An Interview with Howard McWilliam

Award-winning illustrator of the I Need My Monster
and When a Dragon Moves In series

When did you find out that you have a gift for illustrating?

I wanted to be an artist of some kind from a very young age. My mum claims I was drawing with perspective at age four, but I think she may be exaggerating! I won a couple of national UK cartooning competitions between the ages of 12 and 15, and was always super keen in school art classes and then at art college. I simply took a hiatus for a few years to do magazine journalism.

You left your career as a financial magazine editor and journalist in order to focus on your work as an artist. Why did you decide to make such a big step? Did you have any fears/doubts?

By the time I quit the day job in 2005, I’d picked up quite a few clients for my illustration work — enough to know that I could at least pay basic bills through the artwork. I was working into the evenings and weekends so much that I felt the time had come to just concentrate on illustration. Even so, it was still scary to cut myself off from the salary and be a freelancer. There’s always the fear that the work will dry up tomorrow. But that fear has been unfounded so far… 16 years and counting!

What children’s books have made an impact on your style as an artist?

I adored the work of Quentin Blake as a child, and I always strive to capture the sense of heart in his pictures, though my style is completely different. My style has perhaps been most influenced by the kind of CGI animation pioneered by the likes of Pixar, informing my preoccupation with three-dimensional form, lighting, and texture. When deadlines are looming, I sometimes wish I’d made my style a bit more simple and less detailed — more like Quentin Blake’s! — but I hope readers get some enjoyment from it.

Where do you get your inspiration from? Which painters or illustrators inspire you?

There are so many illustrators out there doing fabulous work, it’s hard to pick. Carter Goodrich produces such beautiful watercolour illustrations overbrimming with a sense of character, I’m always eager (and envious) to see anything new he’s done. I love Adam Stower’s illustration (he’s my colleague of sorts, as we take turns doing MoneyWeek magazine’s cover here in the UK). He has such a seemingly effortless gift for line and personality, his children’s books are simply perfect. I think I am also still inspired by Bill Watterson’s Calvin & Hobbes all these years later — I absorbed everything about that superlative comic strip like a sponge, and I think it can still subconsciously drip out in my artwork.

How important is it to have a recognizable style as an artist? How did your style develop over the years?

I’ve never thought too self-consciously about style, but rather just drawn and painted how my instinct takes me. I sometimes wish I were more obviously “stylised” and less literal in my portrayal of things, but I always tend to veer back towards a three-dimensional sense of reality, no matter how I try. My style does vary somewhat for different projects, however. Half of my work is illustrating magazine covers, with a lot of political caricature, plus I used to do a simpler, more cartoonish style for newspaper work. Every now and then, I’m asked to emulate a famous artist or painting style — anything from Seurat’s pointillism to ancient Greek vases — and I find this tremendous fun, like an actor inhabiting another person for a role.

What’s one thing an illustrator must keep in mind when illustrating children’s book?

I think the eye has to be led naturally around the page, especially with the flow of text, and you must keep the reader’s interest from the start to the end with as much variety, fun, and movement as possible. A great limitation of the I Need My Monster books, for example, is that it’s mostly set in one location, Ethan’s bedroom. I try to bring as much visual variation to this as possible by changing the viewing angle every time, and giving the sense of each monster providing their own coloured light to the scene.

How/Why did you decide to illustrate the book series I Need My Monster? Did you stumble upon any particular challenges? Do you have a favourite monster from the series?

It was the first children’s book project I was offered, based on a picture of a monster I’d done for a magazine article, which I subsequently posted on a children’s illustration portfolio. I was overjoyed to get the opportunity — who wouldn’t leap at the chance to draw a whole book worth of monsters? The challenge of setting mentioned above has been the most significant one, plus at the outset we wrestled with the idea of how the monsters would arrive in the room (would there be a world under Ethan’s bed that we would occasionally see, for example?) In the end, simplest worked best… emerging from the pitch black shadow under his bed, with the rest left to imagination. My favourite monster to draw has to be Mack with his long tongue!

Any projects coming up that you would like to share with us?

I’m currently illustrating a children’s book that I’ve written myself, due for publication with Flashlight Press in 2023, which I’m very excited about. I’d better not say any more than that!

Check out these Flashlight Press books illustrated by Howard McWilliam

This interview was given by Howard McWilliam to promote the Bulgarian edition of Hey, That’s MY Monster! published by Marmot Books.

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