Book People: Tony Flowers
The latest book collaboration between Tony Flowers and Nick Falk is ‘Vognox the Viking’ and readers from 7+ are so going to enjoy this funny, clever and rollicking tale of a Viking who really doesn’t want to be in a book! As an illustrator, Tony Flowers embeds so many visual literacy elements in his books and with Vognox, he is really making readers of all ages deeply engage with his work – one cannot read this book without very close attention to the illustrations. ‘Vognox the Viking’ is clever and fast paced and will appeal to both reluctant and keen readers, but it is also a sophisticated tool for developing the ability of a reader to ‘read the visuals’. I’ve asked Tony a few more questions about Vognox, who is my new favourite book character (even if he doesn’t want to be!).
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TEN THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT TONY FLOWERS
‘Vognox the Viking’ is a rollicking fun filled adventure story that the main character doesn’t want to be on the adventure or even in the book, and he is none too shy about telling everyone just how much he doesn’t like adventures, as he talks directly to the author of the book and audience who is reading it. But as he discovers the author’s just had his pencil stolen and his last remaining pencil is little more than a nub, so if Vognox wantS the author to keep on drawing him, he had better go and find the pencil that was just stolen.This is the latest collaboration between Nick Falk and myself. The book was originally thought up while we travelling and presenting together as a part of the Byron Writer’s Festival in 2017. We wanted to make a book that relied on the illustrations as much as the text to tell the story. So we set about creating a story in which the main character can interact with the author asking them for things to help the story progress. As you might expect from Nick and I, poor Vognox doesn’t always get what he expects. Luck Vognox’s best friend, Drax, seems to have a knack for making the best of whatever situation they find themselves.
For some time now, I’ve been working on my PhD through the University of Canberra. In my PhD I started looking at the concept of visual literacy and how it related to illustrators and illustration processes. Not to get too bogged down in an academic conversation, I should explain what I mean by Visual Literacy. It is a topic open to a wide range of interpretations. As I am a fairly simple guy, I like a simple starting point and a straight forward definition. I like the definition that Sean Connors using in his 2011 article (in the Journal of Visual Literacy, 31 (1) P71-92) “Toward a Shared Vocabulary for Visual Analysis”.Visual literacy is “the ability to interpret (read) and produce (write) images.”As an illustrator I quickly worked out the main gap in academic knowledge related to the production or writing in images part of this equation. So, I decided to concentrate on examining how illustrators start the process of building pictures that tell stories, or as Connor puts, how do illustrators write in images?This has been a fascinating process, involving interviewing 7 of Australia’s leading picture book illustrators and documenting how they start their illustration process and planning visual stories. Each interview was fantastic, I can’t thank the participants enough for their generosity and openness. I can obviously talk a lot more about this research once I have submitted my Thesis.
3. What does a typical day look like for you? If we were to go by social media – most mornings appear to start with a drawing warm up in a local cafe.
You wouldn’t be too far wrong with the start of the day. But social media can be a misleading beast at times. As this is not all that I do all day. I like to have a coffee and draw session for about an hour each day, mainly in the morning. This gets me out of the house and I like the hum and babble of people around me. I have a few cafés in Hobart I regularly go to, I like the interaction with the staff and some of the other regulars that I get to talk to. This morning was a good example as I drew and sipped on my coffee, young Mila (4 years old) plonked herself down next to me and started unpacking her paper and pencils so that she and I could draw together. Her parents enjoy a quiet time to have a coffee, while I get to draw and have a laugh with Mila.
But this is not what I do all day. I also have regular home Dad duties to do, washing, shopping and cooking. I have two big dogs that like a good walk every day (sometimes twice a day). I also have a part time teaching job, teaching young design students at a place called ‘the Foundry’. The hours and timetable for that move around term to term.
So, I have a bunch of stuff that I regularly do, but never really in a regular order.
4. Can you describe your workspace for us?
I have a studio space set up in my house. It is in one of the spare rooms, guest bed in the corner and my desk near the window. This is set up as both a traditional workspace and a digital workstation. I can clear enough space to crack out the water colours and paint, or use a light pad to transfer sketch on to paper. Equally I have a range of computer equipment that allows me to draw directly on to a computer screen as if it were paper, or I can use a range of standard design software. The most import feature of the space is a slide door that opens to the garden that lets my dogs wander in and sleep at my feet whenever they want to.
But as I do like to not be chained to a desk, I also have my bag set up to grab and head to café to draw when I need to get out. ‘Vognox’ was drawn digitally on a Wacom tablet, I have been known to sit in my local cafes and draw away on my Wacom computer screen. It turns out to be a good conversation starter with other patrons.
5. Any words of advice for young illustrators?
Draw, draw what you love and draw regularly. When students ask how come I can draw so fast and with what looks to them to be no mistakes, I just say I practice a lot. I always like to equate it to playing an instrument. I practice my drawing all the time (1 to 6 hours a day, depending how busy I am with projects) so I am fairly fast and accurate. I practice my guitar infrequently, once or twice a month, so I never really get any better, I just do it for the fun of it. That is not to say I don’t draw for the fun of. It is just I am lucky enough to love drawing and I get to do it a lot.
Also spend time looking at the work of other people who inspire you. Can you tell from looking at their work, how they breathe life into their characters? How they draw their lines? How they use colour to guide your eyes in an illustration?
When I demonstrate drawing techniques I also have 2 key lessons that I want people to go away with 1. Scribbling and creating rough sketches is how you start all drawing projects, this is not wasted time, it is a part of the process. No illustrator launches into a finished illustration for a book, without first creating a few sketches to explore, discover and plan what the finished image might look like. The second thing is that all drawings are made up of simple lines, put enough together and it looks complex. So, we should never forget that all complex illustrations are just a collection of far simpler scribbles, don’t let them scare you, only let they challenge you.
6. Do you have a favourite book or character (your own or somebody else’s)?
I think that I have favourite author/illustrators rather than favourite books. I tend to look at people’s work as a continuum. So, I love the work of Australian illustrators Stephen Michael King, Freya Blackwood, Gus Gordon, Terry Denton and Bob Graham, to name a few. International illustrators like Chris Riddell, Herge and Quentin Blake also fascinate me. As do historic figures like John Tenniel. So, I don’t really have a favourite, rather I love aspects of the works from all of these creative people and many more not mentioned.
Much the same for all of my own characters, I can’t choose one. I have spent a lot of time with each of them and have a level of affection for all of them. If I had to pick some that I like a little more than the others, it would be the Samurai dog, from ‘Samurai vs Ninja’. As he is based on my dogs Holly and Thor. And Drax from ‘Vognox’ as he is based on my dog Freya.
7. If you were not a creator of books for young people what would you be?
I’m not sure, I have had a long list of jobs over the years that I have enjoyed. But if I had a choice, I would probably be in a teaching role at some level. I am currently teaching at the Foundry in Tasmania and I would love to include teaching at university as a part of my illustration practice, either part time or as a guest lecturer. So if you’re an academic reading this, you might get a favourable response to any request for me to come and present at your university!
8. What is your favourite food to eat and/or your favourite music to listen to whilst you are working on your books?
The coffee situation is well documented and undoubtedly one of my major food groups. Everything else I like to eat when I draw, my doctor has told me to either cut back on it or not eat. But I would put banana bread, carrot cake and brownies somewhere near the top of a long list of forbidden delights.
Musically, I am very eclectic. I love everything from Classical music to soulful jazz/blues like Nina Simone or Hugh Laurie through to rock. I also like to have the Netflix running in the background. But nothing that takes too much concentration to follow as I listen more than watch the shows. It all depends on what I’m drawing and what part of the process I am doing.
9. How much of yourself or people you know is in your books?
I put aspects of myself into every character that I design, often acting out expressions or movements when I am creating them (this is very disturbing for other customers, when I am drawing in a café). I also often use people I know to base characters on when I start the drawing process. They evolve into their own characters, but I still see a little of original person in them when I’m finished. This is not always a flattering thing as some people might imagine. I have created some very terrible teachers over the years (don’t worry Megan, none of the terrible ones were based on you).
10. If you could have one wish for the world what would it be?
In the words of many a Miss World contestant, World Peace would be wonderful. I think my wish would be to love, respect and support each other. I see that the pathway to this is teaching our children to have enquiring minds and to think critically about everything. The way to start this process is to foster creativity and encourage literacy in all of its forms.
Thanks Tony! If you enjoyed this post, you can find loads more ‘Book People’ interviews here.