#FlorisDesign meets Kate McLelland
From wee lassies to midgies and nessies, Kate McLelland has illustrated many Kelpies books. Now she’s launching a new picture book series about a cheeky Shetland pony and his best friend, Isla, a feisty wee girl with a penchant for ponies and yellow knitwear. In the latest #FlorisDesign interview Kate chats scallop shells, her sister and the Isle of Skye as we find out about her inspiration behind her latest book, Isla and Pickle: Best Friends.
Hi Kate, thanks for talking to us today. Firstly, could you tell us a bit about how you became a children’s book illustrator?
I have always been passionate about children’s literature and have collected picture books for years. However, every time someone suggested I start working on one I dismissed the idea, as I thought it was a fantasy job – people couldn’t possibly do that for a living. When I became pregnant with my first child, I was completing my MFA in Illustration, and decided how much I wanted to make a book for my baby. I showed the book at the degree show and was delighted and surprised people liked it. Things took off from there.
Did you undertake any formal training in illustration or design?
My first degree was a BA Hons in design for stage and screen, so I learnt storyboarding, character design and set design. I think these skills have really helped with picture books. I then worked as a book designer for several years before completing my MFA. This was instrumental for my development. It was a scary process, as I had to let go of previous ways of picture making and I experimented for the best part of two years. I now appreciate how wonderful and invaluable that time was.
What was your inspiration for adorable Pickle, the Shetland pony in the book?
Well, Pickle, despite being a colt, is based on my best pal and little sister Emma. Isla and Pickle’s adventures are loosely based on our childhood adventures and our relationship. My little sister is very funny. She’s had a mop of bright blonde unruly hair since she was a toddler, something I felt important Pickle should have too! Like Pickle she is loving and kind, a little cheeky, loyal and ultimately the best friend anyone could ask for (aww).
Are you an avid rider? Have you ever owned a pony like Pickle?
I was a pony mad teen at one point who loved horse riding. We lived in a rural village, surrounded by sheep, cows and horses. I always imagined living on one of the farms and looking after the animals – it is something I still think about. Now I live opposite a field of shetland ponies, and have been lucky enough to meet with owners who have shared their experiences with me. I haven’t ridden a horse for many years and wouldn’t consider owning one. I think looking after animals is not to be taken lightly and for the foreseeable future my priority is my family and work. You can dream though . . . or make a book about them!
Do you work using traditional methods or digital methods or both?
I think computers are simply a tool and I think they can benefit most artists in some way so I use both. I start with rough sketches on paper, then I scan them and play about with composition on screen – it’s such a fast way to discover if something works, or sometimes you accidentally find something that does. Once I know how I want a final piece of artwork to look I make textures and details for the page. I usually finish my bringing everything together in photoshop. An average illustration can contain stamps, paper-cutting, gouache, crayon, basically whatever I think is needed to get the effect I am after.
What sorts of things do you most enjoy drawing?
If you asked me five years ago I would have said birds, four years ago it was highland coos and seals, then tigers . . . in fact for a long time animals. However, the more I draw children the more I love it. Practice is key, so I was incredibly rusty after years of only drawing animals, foliage and buildings. The most satisfying thing to draw is character, capturing personality – whether it be a Shetland Pony or a little girl. It is the hardest thing, one teeny tiny alteration and they go from puzzled to needing the toilet. I suspect I will never perfect it, but I look forward to lots of practice.
What was your inspiration behind the location and setting of Isla and Pickle?
Almost every year my family would travel from North East England to the Isle of Skye. It is one of my favourite places in the world. It has it all, dramatic mountains, peaceful glades, long beaches, little woods and babbling burns. I am so fortunate to have such happy childhood memories. When working on Isla and Pickle I think of picnics on damp tartan blankets, walking for miles in the sunshine in sloshy wellies, crossing fields trying not to get the attention of the bull and hours of combing beaches for the perfect scallop shell. Working on the book enabled me to revisit happy childhood memories and think of ways I can share them with children.
Do you have any tricks in your bag for when you get stuck on a brief?
Sometimes I just try, try and try again and if that fails I go for a walk on my own.
We absolutely LOVE your Isla and Pickle toys! Where are they from?
I’m really passionate about people who craft beautiful handmade toys. I approached two toymakers for Isla and Pickle. Ksenia Dunaeva made the lovely Isla Waldorf doll and Lynne, aka Laurel Designs made the adorable Pickle. I had been watching Lynne’s work for a while, she makes stunning horses and hobbyhorses.
Is working as an author/illustrator what you expected?
It is everything I had hoped for and more. It’s certainly not the best path if you are after fame and fortune, but if you love making stories and art for children, you enjoy time on your own and deciding how you manage your time, then it is the best. I am very lucky.
Do you have any author/illustrators that you consider to be your favourites?
Oh this comes up a lot and there are so many. I’m often drawn to illustrators who have a very different approach to me – that way I can admire whilst never directly comparing or falling into the trap of mimicking. I love my friends work, Emily Mackenzie, we worked together as book designers, she gets so much humour into her colourful characters. Helen Stephens is as incredible draftswoman and I love her children characters. Sara Ogilvie works lots of brilliants details in, you can spend a long time pouring over a single spread, all stunningly drawn as well.
Some of my all-time favourites are Beatrix Potter, who I am a proud super fan of and Shirley Hughes, I am still reading My Naughty Little Sister stories.
Isla and Pickle will be available from 22nd June.
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