writing A Walk in the Bush?
GP: I’ve illustrated books before but this is my first go as an author as well. The Arts Council called for a children’s book from an illustrator’s perspective, so the storyline became my challenge. When I’d finished a presentation (which contained many unnecessary drawings and much waffling text) I was convinced I’d wasted my time. Luckily, the publishers at Affirm Press saw value and I was offered a deal, a deadline and a great editor, Clair Hume, who helped me re-discover what I’d imagined the book looked and felt like to read. The time frame necessitated a plan so Clair sent me a dummy version constructed from her notes and selections from my emailed scribbles. I was comfortable to storyboard the book as I might for film, with which I have had experience. We collaborated with page size, layouts, drawings and text. Everything.I’m also very thankful for Bruno Herfst’s contribution. Apart from his genius cover concept, he was a vital part of the design and assembly team.
It had been my experience when reading picture books, a small child of Sabene’s age would take in both open pages together, so this influenced my layout. If you turn the pages without reading the text, you will still be able to work out what the story is about.
BR: How did you get inspiration for the beautiful and quirky illustrations? How long does each page take you to do?
GP: I have drawing rules learned from a list of revelations and mistakes which continues to evolve. They include:
- Exaggeration of body language, where for example a pointing arm might be longer than usual, a shouting mouth bigger and surprised eyes much wider.
- The characters are drawn as if in silhouette so their attitude is made more obvious.
- Scenery can be constructed as if in two dimensional layers.
- And my most important, K.I.S.S. – Keep It Simple, Stupid. If it doesn’t need to be there, give it the flick.
My best drawings are done quickly using a pen on A4 paper which I scan. Using a printer, my old animation desk and the computer’s cut and paste, I have developed a system where I assemble often scribbled elements in Photoshop until I have a composite line drawing I’m happy with. So the whole image is made up from many bits. That process is usually fairly quick and spontaneous, but working out what the drawing actually is then colouring it takes forever. It might turn out to be either a day or so, or a long week of late nights.
BR: Is A Walk in the Bush portraying anywhere specific in Australia, or did you want to represent all Australian bush?
GP: Much of it is around where I live in Pittwater, a bushy part in the northern suburbs of Sydney. Many of the birds land on my balcony and the wallaby surprise did happen, so I’ve drawn what I know and see around me. Other bits are inspired by Blackheath and Wentworth Falls in The Blue Mountains. I initially had rainforest from Queensland’s Daintree, but it was cut. The water in the last picture is actually where I go sailing every Wednesday.
BR: You used to be an animator – why become an illustrator? Do you miss anything from being an animator?
GP: Computer animation gradually removed the opportunities for me to be financially and creatively rewarded for producing funny, scratchy TV Ads, plus I longed for change, so I decided to follow the direction of the fork in the road which I preferred, leading back to the basics of drawing. Whereas the craft of animation concerns depicting movement and expression by a series of drawings, each appearing on the screen for one twenty-fifth of a second, a sketch or a page in a book is meant to be gazed at. So there was a lot of learning to do. I drew things to be sold locally, like cards and prints, and I illustrated some books, some better than others.
Now I’m happier than I can remember. I don’t miss animation, but I am glad I learned what I did at the time.
BR: What are some of your favourite Australian picture books?
GP: Those illustrated by my friend Janine Dawson.
BR: Are you working on anything currently?
Yes – the second book in the series of three for Affirm Press. This one is called A Day at the Show.
BR: And finally, what is your favourite Australian animal to draw?
Born in Melbourne in 1942, Gwyn Perkins began his artistic career when he won a newspaper drawing prize of one guinea and a box of paints (mistakenly awarded to Miss Gwyn Perkins). He spent many years as a successful animator in the advertising industry before moving to an island north of Sydney to enjoy a slower pace. He spends his days drawing, sailing and doing odd jobs for his friends and family. Gwyn has two adult sons and lives with his wife and teenage daughter.
Click here to purchase a copy of A Walk in the Bush, and here to read our review of the book. And, of course, follow Better Reading Kids on Facebook for more A Walk in the Bush, and all the kids’ books you could want.