From the archives: Q&A with David Mackintosh
This short interview with graphic designer, illustrator and picturebookmaker David Mackintosh was conducted at the Mountains to Sea Book Festival in 2012. At that time David had published two picturebooks, Marshall Armstrong Is New to Our School and The Frank Show, and during our conversation he spoke Frankly about Marshall, walked my through the picturebook-making process and introduced me to Lincoln Green. Since then David has published three more picturebooks, Lucky, What's Up Mumu? and There's A Bug on My Arm that Won't Let Go, all of which are characteristically exciting, offbeat and delightfully droll.
Q. David, you illustrated a number of picturebook texts by other authors before creating picturebooks entirely on your own. How and when did the move to writing your own text occur?
A. The first book I had published was a version of The Emperor’s New Clothes, which was back in 1992, and from then on the publisher just kept giving me other author’s texts to do. I was working for numerous publishers in Australia and so I was just busy working on other people’s texts. I hadn’t sat down and really thought about my own story ideas. Since I came to the UK I’ve been designing, predominantly, and working with photographers and illustrators making books both for children and for adults. And then about two or three years ago I brought out some book ideas that I had and worked them up, just because I happened to have the time during that particular summer, and that’s how it all came about.
Q. How does working collaboratively differ from working alone on a picturebook and do you prefer collaborative or solo projects?
A. I love seeing how other people work and working with them. If I’m working with an illustrator on their picture book I learn a lot from seeing how they work, and I really do enjoy that. When I’m doing it by myself, because I design all my own books as well as write and illustrate, the only other element in the scheme of things is the editorial input. Doing my own books feels really self-indulgent coming from working for other people. As a designer, I am commissioned by the publisher to work with an author or an illustrator, and so I’m working for the publisher and the illustrator or author to get something that everyone likes. So to not have to work with an author or illustrator, things run a lot smoother. But there are pros and cons.
Q. Walk me through the process of making a picturebook. Which comes first: the words or the pictures? What sorts of methods and mediums do you use in your illustration?
A. I always have a plan of what the book is going to be. I carry around notebooks with the pages divided into rectangles representing double-page spreads so that I always have an awareness of the composition of the book. I don’t sit down to write the text and then start coming up with pictures. It’s a melange of all these ideas and what I find is that it’s more often picture-driven, so I’ll come up with ways of telling the story purely with the pictures. The pictures come first and it’s not until I’ve nailed the picture composition that I write around that.
I like to have everything in one piece so I will draw and compose a whole spread, usually in oil pencil or carbon pencil. I’ll cut out and stick it back together to get the composition right and from that point I’ll colour it. Some of the colour is done on the computer after I’ve done the scanning and the rest is applied directly to the picture. And as I’m also the designer, I’ll have a concept of how I want the finished book to look.
(Check out David's top 10 illustration and design tips here.)
Q. Are the central characters in Marshall Armstrong is New to Our School and The Frank Show based on particular people?
A. Not specifically. However, the inspiration for Marshall Armstrong came from when I was a kid at school and we had a boy from America who joined our class halfway through the year. He sounded different, he looked different in that he wasn’t wearing a uniform- something which is inverted in the book because Marshall is wearing a uniform and nobody else is. His name was Sheldon and I never got to know him but I always wondered what it must have been like for him. The name 'Marshall Armstrong' - I’ve always liked cowboy things and space stuff and so the name is an amalgam of the two. The Armstrong part is about Neil Armstrong, who I was always impressed by. When he returned from the moon he went around the world talking about it but only for a while and then he wanted to get back to normal and so he started teaching. People expected a lot from him so he’s always been a bit of an enigma and that impressed me.
Frank is a bit of a cliché of an older person in a lot of respects but I hope that that’s undone at the end of the book. As with anyone walking down the street, he’s had a life and has a story and you can never underestimate where people have been or where they’re going. That’s what the book is about. He is an amalgam of a lot of people, some older people I knew as a child and some friends I have now.
Q. Marshall Armstrong is New to Our School and The Frank Show are both picturebooks with a moral. Did you set out with the intention of addressing certain issues or was this something that occurred naturally through the telling of those stories?
A. It always starts with the character and something I like about this character. I certainly don’t want to be moralising, however; I like for the reader to learn something at the end. You can write a great, crazy, up-and-down story that’s really exciting but if it doesn’t have some sort of message, which can of course be interpreted by different people in different ways, I think 'what’s the point?'.
Q. Do you have a specific audience in mind when plotting a picturebook?
A. No. A lot of people say that my books are quite boy-centric but they’re not meant to be; the stories just happen to be about male characters. I’m aware that I’m coming up with these stories for children and they’ll be published as children’s book but that’s where it stops. I’m just telling the story I want to tell. If it was going to be published for adults it would take a different format and they’d probably want a few more pages, so it would be something different but still essentially same.
Q. Your next picture book, Standing in for Lincoln Green, is out next year. Can you tell me a bit about it?
A. Well, again it has a male character but this time it’s all about doing things for yourself. Lincoln has a double, his reflection in the mirror, and he uses his double to do the things he doesn’t want to do like chores around the house. Unfortunately for Lincoln it doesn’t pan out the way he wants. But don’t worry; it will all be okay in the end!