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A Moment With: Sophie Blackall

February 12, 2010

I am pleased to present an interview with one of my favorite working artists, Sophie Blackall. I featured her Missed Connections series a while back and have always loved her whimsical illustrations. Here, she talks with me about her artistic process, her work and her attraction to the lost and the found.

I’ll start with asking you about your Missed Connections series. What do you think is the fascination people have with these ads? What attracts you to them as a source of inspiration, and how do you choose which ads to illustrate? Also, can you tell me about the book deal you got for the project? When can we expect it?

I began the Missed Connections illustrations last March. I’d long wanted to find a more grown up project to balance the children’s book work I do, and I’m always drawn to narratives. (I collect other people’s discarded shopping lists and the things left between pages of books. I’m addicted to and I’m a terrible eavesdropper.) When I stumbled upon Missed Connections it was a perfect fit. Small glimpses into strangers’ lives, packed with mystery, pathos, beauty and humor. I know it’s not a New York phenomenon, but somehow it seems the perfect product of this city; people seeking intimacy in a crowd.

Sitting on the subway I’m always wondering what’s going on inside people’s heads, and Missed Connections posts give me that opportunity. I’m sure other people are drawn to them for the same reasons, but I think on some subliminal level there’s a vague desire to recognize ourselves as the person “missed”. It’s nice to know that people are looking at each other and noticing and appreciating details. That we’re not just a swarm.

If it is even possible, can you describe the process of arriving at your unique style and choice of medium?

My style has developed over the years but has always been influenced by Victorian trading cards, Chinese firecracker designs, Indian sweet wrappers, 19th century cabinet cards, Japanese woodblock prints, antique French wallpaper patterns, encyclopedia and botanical drawings, illuminated manuscripts, Victorian valentines…

I paint in Chinese ink and then build up layers of watercolor washes over top. The end result is a little like a hand-tinted photograph and is vintage looking and yet not, because I mix in contemporary patterns and bright luminous spots of color. I hope I’ll keep changing and learning new things and experimenting with styles.

Did the transition from Australia to NYC affect your art at all?

When I’m in Australia I just want to draw the landscape. It’s like no other place on earth. In New York it’s the people and cultures which provide endless inspiration. If I’m ever in a rut, I have only to hop on the subway and I’ll see something unexpected and incredible. In Australia I found

it hard to get enough work to survive financially. And even then I had to take on everything which came my way. I spent a lot of time drawing step-by-step illustrations for technical manuals, how to install a new filter in your vacuum cleaner, or before and after liposuction pictures… that kind of thing. Coming to New York I was lucky to get all sorts of different assignments, and to refine my style rather than being a jack of all trades.

I’d like to know more about the relationship between the author and illustrator for books. What is the balance there? How do you collaborate in creating an end result where neither person’s vision is compromised?

Each book is different. I have done books with my dear friend and collaborator, Meg Rosoff, where we giggle and argue our way through the process, and others where I never meet or communicate with the author until the book is in print. The balance between words and pictures is a fascinating one, and subject for lengthy discussion. I have written one book (Are You Awake? for Henry Holt, out Spring 2011) and that was such a strange process. I thought it would be liberating, doing everything exactly the way I wanted it, but the endless possibilities were almost paralysing. I couldn’t even settle on a trim size! It was really good fun though, and I look forward

to doing it again.

I’ve been reading a lot of praise for Ruby’s Wish. What do you think it is about this book that speaks to readers so deeply?

Ruby’s Wish is one of those books which makes your spine tingle. I think it’s partly that it’s a true story, but also Ruby is such a great character, and it’s a story of courage and perseverance and ultimate reward. It’s inspiring in the best way, and although this will sound preachy, it’s a good reminder to modern kids what a privilege it is to be able to read and learn.

I just have to say that I loved your sneak peak at Design Sponge. I think I’m genetically predetermined to collect found objects and antiques, so I was wondering where did you find those items and what attracted you to them? I also need to know at least a few of those quotes on that quilt you made.

I have just moved house and have sworn I won’t let my new apartment become quite the museum the last one was! Trying to keep the bones and skulls and deer-hoof-pincushions at bay. Having said that, I love finding stories in old things,

especially things which have been mended, and I’m an obsessive collector of individual Victorian era children’s shoes (How did they survive so long without their pair? How were they separated?). I would like to open a museum of people’s unfinished craft projects… all those partially embroidered table cloths and half knitted sweaters and abandoned carvings. I love flea markets and break into a bit of a sweat at the possibility of finding treasures. Ebay is a terrible seducer and all trips to the country involve stops in towns with junk shops.The quilt is made of 19th century linen sheets and feed sacks, embroidered with lines from poems, or songs, or things with significant meaning. Several are unbelievably lyrical Chinese peony names, such as “Green Mountain Falls in Love with the Snow”, or “Green Dragon Floats in an Inky Pool”. One I found on a Chinese packet of chalk, “Fingers of Tiny Dust”.

Finally, if you could illustrate any work of literature that is yet to be illustrated, what would it be?

Moby Dick. It’s been illustrated over and over, but it’s like twenty books in one, so there’s room for another interpretation.  Tristram Shandy would be fun, too.

Thanks again to Sophie Blackall for the interview!

One Comment leave one →
  1. Daddy-O permalink
    February 17, 2010 12:43 pm

    Really insightful questions. And samples of her work really helped fill in the picture.

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