Logan Kaufman: So many of your illustrations
are fantastically elaborate. How much prep work
do you have to do for each piece?
Yvonne Gilbert: That's the fun bitonce I've done my research, found my costume and
reference, and photographed my model, it can become
boring because all the "creativity" has already
happened. I love history and costume, arms, armour,
etc. so I have a lot of books on related subjects.
Wherever I go I visit castles, palaces and museums,
storing the information for when I may use it.
I also have a house full of costumes and props
which does present problems for day-to-day livingsoon I'll be packing as I am emigrating to
Toronto and that really is a problem!
I need lots of models of courseI use all
my friends and family in my pictures (though once
or twice I have had to pick people off the streets).
They have to be prepared to dress up in bits of
material fashioned into costumes, holding bin-lids
and broom-handles as shield and sword. I have
a collection of photographs of people looking
very strangelying on the floor to appear to
be flying, sitting astride sofa backs to appear
to be horse-riding.
It probably takes as long to prepare an illustrationsketching roughs, e-mailing them to clients,
finding models, props and reference, taking the
picturesas it does to do the finished piece,
and it takes me roughly one week to complete a
moderately detailed illustration.
Logan: Is it the same sort of process
for animals and backgrounds, or do you have to
improvise a bit more on those?
Yvonne Gilbert: Animals can be a little
more difficult if I can't get the creature in
front of me. I have to rely heavily therefore
on other people's photosof course, they're
never in the pose I need so I take an awful lot
of artist's licence! You're rightimprovisation
is the word.
As for backgroundsI don't know if you've
noticed but I'm not at all interested in drawing
them so my figures tend to be large and fill up
the space with room for just a hint of background
Logan: How did you get started doing such
detailed work? Was that something you always leaned
toward even as a child, or an aesthetic that you
enjoyed and worked toward?
Yvonne Gilbert: In my latest exhibition
I have included a drawing I did when I was about
five-----it's of a mermaid with shells in her
hair and lots of little fishes and seaweed around
herI must always have been the same. The detail
is everything and probably says more about my
psychological make-up than anything. It's also
to do with using pencilsit's both difficult
and boring to cover large areas in flat colourthey work much better in close detail. (My
style differs considerably when I paint on canvasmuch less surface detail and large areas of
Logan: I remember being blown away when
I saw that you were using colored pencils, which
I've always thought were a pain. When I first
noticed your art in The Iron Wolf, I just
assumed any little marks I was seeing were an
effect you were getting from dry brushing watercolor
or from egg tempura. How did you get started on
Yvonne Gilbert: You're absolutely rightthey are a pain! At times I wish I'd never
startedthey are such an unreliable medium.
I always divide artists into two groupsthose
who don't mind getting their hands dirty go for
paint, ink, clay and chalks; the more anally-retentive
like me need to keep their hands clean and their
work neat. Even as a very small child I couldn't
abide messhence the pencils even though they
do make me tear my hair out.
I actually am trying NOT to have any textureI use the hardest pencils on the smoothest
paper but the irony is that the printers don't
know that and so they put it back in! Thank goodness
for computers though because at least I can send
files showing the art the way I want it to be.
Logan: Did you ever toy with other, cleaner,
mediums like watercolor or pen and ink, or was
colored pencil always the medium for you?
Yvonne Gilbert: I have used watercolours
a bithowever, I gave up trying to use them
on paper as I tend to "draw" with them when I
discovered how beautifully they work on finely
sanded thin plywood. The colours don't lift so
I can keep applying layers and detail. I produced
a whole book in that styleBaby's Book of
Cradle Songs and Lullabies. The only time
I use ink, and then it's only drawing pens, not
bottles, is when I'm doing my silhouetteswhich
I love by the way.
Are you able to correct any mistakes with colored
pencils? They don't erase, and it seems like covering
up a stray mark would be pretty difficult...
Yvonne Gilbert: Correcting coloured pencil
drawings is a big, big problemyou shouldn't
have to alter them at all if Art-directors knew
their job. I do all the preparation as line on
tracing paper so that there is no erasing necessary,
and get this stage approved before going any further.
However I do occasionally have to make alterationsif it's a lightly drawn area I will erase it
and draw over, if it's heavier I may have to make
a patch. Nowadays a lot of stuff can be done in
Logan: Do you end up using Photoshop with
your work a lot? Not just for correction, but
to adjust lighting or anything, or do you try
and get it all down on the paper?
Yvonne Gilbert: My Photoshop skills are
rudimentary at bestI can scan, join, adjust
colours and contrast and re-size to send a file
but that’s about it. I have a friend, Angus McKie,
who only works digitally, who is always after
me to get a tablet and start drawing directly
into the computer but I’ve managed to resist so
far. Lack of time is my excuse.
Logan: Well, besides colored pencils being
a pain, you do create a beautiful and unique look
with them. Other than being clean, what do you
enjoy about the medium? They're portable...
Yvonne Gilbert: I think the only advantage
to the coloured pencils is that they are clean
because they are very unreliably manufactured,
too easily broken and sadly lacking in strength
of colour (this is where Photoshop is a boon).
I use Prismalo Caran D’ache and Schwan Stabilo
because they are the most consistent and have
harder leadswhich mean they can be used with
Logan: Is there a certain paper you find
works best with them? In other media, the canvas
or watercolor paper can make as much difference
as the medium itself.
Yvonne Gilbert: I use as smooth a paper
as I can get without being shinymine is Popset
weave by Wiggins Teape, it’s china-filled for
the printing industry. I’m trying not to show
the grain of the pencil which would show starkly
on cartridge paper.
Logan: One week plus all the preparation
isn't a huge amount of time to complete a piece,
but still, you seem very productive. How many
hours a day do you put into art? Do you try and
treat it like a 9-5 job, or do you jump in when
the mood strikes?
Yvonne Gilbert: I work 9-5 with Radio
4 on to ward off the boredom. I would love to
take longer over my work and do a really good
job but money, bills and deadlines don’t allow
so I’m forced into a routine and constantly going
over territory where I’ve been beforenot very
creative I’m afraid.
Logan: You mentioned a drawing you had
done as a child, and you went to school for art
and design. Had you always been thinking specifically
of illustration, or were you just looking at doing
Yvonne Gilbert: I was far too ignorant
(always too young for my age) to know what I wanted
to do, or take charge of my destiny. I went to
Art College by default, because I could draw,
and found myself doing illustrationagain,
because I could draw. My three years at Liverpool
however were spent in every other department,
doing every thing other than draw (which was a
fantastic education actually!) and when
I left I got a job teaching straight away. It
was great to have some money for a change but
after about four years, having met someone I knew
who had an agent, I decided to try my hand at
I suppose I was influenced even subconsciously
by old books my mother would buy me at jumble-sales—Arthur
Rackham, Edmund Dulac, Heath Robinson etc., and
of course I love books. I’m addicted to them—spend
a fortune on them.
Logan: Were those you mostly drawn in
by the art itself, or the stories they were illustrating?
Yvonne Gilbert: I have a visual memory
rather than one for words so it has to have been
the pictures—I have vivid memories of certain
pictures and sitting studying them intensely.
Under the age of five it was as if the pictures
were real and I could get into them. As I got
older the words and stories themselves became
more important and I could visualize my own pictures.
Logan: What did you teach after you graduated?
Yvonne Gilbert: I was teaching drawing
to 15- to 18-year-olds at a local technical college—I
really enjoyed it. I’ve always said you haven’t
learned anything until you try to show someone
else how to do it.
Logan: Did any of your students go on
to great achievements that you know of?
Yvonne Gilbert: Charlotte Voake and Louise
Brierley were students of mine.
Logan: I assume your friend introduced
you to their agent? Was that your first "in" to
the illustration field?
Yvonne Gilbert: My friend had mentioned
he was with Artist Partners so I contacted them
myself. Fortunately John Barker recognised something
in my work and “groomed” me as an up-and-coming—something
which would never happen these days. John has
long since died but I’ll never forget his faith
in me—he “invented” my first job by persuading
the Telegraph Magazine to commission me
to draw six celebrities as the historical character
they would have most wanted to be.
Logan: Were you fairly nervous about your
working appearing in print for the first time?
Yvonne Gilbert: Naively I didn’t foresee
the mangled attempts to reproduce my work or the
god-awful type vomited over the top. Thank goodness
for Photoshop and being able to prepare digital
files ourselves—especially as Danny is a graphic
designer obsessed by type. I have always been
disappointed in the finished results and my ambition
is to do some books that I want to do and make
sure they meet my standards.
What kind of projects do you have in mind?
Yvonne Gilbert: My ambition is to work
with my husband as designer/illustrator/packagers
where I do the pictures and he does the rest—that
way the book looks like it is supposed to! We
have just finished the Frog Prince together
and are going to do The Mitten now—when
we have five or six good ones under our belt we
will be better able to dictate terms. We work
very well together (and would like to spend more
of our working hours together)we share an
excitement for what we do.
For The Mitten I am changing my style radically
as there is less money upfront for a greater share
of the royalties—my usual problem being the time
it takes me to do the illustrations versus the
money I have to live on. I have had a lot of fun
working differently—see attached—the red areas
should of course be flat colour—the only bits
of shading in the book will be the faces and perhaps
the feet of the animals. It’s a chance for me
to squeeze in some silhouettes, too.
Logan: Would you be self-publishing then,
or just trying to get a finished product and submitting
them around rather than doing contract work?
Yvonne Gilbert: We will go through existing
publishers—the problem with self-publishing is
the distribution. We have a friend, Helen Limon
at Zedsaid Publishing who has sold her house to
set up her own publishing company and her biggest
hurdle is how to get the product into the shops.
When she has cracked how to deal with the big
distributors, etc., perhaps we’ll give self-publishing
At present the goal is to be working on our own
ideas rather than commissions so we’ll have to
keep playing with the big boys.
Logan: Are you just concentrating on adapting
classic stories, or do you write as well?
Yvonne Gilbert: I do write sometimes (in
my own way) and I have some things started, but
you know—I don’t think I’ll ever do anything with
them. There are far too many lovely stories anyway
that I would love to work on. Today I am going
to work on a plan for my silhouette Beauty
and the Beast, and look at the contract for
The Mitten, as Mitten Press likes the new
Can I say, however, that many children’s books
are so badly written that I encourage all other
illustrators to write their own stuff—I wonder
what the editors are doing? I don’t mean the classics,
I mean the majority of trashy picture-books that
both look and sound the same. I was appalled on
my only trip to Bologna so far to see that most
of these were on the British stands! The general
standard is appalling and the ideas mundane in
Logan: I assume you're talking about the
thousands of "Grandma dies and I learn a valuable
lesson" type books?
Yvonne Gilbert: The mundane-ness is mind-numbing
don’t you think? How patronising to assume that
children lack the intelligence to absorb complex
themes and emotions! I know how much I enjoyed
stories and ideas from a very young age, my son
too. I think that by fearing they may be talking
above the children’s heads they are paralyzing
them with boredom—no wonder many children are
“off” books—compare them to the wonderful stuff
seen at the cinema or on TV. The same attitude
prevails in illustration—art directors insist
on simple, brightly-coloured daubs and cartoon-like
characters for the sake of the children—I distinctly
remember the emotions I had when looking at Arthur
Rackham when I was very small—the enjoyment of
studying a picture closely to “find” all the details.
Logan: What do you see in the classics
that you don't see in a lot of today's books?
Yvonne Gilbert: That’s easy—POETRY! The
language, the ideas, the intricacy of the tale—never
mind who can follow the plot or not. These stories
are meant for all ages to enjoy and understand
at the level of their own personal experience.
Who was it that said we need to read at a higher
level than that is comfortable? I think that’s
a very good point—children need to be challenged
Do you think that mainly falls on the publishers
and editors? It seems like there are any number
of creative people out there—maybe just not doing
Yvonne Gilbert: I think the main problem
with publishing is that it is a hopelessly old-fashioned,
conservative, reactionary business! There are
great publishers and fantastic editors and art-directors
but they seem to be the exception that proves
the rule. Most of the art-directors I meet are
young and straight from school or college and
see their job as perpetuating the status-quo—in
fact over here they are mostly called Daphne or
Caroline and are between finishing school and
a good marriage! It is hardly a “creative” business—most
publishers do little but copy what another is
doing—look at all the fake “-ologies” springing
Their other major shortcoming is their refusal
to market their product. How many picture-books
are actively advertised or placed as point-of-sale?
Hardly any—the only way I can find most of my
picture-books in a shop is to order them. They
rely too much on covering their costs with the
foreign co-editions so that there is no incentive
to get out there and sell.
Logan: There are definitely good kids
books out there though, with maybe just a few
too many falling through the cracks and only seeing
a single printing. The Brave Little Tailor
by Dugin was an excellent book from the last few
years and is out-of-print. What would you like
to see change?
Yvonne Gilbert: I’m not even aware of
that one—that’s the trouble—if they aren’t seen
on the shelf how are we supposed to buy them or
even know about them.
How to change things is the great conundrum—more
and more of us are looking for ways to take over
creatively. I have a friend Helen Limon who has
set up as her own publishing company (HYPERLINK
with great critical acclaim but is still trying
to crack distribution. Self-publishing is cheap
and easy but the problem remains of how to get
them on the shelves—I can’t see a way round this
yet but instead of accepting what is offered I
have determined to be pro-active as with Beauty
and the Beast etc. My hope is that when Danny
and I have a few good books under our belts, and
hopefully some good sales, we can make a reputation
for ourselves as book-designers. Where that may
lead to I don’t know but I do believe it should
be possible to influence the industry from inside.
The idea of one-off art books is rather appealing
too—should we find ourselves financially able
we will definitely be trying that too—there is
a fair here in London where such things can be
Meanwhile I will stay on my hobby-horse as I
think the industry is almost criminal in its neglect
of talent—the standard of illustration is extremely
high (not reflected on the shelves) and picture
books more popular than ever. Unfortunately many
ideas and most of the “creativity” resides on
the other side of the fence and a lot publishers
are too arrogant to admit this.
Logan: Touching on the aspect of books
not being seen, I suppose this is a fault of the
bookstores as well. Most bookstores have a place
for new releases and bestsellers, but you'll never
see kids books on those shelves that are up front.
Do you try and market your books on your own
when they are released? Signings and readings
Yvonne Gilbert: I do as much as I can—unfortunately
when you rush to suggest a book-signing or some
such you’re looked upon here as trying to blow-your-own-trumpet—you
know how the Brits seem to hate success. I answer
all emails from school children and students,
I mentor any student that asks, I attend all writer/illustrator
group activities, I do my own PR mail-outs, I
give many free hours to schools and colleges—in
other words I do anything I can think of to promote
illustration and illustrators. I’ve become quite
good at getting the attention of the press and
local media through all this. The National Centre
for the Children’s Book (seven stories) opened
here in Newcastle a few years ago and I give them
as much support as I can—though they were very
cold at first, again a very British reaction.
It’s hard to know what else to do.
Logan: For us, selling a lot of one item
that isn't being pushed by the media is probably
ten copies or less—which certainly isn't going
to keep a book in print, unfortunately. When we're
buying for the shop, unless a book has a great
cover or you lucked into a magnificently done
blurb, your book probably isn't going to get ordered
much, if at all. I think you are right in that
it really needs to be a top down message from
the publishers, that children's books are important.
Do you think publishing fewer titles would help,
or would that just result in them narrowing their
vision further on what they consider a safe sell?
Yvonne Gilbert: We could certainly do
without all that crap—think of all those trees—I
somehow don’t think we’ll persuade them though.
Goodness knows what the answer is—I’d love to
be a “fly-on-the-wall” to see what’s really going
on—I would imagine it’s all down to budgets—the
children’s department will be allocated so much,
they’ll have a target of so many books, they’ll
divide the first sum by the second and do whatever
they can afford (they always plead poverty). It
must therefore be mostly down to ignorance and
lack of education that result in such poor quality
overall—I’m damn sure we could do better with
the resources available—there’s just no excuse,
Logan: Do you see much success when you
market yourself outside of children's books? People
noticing your stamps, posters, or book covers?
Yvonne Gilbert: I have much more success
outside of children’s publishing—I’ve won all
the major awards but I don’t think I’ve ever won
anything with my books. That’s why I’m so bloody
determined to succeed!
Logan: Do you get much carry over then? In
sci-fi art and graphic novels and such, artists
can develop quite the following where anything
they've touched will sell. Or do you even having
a way of knowing how much cross-genre interest
Yvonne Gilbert: I doubt that very much—there
are people that buy my books but they wouldn’t
necessarily know anything about my other work.
The best feedback I get is through my website
when people take the trouble to e-mail me (I get
tons of Photoshop groups asking permission to
play around with stuff), I get a lot of requests
for prints of the Blue Angel, slightly less for
Relax. I’m only surprised that anyone pays attention—most
of my work just seems to disappear into a black
Logan: With all the headaches of getting
your work noticed and dealing with publishers,
do illustrators have daydreams about working in
Yvonne Gilbert: At really bad times when
work has been very scarce or no one has paid me
for months I wish like mad that I’d chosen a more
secure job. I don’t think people have any idea
how difficult it is especially since the whole
of society as far as banking and bill paying is
concerned is geared-up for people with monthly
salaries. I’ve always said they should make everyone
self-employed—society would change radically—I
also think it would become much more productive.
I suppose the real dream is a private income—I
do know some lucky people who were born with money!
The second way to do it is marry someone with
a good income—Nichola Bailey’s husband is a barrister.
The third way is to get a plum lecturing position—why
did I choose the most difficult route?!