In the studio with children’s book illustrator Jane Chapman


Anyone who has had to read bedtime stories in the last 25 years is very likely to have had Jane Chapman’s work in their hands. Edwina Baines reports.

All images: Courtenay Hitchcock BV Magazine

Jane Chapman is an incredibly successful illustrator of children’s books with almost 150 publications to her name. Her paintings do not simply illustrate the words – they tell their own story, allowing even the youngest non-readers to understand and follow.
From an early age, we interpret complex expressions and emotions through drawings, in ways we cannot do with language or the written word. It’s the old adage, ‘a picture paints a thousand words.’ Children’s picture-book characters can become grippingly alive and transformed into living, breathing beings who, as Jane says, ‘you might meet on a walk in the woods.’
I met Jane on a grey, wet, windswept January morning in her beautiful house tucked away in Cheselbourne.

image Courtenay Hitchcock BV Magazine
Jane Chapman – Courtenay Hitchcock BV Magazine

Toys to books
Having successfully completed science and maths A Levels, a chemistry degree was nearly Jane’s chosen path. After a foundation art course, however, science was soon left behind. Illustration seemed a more sensible, practical option for her academic and business mind and she graduated with a first class honours degree from Brighton University.
Initially a portrait painter in the 1990s, Jane moved through soft toy design before landing a children’s book publisher; commissions soon flowed in. She has been illustrating for Little Tiger Press (now owned by Penguin Random House) for more than 25 years and has produced many best-selling and award-winning titles.
In recent years Jane has taken to writing as well as illustrating and so far has had 15 books of her own published.

New artwork for Jane’s next manuscript, waiting to be shipped to the publisher
Jane Chapman working in the converted garage which is now her printing room

She showed me some of the charming initial draft drawings of a frog and a mouse for her next book, which would soon be sent off to the publisher. She says: ‘The whole creative process for the book is a collaboration between the editor, designer, sales team and illustrator.’ Other recent books include Together, a tender story about a tiny gorilla who is finding a way through sadness, conveying the importance of compassion and connection in a big and challenging world.
Mole’s Quiet Place is a moving tale of friendship and understanding that encourages empathy, teaching children to consider the needs of others. But Jane is most proud of her recent book Goodbye Bear, which tackles the difficult subject of bereavement for children. ‘Beaver and Mole miss Bear very much, but they find a way to celebrate him with the help of all their friends.’

Nero, who ‘invariably walks over the paint palette, leaving green splodges everywhere’

To be able to write and illustrate with such sensitivity, I wondered if Jane had to find her own inner child? She says: ‘What I’m trying to do in my work is to reach adults as well as children. I try to get some solid truths into my books. I don’t want to preach nor do anything scary. I want to create a safe world where things are resolved. Picture books are like haiku – the story doesn’t work without the pictures. In a good book, the child (without reading the words) should be able to tell the story through the pictures and be given time to talk about the images.’

Jane’s cast iron 19th century Albion press.

Timeless style
Another successful series published by Simon and Schuster has been a collaboration with Karma Wilson, who is the author of the bestselling Bear books illustrated by Jane. They include Bear Snores On, Bear Stays Up and Bear Can’t Wait. They also include other memorable and recognisable characters including a wren, mouse, mole, badger, raven, rabbit, and owl. For these books, Jane says that she ‘settled on a traditional, timeless style’, which has remained popular. The books sell well in the United States and have been translated into numerous languages.
Jane’s characters generally emerge from the animal kingdom and come to life in beautiful original acrylic illustrations. Her bright colour palette creates the mood for each painting. However, every individual page must contain a more muted, lighter section for the text insertion and this will have been agreed upon beforehand when the rough draft is submitted.
She says: ‘I have very specific ideas about my characters and what sort of personalities they have. They become real in my head, living an alternative life when we’re not there!’
It is a painstaking way of working: Jane will paint from 60 to 70 hours a week to meet her deadlines, leaving little time to explore other genres of art.

Jane’s next book centres on a frog and a mouse

However, she also showed me her printmaking room which boasts a splendid cast iron 19th century Albion press – beloved by all printmakers. Jane uses the Albion for relief printing; another press in her studio is for intaglio printing, a method where ink is lifted from below the surface of the plate. Last summer, a series of lino prints were made for the Look Up exhibition at Sculpture by the Lakes, where some of Jane’s intaglio images from the book Together were also on show.
After meeting Nero the cat (‘he invariably walks over the paint palette, leaving green splodges everywhere’), I was left with the impression that Jane puts her heart and freedom of expression into every aspect of not only her art, but also her busy family life and garden. She is passionate in her belief that children’s picture books will always have a place. ‘It is such an intimate thing to read with a child. There will always be hope at the end of my books, a feeling of safety. That all is right with the world.’

‘Picture books are like haiku – the story doesn’t work without the pictures’
A page from Goodbye Bear


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