Stephen Walton, illustrator of Counting Lions

How do you feel at being nominated for the first Klaus Flugge Prize, and then shortlisted?

I was absolutely amazed, because it was a real surprise when you see the long list, then you look at the list of the books on it and think it was amazing that yours was considered good enough to be included among those, and then amazingly to be shortlisted from that selection....I was shocked.

Have you always been interested in art?

Absolutely. I can't remember a time when I have not been interested in images. I have always drawn and then I kind of switched. I took up photography when quite young. Because I took Geography at University, the natural world as well as art became important - in fact the natural world became the focus of my photographs. Then I started to draw my photographs. After a failed attempt to be a portrait artist, I became a police officer for a while. But I didn't enjoy that at all. The job in Bury Art Museum came up and I have been there eleven years. Because I was in a job I enjoyed, I could draw what I wanted, and it ended up being animals. I work there four days a week and the rest of the time I spend drawing.

So you are self-taught - you haven't been through an Art College?

No. I remember being told I would never get more than a B in drawing dragons for GCSE. I really wanted to be a fantasy illustrator but I never had the imagination to dream up things like dragons, so I tended to focus on animals I could photograph because then I had images to work from.

Do you actually photograph the animals yourself?

Yes, Up until this time I have always had quite a strict rule about using animals that I have photographed. I try to use wild animals whenever possible. I have visited Africa several times - I think the wild animals there are really impressive. However, since we were using animals that I didn't have a reference for - the turtles and the wolves for example - we had to source other images that we could use; it has really opened my eyes to new possibilities.

What do you use to create your images? Do you use pencil?

I use charcoal. People say it is so messy, but if you control the mess it has huge advantages.

Do you take a long time to create the images?

The Counting Lions images took me about a hundred hours each. I work at my own pace usually in the evenings because of balancing the Gallery work with looking after the children. Doing Counting Lions was a new experience for me. It was the first long-term project that had a deadline that I had ever done. I really enjoyed the process of working with an editor and design team. I hadn't expected to, but I did. While doing Counting Lions, I was asked to illustrate Tiger Rising by Kate Di Camillo which is being reissued by Candlewick. This was a very different experience - it all had to be done by email and there was much more direction from their side.

Working in the Gallery you will see work from many different artists. Are there any artists or illustrators you particularly admire?

Escher is probably my favourite artist. I don't read so much but I do listen to audio books a great deal - especially science fiction and fantasy - because I like to switch off while working. I admire the work of photographers - though I have never exhibited my own photographs. I don't see myself as a wild life photographer; I move around a lot looking for something I want to draw. There has to be spark that interests me.

What was the most challenging animal to draw for Counting Lions?

The hardest ones to draw were the zebras. I had only ever photographed single zebras, here there were ten We actually had one picture to use but it ended up taking a lot of hours because of the stripes which are all unique. However, elephants are possibly the most difficult - elephants and rhinos are my favourite animals - but because I use charcoal which is more suited to creating an effect like fur, I do have to work hard to make sure it doesn't look soft. Also the turtles, because I have never drawn the underwater. This was one of the first times I didn't have any personal experience of the scene, so I had to do a bit of reading to make sure I didn't make mistakes.

Counting Lions is published by Frances Lincoln Children's Books, £14.99 hardback

Thanks to Klaus Flugge Prize judge Ferelith Hordon for posing the questions.

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