Bex Sheridan, co-author and illustrator of new children’s book Irish Farm Animals, with Glyn Evans, talks about how the book came into being.
Working on Irish Farm Animals was far more fun than I ever thought it would be!
The idea was born between me and my good friend, Glyn Evans. I’ve always had a great love of animals–many share my home with me—and Glyn owned a pet farm focused on educating the public about the wonders of farm animals. As an illustrator, writer and graphic designer I knew that there was something the two of us could create: something that was sorely needed.
Once the idea was in place, it took form pretty quickly. I often visited Glyn, sometimes as a friend, sometimes as a photographer, and sometimes as a writer—each time seeing the animals. Our best work involved discussions about the animals as they stood, sat or rambled about around us. Creating the book was like an interview with the animals! I compiled lists of questions about each animal and sent them to Glyn. We took trips to visit other farms too, whenever we needed to fill gaps in our own knowledge, and we had many chats with dedicated farmers. Then we’d often get together for further discussion. Some of the writing even took place through messenger apps. Like many writers, I’ve taken courses, studied the craft and continually grown my love of words, seeing how the right words can both teach the reader and take them on adventures. We always kept it informal because we were aware our audience was children, who didn’t need an academic textbook about the biology of every animal. We wrote it through joyful discussions and happy outings, which in turn inspired my illustrations.
I learned about the animals in a way that I hoped would help me breathe life into the illustrations as well as the words. I left each excursion with a trough full of information, an SD card full of photos, and immeasurable inspiration from another fun adventure. When I drew the animals, I used the photos as reference images but I also relied on my memories of those moments. It’s easy to draw an image directly from another image, replicate its details and intricacies, but then all you have is a copy. You’re only recapturing that precise moment in time. I wanted to capture more than that. If the photo didn’t show the soul behind that animal’s eyes, I had to try to capture that from my memories. My artwork had numerous imperfections, but this was something I didn’t fight. I probably spent more time on research and outdoor excursions than in my studio with pencils, paints, inks and paper. That’s not to say my process didn’t take a while. There was more than just the animals that I needed to show. I wanted to capture the terrains too. I wanted to show the beauty of the colours in the sky around Ireland and the textures of the surfaces changing the physical feel of everything. An image can draw you in, be immersive, and take you to another place, but only if the artist invests as they hope the viewers will.
Tying everything together was a hugely exciting part of creating the book. We wanted the book to feel like a visit to a really big farm from a child’s own home. To make this happen, a lot of elements—text, illustration and design—needed to fit. Because Glyn was conveying information to me in an already light and friendly manner, when I put it all together our natural writing styles just gelled and the difficulties and challenges I’d imagined could happen with collaborating writers weren’t there. Of course, that’s not to say our editors didn’t tighten the gaps and help us bring it all together. From the start, I knew I had to be flexible with the illustrations, to make them fit with how the text fell and avoid stressful redrafting, so I made sure each element was something of its own, an animal being as movable on the page as it would be on the farm itself. This meant a lot of different layers to the artwork and a bit of Photoshop’s digital intervention. It was worth it, though, because it, too, was enjoyable and taught me much more about creating compositions with so many varying elements.
In truth, despite all the work, it was a love of animals, art and writing that drew it all together. I hope that Irish Farm Animals can be a resource for children to learn and enjoy a world that’s all around them—one that they may have overlooked. I greatly look forward to learning even more myself and passing this knowledge on through all the mediums I can.