February 25, 2020

Let's Talk Illustrators #133: Flora McDonnell

Flora McDonnell's Out of a Dark Winter's Night is the gripping tale of a young child trying to stop the darkness from coming. Every time the sun sets, the child loses their spirit of adventure, and preventing the sun from setting is the natural solution to impending darkness. The book––and the child's feelings––are at once relatable to readers, many of whom have spent their own fair share of time trying to stop the darkness from coming, too. I hope you enjoy my chat with Flora about this special book.

About the book:
Out of a Dark Winter’s Night tells the story of a young child whose spirit of adventure is dampened when the day ends and gives way to night. Taking their wheelbarrow, they set out on a mission to stop the sun from setting again, joined along the way by a charming collection of animal friends. But when darkness falls again and worst comes to worst, it is hope that eventually carries them home, where they sees the dawn breaking again.

Let's talk Flora McDonnell!

LTPB: Can you talk a little bit about the visual evolution of Out of a Dark Winter's Night? As you got to know the characters, how did your illustrations change?

FM: It took far, far longer than I thought it would. So much for the delusional thinking that it would be easier to do picture books when I had a child of my own!!! I wouldn’t have missed the experience for anything: above all such love. The fun and the mischief fuelled me and gave me insight into the importance of lateral thinking and being able to step out of my box. But I found it hard to get any distance from the intensity of the experience. For years I tried to get something off the ground. The things I knew were: my son would feature and animals (I Love Animals published by Walker Books in 1994; Flora McDonnell’s ABC 1997; Splash 1999; Giddy Up Let’s Ride 2002; The Cat and the Cuckoo Faber and Faber 2002; Sparky Walker Books 2003 ) and the sea and boats (I Love Boats: Walker 1995; The Mermaid’s Purse; Faber and Faber 1999). But above all I felt the need to bring in the weather that I’ve always loved to paint. I toyed with Noah’s Ark for a bit but God was considered an editorial thorn. When my son was 3 months old, after a straightforward start to motherhood, I was knocked into a terrible episode of acute depression that lasted 6 months. I realised I wanted to tell that story, my story, our story. We had survived a terrible storm together. But my editor drew a line and said it was just too frightening. With regret I felt that a decision had been made for me that for years I’d felt under pressure to make: that I was a painter and not an illustrator. Bolstered by how much people like the work I had exhibited since starting psychoanalysis, I decided to give it one last shot. At the end of October 2014 I went with Danny my dog to spend a week in a warm dry wifi free bungalow in Rossbeg, a peninsular in NW Donegal. It was a stormy but productive week. I painted outside when the weather permitted and worked on a draft of Out of a Dark Winter’s Night. When I got back I was put in touch with Roger Thorp who had just started working at Thames and Hudson. He got off the tube at Kilburn High Road and walked, with his doctor’s bag, a very long way to Kensal Green. Much to my surprise he loved it. When another terrible gale of depression swept in, he said he’d wait for as long as it took. It has changed very little from the original “Rossbeg” draft.

LTPB: Where did you start this story, then, with the imagery or the text? 

 The first place to start was obviously in a storm: It helped that I was literally in one! Floating around my head was the need to bring in night and day, the seasons and the cycle of the moon...which would demand significant shifts in scale, breaking the rules of picture book making I had met so far: it all felt beyond ambitious.

“Out of a dark winter’s night”: For many years I went to NW Donegal to paint. I rented a friend’s cottage just north of Rossbeg on Crohy Head. A stone’s throw from the sea it was as damp and picturesque as the Rossbeg bungalow wasn’t; but visually it was the obvious house to shelter from an Atlantic storm. Another abandoned cottage that captured my imagination on a tidal island in Orkney is in there somewhere.

“comes light”: Sorley was born after a dark winter’s night on a bright and beautiful winters day

“and a spirit of adventure”: he grew into a deliciously funny, mischievous toddler with an appetite for adventure, taking his clothes off at any opportunity and getting stuck into water of any kind regardless of the weather.

“But day has to end”: he amalgamates with me to become the thoughtful child whose sex is irrelevant, contemplating the sun setting as the full moon rises. I love the moon: how she takes the edge off the dark; always changing, waxing and waning; how she makes the sea breathe in and out in 6 hourly tides. Almost an egg timer lasting a month, she is a gentle reminder of the infinite movement of time and mood; our enemy and our friend. I always look for her and feel pleased to see her. There is nothing quite like a moonlight shadow.The impact of an equinox when the sunset and full moonrise are synchronised (as well as the moonset and sunrise out of the sea the following morning) really hit me in India when thousands of tribal people came from nowhere to the beach where I was staying to libate them both as the full moon rose out of the sea.

A group of querolous rooks are coming to roost, in an ancient tree who has watched generations come and go; a melancholic sound ingrained in my DNA heralding the onset of winter.

“and give way to night”: Both Sorley and I were frightened of the dark. My Mum used to tuck me up like a boat …so tightly that the sides of the mattress would bow up like a boat. I would try my hardest not to move to make it last. The creatures of the dark are interested but not malign….but the possibility is there. The tiger might have come to tea.

“Surely something can be done to put this right”: In the light of day the child feels powerful and becomes bigger on the page. The tailless manx cat is Rumpkin who was our rightly cantankerous childhood cat. He was banished by my grandmother to live for years in the attic after he pooed on a white carpet. I felt sorry for him but he wasn’t interested in pity. The duck is an Indian Runner Duck. It lived on the roof with only a bowl for water opposite my bedroom window in a hotel in the red light district of Calcutta; a city I returned to regularly in my 20s and 30s. It was an antidote to the lonely wild places I loved. For some reason I felt very at home there in the melee of people, traffic, crumbling buildings and animals. Bengalis and Irish people have a similar refreshing live and let live, make do and mend attitude to life.

“with equipment, friends and a hunch”: Somehow this spread is on my road in London….it just happened unconsciously. But since childhood I have been based in London or Ireland. The Emerald Isle is the place I love most, but it’s isolated and an artist’s life is already lonely. The enormity of the elements and oneself can become overwhelming. London is a good antidote; the anonymity, it’s momentum and the breadth of people and things to see provide a healthy balance. The letterbox is I think about communication and possibility. The road signs and markings echo all the rules that life throws at children and adults. On the right side of the page they are dissolving in the way Max’s room starts turning into a wood in Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak. The child is picking up a lost glove just in case it comes in handy.

“in spite of the weather” The child becomes smaller as the weather changes and the enormity of the task dawns on them.

“I was always making friends with animals and inviting them to tea parties”: When I was 6 I found a baby lamb, almost as big as me, with a broken leg in the gloaming; I carried it home and put it to bed in my dolls cot. Soon after I found and adopted a sack of adolescent rooks who had been left to die. When I was 36 I rescued 2 hedgehogs who had fallen into a cattlegrid. One died but setting the other one free when it had recovered was a memorable moment.

“and how tiring it turns out to be”: It’s all too easy to have a good idea. This is at Murlough Bay in County Antrim probably my favourite of all places. There is no simpler or more well placed bench. It feels like you could almost reach out and touch The Mull of Kintyre 18 miles away in Scotland. The day moon is waning …the night will be darker.

“losing lots of things on the way”: Determination is a family trait and here it is kicking in. The hill is an uphill struggle but also the distance between the East Antrim Coast where I grew up and NW Donegal which I felt more drawn to paint…where there is greater wildness and weather; an ocean with nothing until America, wind and waves that were my language. Recently I have really appreciated and enjoyed painting the softer landscape and sea in the Glens of Antrim where I grew up.

“not knowing”: the child is as small as they feel…the wheel barrow has blown over, all the equipment has been lost; the wind has whipped off their hat but the duck remains steadfast.

“but never giving up”: sadly nothing can stop the inevitability of the sun setting.

“Even if it means getting into deep water”: in the battle between head and heart, sometimes it’s impossible to stop oneself even when we know we should.

“without being able to swim”: the consequences of going out of one’s comfort zone can leave us the mercy of other forces.

“and it feels like there is nothing and nobody forever”: The moon is at her most minimal, an aching sliver of a crescent …but low in the sky, so, near. From my experience of acute depression, the turning point is the moment that I am able surrender to the reality that life is as difficult as it feels and the only thing I can is weather it.

“But then…when no more can be done”: After a night of no moon the most magical thing happens: a new moon with the promise of increasing light. The first flakes of snow falling have a magic that you never grow out of.

Elephants have a sensitivity that compliments their size. I’m not the first person to believe that they embody an ancient primeval quality: age-old wisdom.

“hope comes to carry you...”:  Sometimes it’s just better to stop battling on and to turn around and go back the way you came.

“home”: when you least expect it, what you were chasing so hard by the force of nature alone appears.

First endpaper: My love and fear of the sea stems from being taken lobster potting at a very young age. The oily chugging engine, which made me feel safe, was turned off while the pots were brought in. Horses have always been a huge love: I identify with their strength and nervousness.

I first met a tiger in picture books and Tippoo Sultan’s terrifying music box at The V and A. I spent 3 weeks when I was a student drawing at Gerry Cottle’s Circus. The tigers were caged, angry and humiliated. Seeing them wild in India made me appreciate their majesty in the jungle: with only man to fear. Power and anger are two things I have struggled to get to grips with.

Last endpaper: Sailing was something I didn’t get on with as a child. But a few summers I joined the sailing course my son was on and now even enjoy it! I love the idea of working with the wind and gaining a sense of control. The whale is really the equivalent of an elephant in the sea. Archie our thunder-ball of a black dog is at the prow as we sail forwards.

LTPB: The topic of this book is particularly tough, dealing with issues like anxiety and depression -- what was the impetus behind creating it? How did you approach the book so that it would be accessible to young children? What challenges did you encounter?

FM: Anxiety and depression have been something I’ve struggled with since childhood. I always felt that it was something wrong with me which made me try harder...reinforcing a pattern that make depressive episodes more likely. Realising that I was one of many and that I could be helped to help myself live with it was something I had to discover for myself when I was an adult. Perhaps because of my own sensibility the children's books I held dear all acknowledged the reality of pain, difficulty and fear: Edward Ardizzone’s Tim books; Babar by Jean de Brunhoff; The Little House by Virginia Lee Burton; John Burningham’s early books and The Moomins by Tove Janson. This is something modern picture books dance around but don’t really face. I hope that somehow as Tim survives his ordeals and Babar his tragedy this book will speak to children for whom fear looms large and imprint in them the knowledge that no fear or sadness lasts forever.

One thing I can promise is that Light has a new meaning when you feel it again after getting through The Darkness of a Long Winter’s Night.

I’ve always got on very well with young children and find it easy to get into their box. I notice details that they enjoy. The shifts in scale that happened unconsciously were something I thought would be edited out…but I think they mirror the pendulum that swings between a small child’s belief that they are all powerful in one moment only to realise that they are very afraid in the next. Animals are always helpful and it helps that I’ve always loved them and had them.

The challenges I encountered were how to make it be true but not too terrifying. My original picture editor drew that line. It was devastating at the time: without his off the cuff remark “It’s easy: you love animals. “I Love Animals” is the title and the first page is “I love Jock my dog”…my career in picture books could have ended 25 years ago before it started. But it made me forget about pleasing an editor and to concentrate on just telling the story. The original draft was too frightening: there was a spread that was entirely black and the one before was really about drowning and my experience of being sucked into the maelstrom of a nervous breakdown; within 24 hours I go from from functioning to becoming a quivering wreck living, only just, in the fear of a man-eating tiger who isn’t there. It lasts for months.

Emma Chichester-Clark, who taught me at art school, was incredibly helpful about making more of the duck. The crescent moon helped relieve the black spread. I tweaked the terrifying vortex into picturing the child and the duck being tumbled by the wave together…I hope it feels as though it’s something they are surviving. Having spent time with one in India I felt confident that the elephant, as open to interpretation as it is, would bring the maternal reassurance needed to bring the child and all of us back to the sunrise.

LTPB: Would you say you were a painter or an illustrator first? How did you transition from one to the other?

FM: You’re not the first person to ask that question. After my foundation course the scary painting tutors were horrified that I was carrying on to do an illustration course and not Fine Art; galleries have put me under pressure to commit to being one thing or the other and ultimately when I hit a brick wall with my original editor he said "The thing is your really a painter.” It’s taken years to realise that I am painter that enjoys making picture books or rather really enjoyed making this one. For the first time I’ve made a book without having to tidy my studio, put on clean clothes and take a deep breath. I am grateful to my father for encouraging me to do an illustration course albeit for believing that there was a greater chance of being able to make a living. The two strings to my bow that felt very different have now become closer and I feel happier. Psychoanalysis has helped me a lot.

LTPB: What did you use to create the illustrations in this book? Is this your preferred medium? How does your process change from book to book?

I work on thick Heritage paper and use a combination of Sennelier oil pastels (which are delicious to work with, as soft as lipstick), which I thin with white spirit and work into with hoghair brushes and rags. I then use charcoal, compressed charcoal and coloured pencils to reinforce and draw in details.

This is a way of working I developed at art school. In those days I was very into mixed media: I would make an initial monoprint, sometimes building collage into it before working with oil pastels and gouache, maybe even using use chalks as well.

When I started doing picture books it was considered too fragile a medium to scan and they didn’t want to use photographs so I used watercolour, gouache and acrylics. They never could quite do what I wanted them to. But I suspect if I tried using them after a 17-year break I would do something a bit different.

In the Ted Hughes collections of poetry published by Faber and Faber: The Mermaid’s Purse and The Cat and the Cuckoo, I had to work in black and white. I used various dilutions of Indian Ink and white gouache. I suspect if I did them now I would use charcoal.

LTPB: What are you working on now? Anything you can show us?

Inspired by working with The Nightingale Project, with whom I did a series of pictures for the mother and baby unit in Park Royal where I spent 6 weeks with Sorley, I am setting up The Curlew Project with a charity called Inspire which will work with artists to enhance the ambience of psychiatric units and clinics throughout Ireland. I’m about to start working on initial sketches for Bluestone, an inpatient psychiatric Unit at Craigavon Hospital in Northern Ireland. In April I’m going to spend a spend a week with my sketch book talking to patients and staff to try and bring something of what they miss into a corridor.

Over the years I’ve spent some time drawing and painting racehorses at The Curragh, Goodwood and Newmarket. Between September and December last year I went to Jamie Snowden’s yard at Lambourn every week. I particularly loved going to the early morning gallops to paint the rolling downs, the trees, the sun, the moon and the horses in their element. For the moment I’m doing it for the sheer pleasure but I’m hoping it will eventually lead to some commissions.

I’ve also got more ideas for more picture books in my sketchbook which I want to develop. I would love to illustrate Oscar Wilde’s The Selfish Giant, and I hope one day I will do a big Noah’s Ark which sadly seems increasingly relevant.

LTPB: If you were to write your picture book autobiography, who (dead or alive!) would you want to illustrate it, and why?

Without doubt John Burningham: his books Simp, Borka, Humbert and Harquin were my absolute favourites as a child, AND they’re still beside my bed. His feel for landscape, weather and animals, combined with his humanity and humour have never been surpassed. He was really a painter who sadly felt compromised by being labeled a maker of children’s books. He would have liked to have been taken more seriously. I wish he had realised that he was a first and foremost an artist whose picture books inspired me and countless others to become artists; the first of many generations to have delighted in being transported into his world where we taken seriously and considered equals.

A million thanks to Flora for taking time to answers some questions! Out of a Dark Winter's Night published earlier this month from Thames and Hudson.

Special thanks to Flora and Thames and Hudson for use of these images!

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