Renown children’s picture book-maker Oliver Jeffers met with us to discuss his latest book, The Fate of Fausto. The popular author and illustrator has created an impressive portfolio of work and shows no sign of slowing.
The Fate of Fausto stands as one of the most difficult books he’s made so far. Ahead of its release, Jeffers spoke to us to discuss its lengthy production, his journey into picture book-making, and more on his past projects.
Read to the end of this interview to find a giveaway for a signed copy of The Fate of Fausto and a bundle of Ohh Deer stationery!
How did you come into the world of illustration and picture book-making? Was this something you always had your sights on?
Not with picture books. And, actually, not with illustration really either. From a very early age, I always thought I wanted to get into art and fine art. It was towards the end of art college I thought that content I had started as a final project would’ve worked best as a picture book.
On graduating from college, I started doing some commercial illustration just to pay bills. But I realised it was something I could do quite well, and I think it served a purpose in the sense that it was a good creative exercise, especially editorial illustrations; it was like press-ups for a visual communicator.
So, I did that for a time but, ultimately, I stopped being a freelance commercial illustrator when it started getting in the way of self-generated projects. But the one thing that did stick was picture books. Once I had made the transition from fine art and storytelling using individual canvases to the actual physical object of a book, it was always going to be.
At what point did you realise you could make that into a career?
After I graduated, I thought the book I made was as good as, if not better, than anything else out there. And then I tried getting it published and it received a lot of attention. Penguin in the USA and Harper Collins in the UK both came back within the first 10 days and said they wanted to publish. So, I negotiated a deal with both and, at that point, I thought this might be something that could work.
The next question actually comes from our Managing Directors nephew, Daniel, who asks, “where do you get your inspiration for your stories?”
I do joke that I keep it in a lunchbox on my bed, but I think just by watching the world around me. By hearing snippets of other people’s stories, by listening; my eyes are open, my brain is a sponge.
I think you look at other people’s work and stories – there’s that classic line, there are only seven stories ever told – but the idea is that everything goes in, gets jumbled around inside you and then comes back out again. Hopefully, you don’t actually remember where each little element came from, you’ve made it your own at that point. So, inspiration, it’s just how life works I guess.
What was the creative process like for The Fate of Fausto in particular?
Difficult. Very difficult. The story was actually written four or five years ago, something like that. I had a son at that point and so I shelved it to make Here We Are; it felt like a more optimistic and timelier story that focused on positivity during a time of a lot of anger and aggression (the Brexit vote and Trump politics).
I was going through the mind-shift myself of what it’s like to be a human being on Earth and teach things that you know to someone who knows nothing. So, The Fate of Fausto got shelved for that, but then it started feeling like a more and more timely book to the point where it felt very urgently like it should be my next book.
While it’s a new story, to me it felt like an old fable. I wanted to address that by making this book in the same way some of the historical, traditional books were made. It has handset typography, there’s original marbling on the end-papers, and the art itself is made using lithography, which seemed like a good idea at the time, but it was very complicated. You have to work backwards and upside down, and a lot of its guesswork. It’s almost like painting with a four-hour time delay. It was a huge learning curve and I still don’t know if I know how to do it, even though I’ve worked on this 200-year old press in Paris for the best part of a couple of months. A lot of it was just mildly controlled accidents.
How long did the art-making process take for this project?
About a year in terms of sketching, drawing and figuring out logistics. When I went to Idem we worked with the master printer and we looked at it and guessed it would take about two weeks to do it all. By the end of the two weeks, even working from 7 in the morning to 11 at night, we knew it was going to take longer.
It ended up closer to 8 weeks at that schedule of working weekends and long hours. It was a lot more time consuming because, if you think about it, each page is only three colours, but each colour is passed through multiple times and it’s a 96-page book. Just adding those numbers up, it’s over 400-something plates to do.
How did the opportunity to produce this at Idem come about?
I’ve done some work in Paris before and I had been thinking about how I would make the art. I was considering etching or screen printing, and I had been to Idem a couple of years before when I worked with a French artist called JR. I decided to just go back and ask them the difference between making one image and a whole book.
I had a conversation with the Master Printer there and I was asking very specific questions, so he just asked what it was I wanted to do. I showed him a little dummy of the book, we did a test, and I came back the next day to pick it up. He said he’d been thinking about it – I think the story really sat with him – and he gave me the offer that he would provide a team, the press and the full support of Idem to make the book in exchange for creating 100 copies of a mini-version with the original pieces of art.
Outside of that, where do you normally create your work? Would you say your studio is well organised or more organised chaos?
My studio is in Brooklyn. It’s organised chaos but it’s more organised than I ever thought I would be, just because it’s New York and space is limited. So, I try to do more work than reasonably should be contained in a studio that size. Everything’s got a very particular place and is labelled – it’s got charm.
How many digital elements do you tend to incorporate into your work?
It depends. A lot of the work I do is in the fine art world and the idea there is that what you’re looking at is the original. Whereas with publishing, the completed piece of work is what comes out of the press and it’s meant to be mass-produced.
Some of the books I’ve made prior do have digital elements, some more so than others. With The Fate of Fausto there are zero digital elements, but with Here We Are, some of the last layers were done using an iPad and Procreate; it was a book about being a parent and it felt like this strange hypocrisy if I were making this book and then not being a parent by being in the studio the entire time. But, like anything I think, digital art-making is just a means to an end; it’s another way of making art.
When creating something like The Fate of Fausto, does the illustration or the writing come first?
Normally they would happen simultaneously, flesh out how it looks and how it sounds at the same time since one affects the other. With writing and illustrating, I don’t have to say something if I can show it, so there’s this balance between the two; one of the most joyful parts of making the books is figuring out that balance. But, strangely with both Here We Are and The Fate of Fausto, they were written entirely before even considering making them as books; Here We Are was never meant to be a book, it was a letter I was writing to my son, so it was completed before I decided to bring visuals to it.
It was the same with The Fate of Fausto. I was writing it and the next thing I know, it was a completed manuscript written in one go. And then, because I shelved it, I didn’t think about what the art would look like for a couple of years afterwards.
Diverting away from picture books for a second: we came across your dipped painting portraits and found them fascinating. What’s the sentiment behind those?
It began as a project – I’d been doing a lot of work in the fine art world with quantum physics and quantum mechanics and it began as a way of sort-of cross-examining whether someone could be looked at emotionally and logically at the same time.
I ended up making one dipped painting as an experiment and no photograph existed of that painting prior to being dipped. When it was hung in the Brooklyn Museum, loads of people asked if I had really painted the whole thing – I had, I just couldn’t prove it.
Then one photograph turned up of the painting before I dipped it and my memory of it over the course of the year had changed. And so, the whole project is an exploration of memory and identity storytelling. I paint the portraits and then, in front of a small select audience, I submerge them. Nobody takes a photograph, so the only people who will ever see the fully-painted portrait are the 15 or 20 people in the room at that time; it lives in their memory and that’s the whole point of it.
What’s been the most memorable reaction to your work so far?
At the very start of the dipped paintings, a lot of design and home decor blogs and magazines picked it up and said things like: “You too can update a vintage painting!” And that led to a lot of pretenders which was a little frustrating at that point, but you have to look forward not backwards.
It was frustrating people hadn’t realised these weren’t just spray-painted vintage paintings. These were painstaking things to make and wildly expensive to do. Although, I think the project has caught a life of its own enough now that people don’t make that mistake anymore.
To enter a giveaway to win a signed copy of The Fate of Fausto and a bundle of stationery, all you have to do is follow the link below and submit your email. Entry to the competition will close on the 25th October at 23:59 PM. A winner will be chosen the following week. Good luck!