Quentin Blake on imagination, inspiration & the beauty of a biro

Posted on 01 Oct 2021

Legendary illustrator Quentin Blake sits down with House of Illustration Deputy Chair Claudia Zeff to chat ‘Quentin Blake: A Year of Drawings’, an uplifting portfolio of previously unpublished work and a powerful testament to pandemic creativity.

From series 'Vélos Tout Terrain', November 2020, © Quentin Blake.

Claudia Zeff: The drawings in Quentin Blake: A Year of Drawings span the period from March 2020 to February 2021. How did you survive the lockdowns?

Quentin Blake: I suppose I must be one of the people who were least inconvenienced by lockdown. This is partly because I have reached an age when I travel about less than I used to and also because I spend a lot of the time, so to speak, self-isolated. For forty years I stood at a drawing board. Now I sit down at a desk.

CZ: To what extent did the way you work change during this time?

QB: The lockdown was also not inconvenient so far as I am taking on less commissioned work and have the pleasure of exploring subjects which I find interesting.

'Quentin explained that one advantage of drawing is that you can have whatever you like, so that this creature, for instance, has several legs. (You will see he has numbered them.)' © Quentin Blake

From series 'Fish for Christmas', October 2020, © Quentin Blake.

CZ: Many of the drawings in the book are part of a series; what made you start drawing in series?

QB: It’s because although they are not illustrations to a story, for me there is still story in them. I like to explore the different possibilities of some relationship or someone’s behaviour. Whether I am inventing a set of situations or am working to an existing story, the business is of one of imagination. I suppose where no story exists, I am implying that there is one somewhere.

'In 2018, Quentin created a series of Moonlight Travellers; he thought that in the situation of Spring 2020 what was needed was some cheerful sunshine.' From series Sunshine Travellers, April 2020, © Quentin Blake.

From series 'Sunshine Travellers', © Quentin Blake.

CZ: There are several series of portraits in the book which often seem to be character sketches with titles like ‘Moments of Doubt’, ‘All Smiles’ and ‘Gloomy Men’. Did you have any particular people in mind when you are drawing them? Have you ever worked from life?

QB: Some of the series are, as it were, imaginary portraits. When I do these I am not thinking of particular people, and in fact, what is interesting to me is that I seem to discover a character in drawing it. He or she comes into being on the page. I never think of individual or particular people. Incidentally, I can draw from life, although I very rarely do it. Perhaps I should do more; I am very happy to have portraits of my father and some of my friends from earlier life.

A Moment of Doubt, March 2020. © Quentin Blake.

Rainbows, April 2020, © Quentin Blake.

Sandwich, March 2020, © Quentin Blake.

CZ: Is there a new medium you have discovered you enjoy working with as a result of spending time doing portraits?

QB: I like to use a variety of mediums. Drawing with a quill, for instance, is always exciting as I can never be quite sure what is going to happen next. In recent years, probably my favourite implement is a china marker. Of course they are meant to be for drawing on ceramics but they are particularly enjoyable to use on paper and I have them in a whole variety of different colours.

The other implement which I find myself using more and more perhaps came as a bit of a surprise to me. It’s what we call in common language, a biro, although in fact most of the ones I use are not that; but in fact, a ballpoint pen, of which I have several kinds. One favourite is the Bic Soft Feel but there are many others.

What is curious about a ballpoint pen as an art implement is that there is very little variation produced by pressure – it’s a regular line all the time, but it’s interesting to find ways of producing substance on the page. I discovered it is perfectly possible to draw with, for instance, shading which you could possibly think of as academic, but there are also many other accumulations of line which I am happy exploring.

CZ: Is life back to normal now?  Are you taking on as many commissions as you used to?

QB: Nowadays, I accept very few commissions for books and I can get up in the morning wondering what it is I am going to do next.

From series 'Vélos Tout Terrain', November 2020, © Quentin Blake.

To discover more, pick up a copy of Quentin Blake: A Year of Drawings, an extraordinary selection of over 3,000 sketches Quentin produced over the lockdowns of 2020-21.