Sunday, 12 May 2013

Working with Doctors

I've got to admit that the booklet I illustrated for the Royal College of Anaesthetists - Rees Bear has an Anaesthetic - was one of the most challenging projects I have ever worked on. But it was also one that has meant the most to me on a personal level and is certainly one that has given me an enormous sense of achievement.

Rees Bear has an Anaesthetic is part of a range of booklets for children who are about to have an operation or other procedure requiring them to be anaesthetized. I worked very closely with two Anaesthetists on this project and there were two committees involved in the decision making process. The brief was that Rees's booklet should be in picture book format for children under five years old and should inform them about anaesthesia through telling the story of a childlike character who goes to hospital for an operation. My challenge was to make sure that there would be enough information in the illustrations to answer questions young children might have about anaesthesia but not to overwhelm them with medical detail.

A couple of years before I was chosen to illustrate Rees's story I had had the experience of not knowing what to expect or how to prepare my young daughter for an operation (fortunately she was very calm on the day but I almost fainted when she went under!) so I knew how important this booklet would be, not only for children but for their families as well. 

Before I started drawing Rees there were many discussions about his story, the characters and the illustrations. We wanted to make sure that all children, whatever their background or gender, would see Rees as a character they could relate to. Using a teddy bear to represent Rees seemed perfect but then we had to decide on animals to represent other characters in his story and this was not as easy as you might think. The animals had to been instantly recognisable to children from many different backgrounds, be perceived as friendly and look like they belong together.

I was asked to keep the illustrations very simple and we all felt it important that Rees should always look confident and calm. At the top of this page you can see the front cover of the booklet and a page showing an illustration of Rees in an operating theatre being carefully monitored by an Anaesthetist.

During the course of this project I learned a lot about anaesthesia and about hospitals. I have an enormous amount of respect for any doctor specialising in anaesthesia, it is an important role but they don't always get the recognition they deserve.

Besides producing the illustrations for Rees Bear has an Anaesthetic I also worked on his story line plus the story line for one of the other booklets in the series, Davy the Detective. My involvement in this project lasted more than a year and a half and much of this time was taken up with discussions - it is no exaggeration to say that I exchanged hundreds of emails with the two doctors I worked with. At times we did not agree (for example there were many messages discussing whether a Meerkat would be an appropriate animal to represent a play therapist) but this process helped to refine the story and was certainly worthwhile.

Below is the best feedback I've ever read about something I've worked on (from the RCoA Facebook page):
"This week is the first week I've heard parents saying to their kids "like in the book about the bear". It's great that pre-assessment are handing out copies - and even better that the kids and parents are reading them and referring back to them at the relevant times :-) Thanks folks!" 16 August 2011
You can download Rees Bear and the other booklets in the series from the RCoA website.

About children's educational publishing and a charming illustration agent

Illustration for Folens' Key Words Dictionary. ©Amanda Lillywhite

Some time ago, back when I had only recently abandoned the relative safety of full-time graphic design for the uncertainties of freelance illustration, I was lucky enough to be taken under the wing of an agent - the wonderful Mike Graham-Cameron.

I'm not sure how we first met but I think it may have been through my work in a direct marketing agency - perhaps I art directed one of his illustrators for a project and then contacted him later when I had become a freelance illustrator myself? I can't remember now, and sadly, Mike died a few years ago so I am unable to ask him.

When Mike decided that his agency would represent me the doors to the world of children's educational publishing banged open and what sometimes seemed like a tsunami of marked-up page printouts for homework sheets and textbooks started tumbling through my letterbox.

At the request of the publishers my illustrations were done at what would be their final printed size. Sometimes I would have the luxury of a quarter of a page or maybe even a whole page of space to fill with my drawings. But generally the illustrations were tiny. I might, for instance, have to fit six characters – dressed in specific outfits such as fireman, ballerina and so on – into an area the size of a couple of postage stamps laid end to end.

The deadlines for the books I worked on were always tight, there was never enough time for pencil roughs to be exchanged with the designer. I just had to plunge in and hope I'd interpreted the brief correctly. I still remember a job that arrived one Friday afternoon. As I shuffled through the pile of instructions, adding up the number of drawings required (from memory, in the region of fifty), my eyes were blurring with nervous tears at the thought of the deadline looming within a few weeks. A phone call with Mike soon sorted me out, his sympathetic confidence bucked me up and when I delivered the drawings on time the editors were appreciative of my efforts. I think I still have the thank you letter from the publishing house tucked away somewhere in my studio. 

Once I had adjusted to the process and gained confidence I thoroughly enjoyed illustrating educational books. Some of the instructions for drawings were occasionally, shall we say, a bit eccentric and I had great fun with it all.

During the time that Mike Graham-Cameron was my agent I produced illustrations for educational books published by Folens, Stanley Thornes and Heinemann. He was always available at the end of the phone for a chat or a confidence boost and he seemed to make sure that I had enough work to produce an income I could live on. Never anything less than completely charming, he was a wonderful support to a new freelance illustrator holed up in a flat at the top of an old house in Cambridge.

The illustrations I created for this market were either done in coloured ink with a pen outline (see more examples here) or as black and white line suitable for photocopying (see more examples here).
Black and white line illustration ©Amanda Lillywhite