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Bethan Woollvin speaks to Picture Book Snob

Bethan Woollvin is an author and illustrator, famous for her feminist fairy tales and her bold and distinct style. Bethan's debut picture book, Little Red, won the Macmillan Children’s Book Competition in 2014 and was named a New York Times Best Illustrated Book in 2016. Little Red also won the AOI World Illustration Award and was nominated for the Little Rebels Children’s Book Award and the Klaus Flugge Prize in 2017.

We're huge fans of Bethan's work and have all her books. We were delighted when Bethan kindly agreed to an interview with Picture Book Snob as part of the blog tour for Meet the Oceans, her new book with Caryl Hart...

Congratulations on Meet the Oceans! It must be very exciting to see the finished product arrive from the publisher. How did you feel when you saw this book for the first time?

Thank you! Yes, I was certainly very excited when I received my copies of Meet the Oceans from my publishers, I couldn’t wait to see how it had turned out! This project was challenging in many ways for me as an illustrator, so when I first flicked through a copy of the book, I remember feeling incredibly proud, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t relieved that it was finished. It was a lot of work! Receiving physical copies of your books always feels somewhat like the last hurdle of a project, as it encapsulates all of your hard work and time into one object, and it sort of reminds you that the project was real!

Meet the Oceans by Caryl Hart and Bethan Woollvin, Bloomsbury
Meet the Oceans by Caryl Hart & Bethan Woollvin, and original artwork by Bethan Woollvin

What, if anything, did you find most challenging about this project?

Every book I work on has it’s own challenges, and that’s just the way I like it! If I’m not challenging myself with my illustrations, I’ll find it much harder to develop as an artist. Meet the Oceans was no exception! The biggest challenge for this book was both perspective and the personification of each body of water, and how I was going to make each ocean or sea different from the last.

Early on in the project, I spent a good while sketching character designs for the oceans, thinking about things like colour, size, personality and all of the other characteristics Caryl Hart had included in her rhymes about the oceans and seas. For example, Caryl included both the Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean Sea in the story, but how could I represent them as unique beings? Aside from just picking colours which we associate with those waters, I thought about the movement of the ocean or sea. The Atlantic, to me - would be choppy, windy and a bit dramatic, whereas I think of the Caribbean as slow, gentle and warm.

We also had to do some design problem solving when it came to actually displaying each ocean or sea throughout the book. It became apparent very quickly that we needed to experiment with different points of view and perspective, finding fun ways to showcase each body of water in the best way possible. Sometimes this involved showing the sea bed, and other times above water. One thing I know for sure is that we broke a lot of perspective rules while creating the artwork for this book, but I think we might have gotten away with it!

Meet the Oceans by Caryl Hart and Bethan Woollvin, Bloomsbury
Meet the Oceans by Caryl Hart & Bethan Woollvin, image courtesy of Bethan Woollvin

I love your limited colour palettes but I love how colourful this book is too. Did you plan to use more colours from the beginning or did the palette evolve as the project progressed?

I know this sounds quite strange, but the more colours I use, the harder I find it to actually bring an idea out of my brain and onto the page. By thinking of an idea in just a few colours, it sort of speeds up the process for me. In the early stages of creating illustrations for Meet the Oceans, I naturally began with quite a slim colour palette. But along with the other troubles of diversifying each ocean or sea, we decided that expanding the colour palette would be really helpful. However, I didn’t use all of the colours from this wider palette all on one spread. Instead, I would pick a couple of colours from the palette, and cycle through them with each new ocean or sea, using different combinations for each one. This really helped each ocean or sea feel different, all while keeping all of the illustrations connected with colour throughout the book.

How long were you working on this book?

I believe it took around 7 months to complete, in total. I was actually working on this book during the first lockdown of 2020!

Meet the Oceans by Caryl Hart and Bethan Woollvin, Bloomsbury
Meet the Oceans by Caryl Hart & Bethan Woollvin, image courtesy of Bethan Woollvin

Do you have to do much research or any other preparation before beginning to illustrate a book for another author, and if so, what does this process involve?

It really depends on the subject and the type of book. The series of books myself and Caryl Hart are collaborating on are all non-fiction, which naturally involves more research and preparation than a fiction story would. Non-fiction requires me to find a way to illustrate with some degree of accuracy to the subject as it’s recognisable to everyday life. But most of my book projects begin in the same way, which usually involves me putting together a moodboard together, where I draw upon certain visual inspirations. For example, for Meet the Oceans, I collected a lot of photos of water, so I could understand how to convincingly draw bubbles, currents and waves. I also collected lots of photos of fish, coral and whales etc. These references help me to refine my ideas and keep me on the right track to create the artwork I originally planned.

Did you learn lots about oceans and marine life from this working project and do you have a favourite fact from the book?

Definitely! I think that’s what makes this series such a fascinating project to work on! I had a lot of fun researching about different species of fish and other sea creatures, and then finding a way to sketch them into these gorgeous undersea environments. I found out so many cool facts while working on this book, such as the Coral Sea being so large it can be seen from space. But my favourite fact from the book is that the Atlantic Ocean is home to lots of diamonds in it’s sea bed...who knew!?

Meet the Oceans by Caryl Hart and Bethan Woollvin, Bloomsbury
Meet the Oceans by Caryl Hart & Bethan Woollvin, image courtesy of Bethan Woollvin

When you are illustrating a book, do you do create the scenes in chronological order or are you drawn to particular scenes more than others and do those first, or do you just work on them randomly?

Generally, I work on spreads for each of my books in chronological order, as it helps me pinpoint how far I am through a project. Although, sometimes the publisher may ask for a particular piece of artwork to be prioritised, so there are exceptions to this process!

Do you go through many drafts when illustrating a project or do you have a strong sense of how you want it to look before you begin?

For me, this varies from project to project! Sometimes, I just nail those illustrations in one rough draft, but some take lots more. I usually know what the illustration is going to look like early on, as I create a lot of the designs for my illustrations purely in my head. What takes the most time (and most drafts) is actually translating the image in my brain onto paper. It’s not always as easy as you think it’s going to be!

Meet the Oceans by Caryl Hart and Bethan Woollvin, Bloomsbury
Meet the Oceans by Caryl Hart & Bethan Woollvin, image courtesy of Bethan Woollvin

Do you have a favourite scene from this story?

I think my favourite sea has to be the Mediterranean Sea. It’s the last sea visited by the human and their dog in the submarine, so it has a kind of farewell feeling to it. I wanted to capture that mood with a bright pink sunset, the twinkling water and the sea creatures waving goodbye. It was also a particularly challenging spread, as it featured a tricky perspective of above and below the sea - so I am rather proud of it!

It's brilliant how the dog's expressions change in every scene and how he looks just as interested and excited as the human - if not more so sometimes! Is he based on your own dog?

Unfortunately, the little dog in this series isn’t based on my dog, Pod. I actually adopted Pod after I had already finished finished the first book in the series, Meet the Planets. But that doesn’t stop me looking to him for inspiration when I’m stuck for ideas of what the little dog will be doing next!

Meet the Oceans by Caryl Hart and Bethan Woollvin, Bloomsbury
Meet the Oceans by Caryl Hart & Bethan Woollvin, image courtesy of Bethan Woollvin

I love how the some of the oceans hug the land in the map at the end of the book - how did you get the idea for this?

During the early conceptual stages of this book, we felt like we needed to include a map of all of the oceans and seas, so the reader could work out where they had been on their submarine adventure! This got me thinking about maps of the world and how best to display the oceans and seas. Usually, it’s the land which is the important part of the maps, not the water! I wanted to draw attention to the oceans and seas, taking the focus off the land, so I created an inverted map of the world! This was the perfect way to remind readers of each ocean and sea, and show them just how big they really are!

Finally, I consider myself a picture book snob - is there anything you're snobby about?

Coffee! There’s nothing more disappointing than sad coffee with no flavour!

Check out the other stops on the blog tour:

Meet the Oceans by Caryl Hart & Bethan Woollvin, Bloomsbury, Blog Tour Dates


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