There is a piece of Confucian wisdom that extolls the virtues of finding a job you love. The reasoning goes, should the work you do be something that you truly enjoy, you will never have to work a day in your life. Illustrator Terry Whidborne is one of the few to have taken this mantra beyond wishful thinking and put it into practice.
The Brisbane-based artist is revelling in his move into illustrating children’s books, after many years as an art director in the advertising game, producing work for Telstra, Suncorp, Vogue, Virgin Blue and more.
Big companies, serious clients and high-pressure briefs meant he was forever tailoring his work to please those paying the bills. But Terry always knew his real desire lay in creating illustrations and artwork that spoke to his love of all things fantastical.
“I’m definitely a child at heart … I was very much a TV kid, and really loved things like Jason and the Argonauts,” he said. So it was perhaps inevitable that the corporate atmosphere of the advertising world was never going to keep him completely occupied: “I love to escape into different worlds. I mean, life’s pretty boring.”
Rather than let the cold wind of a mundane existence freeze his creative juices, his advertising work afforded him an opportunity to explore and find the sort of work that really brought him satisfaction.
As art director his task was to transform an idea into pictures and give it life. “I always really enjoyed storyboarding my ideas,” he said. And this restlessness and constant desire to create visual stimulation never let up. “I was forever doodling in meetings,” he said.
It was this doodling that lead to his current collaboration with writer Nick Earls, when they worked together on an ad campaign. After he had watched his future collaborator furiously drawing his way through yet another meeting Nick approached him with an idea for a book. Specifically, a book for children that explored the origins of language. It was the story of two children, Lexi and Al Hunter, in search of lost words. Terry jumped at the chance and the Word Hunters trilogy was born.
Word Hunters is an exploration of where language comes from, and also a time-travel adventure story, as the children experience the Battle of Hastings and other world-defining events from the past.
In these books Terry’s illustrations have an element of playful darkness. His work is part of a tradition that includes Quentin Blake (with author Roald Dahl) and even Ralph Steadman’s nightmarish pen-and-ink drawings for Hunter S. Thompson. Part Tim Burton, part Alice in Wonderland, they are not only visually dynamic but have strong narrative value.
One of the things that attracted him to his collaboration with Nick was the opportunity to tell a story through images as well as words. Illustrators are often limited to the conceptual landscape laid out for them by writers; Terry said this was not the way they created Word Hunters.
For example, while working on the recently completed third book, “Nick emailed me with some of the story, which required me to design a talisman. So I’d design one and Nick would go back and incorporate elements of the talisman design into the story.”
The design cues and visual clues in Word Hunters separate the books from more well-known fantasy series. The incredible success of the Harry Potter books, for example, has left its mark on the fantasy genre and acts as the reference point for whether new fiction work for children can grab – and keep – the attention of its audience. Terry is confident that he and Nick achieved that with Word Hunters. Rather than simply offering a “book full of words”, which Terry said may daunt children into shying away from reading, illustration helps young readers to engage with the emotion of their characters.
The second and third books in the trilogy follow the young adventurers as they continue to search the tracts of history for the origins of the word ‘hello’. Unlike Harry Potter and its ilk, Word Hunters keeps the otherworldly elements of its narrative grounded in the familiar. “It’s closer to home, I think. I mean, we all use these words. We all say ‘hello’,” he said.
Terry has plans to take the relationship between his illustrations and narrative even further: “I would love to do a book one day where the illustrations are created first, with the words and the story then being created around that.”