Ladies and gentlemen! Alexis Deacon’s musings on graphite, animals and meaning, and dancing…
Alexis Deacon is a writer and illustrator of comics, picture books and children’s fiction. His books have twice been selected for The New York Times Best Illustrated Children’s Books Award. In 2008 he was chosen by Booktrust as one of the ten best new illustrators of the last decade.
Hi Alexis! Could you tell us a bit about yourself and what you do?
Hello Tiny Pencil Blog. I am an author and illustrator of stories for children. I have been working as such for about the last fifteen years…
Could you tell us about your creative process, from the initial idea to the finished piece?
I am always looking to tell stories so my starting point is where the narrative begins. That need not be the actual beginning of a story; it is the first moment that a new constellation of characters or situations presents itself to my brain. That can happen at any time and in any place. At any given moment I will have about twelve embryo-stories gestating in my head. Gradually they will begin to grow as they find new ideas that fit them. When, one day I realise how a story could conclude I will start to put it down on paper in some form. Usually my first step is to go somewhere that I feel shares the atmosphere I imagined for that narrative and draw everything that seems to belong.
After I have done a little work on developing the visual world of the narrative I will block out the key stages of the story in rough drawings, concentrating principally on composition and content. The final stage is to find a method of producing artwork that best expresses all the requirements of those compositions and compliments the atmosphere I first imagined.
How do you conceptualize/construct a piece? Do you think of it as a story, snapshot, or abstraction?
I am almost always thinking of my work as a communication tool for sharing stories as I say above. However, I do also give thought to the abstract aesthetics of contrasting tones and to the record of motion that is mark making!
What size do you tend to work at? Do you have a preferred scale?
I think my ideal scale is about A2 (420mmx594mm). It means you can use big, gestural marks and yet not lose the areas of fine detail that are great fun to draw too.
Could you tell us what particularly appeals to you about working in graphite?
Graphite has several appealing qualities. It can be rubbed out; that’s a big one. It is also very good for drawing lines or tones with varying pressure so that they can be dark and bold or light and delicate. This is excellent for drawing very subtly modulated tonal images. As if that virtue wasn’t enough it is also readily available and easily affordable and comes graded in over sixteen levels of softness/firmness. What’s not to like?
Favourite pencil: Wood? Mechanical? Other?
Whatever comes to hand or feels right that day… although I actually prefer wax pencils to graphite if pushed. Traitorous I know.
What other materials do you enjoy using?
I love working with ink and brush, with charcoal and with oil paint.
Do you also have a favourite subject-matter? What would be the particular attraction?
Varies every time. I have recently enjoyed drawing a science fiction comic. I’m not very good at robots or spaceships but I kind of wish I had some of both to look after me and fly me off to other worlds; that’s the attraction.
What has most influenced and inspired your vision?
Winsor McCay knocked my socks off. I remember thinking, ‘drawing can do that?!?’
Can you tell us about a favourite piece of yours, or a favourite creative experience?
You know how Moomin Papa is forever writing his memoirs in the Moomin stories and yet he never seems to get anywhere with them? Suddenly there it is on the bookshelf: Moomin Papa’s Memoirs… And you think, ‘Oh! He actually did it!’ Well I recently wrote my equivalent of that. It was a story I had been procrastinating over since art school and I finally got the sucker done. It’s two hundred and fifty pages long and it may never see the light of day but, God, I am so proud!
Speaking of memoirs then, what are your early memories of drawing like?
I would begin a game with toys on my bedroom floor. If I really enjoyed the game I would make a record of it in my sketchbook. Sometimes I would continue the game in drawing then go back to toys then go back to drawing and so on. There are a lot of pictures of He-Man, Star Wars and G.I.Joe in my childhood sketchbooks. Sometimes they cross over in strange ways.
Do you still keep a sketchbook?
Not any more… That is to say, I take sketchbooks out with me when I am drawing on location or researching something but they are not precious objects to me any more, just tools. I used to pour love into my sketchbooks. One day I thought, I make story books, not sketchbooks. I should put more effort into the stuff that people are going to see and less into the stuff they never will. Now I try to treat my artwork like I used to treat my sketchbooks. They were a place to play, to be free and to dream.
How does it feel to have the Guardian refer to your work as “utterly beguiling”?
It feels good! I never get bored of hearing people say nice things. Does anyone?
We’ve heard you’re quite light on your feet. Can you describe any type of creative relationship that might exist between your dancing and your artwork?
I think the reason I like dancing so much is that it seems to use all the spare bits of my brain not taken up with drawing. I have always thought of drawing as a physical expression of self though… I have the sense it is the same as dancing. I might try tying pencils to my feet one day and see what happens. Or try drawing in time to music?
Is it easier to draw fictions and fantasies than actualities? Your work seems tied to magic and the realms of the imagination.
I draw because I am not in love with the world as it is. It’s a sort of simultaneous escape and a plea for change. If I had my way I would change it. There would be a lot more animals around for a start. I can’t believe the irony of having been born at a time when half of them are about to go extinct. Sometimes the real world sucks. ‘I know, let’s kill a rhino to get my **** hard’. Good plan. Really outstanding thinking. Of course if animals could talk and wield machine guns and chainsaws this is exactly the same sort of **** they would be doing.
Have you ever spent time with a real slow loris? Would you live with one?
IMPORTANT DISCLAIMER: SLOW LORISES ARE WILD ANIMALS AND MUST NOT BE KEPT AS PETS! IT IS VERY WRONG! SEE ABOVE!
I totally wish I could live with one though. I wish I had been Gerald Durrell or David Attenborough. Animals are the distillation of everything that’s great about being alive.
If all the pencils in the world were to suddenly disappear would that dramatically alter your process?
It would be a blow but I guess I’d cope. I sure would miss being able to rub out and start over though. And think of all the poor pencil sharpeners with nothing to be stuck in them. Tragic. Some of them are electric. Even that would avail them nothing.
Right or left-handed?
Coffee, nicotine, or booze?
Last film you saw in the cinema?
Avengers Age of Ultron. Not nearly as good as the last one. Impossible number of characters in it and some weirdly lame CGI. But it did have a cameo appearance from some members of my dance troupe in it. Sadly I missed the audition.
What books are on your bedside table?
The Dispossessed by Ursula Le Guin. Beserk part 14 by Kentaro Miura.
Favourite city in the world?
New York circa 1979
Favourite city to draw/sketch/illustrate/create in?
One day I’ll make enough money from illustration to go round the world trying them out. Until then, London, where I was born and bred, and am trapped like a misanthropic mockery of George Bailey.
What can we look forward to seeing from you next?
I am doing a three part fantasy saga called Geis with Nobrow Press. It’s going to be ace. It is also going to take aaaaaaages… sigh.
Where can people get a hold of your work, or find out more about your previous projects?
All good book stores… or cough-Amazon-cough. Actually someone was selling a first edition Slow Loris for seven grand on Amazon a while back. If you’re thinking of buying that, DON’T!!! I’ll totally sell you mine for five.
Thanks for the warning Alexis! And thank you for taking time out to chat with us.
Keep up with Alexis and see more of his work here: http://alexisdeacon.tumblr.com
Alexis features in Issue 4 of Tiny Pencil: The Death & Resurrection Issue! Available to buy here.
This interview was brought to you by Heather McCalden and The Tiny Pencil – fine purveyors of the pencil arts. Follow us on twitter @TheTinyPencil, Facebook, Tumblr, and Instagram for the latest news on all of our new anthology artzines.