David Parkins illustrator of That Cat Can’t Stay answered these questions from Ms. Down’s students at Town of Webb School. Thank you to the students and Mr. Parkins for their wonderful responses about this NYSRA Charlotte Award nominated book.
Did you use pictures of real cats to draw from?
If I have to draw something I don’t know well, I would always gather lots of pictures of the thing so I get it right. It’s easy to do this nowadays with the internet. I didn’t need to research cats, though, because we have kept cats as pets for years. At one stage we had six, but right now we have just three: a big grey one (very like the big grey cat in That Cat Can’t Stay), a black one and a tabby who is quite old (about 19 years, I think) but very sprightly still. I see them all the time, so I sort of know how they look.
What about people?
Again, I didn’t need to research or gather reference for the people, because I have drawn so many over the years I just seem to know how to do it now. Sometimes, if I need to draw someone in a very difficult position, or they are, say, playing a sport I’m not completely familiar with, I may have to look that up. But I don’t think I needed to do that for this book.
Were any of the characters based on people you know?
No, I don’t know anyone quite like these characters. Although memories of how someone might have stood, expressions they may have had in certain circumstances, that sort of thing will have informed the drawing. It’s important to be a good observer when you are an illustrator. Always notice how your friends stand, what faces they pull, how they react to things. Then you will know how to draw people in similar circumstances. And you can always exaggerate a bit if you want to make it funny.
How long did it take you to create this book?
I didn’t get all that long to do this particular book. I think it took about three months to do the final art, but I was doing other work as well. If I had been able to sit and do just the book, and nothing else, it would have probably taken about six weeks. Add maybe another couple of months for the roughs and discussions, so perhaps five or six months in all.
Were you responsible for the use of white backgrounds and using text as part of the picture?
Sort of. I am given a manuscript, and I know how many pages I need to fill. Sometimes I decide which bit of text will go on which page, and sometimes a designer or editor will tell me (I think that’s what we did with That Cat Can’t Stay). Then I produced a set of rough pencil drawings that went with the text. After I had done that, it was the designer at Flashlight that had the great idea of changing the layout of Dad’s rants, so that sometimes it was boxed like a comic strip, and sometimes the words snaked around the page. She re-sized and re-positioned my sketches to fit, and then I used that new layout when I did the final art.
Did you like drawing for a children’s book?
I always enjoy doing pictures for children’s books. Well, nearly always. Except when I’m a bit behind with my work, then it just seems like work that has to be done. A bit like homework.
We liked the expressions on the character’s faces, esp. the Dad’s. How did you manage to get the expressions right?
Remember that thing about watching your friends’ expressions? I’ve been doing that a long time. But also, drawing is a bit like acting. You have to imagine what the person is feeling, and what that would make them look like. And I’ll let you into a secret: when I draw faces I am usually acting the expression that I’m drawing. I sit scowling as I draw a scowl, and grinning when I draw a grin, trying to feel what it is to be the person I’m drawing. When I was doing all Dad’s expressions, I think my wife must have thought I was quite bonkers.
Did you mean to have the Dad look harsh?
I didn’t want Dad to look harsh, exactly, but he had to look disapproving and completely determined. If he had not, it wouldn’t have been as funny when the rest of the family kept winning, and the cats kept staying. And in the end, we know he’s really an old softy, don’t we?
What is your favorite style of illustrating?
Such a difficult question. I have done quite a few children’s books, and each time I approach it differently. I always try to make the style of the pictures fit the text as best I can. My favourite style is the one that works best with the writing. But I know that’s not really a proper answer to your question, so I will confess that I do like to draw slightly cartoony characters with lots of energy and exaggerated body language and facial expressions. Like Dad, in That Cat Can’t Stay.
Do you like reading books?
I love reading books, but I always feel that I should be working and not sitting enjoying a book because I have so little time. So when I don’t have enough time, I love to listen to audible books. I do that while I work. I find I can listen while I am drawing without any problem, although I can’t if I have to think. So if I am working on roughs, and I’m thinking about the text I’m illustrating, I can’t listen at all. It distracts me. But once all that is done, and I’m just concentrating on the final drawing, I can listen to another book and it’s fine (I really enjoy Charles Dickens). Maybe drawing and listening occupy different parts of the brain.
David Parkins, November 2011