Artist sketches childhood from Korea to New York

Illustrator Julia Patton working at home in Lowick

Illustrator Julia Patton working at home in Lowick

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MANY of us have bumped into one of our heroes in the street or on the train, but the meeting rarely leads to collaborating with them. Yet that is how Lowick children’s book illustrator Julia Patton came to start work on her seventh book.

“I was on a train, just sitting and doodling, as I usually do,” she says, “and I noticed that I was being watched by a woman across the aisle. She was reading, and writing a bit.

“We sort of watched each other for a while, and she kept looking at my drawings, and then when she came to get off the train, she dropped a piece of paper on my table, with her name and number on it.

“Only then did I realise that it was Julia Donaldson - author of ‘The Gruffalo’.”

After a few phone calls and exchanging ideas, Julia started drawing for Donaldson, whose Gruffalo story has sold more than 10 million copies worldwide.

The project developed into ‘Don’t Call Me Mum’, a book designed to be read out loud as part of the Bug Club scheme to get children reading.

Julia got herself a London agent - an “absolutely crucial” move for an illustrator, she says - and now provides artwork for publishing houses all over the world.

“It’s very hectic. If I’m doing work for the Korean market, then it can be quite stressful, because they are a few hours ahead, but then if I’m working for publishers in New York, I feel I can relax a bit with the time difference going the other way.”

One of her most prestigious commissions was for a Ladybird collection of nursery rhymes, which she says filled her with pride and a little trepidation, “because I grew up with Ladybird books. They were, and are, just so iconic.

“It really is a full time job, what with all the drawing, and then sometimes painting and cutting out for collages. The shed where I work is full of all my stuff, the scissors and non-child-friendly glues and substances, things like that.”

Julia can’t keep her work from her family completely though, and her two sons, Spike and Oscar, both aged nine, are an ideal springboard for her ideas.

“At half-terms and holidays we can all sit around together, drawing,” she says, “though they do have a habit of ‘borrowing’ my special pencils!

“They are a great audience, but with kids there’s very little middle ground when you show them something. It’s either the coolest thing in the world, or it’s rubbish: they don’t hold back.

“You have to be very careful not to be preachy, as well, dealing with children - they know when they’re being talked down to.”

The process obviously works, as there are plans afoot for animations built from Julia’s drawings to form the basis of a CBeebies show.

The drawings were originally animated as a Scotrail safety campaign, and Julia certainly put the effort in.

“That took about six weeks of work for thirty seconds of end product, but it was worth it,” she says. “I had to create whole 360° views of characters, so the animators could then move them around.”

Originally from Manchester, Julia and her husband Lawrence moved around the country doing up houses as they went before settling outside Lowick.

Their house, dilapidated when they found it, has an old boiler room in the garden, where Julia has set up her studio.

“It’s been freezing, especially with the snow and ice in the last few weeks,” says Julia, who has installed a heater under her huge desk, as well as a small library of finished work and books to spark her imagination.

Rodents have been a problem in the old building as well, with some now departed rats even gnawing their way through a tube of Julia’s red oil paint.

On the whole, though, the Northumbrian countryside serves as great inspiration to Julia, whether that be the tyranny of Berwick’s seagulls or the cows from the neighbouring fields.

When she is not working on her own books, Julia is still encouraging others to pick up pen and paper. She takes regular classes for children at her home studio, where she “loves seeing them create something beautiful all of their own, with just a little push”.

For more information and to keep up to date with Julia’s work, you can follow her on Twitter at @julia_patton

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