Illustrating a Classic with Sarah Greig

Earlier this year, Hachette New Zealand ran a unique competition: seeking new illustration concepts for Margaret Mahy’s classic The Boy With Two Shadows. The competition was open to artists and illustrated who were not yet published – and the winner was designer and artist Sarah Greig. Sarah takes us through her process of applying, and shares some of her gorgeous illustrations and images that inspired her work.

Snippets from Sarah’s winning submission.

This has been the year I was always dreaming of. I wasn’t sure if it would ever happen but somehow, the random paths in my life have led me to this point where suddenly I have the opportunity to be published.

After university, the majority of my drawings were technical designs for shoes and bags while I was working for an artisanal shoe brand in Belgium. They involved countless screen hours tweaking vector points, which was very controlled and lacking in spontaneity. It wasn’t until deciding to move back to New Zealand in 2014 that I started thinking about the kind of drawing I really wanted to be doing and it involved stepping away from my screen and reacquainting myself with a pen.

A Dad with two extra shadows!

As a long-time admirer of Quentin Blake’s style, I found some videos of him explaining his process of using dip pens, watercolours and a light box. Watching him produce an expressive illustration with just a few quick lines inspired me to give it a go. My pen kept catching on the paper, the ink splodged out in all the wrong places and it became clear that I had a whole lot of work to do to get some skills and find my own style.

Back in Ōtautahi / Christchurch with two pre-schoolers in tow and a need to contribute financially, I signed up for some local craft markets to see what would happen. My drawing hours increased and I learnt a lot from seeing how people responded to my work. It wasn’t until I started painting at my market table on a quiet day that I realised just how much interest there is in the drawing process and connecting the illustrator to the work.

A spread from Sarah’s submission. Spot the other Mahy references!

It was at a market that a friend asked if I would be entering the Margaret Mahy Illustration Prize. My thoughts were ‘No way, there’s only three weeks to go! I have no time, I’m never going to get through’ …until I realised that they were excuses that I could use forever and they wouldn’t get me any closer to illustrating a book. That evening I read the manuscript for The Boy With Two Shadows and by the end of the story, I was hooked. The story centres around a young boy who is asked by a witch to look after her mischievous shadow while she goes on holiday. Illustrating a work from such an accomplished author was a daunting task but the story had so many possibilities that I couldn’t help diving right in.

Bridget Mahy had mentioned in the brief how her mother tried to find the extraordinary in an ordinary day so I took that as a starting point and began to slot places from my everyday life into the background. I spent the next day at the market sketching out the main characters and flow of the story between customers and conversations. Being able to only half-think about it for the day helped me get my ideas down on paper quickly as I didn’t have the time to question too much or labour over my thoughts.

Inspirational shadows in the park.

It was a good time of year to be thinking about shadows, with the winter sun low in the sky and the trees bare from leaves, long shadows stretched out across the park. My kids and I made shadow animals on the wall at bedtime and I started to think about how shadows are always there but seldom noticed.

I spent the next week of evenings sketching out the storyboard spread by spread. After my day-job, wrangling three kids and all that comes with it, it is the evenings that are my quiet creative time where I can really get things done. Margaret’s storytelling is so rich and descriptive, yet she leaves breathing space for the illustrator to add some of their own layers. I felt that it was really important for me to keep the drawings lighthearted, fun and full of interesting details that would appeal to readers of all ages.

The final spreads in dip-pen and watercolour filled the next couple of weeks with very late nights and coffee-fuelled days. When the submission date arrived and there was no time to make any more tweaks, it was a relief to have it out of my hands. It is a strange feeling after working so hard on something to just let it go and hope for the best. I have failed at enough of these things to know that there is value in the work you have done as you learn something new with every drawing you make. I am so excited about the next steps my shadow and I will be taking in the world of illustration…

Sarah Greig
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After graduating from the University of Canterbury with a Fine Arts degree in 2001, Sarah embarked on her big O.E. to Europe. Two years quickly turned into twelve after finding work as a shoe and graphic designer for an artisanal shoe brand in Antwerp, Belgium. She returned to Christchurch in 2014 and now works as a freelance designer, illustrator and artist.