It's been 50 days since I started quarantine at home with my kids. I'm surrounded by creative tools... but I'm not often that creative right now.
Oliver Jeffers, a celebrated children's book author and illustrator, has written a number of books I read to my kids all the time. Stuck is a personal favorite. His science book, Here We Are: Notes for Living On Planet Earth, just got adapted into a short film on Apple TV Plus for Earth Day. I found it touching, and more emotional than I expected. In it, a boy learning about the world around him suddenly wrestles with the cosmic scope of the universe. But his mother and father help him put these thoughts in perspective, calming him.
I spoke to Jeffers from Belfast, Northern Ireland, where he's staying for the time being after a year-long world trip was derailed because of the coronavirus. He uses an iPad as part of his creative process, so I thought I'd ask him more about how he works, and if he has any advice on working from home.
iPad as tool, not necessarily the centerpiece
"I had only ever made one book using Photoshop before. And the reason that I did that was purely practical," Jeffers says. "I had to move from one studio, find another studio and the book was due in the middle of that time, so I had to find a way to work with not very much physical space."
While Jeffers uses an iPad and Apple Pencil in his workflow now, it's not where his creative process starts. "The last several books I made prior to Here We Are were all pretty much ink on paper or paint on paper. It's only partly made on an iPad," Jeffers clarifies. "The base colors are actual paint on paper."
It started with him trying to work from home more as a new parent. "I realized, here I am writing this book about what it's like to be a new parent, and instead of being a new parent at home with my newborn son, I'm allowed to spend a whole lot of time at the studio on my own. It felt a little hypocritical, until I was like, 'I wonder if there's a way in which I could bring some of that work home so I can just be there.'"
Jeffers uses Photoshop to compress things down to a TIFF file, adding layers and drawing sketches of his ideas using Procreate to add to that. But he keeps going back to physical drawing tools as the center of the process: "Everything starts with a pencil on a piece of paper."
He admits some challenges: "Most of the backgrounds are painted or are ink drawings that are composited up in Photoshop. And so I had a base layer, and then I had a sketch layer that I would turn on and off for what characters would go where, what details go where, and then I would kind of flick that on off, and then I would just go home and I would just zoom in and draw away."
Jumping between platforms remains a universal problem. "What took me a long time to work out was how to actually get the files from my computer to the iPad and back again," he says. "Especially that large, for print, and just figuring out the layers. Flattening it to the background texture coming in as a TIFF so it was a flat image coming in, then draw on top of that. And then instead of exporting the iPad files in the final file, I would just put in new layers and bring it back in on the layered Photoshop file, if you follow my logic there. So first was ink and acrylic on paper, then Photoshop adjustment, then Procreate, then back to Photoshop."
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Where to start?
I asked Jeffers for some drawing advice for someone like me who is just starting, or doesn't even know where to start.
"I've always thought this: that Photoshop and Procreate are the means to an end, not an end in themselves," Jeffers says. "I can use Photoshop, but I only know how to do what I need it to do for me. I'd say I know about 5% of the tools in Photoshop, and so much of it I just have no idea. But I think it's like with oil painting, you figure out what you want the materials to achieve for you and then you work out how to do that, and that's all you really need.
"With Photoshop, I know how to use layers and multiply layers and so on and apply texture. And with Procreate, I basically use just one of the pencil tools and the different layers, and that's it. I don't bother trying to figure out what can this do, or what effect that could make. I don't have to learn every single tiny aspect of this software, I just need to work out what I need to get from it."
"Everybody's always overthinking when they start," Jeffers adds. "The only thing to do is to start and to react to what you see as you go."
Jeffers has a new book coming out in the fall, one he finished before his year of travel, and the global lockdown, "that was done entirely with pens and paper."
But he also has advice on slowing down, just a bit, if it's possible. "There were a number of projects that were sort of backing up waiting for my return to the studio, but everything is up in the air," he says about the future. "It's become pretty clear to me that I just want to make work that is important to my set of principles. I don't want to try and sprint as hard as I can all the time. There has been something really lovely and really pleasant about spending so much time with my family.
"Our kids are 2 and 4, and they're having the time of their lives and you know, every single day is the greatest day ever. When you break that down, the reason it's the greatest day ever is because they're getting to hang out with me and their mother. I don't think I ever want to work as hard as I worked prior to this. And I think this global lockdown is maybe serving as a reminder to everybody about what's actually important."