Interview with Gemma O’Neill

PBB: How do you produce your beautifully colourful, yet intricately delicate illustrations?
GO’N: I always start by layering up gouache paint. It’s so vivid and versatile. I don’t think I’ve quite mastered it yet, but it’s fantastic. I use it for huge splashes, but also for the intricate side of things. After lots of layering and organised mess, I add collage. I adore old maps, any sort of old papers and handwriting. I’ve built up quite a collection now. All the little pieces are carefully trimmed and stuck down. I’ve been using colouring pencils and oil pastels in the next book for a looser appearance in places.
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I took a day out just to experiment and open my mind a bit. I endedup splashing paint around with my eyes closed and scribbling with my left hand instead of my right. There was a slight colour explosion in my studio. It was just supposed to be a bit of fun to bring me out of a creative rut, but all the textures have ended up going into book two.
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PBB: Where do you get inspiration for your lovely stories?
GO’N: I think I was always probably going to focus on animals. I grew up watching a lot of natural history documentaries and Geoffrey was born just after watching one. I used to specialise in ceramics and printmaking, so I really love textures and patterns. I definitely think animals have the best. I usually have a particular animal in mind that I just love, and then I’ll research it.  It’s hard to beat a David Attenborough documentary. I’m absolutely devastated at the thought of him stopping.
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PBB: Do the characters come first, or the stories?

1236116_552560564791890_47041014_nGO’N: The characters have been the starting point so far. Time is always so short, so I like to focus on an animal I’m really enthusiastic about that will keep me motivated. I tend to over complicate ideas, but I find that focusing on a single small fact about a particular animal and moving things along from there is the way to go. A whole story can be born out of something so simple.

PBB: What’s your favourite part of writing and illustrating a book and which part provides the most challenges?

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GO’N: I really love carrying out research. Everything feels so limitless at that point. It’s such an adventure and I always want to know more. The ideas stage that follows is always really exciting too. I particularly enjoyed storyboarding and working on the roughs for book two, Monty’s Magnificent Mane. I think I must have drawn at least twenty versions of each little storyboard thumbnail then carried out the same process all over again. It didn’t even take a very long time to pin down. However, the artwork is always an incredible challenge. The artwork for book two has been particularly tricky. There’s been a lot more layering and reworking involved. It’s been very time consuming, but I want to know that I’ve done absolutely everything I can to make it the best it can be. All sorts of worries come along with the artwork too. Are the characters consistent throughout? Do the colours work together? Does it have enough appeal? How will it be received? Will I be happy with it? Book Fairs and things pop up along the way too, so there’s always a bit of pressure around artwork.

PBB: Do you have a favourite picture book right now and if so, what is it?

$T2eC16d,!yEE9s5jGLRSBRy7tEsgQg~~_35GO’N: The lovely Zoe Toft asked me to write a short book review of my favourite picture book of the year recently. It took me about a month to decide! Thereare so many incredible books out there at the moment. I settled for Wild by Emily Hughes in the end. My goodness, I was just blown away. I love how it’s written, but the illustrations are just out of this world. They’re so earthy and intricate, but not overwhelming so and the entire book is so consistently and cleverly designed. I also really love that it’s about staying true to yourself.

PBB: Writing or illustrating?

GO’N: The heart definitely lies with illustrating. I was scribbling long before I could read or write. Any unworthy time away from it is very upsetting. I pine for it constantly. I do enjoy writing too though. It has much more of a normal routine and somehow always comes together if I just focus. I can’t write if I’m sleep deprived. However, I could just go on forever with illustrating. I’m sure I even miss it in my sleep!

Gemma, we can’t thank you enough for taking time out of your busy schedule to answer our questions so comprehensively! Keep an eye out for Gemma’s next book titled ‘Monty’s Magnificent Mane’ coming in August next year, published by Templar Publishing.

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