• Steve Antony

    Steve Antony



    JANUARY 2015

    Steve Antony's debut The Queen's Hat was a runaway success and his latest picture book, Please Mr Panda, which explores manners, has garnered more fans of his work. His new career hasn't come easily, however, and here he tells us more - including his strategies for illustrating despite being colour-blind.

    Q: Illustration isn't your first career, is it?

    A: That's right, I worked for nine years in a call centre after my HND in illustration at Swindon, partly because I wasn't really sure which area of illustration I wanted to go into; I hadn't yet made the connection with children's illustration or picture books.

    I also needed to pay off my student debts and enjoyed my time at the call centre but, after nine years, I was made redundant. I put that to good use, studying illustration at the Anglia Ruskin University. During the course I found that making stories and illustrating them came quite naturally to me.

    Q: Your picture books are each very different but they also have a distinctive style; how did that develop?

    A: I think it's partly because my text is very spare. I try to get down to the sole purpose, the core, of the story so I eliminate any unnecessary details and have as little text as possible. My first book, The Queen's Hat, has hardly any text at all.

    I am also very careful about choosing the colours I use. With The Queen's Hat, it was obvious that I needed red, white, blue and black to make it a very 'British' book. With Panda, I wanted the doughnuts to pop out of the page at the very start so I had to think carefully about the colour palate.

    I probably work with such a limited palate because I'm red / green colour-blind. I can remember being five years old and drawing a picture of the sky, houses and mountains and that, when my teacher saw it, she said, 'I wonder why you have drawn the sky purple?' I remember being very embarrassed and not responding because I knew I was colour blind.

    When I was at college, though, they were fascinated by how I worked with colour differently, they thought it gave me a unique perspective on colour. Once, after we had drawn a face, I painted the skin bright green and when they asked why I'd done that, I had to explain that I didn't know it was that colour; I thought it was flesh-toned.

    I am good friends with author Jane Elsen who wrote A Room full of Chocolate and who is dyslexic. I remember her telling me that you just have to find a way to work and in some weird way, it can even be to your advantage. Working in a limited palate can be very liberating because you find different ways to create the illustration and I possibly wouldn't have worked the way I do if I wasn't colour-blind - but I have had to find ways that worked for me.

    Q: What are your strategies for illustrating, when you can't always distinguish colours correctly?

    A: I can sometimes get confused about colours so I had to find a way to work. For me, it's partly about using a limited palate, but I also scan my images into Photoshop which gives me an ability to change the colours if I need to.

    I think about the colours I'm going to use for a picture book right at the very beginning and I have had to study what colours work well with each other. I have a colour wheel on my computer which is labelled and I refer to the colour wheel so I know what colour I'm using, as Photoshop uses numbers rather than names to label colours.

    Sometimes I'm not sure what colour I'm using but I look at the general tone of the colours I've used and decide if they work together or are too similar. I have a book coming out later on, Green Lizard versus Red Rectangles (Hodder), which has just red, white and green in it, so that will use very bold colours.

    Q: Can you tell us more about how Please Mr Panda, your latest picture book, came about?

    A: I created Please Mr Panda at university and by that point, I had done a lot of research into picture books and how to tell a story using words and pictures.

    Once I had the idea the dialogue came quite naturally. I was doodling the Panda character when this phrase popped into my head, 'Would you like a doughnut?' and the response in my head was 'no I wouldn't'. I didn't know at this stage why Panda was giving away the doughnuts, that only emerged when I got to the end of the story when I realised it was because people were not saying 'please'. As soon as I got to the punch line, I thought that this was a very fun and universal idea, about manners, even if it's quite random to have a Panda floating around with colourful doughnuts!

    I decided to use a very limited colour palate to reflect the dry humour in the story, which is reflected in Mr Panda's expression. Because the panda was black and white, I wanted to keep all the characters to that palate so I wrote down a whole list of animals that are black and white, like the white tiger, and then had to decide how each character would work on the page. It can take a while to make an illustration work; even moving a character slightly across the page can knock things off balance.

    I worked in very soft pencil and graphite stick to begin, with those you can get all sorts of different textures which I needed for the Panda character. I would draw with the graphite stick and rub the graphite on the paper and used my finger to create the fluffy effect for Panda.

    Q: At what stage do you start working in Photoshop to create the colours?

    A: Once I've drawn the image I scan it into Photoshop and then colour in the illustrations. I do this because the colours are so important to me and it's a lot easier to make changes where necessary in Photoshop. But it can be quite a laborious process because in order to colour in Photoshop, I have to 'deconstruct' the drawing. So if there are six colours on a drawing, I use my lightboard to trace over the illustration that needs to be the same colour, a bit like you do for screen printing, then I scan those parts of the drawing into Photoshop.

    I have to do that for all the colours so it's time-consuming, especially for The Queen's Hat where there was so much going on; I had lots of different layers and it's easy for it to get very messy but that's the best way for me to work.

    Q: Not all children will understand what the story is about, before they turn the last page. Do you think that matters?

    A: I think it can be a good thing if they don't get it because you can get children to start talking and thinking about manners. I've read a couple of articles where adults haven't got the drift of the story even after reading the last page - but the answer is there in the title!

    Q: What are you working on now?

    A: At the moment I'm working on ideas for the next Panda book although it probably won't be out for some time. When I first came up with the idea for the character Mr Panda and the theme of manners, I realised there were so many areas you can explore, not just please and thank you. He is also such a fun character to work with; he may look a bit grumpy but I don't think he is, he's just a bit misunderstood. Someone said to me that it looked like Mr Panda had had a really bad week of people being rude to him and 'Please Mr Panda' was him going out to test their manners.

    Q: This month we launch our competition for children and teenagers to create their own picture book - can you give us some tips for them when they start?

    A: I'd love to - here are my three top tips for children:

    1) Just have fun with it, no matter what, have fun creating the story.

    2) Think of a character, who do you want to tell the story? Who is the voice of your story?

    3) Remember that in picture books, anything is possible, you can take your character wherever you want, the moon or the jungle, let your imagination run wild. I don't think you need to know what's going to happen when you start, just have fun with your character and remember that anything's possible and the story will naturally happen.

    I'd also like to remind them that it can be fun to work in a group to make your picture book. Last year I visited the class at Harby Primary School who were the overall winners of last year's competition and they told me all about how they all put ideas into their story.

    Now I take their book, How the Zebra Got its Stripes, to other schools I visit to show what's possible when you work together. I even took it to New York and shared it with children there and they loved it. I hope they were inspired by it to try and discover what can happen if you put your mind to creating your own picture book!