2016 / Sunday

Decoding the secret language of the brush

John Douglas

The enchantment of the whimsical imagination of Hannah Sommerville’s watercolour, pen and pencil drawings

The enchantment of the whimsical imagination of Hannah Sommerville’s watercolour, pen and pencil drawings

 The enchantment of the whimsical imagination of Hannah Sommerville’s watercolour, pen and pencil drawings


The enchantment of the whimsical imagination of Hannah Sommerville’s watercolour, pen and pencil drawings

I set myself to interview children’s book illustrator Hannah Sommerville at here home at Milton on the NSW South Coast, at the Village Green. The sun fills the park and a rotunda cuts an octagon in the afternoon. She comes down the footpath. As she gets to the gazebo,

she moves to a place on a seat at the other side of the picnic table. I’ve put one of Hannah’s books as a centre piece: Grandma, the Baby and Me, co-created by writer Emma Allen. The cover shows a grandmother holding her grandson; together, they sit on the floor.

I want to know about the conception of her pictures in relation to the words. How does her craft respond to the written word?  Is the role of a children’s book illustrator to occasionally undermine the written text with pictures? I think for a second and now I’m leaning towards the idea of the pictures as a complementary, sometimes subversive, language positioned alongside words.

“You have to read between the lines when you’re trying to come up with a concept. You don’t just want to repeat what the text is saying in image. You want to put more of a narrative in illustration,” she says.

“Did Emma at any point sit you down and say this is what I want you to do?”   “No. You generally don’t have much to do with the author, the writer I should say. I think a lot of people have the misconception that writers tell illustrators what to draw,” she says. “I think it is a bit of a shocking moment to understand that an illustrator is a sort of storyteller as well.”

“I understand you have children,” I say.  “Do you often model your drawings on observations of your own children?”

“I do. So I think about the way they behave and try and capture that in illustrations.”

Ms Sommerville has two books published this year: in January was My Friend Earnest, (also with Emma Allen) and she recently worked on a book with actor Kate Ritchie, which Ms Ritchie was inspired to write after her first child was born. Ms Sommerville takes I Just Couldn’t Wait To Meet You from her folio.  “So this has a lot of little hidden messages from my own pregnancy.  I really drew from the experience of having children,” she says.  “I notice you don’t erase your lines of movement and construction. I really like that.”  “I really like those too.”

Ms Sommerville’s father was a potter who taught at TAFE – “which I was very proud of,” she says. “I thought that was the best job in the world.”  She says he was probably a very strong influence on her, and her sister, who is also an artist.

“I always wanted to be an artist. Sometimes success is so incremental that I think each stage comes and goes in such a small step that there’s never really that moment of excitement.”

Hannah Sommerville and Emma Allen will read at Storytime Clubhouse at the Bureau of Artistics, Pier 4/5, 11-11.30, on Sunday, May 22

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