Nicola Colton has recently released her first book, A Dublin Fairytale, a picturebook retelling of Little Red Riding Hood featuring familiar landmarks such as The Spire and the Ha’penny Bridge. The book has had a great reception, and has been shortlisted for an Irish Book Award. I was delighted to talk to Nicola about the process of writing and illustrating the book, her influences, her future projects and more!
A Dublin Fairytale is such a clever book, where did the idea come from?
I’ve always loved fairytales and was avid reader of them as a child. The idea for the book began as a daydream on the bus in which I began to imagine fairytale characters inhabiting Dublin and pondering who they might be and where they might live. I chose to use archetypal fairytale characters such a troll, a witch and a dragon to work with initially. The idea’s first application was in the form of a ‘promotional pack’ to send out to potential clients and comprised of a set of postcards with a fairytale character and a Dublin landmark on each one and accompanied by an illustrated map of ‘Fairytale Dublin’. As an illustrator finding new ways to promote yourself and get your work seen is essential. I sent one to The O’Brien Press and Emma the Art Director saw the potential in the idea for a picture book. I had no story in mind as such, just some character ideas but with encouragement from Emma and Helen the editor I wrote a draft story. I wanted the book to allow the reader to explore Dublin through the narrative and pictures but with a fairytale twist. Creating the book was a chance to combine my love of Dublin, which was my home for 11 years, with my love of fairytales.
What is your favourite spread in A Dublin Fairytale?
My favourite spread is probably the one with the Ha’penny Bridge in which you are first introduced to the character of the Troll. The Ha’penny Bridge is wonderful and it was great to get the opportunity to draw it. I also loved drawing and painting the troll as designing and conjuring up creatures is one of my favourite things. I discovered through the process of making this book that I really like drawing buildings and scenery. I realised that backgrounds are very important to me, especially when I was depicting a city that I know very well and love.
There are a lot of fun details in the illustrations, is there one you particularly enjoyed working on?
I really enjoyed working on the spread which featured Trinity College as it is such an iconic and impressive building. It was really fun to add my own fairytale twists on the college by changing the name to ‘Trinity College of Sorcery’ and turning the statues of Edmund Burke and Oliver Goldsmith into a wizard and witch to reflect the sorcery theme. I also liked adding lots of things happening in the background like a ‘spell cloud’ billowing from one of the chimneys, a witch on a broomstick in the sky and some sorcery students chatting. I like illustrations that I can spend a lot of time on and get lost in the detail and drawing Trinity afforded me that opportunity. It was also important to me that while I added my own fairytale tweaks that the building was still very much recognizable as Trinity College; as it is such a beloved landmark.
What are the influences on your illustrative style?
I love folk art with it’s use of motifs and patterns, clean lines and it’s naïve yet often elegant quality. I also love muted and limited colour palettes, so vintage picture books like ‘Rosies Walk’ by Pat Hutchins and ‘Snowy Day’ by Ezra Jack Keats appeal to me and I love Miroslav’s Sasek’s series of picture books that explore different cities like London,New york and Paris. Sasek’s style is restrained and elegant and he captures the spirit and enchantments of each city beautifully. I also love Michel Delacroix paintings of buildings, shops and street scenes; they are so charming and full of life.
I also have a 1960’s edition of ‘Uncle Remus stories’ featuring some of the ‘Brer Rabbit’ tales that I love and it is illustrated beautifully by William Backhouse.
Can you tell me about your technique and what media you work in?
I always start with pencil and paper sketches initially and then colour using a combination of acrylic painting and digital techniques.
What is your least favourite thing to draw?
My least favourite things to draw are horses and bicycles, both of which I had to draw this year. It’s all the components to a bike that throws me off and the anatomy and proportions of a horse that I find difficult. To draw the for projects this year I drew them over and over again until I reached a rendering that I was happy with. I usually start with detailed drawings and then pare then back more and more until the end result is in my more simplified style.
How did you get into illustration?
I studied Graphic Design in IADT Dun Laoghaire and I worked in design for a couple of years after college. Even though we didn’t do much drawing in our course it gave me a really solid foundation for illustration as I learned a lot about composition, typography, colour and very practical skills like scanning and using design software which has proved invaluable in my everyday work as an illustrator. I was always interested in illustration but back when I was choosing a college course the two choices that I had were either Fine Art or Graphic Design and I had no idea how to begin pursuing a career as an illustrator. I enjoyed college but I didn’t feel creatively fulfilled when it came to working as a graphic designer. I was lucky enough to come across a poster for Adrienne Geoghegan’s ‘Illustration Boot Camp’ in a coffee shop and I got in touch with her straight away and booked a place on her course. During her first class I felt very nervous as I was completely out of practice with drawing but as I went through the warm up creative exercises she set for us, I felt as though a light had been turned on inside of me and I knew that I wanted to be an illustrator and I’ve been drawing ever since.
Who are the illustrators you admire most at the moment?
I love Yasmeen Ismail’s work as it has a lovely spontaneous feel to it and it’s so full of energy, colour and happiness. I also recently purchased Briony May Smith’s book ‘The Goblin King’ which is beautifully illustrated and a fantastic story. I also love Chris Judge’s work, he comes up with brilliant characters and there’s great humour to his illustrations; his new book ‘The Snow Beast’ looks like his best work yet.
What books did you enjoy as a child?
I vividly remember my very first trip to the library with my ‘Ma’ when I was five and checking out Revolting Rhymes by Roald Dahl. I read and re-read it for an afternoon and then asked if I could go back to the library for more books. That was the beginning of my love of Roald Dahl and Quentin Blake, other favourites include George’s Magic Medicine (and I remember spending a day trying to concoct my own ‘medicine’ by mixing things together that I found in the house) The Twits and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. I also went through a big Enid Blyton phase and I loved The Chronicles of Narnia series by C.S Lewis. I had an edition of The Brothers Grimm Fairytales which I continually returned to as well.
What are your favourite fairytales and fairytale retellings?
Revolting Rhymes contains some amazing fairytale retellings and Roald’s version of Red Riding Hood is absolutely hilarious. Red Riding Hood has always been a favourite of mine as my granny gave me a Red Riding Hood storytelling doll shortly before she died when I was 6. I was very close to her so reading that fairytale always made me feel a connection with her, which was why I included a Red Riding Hood type character in A Dublin Fairytale.
You have illustrated a number of projects before – such as the Alice and Megan covers and Castaways – but A Dublin Fairytale was the first book you have written. How did you find the writing process? Do you plan to write more books?
To be honest writing was something that I loved in school and in college but I felt rusty and out of practice with it when I came to writing this book. I had written a couple of picture book story drafts previously, one was even shortlisted for the ‘AM Heath Children’s Prize’ last year but was still in need of further development and another one that I never quite finished as I had lost interest in the idea is gathering dust in a drawer. As writing a picture book was a pretty new venture for me I was intimidated by the thoughts of writing the first draft and also getting the pictures to work with the story. In the end I knew the best way to overcome my fear was to just write it and do the work. I had overcome a similar block with drawing using the same process. There were a few years where I held myself back from drawing and creativity in general by overthinking things. I would draw something and if it didn’t look like what I had imagined or came out ‘wrong’ I would get frustrated and give up easily. The breakthrough for me came in realising that drawing is a process and it may take lots of drawings before you get it ‘right’ and you just need to be patient and keep practicing and I think writing is a similar. Whenever I have the opportunity to do a workshop with children I always encourage them to get stuck in and not to be afraid to make ‘mistakes’. I tell them that there is no right or wrong way and that everyone has a different style of drawing and that is what is so great about illustration. I don’t want children to get ‘stuck’ in the process like I did for so many years because I was aiming for perfection each time. Writing seems to be the same process, you just have to be patient and keep working on it and I would love to write and illustrate more picture books.
Could you tell us about any projects you are working on at the moment?
I just finished working on a poetry picture book that will be released next year. It was really fun to work on as each spread offered a chance to work a new theme.The poems included were about everything from rockets and monsters to farm animals and pirates. I got to illustrate a wide range of characters and backgrounds which was a very enjoyable and at times challenging experience. I’m also working on a new idea for a picture book and I am at the writing and thumbnailing stage. It’s a story that I started last year and want to develop now that I have some time.
Nicola Colton painting in the window of Hodges Figgis bookshop, Dublin
A big thank you to Nicola Colton for her wonderful answers, and for the images I have used with this interview. A Dublin Fairytale was published this year by the O’Brien Press – check it out!