Theodore Key

Theodore Key

Theodore Key Interview

Theodore Key

Children's Illustrator

Who or what made you want to become an illustrator?

I realised I wanted to become an illustrator when I came across the cartoons of Gary Larson (The Farside) when I was around 19 or 20 years old.
I so badly wanted to make myself and others laugh through a drawing. I was also struck by how illustration was the perfect fusion between saying and showing.

Have you always loved to draw?

When I was very young my arms were too skinny for the wheelbarrow races, when I was of school going age my brain was to mushy for maths and when I became an adult my legs were too long for me to fit in a circus cannon. So with all that stuff out of the question I took to drew right through the nipper, child, teen and big'un years.

Who or what have been some of your major artistic influences?

My favourite childrens book illustrator and writer is without doubt William Steig, I think he is just brilliant. I also love the drawings of Jean Jacques Sempe (he really understands the human condition), Beatrix Potter, Charles Addams and Gary Larson, Richard Scarry and the animations of Oliver Postgate!  On the painting side I really enjoy Michale Sowa's work but my favourite painter is van Gogh.
I should add that I spent many years watching Peter Sellers and Jacques Tatti films and I always wanted to capture those characters' essence in drawing, so I guess I can say they are artisitic influences as well!

Which books from your own childhood really stand out?

Richard Scarry was my favorite as a child and is still one of my favourites today.

Do you have a favourite picture book or recall one of the first picture books you saw?

All of William Steig's books, but I also really enjoyed Tony Ross' I'm Coming to Get You.

Describe your working technique and how you came to perfect it.

I work primarily in pen and ink with watercolours. I use a kind of freewheeling line. My drawings are becoming more and more simplified as time goes by and my line is slowing down but becoming more loose. I try to keep the saying "simplicity is divinity" in mind these days when I draw.

Do you keep a sketch book?

Oh yes! I keep a whole bunch of them, mostly tiny pocket sketchbooks.
I do observational drawings but have the most fun sketching down ideas and characters. Here is a selection of those.

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Here are some more, I love sketchbooking :)

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Tell us about the creation of your favourite character from one of your books.

Henre from the Lua Verwey books. I wanted to make him look like ill-planned mischief itself, a nose set high on the face, almost between the eyes, is essential for this. I was thinking of the Moog from the classic TV show Willo the Wisp when designing him.

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How many times do you tend to draw a character until you are happy with it?

Facial expressions are very impostant to me, especially when trying to capture nuance I tend to draw characters over and over, sometimes up to ten times, before I am happy. It's usually the eyes, get that right and the rest falls in place. I have discarded many watercolour paper pages that only have a tiny pair of eyes on that don't quite cut it.

Do you offer more than one style, if so – talk us through the different approaches and the audience you are targeting for each.

I guess you could say that, I like to try capture the mood and spirit of the text so I like to think of tone more so than style. My drawing occupies the same universe of style but the tone varies greatly accross projects. Some projects require a softer, quieter, more understated and atmospheric tone (The Velveteen Rabbit) While others have more brash "sound effects" and mood built into them (Lua Verwey books).
In general my style is moving towards a simpler style where I don't overembellish the linework, I think that will be a consistent trend going forward.

Have you ever thought about trying out a different technique or a different style?

I am currently including chalk pastels in my work and also exploring styles and characters for very young readers

What do you do in your spare time?

I learn about all kinds of animals and nature (I love science and biology) I also read up on history and psychology. I love going for swims in the ice cold sea and warming up again in coffee shops.

What would you say is a distinguishing feature of your artwork?

Humour and empathy in characters, I strive to create both. If I draw a character that is awkward and funny or one the finds themself in an existentially funny situation I immediately feel a warm fondness towards them. I think humour is intensely human.
I love awkward characters: moles, shrews, walruses, fruitbats, bassethounds, ducks, fruitbats, I sympathise with their plight.

Have you visited any schools to speak or hold workshops?

Yes, NB publishers invite me to talk to children at schools, I chat about the process of about making illustrated books and I also give them demos on how to create and draw characters.

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What’s the best piece of advice anyone has ever given you?

"simplicity is divinity"
I'd never heard it put like that before.

"... ...Young man! an artist must never be caught without a pencil" - Gregoire Bonzaier (aged about 94) told me this while rummaging through his studio to find a pencil.

What was your last ‘lightbulb moment’?

Clobbered my head on a lightbulb just last week actually (I'm 6 foot 7)

What’s one thing that most people don’t know about you?

I love the sound of tumble dryers. If I ever find myself in a laundromat within earshot of a dryer on the tumble, I will fall asleep in minutes.

What are some of your favourite subjects to draw?

The moon, dogs, walruses, hedgehogs, crocodiles, old folks wearing prescription lenses.

Are there any children’s classics you’d love to illustrate and/or re-tell?

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn or Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

Animals feature heavily in children’s books – do you have a pet?

I have a cat, goes by the name Doris.

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