Don’t Fear White Space: Oliver Jeffers on Work, Process and Building a Creative Career

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Oliver Jeffers is the author and illustrator of 15 (and counting!) picture books for children, including Lost and Found, The Heart and the Bottle, and Here We Are. He has topped the New York Times Bestsellers list with multiple works and has won numerous awards, including the Children’s Book Council Children’s Choice Award and the ALA Notable Book Award.

But Oliver Jeffers’ work spans far more than picture books. He is also an artist with breathtaking emotional nuance. In his latest book, a monograph published this autumn by Rizzoli, Jeffers includes never-before-seen pieces as well as reflections on his personal life and career. It’s a treasure chest of quirky curiosities and distinctive charm.

After reading his monograph, I remembered what Holden Caulfield said in J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye—that often, when you finish a really good book, you wish you could just call up its author to talk. Every book by Oliver Jeffers has made me feel that way, but none more so than his monograph. So, after roughly 14 years of following Jeffers’ work from the shelves of bookstores and libraries, I reached out with some questions. Jeffers generously shared his thoughts on his work, his creative process, and advice on building a creative career—and did so with his characteristic sense of humor.

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On the Monograph

What did you learn or discover while putting your monograph together?

That there were a lot of holes in my archive. There were certain images I wanted to include, but couldn’t as we didn’t have a high enough resolution image. WA few pieces we were able to track down the original and rephotograph some of the pieces, but a lot of stuff has simply gotten away, as not enough due diligence was applied at the time of creation. before I had simply moved onto the next project.

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One of your chapters in your monograph is called “Don’t fear white space.” Fear of the blank page cripples many aspiring artists. Did you ever fear blank canvases?

This was written as one of several things I’ve learned since leaving art college. It was more of a metaphor than fear of a literal white page, more about the slow rolling of the beginning of any project. I never really did fear blank canvases, simply because everything in my work is concept- driven, rather than craft- driven— – in that I don’t paint things just for the sake of painting them. and I never have bought or made a canvas not knowing what was going to go on it.

You’ve including a pie chart of an average day, and the second largest slice of the pie (after airport security) is feeling pleased with yourself! What helped you to gain confidence as an artist? How did you learn to handle the inner critic?

I think a big part of this came down to being asked, quite brutally in art college one day, who I was trying to please. When I dissected this, I realized that, when making work that was ultimately aiming to garner the approval of others, not only was my work less interesting, but it was disingenuous.

My dad once told me that looking at motivation, rather than action, was a truer path to understanding another person. It occurred to me that the same lesson could be applied to my art. There were double benefits in this. Firstly, I was making work that I wanted to make, and therefore enjoying myself more, and secondly, I cared less and less about what other people thought.

These things combined led to confidence, and I was fortunate that I got to that point in my practice relatively early. It strikes me how many people don’t believe in themselves. There is really only one alternative to that—which is NOT believing in yourself, and that just seems like such a burden to carry around. So f***uck it. Why NOT believe in yourself? You’ll get more done and have more fun!

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Your pie chart also mentions lists. What are some of your lists about? Can you list some items off of one?

Mostly they are to-do lists and shopping lists. A recent shopping list included “‘Guinness,”’, “‘matches,”’ and “‘rubber gloves’.” Can’t remember what I was planning, but it sounds dangerous. Random things from a recent to-do list include “‘find old pencil drawings”’ and “‘charge bike battery’.” Sometimes I’ll add something to a list that I’ve already done, just so I can cross it off!

On the Creative Process

How do you decide that a story idea is one worth turning into a book?

There are lots of half- conceived, then discarded, book ideas littered throughout my sketchbook. It’s rare I know right away something will fully work as a book concept. In fact, it’s only happened twice. Once with The Incredible Book Eating Boy, which sort of just popped into my head fully formed, and the second one is the book I’m in the middle of completing. I woke up from a nap, on a solo car journey up the north coast of Antrim (in Northern Ireland), and the story was just there in my head. Maybe I’d dreamed it. I don’t know.

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I’ll sketch all ideas down, and squeeze out any potential.

Sometimes I’ll start off fairly confident, and realize, after sitting with it a while, or coming back with fresh eyes, that it doesn’t hold itself up. For it to work as a full book, there needs to be a solid beginning, / middle, / and end. Often two of those come quickly, and the third takes some enticing. Sometimes the third aspect never comes at all, and the idea stays in my sketchbook. Though that is how I came up with Once Upon an Alphabet—a clatter of not quite big enough ideas to work as a solo book, but bundled together as a collection of short stories.

Do you ever get in a creative rut? When you get stuck (hopefully not in a tree with a whale), what do you do to get unstuck?

If I’m creatively stuck on a problem, I move on to another project — the answer normally comes when you’re not thinking about it. If I’m motivationally stuck, I remember I’ll be dead soon.

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What happens to you if you go some time without drawing?

Not much, to be honest. I’m not one of those sorts who has to draw every day. I suppose because my output is so varied, even if I’m working full tilt, I rarely draw every day. Sometimes I’m painting, writing, building, fund raising, wall-breaking, planning, thinking, designing, reading, looking. Drawing actually takes up relatively little of my actual output.

You often mix handwritten words with typeset words. What’s your writing process like? How do you decide on this balance–choose which words to handwrite? When writing by hand, how do you decide which words to emphasize? And how do you decide on the balance of words with graphics?

For my handwriting process, it’s as simple as going with my gut. Intuition rather than a formalized and laborious design process. Does it look good? Then, that’ll do the job.

On Building a Creative Career

You have a distinctive illustration style. Is having a distinctive style important? What do you advise to someone trying to figure out their style? How did you find your style?

I think having style is important. But so much of this goes back to my earlier answer of authenticity of motivation. If you’;re imitating someone else’s work, then that’s not your style. Very early on you’ll go through the motions of imitating people whose work you admire, but the hope is that you then move on from this, once you’ve figured out what your hands and eyes can do.

So much of finding your style is about listening to yourself about what you enjoy making, and listening to the way your hands want to work. See the tweaks and quirks in your visual handwriting, then turn up the volume on it. So it’s not really you finding your style, as it is your style finding you.

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Are you picky or particular about your tools? What’s indispensable or special? What’s something weird you’ve used? How do you choose your tools? Have they changed over the years?

I use a lot of different materials, for different end goals. Most mediums are regularly in circulation. With water colour and oil, so much of it is about the right brush for the right job- so keeping the brushes clean and in the right place is important. I work quickly, and fairly spontaneously, so something has to be where it’s supposed to be when I go to lay my hand on it. The right type of paint is important too. I have a few go-to colorscolour’s for specific things. I found all of my favorites throughHow I got there with all of it was experimentation—. Eexploring to see what worked for me and what didn’t, then sticking with what did.

I also use paper towels a lot with painting. Realizing that taking paint away was as valid as applying it was an interesting lesson.

These days, I’m a fan of attacking a delicately produced oil painting or collage with an oversized oil or pigment stick. There’s no going back with those things, so you only get one crack at it.

They say that success is the tip of an iceberg and under the surface is a lot of hard work, persistence, and struggle. Can you share a story about rejection or failure, and how you worked through that? Do you agree? How do you advise confronting rejection and failure?

This is absolutely true. For every success I’ve had, there have probably been three times as many rejections or failures. The important thing is to not sit or dwell on those moments and just move past them. Either try a different approach, or move on to a different project. So much so, that I can barely recall what any of the rejections actually were. Mostly they’re project ideas that can only come to fruition with the permission and funding from someone else. The important thing is to not sit or dwell on those moments and just move past them. Either try a different approach, or move on to a different project.

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The last page of your monograph reads “And on we go…” What’s next for you? What are you looking forward to?

I’m currently working on two exhibitions; one in NYC and one in London, both of which will occur before spring., I’m also working on a large- scale installation concept (though at the time of writing, this may end up being chalked up to one of those frustrating rejection / failure moments), and there are two story books. I’m trying to complete (booth of which are well-started), and I’m aiming to get all of this done before next summer. Then I am looking forward to taking a year off and traveling around the world with my family.


Read more HOW Design illustration coverage now, ranging from icons and emojis to turning hand-drawn doodles into digital art. 

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