The Artist: David Parkins

David Parkins illustrated five of Jan’s books – the original hardback jacket plus internal black and white illustrations for Nothing to be Afraid Of (1980), internal illustrations for Handles (1983) and Trouble Half-way (1985), all artwork for God’s Story (1997), and her anthology, The Kingfisher Book of School Stories (1992). Here he talks about their working relationship – built on mutual respect … and a sense of fun.

At what stage in your own career were you when you first illustrated Jan’s work? What did you know about her?

I left art college in 1978 and, immediately becoming a ‘freelance illustrator’ – because I didn’t see an alternative – I was mostly ekeing out a living illustrating school textbooks and seaside postcards. I had illustrated, I think, two books of children’s fiction, one of which was for Kestrel Books: Rainbow Cake by Alan Spooner. It was set in the war, and it was probably because the habit of publishers is to pigeonhole people, that they then offered me a book of short stories by one of their new, up and coming authors. A rising star! They were very clear and emphatic about that. ‘This is one of our rising stars.’ The stories were all set in the 1950s. The book was Nothing to be Afraid Of, and the rising star was Jan Mark.

I soon discovered her reputation as a writer and teacher was spreading. Somewhere between the publication of Nothing to be Afraid Of and Handles, I had been coerced into designing and painting a set for the Nottingham Co-Operative Arts Theatre’s production of The Magic Flute. All amateur, so no one was getting paid. So, I’m painting away at some ludicrously huge arches, and the producer stopped by for a chat and to check progress. He was a teacher in real life, and he’d heard I illustrated books when I wasn’t painting giant arches. 

‘Whose books have you illustrated?’

I thought about who he might have heard of, from my vast experience of three books, and ventured, ‘Jan Mark?’

There was a pause, and something like the sound of a jaw hitting the boards during a sharp intake of breath.

You’ve illustrated Jan Mark?’


‘Which book? No, let me guess – Thunder and Lightnings? The Ennead? Divide and Rule?’


‘Which, then?’

Nothing to be Afraid Of.’

The sound of jaw hitting boards again.

You illustrated Nothing to be Afraid Of?’

And there I was, on stage, basking in limelight that rightly belonged to Jan herself, but which was being reflected all over me. It turned out that Jan had visited his school, and he had met her and been tremendously impressed. He was a huge fan. We had something in common.

Illustration from Trouble Half-way (c) David Parkins

Were you aware of any interest Jan had in the illustration of her work? Did she provide any guidance or briefs?

Generally speaking, illustrators have little contact with authors. It’s not encouraged or discouraged, it just rarely happens. The author delivers the manuscript to the publisher; the publisher finds the illustrator. The publisher is the go-between.

I had no contact at all with Jan before I had finished illustrating Nothing to be Afraid Of.  In fact, I have never had any instructions or guidance from Jan before or during work on any book. This is not always the case: I once illustrated a quartet of books which came with highly detailed explanations from the author of what I had to draw in each illustration. If I deviated, the work would come back for correction. It was so prescriptive, in fact, that by the third and fourth books I was just following the author’s brief rather than reading the books. I think Jan understood that the creative process requires a certain amount of free rein.

Did you meet Jan? Or correspond? Do you feel you knew her?

After Nothing to be Afraid Of, Jan wrote and was very kind about the illustrations. She particularly liked the one with the family next door taking a photograph, with their arms draped around each other and their heads lolling. I offered a swap: the original of that illustration for a signed book. I had in mind a copy of Nothing to be Afraid Of, but she wrote back saying that would be great, but would I mind if she chose the book, because some got given away more than others and stocks got depleted. So, I have a signed copy of Hairs in the Palm of the Hand, and she had that illustration.

Illustration for ‘Marrow Hill’ from Nothing to be Afraid Of (c) David Parkins

She also wrote to me after I’d illustrated Handles. She liked them all, but, ‘The one that knocks me sideways…’ she wrote, was the trap made from a hair curler. As I remember it, she had written about a trap being made from a hair curler and hair grips, and I suppose I had gathered the ingredients and set about discovering how that might work. In the days before Google, that tended to be how it went: we made our own reference, in the same way that my parents’ generation ‘made our own fun’ in the days before television. I think I ended up with something that looked like a lobster pot, with the hair grips angled in to make the entrance. Maybe Jan hadn’t seen that particular solution.

Illustration from Handles (c) David Parkins

I met Jan for the first time in a bookshop in Norwich. There was a small gathering there to celebrate the publication of Out of the Oven, a picture book illustrated by Anthony Maitland in March 1986. Jan was lovely. Anthony Maitland was there, and he was lovely, too. Books were signed and swapped, and I remember feeling awed by AM’s beautifully flowing and assured signature, and being slightly embarrassed by my own scrawl. I made a mental note to address this shortcoming, but I never did. My signature is still a scrawl. 

And Jan wrote one of the kindest pieces of fiction for me, on the title page of Trouble Half-way:

To David – As much your book as mine – Jan Mark

We must have exchanged a few letters after that. I remember once I sent her a sugar pig for Christmas. It looked rather lovely, pink and white, wrapped in cellophane with a red bow, and I thought it would survive the post, so away it went. And I also must have had one left over, because when she wrote to say thank you I wrote back saying I had just eaten one of them, and she might want to consider it decorative rather than edible. And she returned that she knew what I meant – she had eaten hers with a lot of whisky.

God’s Story (c) David Parkins

How did you come to work with Jan again, on a very different book, so many years later, in God’s Story? How did the process and experience differ from those early books? 

At Walker Books, I had got the reputation for being something of a wild card illustrator. They had given me a couple of picture books that they weren’t sure what to do with: Prowlpuss by Gina Wilson, and Aunt Nancy and Old Man Trouble by Phyllis Root. Both got pretty good crits, got shortlisted for a few awards that they didn’t win, but didn’t sell well.  

I think God’s Story was another book that they weren’t sure what to do with, so they thought they’d give it to me and see what I made of it. There’s a lovely irony here: I got asked to do Nothing to be Afraid Of because, on the strength of a single book, I had been chalked up as the man in the ‘books set in the past’ pigeonhole; and I was asked to do God’s Story because I was the man you couldn’t pigeonhole, and so might do something interesting with it. And in both cases, it was fantastically lucky for me.

I have to say, God’s Story was one of the most exciting projects I’ve worked on. Walker Books is a tremendous publisher: thoughtful, receptive and supportive all the way. I don’t know that I could have done the book with anyone else.

As always, Jan kept out of the way while I was working. I worked with Ben Norland at Walker.

The one thing that I wanted to avoid with God’s Story, was making another ‘Children’s Illustrated Bible’. That, I felt, wouldn’t do justice to it. It was so much stronger than that. It needed oomph! In the end, I developed a technique of drawing with a brush, in ink, on watercolour paper – then working back into that with white gouache. The thing about the white was, I could then afford to be freer with the black brushwork because things could be tidied afterwards if necessary. So it was liberating.

I didn’t do roughs. Roughs are always problematical anyway. You do a rough, in pencil, which you make work in pencil. Then you have to translate that to pen and ink, or watercolour, or acrylic painting, or whatever – and all the spontaneity that was working so well in the pencil sketch congeals into stodge. If I had done pencils, I would then have worked to those and lost all the energy. Instead, I worked directly, brush onto paper, no pencil anywhere, with no regard to the space I was occupying. I let the image take up its own, natural space. And I happily splodged away at several versions of each illustration until one was looking right, often sending more than one over to Ben to adjudicate.

Not all the illustrations work. Of course they don’t. Sometimes, aware that you’re drawing something that has to be recognisable, the freedom and panache desert you and it just looks mannered. Sometimes, the lines just don’t quite splodge down in the right place – so what you hope is freedom of line just looks like bad drawing. But sometimes, just occasionally, you get into what sportsmen call ‘the zone’, and it all comes together wonderfully. And it’s hard to take any credit, because it almost feels like a happy accident, quite beyond your control. Caine walking away worked like that. And the tall cloud in the desert. And I can remember staring for a long time at Esau’s mess of pottage, and dobbing a little wedge of white gouache where the steam meets the bowl, which seemed to simultaneously separate and unite the two elements in a ridiculously satisfying way. 

There’s a line in one of Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy books. It’s about how to fly. The trick, it says, is to ‘throw yourself at the ground, and miss’, and the admonition is: ‘Be not at all sure what you’re doing’. I think that’s quite a neat way to sum up the creative process, sometimes. I’ve often found, if I think I know exactly what I’m doing, I go through the motions and end up with something prosaic and boring. When you aren’t at all sure, every nerve ending is alert and aware of the process, because it’s scary. You react instinctively to what you’re doing, and sometimes it’s so right. And sometimes it’s not, and you have to live with that.

But projects that allow that sort of mayhem are rare as hens’ teeth. And publishers like Walker Books, and designers and editors like Ben Norland, who are prepared to ride that roller coaster are rarer still. As are authors like Jan Mark, who will wait patiently for the outcome, whatever that turns out to be.

It was clear that the book would need some colour plates, and it was Ben who solved that one. He developed a method of scanning a sheet of watercolour paper, for the texture, and then altering the hue in the channels palette in Photoshop. He compiled a subtle, limited palette of textured colours which could be used to colour behind the black, or substitute areas of black. He created the method, and did all the work. I didn’t even have a computer at the time. 

I did get to meet Jan again, at Walker Books, which was wonderful! And, as always, she was very kind about the illustrations. Her favourite, this time, was Joseph and his brothers. She really liked the smug look on Joseph’s face.

From God’s Story (c) David Parkins

Please tell us what you’re working on now – and looking back at your career, what are the highlights?

Right now, the only children’s books I’m involved with are for a French publisher, Bayard Presse. I had illustrated a story in their magazine, ‘Pomme D’api: Le Petit Ogre Veut Aller À L’école’ by Marie-Agnès Gaudrat. The story became a book, and the character, the Little Ogre, is fairly popular. It’s becoming a bit of a series. I’m working on one where the Little Ogre is teaching Papa Ogre about colours. It’s fun.

I moved from the UK to Canada in 2006. Have I mentioned how much pure luck can influence a career? Getting to illustrate Nothing to be Afraid Of so early on? Getting to work on such a wonderful project as God’s Story? Well…

As a prelude to emigration, I had made arrangements to visit a few Canadian publishers. Among them, Tundra Books, in Toronto. I made an appointment to bring in my portfolio, and have a chat, and so on. It was scary – like I was starting from scratch, aged almost fifty. I knew no one, and no one knew me. Not from Adam.

And whenever I mentioned that I was doing this, to people who knew about these things, they all said, ‘But, who are you going to see at Tundra? Are you going to see Kathy Lowinger? Kathy Lowinger’s the person you need to be seeing at Tundra Books, or you might as well not bother.’ And so on. And Kathy Lowinger certainly wasn’t the person I had made an appointment with, because what did I know? She had never been mentioned.

Anyway, I went to Tundra Books, and after a chat with the designer I had made the arrangement with, everyone stood up and said, ‘We’re going in to see Kathy Lowinger.’ And in we went to the inner sanctum, and I displayed my wares and we all said nice things and I left.

It wasn’t until days later, when I was idly looking through God’s Story, that I noticed the dedication:

For Kathy Lowinger – JM

So, I had gone across the Atlantic, to a completely strange country, to an unknown (to me) publisher, and probably got a favourable reception courtesy of blind luck and Jan Mark. It’s entirely possible that I’m the luckiest illustrator in the known universe.

Aside from children’s books, I do a lot of editorial illustration and cartoons. I’ve done some covers for The Economist and The New Statesman, and in Canada I do editorial cartoons for a national newspaper, The Globe and Mail.

As for career highlights: goodness knows. Illustrating can be a lonely pursuit. Most of it seems to have been a lot of fretting and guilt over missed deadlines. Still is!

Working for The Beano and The Dandy was a bit of a highlight. It’s a fact that, whenever I visited a school, no matter how many worthy books I put on display, it was the fact that I drew Dennis the Menace that made the impression.

God’s Story was a highlight – for all the reasons outlined above. 

And I can still remember laying out all the illustrations for Handles over my drawing board and thinking, ‘I rather like these.’ I don’t often think that, and there were many things there I had my blind eye to, but still – the dark little chapter headers, en masse, had a certain presence that pleased me. I had this prejudice at the time against outlines. It seemed so prosaic, just drawing a line around an object. For Handles, I lost outlines where I could. I hatched away to create objects with no defining outline. Some worked better than others. Of course, when the paperback came out, printed on toilet paper, and all the intricate hatching filled in and looked a mess, I realised the limitations of this approach. But the originals, lying pristine on my drawing board, looked pretty solid. And the fact that I can still picture them there must mean something.

Illustration from Handles (c) David Parkins

Walker Books was a highlight. It’s a very special publisher.

And, of course, Jan Mark was a running highlight. I wish I had known her better. 

Awards shortlists are something of a highlight, tempered by the failure to actually win any of the awards.

And having a cartoon in the Rude Britannia exhibition of British cartooning in the Tate. It was a cartoon I had done for the Guardian, based on Fuseli’s Nightmare. I was in Canada, and I would have known nothing about it except that my ex next door neighbour went to the exhibition and spotted it. 

Oh, and there was the time I met Charlotte Voake. I knew Charlotte’s work, had known it for years. I had seen it and admired it in all the Illustrators Annuals when I was a student. And I met her in the corridor at Walker Books, at one of their parties, and before I could say a word she gasped and said, ‘You’re David Parkins!’ Sometimes, it takes quite a while to float back down from the ceiling.

from God’s Story (c) David Parkins

*The bookshop David refers to is the Hungate Bookshop in Norwich, run by Enid and Chris Stephenson – good friends of Jan’s. Click here to read Chris’s words about Jan and see photographs from the era.

Illustration from Trouble Half-way (c) David Parkins.