The Art of Giving: An Interview with award-winning illustrator Axel Scheffler

Axel Scheffler, best known for his picture book partnership with critically acclaimed children’s author Julia Donaldson, has donated an original art work to our charity auction.

Up for Auction: Axel Scheffler's unpublished image from 'Tiddler'

Up for Auction: Axel Scheffler's unpublished image from 'Tiddler'

The unpublished piece, a colourful under the sea illustration from the bestselling children’s book Tiddler, will be sold in aid of arts programmes for children and adults with additional support needs.

 We caught up with Axel to find out more.


What motivated you to donate to the auction?

 Art is so important for everyone; I think it’s wonderful what Artlink Central do, especially for children. Julia has been a major supporter of the charity for many years now, and I am always happy to help when I can. I really hope the auction piece will do well on the night.


Can you tell us more about the piece?

 It’s an alternative version of an illustration for the book Tiddler, which features a little grey fish who loves to tell tall tales.  Often I start a picture for a book but I don’t finish it, I don’t always know why. But if I like it, like this one, I will go back and finish it later. Sometimes the ones which don’t go into the books are even better. I am rather fond of Tiddler, he loves to daydream. Although it gets him into a lot of trouble, so I’m not sure he’s a good role model!


Axel Scheffler photographed by Liam Jackson

Axel Scheffler photographed by Liam Jackson

You’ve collaborated with our patron Julia Donaldson for many years now, how does that relationship work?

 We first worked together on a Squash and Squeeze 24 years ago. All the work we do together is through the editor; once I have Julia's text I can start developing characters. The editor will give me a plan of the book layout, so I know which pictures are double page spreads and which are little vignettes. I usually start by doing sketches which I then pass onto the publisher and Julia to see what they think. Once everyone is happy I start creating the artwork.


How long does it take to produce an illustration?

 How long it takes depends on how well it goes and if there’s a lot of sky … (laughs). That can be done quickly with a big brush while the more detailed areas take much longer, as I have to work over it with coloured pencils. That’s the most time consuming part.

Image from Artlink Central's 'The Illustrators exhibition in 2014 curated by Julia Donaldson with Falkirk Community Trust.

Image from Artlink Central's 'The Illustrators exhibition in 2014 curated by Julia Donaldson with Falkirk Community Trust.

It takes about a day and half to do a double page. It could take longer if there’s a lot of detail or if I’m not happy. I could endlessly revise them. Sometimes the publishers have to say stop now Axel, these are fine.


How do you come up with how a character looks?

 With the book Tiddler, the publisher sent me photos of different types of fish for reference. But the main character Tiddler isn’t a specific type of fish; he’s just a little grey fish who came out of my imagination. Animals in picture books need to recognisable, but I don’t pay too much attention to the zoological detail. Its my job as an illustrator to depict them in my own style.


Do you have a special daily routine?

 No, but I do most of my work during the day. Natural light is very important. Because of the popularity of the books, more and more of my time is spent answering requests, attending events, and meeting my readers.


Do you have a favourite character or book out of the many picture books you have worked on together?

 I don’t really have a favourite character, but I like Julia’s wacky stories the best such as the Highway Rat, Stick Man and the Smartest Giant in Town. 

 I find it intriguing that her books work on so many levels and can be enjoyed by children of all ages. For example with The Gruffalo, very young children might not initially understand that the mouse is tricking the other characters but they can still enjoy the story and pictures. 



TV adaptations of the books have also been extremely popular; do you know which one will be next?

 They are working on the Highway Rat for Christmas 2017.  


The Gruffalo has sold 11 million copies worldwide. Whose idea was it to include references to the character in your other books with Julia?  

 I think it is something that other illustrators have done before, hide little references to their characters in their other books. I thought it would be a nice little joke. It started with the Snail and the Whale with a child drawing a picture of the Gruffalo in the sand. Now I think people have started looking out for them, so I have to continue doing it.


What was your favourite book as a child?

 I grew up in Germany and my favourite was a comic strip about a bear called Petzi and his adventures with his friends. There were little strips of pictures, there weren’t any speech bubbles like modern day comic strips.


Artlink works with a number of young artists, do you have any advice for them?

 It’s simple, draw a lot, be curious, practice and look at lots of books for inspiration. Try out different things. If you are good you will find your own way. Even if you don’t think you are good at drawing, you should draw anyway as it’s a nice experience. It can be very rewarding. We should all be encouraged to draw.


When did you decide you wanted to be an illustrator?

 I liked drawing as a child and saw the effects that my drawings had on others. My friends at school found the drawings I drew in the columns of my exercise books funny. When I finished art school I went around with my portfolio and got commissions and with that I gained confidence that illustration was a job I could do. I like drawing funny pictures, my approach to illustration is a humorous one. I like to make people happy.


Artlink Central’s auction will take place on 22nd April in Bridge of Allan, near Stirling, Scotland. You can bid in person or get intouch to bid in other ways.