It took a rainy Sunday and a determination to not resort to an iPad to entertain his two-year-old son for web developer Dougal Macpherson to resume a drawing habit he had given away years earlier. Inspired by colouring-in books belonging to his niece, but not wanting to step on any toes by drawing on a treasured favourite, he drew something he knew his son would enjoy colouring in: a digger truck. It was an instant hit.
“He thought it was just magic that I had made this digger appear in front of him, and he got really excited and said, draw something else!”
It was the start of a new routine. Once the kids were in bed, evenings were spent illustrating special or funny moments from the family’s day. He had stopped drawing in his twenties when he learnt computer coding, because he found the skill sets incompatible. Now, his kids have given him a reason to return to it.
“It became a way of me documenting their childhood so I can also remember, because in drawing the event, I’m trying to draw how they would imagine things”.
His illustrations, hand-drawn mostly in pencil, watercolour and chalk pastel, not only capture the event as a camera would, but also the rich imaginative world behind it. This, he says, is a much more faithful representation of his kids’ experiences. “Like when my wife made a jetpack out of toilet rolls and an empty muesli box, my son was probably thinking ‘this is the best thing ever and I’m flying above the clouds’, which is what I tried to draw”.
Embracing social media as a way of sharing his art, Macpherson started an Instagram account, 15 Minute Drawings. His poignant illustrations of family life resonated with people, particularly other parents, and, following a Buzzfeed article soon after, 15 Minute Drawings now has close to 2000 followers.
Author Jessica Walton found the work online while she was searching for an illustrator for a picture book manuscript she had recently completed. Introducing Teddy: A Story About Being Yourself was inspired by her dad, Tina, who had recently come out as a transgender woman. She knew immediately that the whimsical, hand-drawn style would be a good fit for the story. She was also drawn to his approach to illustration, and how well he could “capture a child’s perspective and experiences”.
“I remember being impressed that his kids’ adventures were what inspired him to draw. He’s got this beautiful record of them as they grow up, their cute phrases and facial expressions, their special moments and their milestones,” she says. “When you meet him you realise he takes genuine joy in parenting and play. He’s got a great imagination”.
Introducing Teddy very quickly attracted international attention. The Kickstarter crowd-funding goal they had set of $10,500 was met, and then doubled. Before long, the two were signed with New York literary agency Writers House and had a global publishing deal with Bloomsbury. The book would be published in Australia, and 12 other countries.
He was completely blown away by the book’s reception, especially when he saw his name on the Writers House website alongside some of his favourite international illustrators. Ms Walton thinks Introducing Teddy resonated with people because there was a gap in the market. “Transgender and gender diverse people and their families need picture books that represent them. Internationally there’s a growing awareness of, and interest in, their experiences.” Dougal Macpherson agrees the timing of the book played a big part in its success, and also puts it down to it being a sweet story with universal appeal for young readers – and well illustrated too.
He also managed to find a space where his artworks and web developing worlds can meet. He started illustrating at tech conferences, initially replacing pie charts and diagrams on his own presentation slides with his drawings and then, when organisers had seen what he could do, he was invited to illustrate other speakers’ talks. He would listen to the first five minutes of a talk to “get a vibe”, then he would draw a creative representation of the (often highly technical) content, which would be framed and given to the speaker. For one presentation, he drew a massive hamburger – full of bacon, pineapple, ice creams, and a bottle of fizzy drink – to illustrate a large stack (a type of data structure in computer programming). Audiences were “absolutely floored” by seeing original illustrations at a tech conference, he said, and speakers were touched to receive the illustrations.
He tentatively admits he thinks “every morning” about the possibility of flipping his day and night jobs and doing illustration full time. The support he has received from his Instagram and conference audiences has played a big part in this dream; the same kind of affirmation doesn’t happen in programming. “No one has ever come up to me and said ‘Oh my gosh Dougal, I went through all your code and it was flipping amazing!”
Dougal Macpherson has found in 15 Minute Drawings a way of sharing the pleasure he himself derives from drawing. He says he doesn’t want to sound too corny, but it makes him happy, and he enjoys sharing that happiness through social media. He plans to continue posting snippets of family life to 15 Minute Drawings “until my children tell me to stop”.
Introducing Teddy: A story of being yourself will be released by Bloomsbury on May 31st.
Jessica Walton and Dougal Macpherson will appear at Storytime Clubhouse on Sunday May 22, 10.30-11.00am