Alice McKinley's debut author-illustrated picture book, Nine Lives Newton (published with Simon & Schuster UK), has hit the shelves and we're excited to learn more.
We asked Alice to chat to us about the process of working on her first book and also find out a little more about where Newton came from...
Let's start with the most important question: are you a dog or a cat person?
100% dog person! Though don’t get me wrong, I love cats too. But I think I resonate with dogs more… I’m a very cuddly, distractible and excitable person. If I had a tail it would be wagging a lot of the time.
I was chatting to my Mum about her dog Millie who had recently escaped and gone on her very own adventure. Thankfully, she finally came home, but when she did, she was covered in burrs, ticks, and goodness knows what. We sort of joked about what she must have gone through and it came from there. Maybe Millie had more than one life, like a cat? Either way, she was one lucky dog!
I started work on Newton whilst I was doing the MA in Children’s Books at Anglia Ruskin in 2017 and I exhibited it as part of the degree show. I knew it needed some work but the bare bones were there. A lot of publishers came to the degree show and Newton got a lot of interest. I was VERY lucky that Newton got that much attention, because it meant that I got to choose which publisher I wanted to work with. This is a luxury that is pretty rare in publishing as far as I’m aware! And I’m still in disbelief, as I was fully prepared to come away from the show having no interest at all! I learnt that a story with some final art, and the seed of an idea can be enough for a publisher to take interest. I think they like to be able to collaborate with you on a project too, so don’t like anything too final when you first submit your artwork and ideas.
For Newton I drew everything out in pencil crayon and then went over it in watercolour to give it a bit more vibrancy and depth. Then I scanned it all in, and tidied any bits up, adding more shading and lighting on Photoshop. I’d like to get back into relying less on Photoshop though, as drawing with crayons and watercolour feels like I’m flying! Love it.
How has the book evoked and changed since its first concept?
Newton has changed immensely from when I started it! I filled 9 sketchbooks, had a pile of A3 pages of artwork experiments and hours and hours of time spent on Photoshop before I got my story to a place where I was ok with it. I drew my basset hound over and over again in so many different poses until he became simplified and I had a good idea of his character. I did the same with the cat too! As for the story, I must have re-drawn the story about 8 times to get the page turns and layout right.
There are a few bits to spot throughout the book… one of my favourite things is a swamp monster that appears 3 times in total in the book. Not sure why I decided to put this guy in there but it entertained me at the time!
Was there a spread that you found particularly challenging?
The bear spread was probably the hardest one to figure out… It must have gone through about 3 different colour palettes before I found one I was happy with.
My favourite thing was that I got to look at dog reference all day! Also I must have drawn Newton in about 20 different pooping poses, and it cracked me up! Poo humour always gets me. Maybe one day I’ll grow up. But probably not.
Now it’s out there, if there anything you would change if you were working on Newton now?
I kind of wish I had put in more little extra story lines or things to spot on every page. Like a little frog or ladybird or something. But there’s plenty of that in my next book!
Do you have a favourite spread?
My favourite spread is the museum spread! I’m really happy with the colour palette and looseness of the art on the left hand page. Plus the museum was modelled on the Natural History Museum in London, and I had great fun coming up with the ideas for the animal pillars. I’m also pretty proud of the scorpion page. Those little guys are just so angry!
I’m inspired by a lot of animators and concept artists from the 60s. The concept art for 101 Dalmatians is just pure magic!
What would be your ultimate project to work on if you could do anything?
I would love to do something super stripped back with tons of white space. Totally character lead and just hints of backgrounds. I really love that a white background can be anything. It was be an ocean, a park, a bedroom or outter space. Love that it leaves the reader to use their imagination. But I think you have to have a great character and story and simplicity of style to pull it off. Definitely something I’d like to try and explore… Either that or something to do with robots. That would be bad-ass.
What would you like to do next?
I have so many silly picturebook ideas I would love write! But I’d also like to try my hand at writing a young fiction too! That won’t be for some time though.
Finally, do you have any tips for illustrators starting out?
My advice is to keep drawing! People always talk about how important it is to find our own visual signature, and I always thought that finding your ‘style’ was really hard. But I realised that you find your visual signature in the same way you find your handwriting. Just keep drawing (from life) and it will come naturally. Embrace the mark making and the quirks that make your work naturally yours.
Thanks Alice! Alice's second author-illustrated picture book with Simon & Schuster comes out in March 2021, with a two further books planned after that so lots of silly adventures ahead! In the meantime you can check out some fiction covers Alice has been working on over in her portfolio.