Emma Quay is an illustrator and writer of many award-winning picture books; her memorable characters for 'Rudie Nudie', 'Baby Bedtime', 'Shrieking Violet', 'Bear and Chook', 'Good Night, Me' and 'Scarlett, Starlet' are favourites on children's bookshelves all over Australia. Her brand-new title for very young children, 'My Sunbeam Baby' has just been released.
Emma grew up in the English countryside, and has wanted to illustrate children's books for as long as she can remember. She works from a studio in her home and sometimes feels like she barely leaves it, but her illustrative work is held in collections around the world, including the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.
In my picture books, I set out to celebrate the beauty in small, ordinary, everyday moments. My books aren’t autobiographical, and yet they are dotted with tiny fragments from my life. I wonder if the reason they seem to resonate with people is because they are full of my family — I hope these personal touches give the stories and the illustrations an authenticity at their heart.
I’ve always made books, since I was a small child — there was something in me that needed to tell stories, firstly through pictures and later with words too. My mum tells me that as a toddler I’d fold up any scrap of paper I could find and cover it with drawings. I must have been inspired by the picture books tucked into bed with me every night, with illustrations by Eric Carle, Celestino Piatti, Dick Bruna, Margot Zemach, Brian Wildsmith, David McKee and Maurice Sendak.
Later, a family friend started to run those scribblings through a sewing machine, and I thought it was magical that a line of stitches down the ‘spine’ could turn a few sheets of folded paper into a book. Seeing a small number of sentences and a handful of illustrations transformed into a printed and bound picture book still holds the same delight for me.
I spend months on my own in my studio working on each project, and get so attached to each set of characters it’s often hard to say goodbye. But it makes me happy when I’m reminded that a picture book has a life beyond its creators, and people tell me they see many of the small but significant moments of their own lives reflected the pages. I hear about children who request 'Baby Bedtime' every evening as their final book before falling asleep, about little girls who insist on wearing their red dancing shoes to read ‘Scarlett, Starlet’, New moms brought to happy tears by the final line in 'My Sunbeam Baby', and toddlers who know every word of ‘Rudie Nudie’ off by heart even though they can’t read yet, because they’ve had it read to them since they were babies. This is the most rewarding element of my work — knowing my books are a small part of people’s lives, being shared by parents with their children and creating memories.
It’s difficult to choose! There’s the endorphin rush of the early stages when the ideas are flowing and anything seems possible, and then there’s the wonderful stage that comes just after the long task of making the outlines and constantly checking for continuity, when one begins to add a little colour and texture and it somehow seems to make everything come together and the characters burst into life.
You can take a peek behind the scenes at some of my work in progress, and the processes involved in illustrating my picture books on the ILLUSTRATING page of my website, here — http://www.emmaquay.com/illustrating/
I find I get most of my ideas when my mind is wandering. Many of the initial concepts and first images for my picture books have come to me whilst travelling on public transport. It must be something about having unstructured time, when thoughts are free to roam. I always have a sketch book with me to jot down ideas, and I try not to play with my mobile phone on the train, just in case I miss out on a good idea!
If there is typical working day for me, it would be spent alone, and involve a lot of drawing, looking at my drawings, thinking, re-drawing, experimenting with textures and colours, scanning my images and layering them up in Photoshop... sometimes with podcasts playing but often in silence. (Wow, my life sounds so exciting!)
I love working on my own, but I also enjoy emerging from my studio for outings into central Sydney to meet my agent, editors and publishers. There are great contrasts in this job — I spend an age creating something, holed up in my studio like a hermit, and then (because of that something), I might be invited to a glitzy event which is so far from my studio it sends my head into a spin. I welcome the contrast, and luckily I enjoy both.
I work from a small loft studio in my home which is divided into a ‘dry’ and a ‘wet’ area. In the former, I have an old cane couch where I do most of my drawing, work through ideas, develop characters and plan the structure of my books. There is a desk for computer work nearby, but I like to draw with the paper balanced in my lap — I find my line work is a lot looser and livelier if I do.
The glass-topped painting table in the ‘wet’ area of my studio is usually covered in pastels, brushes, paints, palettes, crayons, inks (you name it!) from edge to edge — especially when I’m working in mixed media. I often work myself into a corner and end up with very little room left on the table for my artwork!
Also in my studio are great piles of beloved picture books, some of the toys I treasured as a child… and my small and scruffy white dog, Apollo.
I love going to art galleries, eating, playing the flute, practising yoga, walking my dog, watching my daughters dance, travelling, and laughing with my family and friends.