Illustrating Al’s Awesome Science

Five Quills have just launched a brand new series of fun, messy adventures for younger readers, Al’s Awesome Science. The first book, Egg-speriments! is out now, introducing us to science loving twins Al and Lottie. Beautifully illustrated by James Brown, here he tells us about his process and the stories behind the pictures. 

How did you begin the process of illustrating Al’s Awesome Science?

I like to sketch out in biro first then use my lightbox to trace over once I’m happy with the movement. I designed the twins first, then Einstein the dog, then the background. After this stage, we tweaked the characters. Al was the trickiest to get right – his hair, in particular, was rather too much like Dennis the Menace at one point! Some characters, such as the formidable Mrs Good, appeared straight away (a bit too similar to my mum, apparently!) but others, such as Mr Good, took a little more refining.

 Al and Lottie’s dog, Einstein, is a loveable character, did you have a dog in mind that helped to guide how he looks and behaves in the illustrations?

Al's Awesome Science:Egg-speriments! Einstein the dog, Illustrated by James Brown. Five Quills 2017

As soon as I was given his character description I knew he had to look like THE Einstein with a bushy white moustache and sprigs of hair sticking up. On a walk, I spotted a massive, long-haired pooch and asked the owner if I could take a few snaps. A few moustachioed sketches later and Einstein emerged. He was the quickest character to develop.

Al has a handwritten notebook to document all of his experiments. How did you develop the look and feel of this, particularly when explaining to the reader how to try these experiments at home?

Al's Awesome Science: Egg-speriments! Work in progress Illustrated by James Brown. Five Quills 2017

This was certainly my favourite aspect of the book to illustrate! I’ve always been a doodler and it was great to create more characters such as the lettuce, the wine bottle and the loo roll! I never liked to ask questions back then in subjects I found challenging, so I aimed to make the stages and drawings in Egg-speriments! clear to readers.

Breaking the elements of the experiments down reminded me of the (only) thing I enjoyed about science at school – drawing the diagrams!

 The illustrations are in black and white, how do you think it helps to bring Al’s Awesome Science to life?

For black and white illustrations I have to think a lot more about the light source and opportunities to help make the characters ‘pop’. Pushing back the backgrounds for these illustrations really helped, particularly as the style is quite loose and grainy; otherwise, characters often in the foreground would get lost.

I think there is more freedom to black and white – you’re not quite as tied to complementary or contrasting colours.

You have a distinctive illustration style that you’ve brought to Al’s Awesome Science series; what do you think it is about your style that appeals to children?

I’m told it’s the expressions. Faces say far more than words. I’ve got a squashy, malleable face and I can manipulate each eyebrow like a pro. Drawing in front of a mirror is great for trying to capture expression – the slightest tweak to a mouth or an eyebrow can transform the emotion from quizzical to perturbed in a single stroke. Apparently, I always pull the face I’m drawing which must be bizarre to watch.

What was your favourite scene to illustrate in Al’s Awesome Science Egg-speriments?

My favourite scene to illustrate was Mrs Good being hit by the eggs. I liked the challenge of the rooftop, pigeon’s-eye view.

What are you looking forward to drawing most as Al’s Awesome Science series develops?

Definitely the experiments pages, and making up new, quirky characters who are ‘outside’ the text. If competitive loo rolls are brought to life in book one, who knows who’ll spring up in book two.

Find out more about Al’s Awesome Science in this Author Q&A with Jane Clarke.

 

Edited by Janey Robinson