When I was eight I took one of those 'can you see the number' colour-blind tests in the nurse's office. I already knew I was colourblind, but being the people pleaser I am (even at the age of eight) I allowed the nurse to have her moment.
"What number do you see here?"
"And what about here?"
The nurse closed her book of invisible numbers and looked at me with sad eyes as if she was about to deliver some seriously bad news.
"You've got red-green colourblindness." she said.
I pretended to look shocked and dismayed.
Later on in school, a 4th grade teacher leant over my shoulder and said, "You've coloured the sky wrong."
I could've sworn it was blue. But she was right, it was purple.
Anyway, what's wrong with a purple sky?
Years later, I stood in front a class with my piece of work. The college tutor looked at it with a head tilt and asked, "Why have you given this man green skin?"
I said I thought it was 'peach' and explained that I'm red-green colourblind. Then the teacher held my work up with both his hands for all to see. But instead of saying that I'd done something wrong, he praised me for doing something different. He was a little over the top, but I took the praise. For a moment I thought "Hey, being colour-blind is pretty cool."
At university I experimented with all sorts of media. Paints were great fun, but I didn't like to mix them. Coloured pencils were easier because they're all labelled. But even after graduating, I still lacked confidence in colouring.
When I returned to university in 2010 to study an MA in Children's Book Illustration I was determined to crack it.
I used to draw a picture and think, ok, what colour should this be? And I now realise that that's where I was going wrong.
A big turning point for me was illustrating THE QUEEN'S HAT a university project in sequential illustration that was simply inspired by a chanced upon newspaper clipping that showed The Queen holding onto her hat in the wind. This was going to be a humorous book that drew inspiration from Great British icons, and I wanted it to be bold, completely over-the-top and a bit bonkers. I remember showing my idea to a publisher at the Bologna Children's Book Fair and she said it would never sell because it's 'too British'. But I wanted to indulge my inner pop artist and go all the way.
So I decided to ignore her advice.
I set out to make the most British picture book that ever did exist. So what should the colours be? Red, white and blue, of course!
The colours had purpose.
They were intentional, not an afterthought.
Through trial and error I worked out a rather unconventional and quite tedious way of deconstructing drawings and layering them with a masking tool in Photoshop (I might go into that in more detail in a future blog post) so that I can easily replace colours.
And this changed EVERYTHING.
I had to carefully consider how to approach the drawing of my story. What colour should the guards' outlines be? Red? Blue? And the buildings? And the background? And the Queen and corgi? And their features? And exactly how many Photoshop layers will that be?
This limitation of colour surprisingly led to many possibilities. Rendering the final illustrations was stimulating. And this gave me confidence.
I decided to approach my next picture book project in the EXACT same way. I had this panda character that looked a tad grumpy. I gave the panda a box of doughnuts, and I wrote this very simple story about not saying please. PLEASE MR PANDA has only has 8 main colours, and, honestly, I don't even know what some of them are, because I don't need to. Doughnuts can be any colour, right? And all the animals were carefully chosen. They're all black and white, and they're all recognisable. They each fit nicely on each page. And the background is grey. That was actually my lovely designer, Izzy's, idea. The grey made the black and white animals (and the doughnuts) pop off the page. It was perfect.
Again, I did the same for my third picture book project at Uni. But this time I chose just TWO colours: Green and Red. GREEN LIZARDS VS RED RECTANGLES, a book about war and peace, was inspired by a painting by Malevich called Eight Red Rectangles. The story's about red rectangles fighting for page space with lizards. I drew the lizards green because green compliments red; an irony that made total sense for this book.
And my fourth, BETTY GOES BANANAS? Red, Yellow and Pink. The pink was for Betty's bow. The yellow was for the banana, Betty's dress and the banana paper background. The red was for anger. The colours match Betty's emotional state (and the same goes for her follow-up book, BETTY GOES BANANAS IN HER PYJAMAS).
And I continue to do this. For THE QUEEN'S HANDBAG I simply reversed the colours, so the 'following' characters are in blue (police) and the Queen is in red.
This approach also works for commissioned illustrations, too. I think about what time of day it might be? What's the emotion I want to convey? What do I want the point of focus to be?
This approach is consistent throughout all my work. The yet-to-be published MONSTER IN THE HOOD has an urban feel to it. There's white graffiti, the streets are a heavy blue (because it's night time) and the moon is orange; to match the Monster's eye. And the lit windows are yellow.
I am by no means suddenly a colour expert, but I found a way that works for me. By endlessly experimenting, I found a way. And this I feel is what gives us our own unique illustrator's voice.
THE QUEEN'S HAT was (and still is) a bestseller, and it won the Evening Standard's Oscar's Book Prize. PLEASE MR PANDA's first print run was 115,000 copies, and it was recently long-listed for the Kate Greenaway Medal. BETTY GOES BANANAS hit number 1 in Taiwan. And I've been invited to talk at schools, colleges, libraries and literary festivals up and down the country and overseas. So I guess I must be doing something right?
So my advice to anyone that's finding colour a big pain in the butt, like I did, is to rethink colour. Don't just colour in. Don't let colour be an afterthought. Think about colour before you draw.
Do you want to draw a sad picture? What colours make you sad? Do you want to draw a happy picture? Maybe you'd like one thing to really stand out. How about making that thing really stand out by drawing everything else in black and white or shades of the same colour?
Try not to follow trends. Be authentically you. That's the only way you're going to find your own illustrator's voice.
After all, the sky isn't always blue. Sometimes it's purple too.