September 11, 2018

Let's Talk Illustrators #81: Sandra Dieckmann

Talking to author-illustrator Sandra Dieckmann was an absolute delight for me. You might recognize Sandra's work from her first book Leaf, which published a few years ago, but for those of you just discovering her now, you're in for a treat with her follow-up The Dog That Ate the World. This was a particularly special interview for me because I saw a lot of my own personal processes reflected in Sandra's, so I'm going to lead with little preamble and just let you get started reading. Enjoy!

About the book:
Down in the valley, all the animals live in peace among their own kind, happy but not quite united until the day the enormous dog appeared. The animals run as fast as they can, but the big dog is so terrible and so greedy that he swallows them all one by one! With their whole world in darkness, they have no choice but to band together to rebuild their lives, and in the process they discover value in each other.

Let's talk Sandra Dieckmann!

LTPB: I know you're super busy with a zillion projects, so thank you for stopping by, Sandra!

SD: Thanks so very much for having me!

LTPB: Let's start by talking about the visual evolution of The Dog That Ate the World? As you got to know the characters, how did your illustrations change?

SD: In my mind this story looked darker––far too dark for a picture book––so we worked really hard on balancing this and the light without losing my vision. Shifting the focus away from a narrative that focused on the dog and onto the community. My brilliant editor Harriet was imperative in this task. I initially also thought about trying to work with simpler shapes and less detail but my usual way of working in detail automatically crept back in. In early idea sketches and roughs the dog was a very flat, black shape and the idea was to have him grow throughout the twelve spreads until he disappears when he has consumed everything. This we kept as a visual tool. In an early version of the story the dog swallows the mountains, too, which break his teeth. This part we took out for example.

He started off looking quite silly in The Dog That Ate The World, but we later decided to base him more on my illustration of Black Shuck and turn him more wolf like.

As I got to know the characters the bunnies became the children in the world I was building. Trusting in peace, brave, innocent. They were inspired by an early sketch I had made responding on the current political climate in the UK around the Brexit Vote.

The calm, wise fox leads with little words and speaks through his music to pull the community together. He is the pillar of the animals in the valley and gets swallowed first by the dog, making everyone spring into action. Non violently as he had shown them by example.

Where words fail, music speaks. ~Hans Christian Andersen.

The other characters I imagine all have their roles in the community and help rebuild it together. Where they lived separate but in peace before, they come together in this difficult time. The ferrets are silly and fun, the badger is the support system etc. and all together they form a brilliant band. They dance by fire light and garden and just get on with living a good life.

You will also notice a lot of mushrooms. It's a surreal fable so you know.

LTPB: Where did the idea for Dog come from? Why do you choose to tell fables in general, what is your inspiration? Same with nature, what does nature mean to you personally that you focus on it so heavily on in your work?

SD: The dog developed out of a dark time that I struggled through, and this is saying that depression is a big black dog. I thought about the power we give thoughts that are counterproductive and destructive and shared a little sketch of handing the dog a flower. I wrote: If the big black dog comes to bother ,you don't fight him, invite him! He'll soon become much smaller even if he never leaves your side.

In the book the dog disappears through taking everything in existence, but also because no one gives him any power by thinking about him or physically fighting him. I don't think that is the only point where the story starts, though, as it was conceived on a sunny day in a park staring up at a tree. Perhaps it was the opposite kind of moment and a celebration of feeling alive.

The fable question ... where to begin!?! Growing up in northern Germany with eastern European influences perhaps, The brothers Grimm, Andersen, Astrid Lindgren. Perhaps it is my preferred way of writing. It allows for a certain degree of distance and interpretation. I think children are great observers of others' feelings and can make up their own minds about what is happening in the book. The stoicism in the words written this way has a timelessness about it as folklore has, and I find that very beautiful.

The nature question ... Well, the focus on it in my work happens naturally :-) I can't remember a time it was different, maybe our countless trips to Scandinavia as a child fuelled it, later on living in the city as an adult, perhaps the need for escape into my own head and my pictures kept it burning. I get away from the city whenever I can and only feel truly free by the sea, or that I can breathe on a long hike. It's the simplicity and beauty of those moments that capture me and the absence of the question WHY am I here and WHAT am I doing ... it doesn't matter there. I have always been fascinated with human's obsession of the dark, unknown, wild wood and what we imagine awaits us there. I think it holds an important place in our psyche. I also marvel at nature all the time. I can't quite grasp all that is there to see for us and find animal behaviour and expression far more interesting than other people. It somehow rings true with me.

LTPB: How do you create the illustrations in Dog and Leaf? Is that your preferred medium, or do you work in lots of different media? How did your overall process change now that you are on your second book?

SD: For both books I worked in a variety of media. I like drawing the character outlines with mechanical pencil. I use ink and 2B pencils for rocks and mountains and get out the gouache and watercolour for the greenery. I have an archive of watercolour washes and lovely textures I have made. It's really a mix of everything I can find and I like at that moment. My work is scanned in and collaged together digitally. I don't fix my compositions entirely and putting it all together on Photoshop allows me incredible freedom to change my mind later or for the book designer to suggest easy changes. I also do some colouring work digitally. I'm still trying to figure out if that is a good thing. Perhaps I would be a better artist if my execution was more considered and I had entire finished pages on paper. I think as many I have a running inner dialogue about what I dream my work to look like and what it actually turns out as I use my head and hands. I just have to continue to play and even if I find the 'solution' I'm sure a few months later I will look for another way. It's the nature of the illustration beast for me I guess!

LTPB: It looks like you do a lot of commissioned work and side projects! Can you tell me what else you do in addition to writing and illustrating children’s books?

SD: Yes that's true. It is how my career as a freelance illustrator kicked off. I initially made only self initiated pieces that I sold in my Etsy shop and accepted small commissions from private individuals to support myself. I didn't know that there was a career in illustration for me, to be honest. It was the illustrating and painting that I enjoyed, that I could retreat into, and so my portfolio inevitably grew over the years. Facebook at that time didn't have algorithms selecting who gets to see your work and there were a few months were my community suddenly grew to like 350k. The exposure, the exhibitions, markets, talks happened and soon after that I had work coming from bigger clients. My work has always organically grown and gone to the next point without me really planning for that. Over the years I've licensed work, created for apparel, done book covers, have worked with different clients on social media campaigns, etc. I always wanted to write and illustrate a picture book, so when Flying Eye / Nobrow approached me I was over the moon, and I haven't stopped loving the process since. Working on stories as changed what I want from my work. I move into the background and enjoy being the storyteller. As I write books and illustrate them I feel humbled and challenged and at home with my work.

endpapers from The Dog That Ate the World

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

SD: I've just completed my third picture book as author and illustrator actually. It's still completely under wraps though ... pssst! Perhaps what I can say is that it's a story about loss and learning to live on and it features and fox and a wolf. The story has a very different feel to Leaf And The Dog That Ate The World, as it really focuses on one single character and her emotions. It is a lot more quiet and contemplative, and it has been an important book for me to write and very cathartic to make as I experienced loss, myself, in the process. I hope that it will offer young readers and families some tools to explain these tough times and to find light and beauty in living. I've promised myself a very happy book adventure next, but who knows! I'm just a teenage goth in disguise really :-)

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

SD: Oh wow! This is a really tough one. There is, and have been, so many wonderfully talented artists out there that I love. If I had to pick one I would definitively go for Janosch. I grew up with his work in Germany. In English-speaking countries you might know his story The Trip To Panama. It's a brilliant, funny and heartfelt tale about appreciating what you have already. I'm also in love with his character of the raven Josef and many of the underdogs he brings to live. His work makes me laugh and cry, and if he illustrated my life I would be honoured to be depicted as one of those characters. His kidlit stuff is great, but his adult drawings are absolutely fantastic! Those are like reading Bukowski but in pictures: direct, tongue in cheek genius. He's had a really tough background and his observations and humour are second to none in my eyes. As a recluse he hides on an island somewhere now and claims he doesn't even like children. I've spend a night or two dreaming myself to a bar on that island where we casually bump into each other and spark up a conversation .. of course entirely coincidentally.

Interviewing my kindred spirit Sandra was an honor––thank you for visiting, Sandra! The Dog That Ate the World published from Flying Eye Books in August!

Special thanks to Sandra and Flying Eye Books for use of these images!

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