The Sky Doesn't Have to be Blue
Steve Antony is an internationally published award-winning UK author and illustrator who explores themes ranging from 'saying please' to the futility of war. After taking redundancy in 2010 from a Swindon call-centre, he pursued his dream job by applying for a Children's Book Illustration MA at Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge. His 2014 debut, The Queen's Hat, won the Oscar's First Book Prize and was shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize. His Shaun the Sheep sculpture, based on the book, raised £15,000.00 for the Wallace and Gromit Children's Charity; and the book was adapted into a concert by the London Symphony Orchestra. A sequel and a three-quel have since published. He has also written and illustrated several other books, including the popular Mr Panda series. He is Patron of Swindon Libraries Children's Services. His new book, When I Grow Up, written by musician-comedian Tim Minchin, was inspired by Tim's hit song of the same name from Matilda the Musical and takes a humorous yet moving look at adult life from a child's perspective. Below, exclusively for Foyles, Steve explains what it's like to be a colour blind illustrator and why the sky doesn't have to be blue.
At the launch of our book When I Grow Up at Leicester Square Theatre, Tim Minchin joked onstage about how he would have thought twice about hiring me if he'd known I was colour blind. The audience laughed and so did I.
All three of my brothers are red-green colour blind, too. Fortunately, none of us wanted to be a pilot when we grew up; or a disposer of bombs. Can you imagine? 'Cut the green wire!'
Yes, being colour blind can sometimes be a pain in the butt. For example, I can never tell if a public toilet is vacant or occupied. 'Hello? Is anyone in there?' I have eaten mouldy bread more than once. And I sometimes wear odd socks. Big flipping deal. Being colour blind is hardly debilitating, right?
Now let’s go back in time a little. When I was about nine I drew a picture of the mountains that surrounded Alamogordo: the New Mexican city I was part-raised in. The teacher, possibly a substitute, peered over my shoulder, her chin slightly raised as if she was looking down at me through her nostrils. She asked 'Why is the sky purple?' Her tone was somewhat accusatory, as if I’d done something wrong. I can't remember my reply, but I do recall feeling really frustrated with myself because I was absolutely one-hundred percent certain I had picked the blue crayon. 'Crap. I must be really, really colour-blind.' I thought to myself.
But I kept on drawing and colouring-in because that's what I liked to do. I was a creative little wannabe Hockney. I wanted to be an artist when I grew up. This much I knew. More specifically, I wanted to write and illustrate. I entered lots of contests. I came third place in a countywide art contest for my homemade picture book about a knight who saves a princess from an evil fire breathing dragon. It was hardly original, but the colours were zany. In high school I was asked to draw a picture for the High School Yearbook. 'Unfortunately we can’t print in colour, so it will have to be a black and white drawing.' said the teacher. 'Phew!' I thought to myself.
Yep, I was that arty kid. The slightly awkward one. I also had a British accent. Bonus points. But I didn’t advertise my colour-blindness because it invariably led to a barrage of questions. 'What colour is her hair, my shirt, that book, his car, my socks, that crayon.' Yawn.
On my first day at Swindon Art College we were all asked to paint a picture. I painted a person holding a bowl of fish. Don’t ask me why. At the time I’m sure it made perfect sense. 'Why is this man’s skin green?' asked the tutor. But before I had the chance to explain that I thought the green was actually brown, he took the picture and held it up for all to see. He excitedly praised me for my 'bold and brave' use of colour. 'Is his skin green because he’s jealous? Is he jealous of the fish? Or wait, is the fish projecting its jealously onto the man?' He continued to analyse my 'thought-provoking' piece of art.
'Tell us, Steve. Why is his skin green?' His eyes bulged with anticipation.
'Tell us, Steve.' Was he expecting me to reveal the meaning of life or something?
'Tell us, Steve.' Everyone is looking at me and my face is burning up.
I barely scraped through university with a pass, and I struggled to find work as an illustrator partly because that sort of work was hard to find and partly because I knew my limitations. I would never be able to illustrate colours as beautifully and confidently as my picture book heroes: Raymond Briggs, David Wiesner, Emily Gravett. And so I ended up temping as an admin clerk at W H Smith's head office in Swindon until landing a permanent role as a call centre agent for Thames Water. The money was good. I paid off all the debts.
In 2010 I took voluntary redundancy from Thames Water and went back to university. A massive gamble. In 2013 I graduated from Cambridge’s Anglia Ruskin University with a Masters in Children’s Book Illustration and three picture book dummies: The Queen’s Blue Hat, Would You Like A Doughnut and Green Lizards Vs Red Rectangles.
The Queen’s Blue Hat became The Queen’s Hat, an award winning, bestselling book, the first in a series. It was even adapted into a musical concert by the London Symphony Orchestra.
Would You Like A Doughnut became Please Mr Panda, the first Mr Panda book, a bestseller now available in 16 different languages. It got long-listed for the Kate Greenaway Medal.
So what exactly happened during my time at Anglia Ruskin University? How did I conquer my colour blind demons? I didn’t conquer them at all, actually. I just began approaching colour in a slightly more abstract and conceptual way. For example, for The Queen’s Hat I only used three colours: red, white and blue.
When I Grow Up, however, is my most colourful and accomplished book yet. I love it, and I still can’t quite believe I did it. Even just three years ago I would never have believed it possible.
Tim’s words were an absolute joy to illustrate. But I’m not going to pretend it was easy because it wasn’t. The book’s lovely designer, Strawberrie, was a constant source of encouragement and support. There were times it felt like I was hitting my head against a brick wall, and there were times when I genuinely thought Tim had chosen the wrong illustrator. But I knew I could do it.
I decided to approach colour in the same sort of abstract and conceptual way as my other books, the only difference being that this book would have way more than just three or four colours.
You’ll notice that all the children in When I Grow Up are drawn in shades of grey. To me, this makes them stand out. The super colourful cartoon page was the most difficult to get right. One of my favourite pages shows a grey statue of a man and woman lifting the world, surrounded by colourful pedestrians. The book is a kaleidoscope of emotions, just like the song. Wistfulness, jubilance, fun, hope. These are just a few of the emotions I wanted to ‘colour in’.
So it actually turned out that the one thing that held me back ended up pushing me forward. My limitation became a positive. My advice to illustrators struggling with colour is this. Don't just colour in. Don't let colour be an afterthought. Think about colour before you draw. Be intentional.
Do you want to draw a sad picture? What colours make you sad? Do you want to draw a happy picture? Maybe you'd like one thing to really stand out. How about making that thing really stand out by drawing everything else in black and white or shades of the same colour?
Try not to follow trends. Be authentically you. That's the only way you're going to find your own illustrator's voice. And my advice to all the creative little wannabe Hockneys out there is this. Use whatever colours you want, because the sky doesn’t have to be blue. It can be purple, too.