You can tell a lot about a person by looking at their place of work. And as such, Quentin Blake’s studio is suitably telling. Surrounded by rows and rows of hundreds of books, mostly illustrated by the man himself; pieces of artwork in various stages are strewn across several desks; and at his drawing table, there are pens and pencils, paintbrushes and paints, all arranged tantalisingly in cups, waiting to be plucked for action. Everything is arranged in a sort of orderly chaos – the only sign of anything vaguely untoward is an artistically dramatic splurge of black ink on the wall. The result of an artistic tantrum? “Oh, no,” laughs Blake. “One of my ink pens wasn’t working, and when I shook it, the ink splurted out all over the wall.”
Despite being flushed with the public acclaim and kudos of being the very first Children’s Laureate, Blake remains modest, almost slightly embarrassed, about “that Laureate business”, as he calls it. But he cannot deny he has become one of our best-loved illustrators, best known perhaps for his distinctive, scratchy illustrations that brought to visual life so many of Roald Dahl’s books, including Mathilda, and The BFG. His own, often comic and eccentric, creations include the wild and wacky Mrs Armitage with her dog Breakspear, Fantastic Daisy Artichoke, and, a personal favourite of Blake’s, a wordless picture book, Clown, about a discarded toy, who comes to life in a Buster Keaton style mime show.
Born in Sidcup, Kent, in 1932, Blake has been drawing ever since he can remember, his very first illustration being published in Punch magazine in 1949, at the tender age of 17. After a two-year stint of military service in the Royal Army Educational Corp – where he illustrated his first book English Parade, for which he received no payment, but was excused boot duty – he studied English at Downing College, Cambridge. Since then, Blake has illustrated literally hundreds of books, in between working as an art teacher and tutor at the Royal College of Art.
Blake is a great experimenter with his art. On his desk at the moment there languishes a pack of humble Crayola crayons from a recent Big Draw event, a national iniative that Blake has been involved in to encourage both adults and children alike to express themselves through drawing. Over the years, Blake has used all manner of materials and styles from plastic toothpicks and chalks to oils, watercolours and coloured inks, to find just the right effect. When he noticed that ‘moments of fluency’ expressed in some of his roughs were often lost in the final versions, he adapted a technique where he traces losely over the roughs to maintain the original atmosphere and expression.
“I do a freewheeling sort of drawing that looks as though it is done on the spur of the moment, though for a book a certain amount of planning is essential,” says Blake. It is this vibrancy and vitality – “the ecstasy of being” Blake calls it – which plays a major part in his appeal to children. “I’ve come to suspect that one of the reasons children like the drawings is that they are like something happening. There is some sequence of time implied in them – a sort of little theatre.” Though not everyone is a die-hard fan: Blake notes with self-mocking scorn one parent’s dismissive comments: “Just look at the state of these drawings! They aren’t even finished properly!”