Bruce Whatley – Interview with CKT

Bruce Whatley

What five words best describe you?

 Mmmmmm…. That’s tricky because it’s a balance between who I think I am and who I’d like to be??! 

Storyteller. Illustrator. Love to laugh.

How did you get started in this industry?

I came into children books late in my career. I worked in advertising as an art director and illustrator for over 15 years, in London then Sydney before I wrote and illustrated my first picture book. I collected picture books long before I had children. They are small portfolios of illustrator’s work so I’ve always collected books of illustrators I admire or have influenced me. At the time I had two young children and had even more picture books in the house. 

It was also the end of the recession and in 1991 much of my advertising work had dried up. Looking for other sources of income I wrote my first children’s story, Paroo and the Boing Boing Races. I created a host of characters including Paroo, an old wise roo, produced several illustrations and made a 3D model of Paroo in ‘clay’. With the help of my wife Rosie we made some clothes for him too. Edward the Emu published by Harper Collins was a favourite book of the kids at the time so I approached them thinking that is the sort of book I could do. 

They liked my illustrations and model but wasn’t convinced I could write. Not wanting to miss an opportunity – before I left I said I also had an idea about my dog! 

I didn’t have an idea about my dog! But that night I wrote Ugliest Dog in the World and three days later they had the pencil roughs on their desk. As it happens an illustrator was late delivering a book and there was a gap in the print schedule. I was asked how long I needed. Coming from a commercial background where deadlines rule I tend to work quite quickly so three weeks later they had the artwork. I must have done something right because 25 years later Ugliest Dog is still in print.

Do you prefer to work with notes from the author when illustrating a book or do you like to work with your own ideas for the illustrations?

The first thing I do when I get the author’s illustrator notes is delete them! (Sorry) The reason is – my job is to value-ad. To find the best, or multiple visual narratives that expand the text, maybe give it another meaning or create unexpected humour. It often means turning the original story upside down or giving it a direction the author hadn’t considered. I can best do this without the influence of the author’s visual perceptions.

Is there any part of the creative process you don’t like?

Not really. It’s a very organic process and each stage can influence the other. I think the worst thing is waiting for a book to be published. The timelines can be ridiculous sometimes. It’s not unusual to be working on books that might not be on the shelves for 2-3-5 years or more. By the time they come out I’ve thought of a better way of illustrating them.

What advice would you give to someone who is trying to catch the eye of a publisher?

It’s not easy. The market can be very tight sometimes even for established authors and illustrators. You have to target publishers that will be sympathetic to the genre and style you are working in. Also first impressions are important. I once asked an editor how she decides which of the ten thousand manuscripts she had in a pile was worth pursuing? She said she knows after the first page. Some good stuff might fall through the cracks but that first page makes all the difference. Communication has changed so much in the last 20 years – I always like to see a ‘hard copy’ portfolio, I like to see the originals but having a website portfolio is probably essential now for any illustrator. If you can, find an individual editor you can send stuff to. Illustrators can always add visuals to emails. 

But also have a look at what is out there, what other people are doing. Not to copy but to understand what is working and what the market is looking for.

What excites you about the future of children’s books?

It’s exciting that they have survived the threat of electronic devises! But that said I’m interested in the way many of these new mediums are linked and influence by each other. Mediums like gaming, film, graphic novels are all having an influence on the making of picture books. Each have a unique way of telling their narratives. Also there are a wealth of new authors and illustrators in Australia that are truely inspiring.

What’s the funniest thing a child has ever said to you during one of your presentations/talks?

You have no idea how many kids out there have dogs or other animals named Bruce! 

But not so much what a child has said – I was visiting a girl’s grammar school in Perth years ago and was reading I Wanna Be Famous, one of my early books. As I approached the last few pages I realised what a ridiculous ending I was about to read. It was just so contrived and I started to laugh – hysterically!  The tears were running down my face. The girls just looked on blankly. In the end I hid behind the blackboard and got one of the students to finish it.

What’s next from Bruce Whatley?

Ruben is a 96 page picture book that will be published early this year. I have been working on it off and on for the last 8 years. It is unlike anything I’ve done before with over 90 illustrations and another 20 or so that didn’t make the final edit. Though the illustrations are done in simple graphic pencil much of the reference material was created in a 3D animation program called Cinema 4D. I constructed a virtual city and a multitude of machines in 3D – was then able to light the environments like you would a movie or theatre set and move my camera throughout to take pictures. 

I’ve started to write longer texts but I’m also looking at other 3D programs like ZBrush, sculpture software often used in gaming and film as a source of reference creation but also possibly using the software to produce finished illustrations. I’m always looking for different ways to illustrate.

Bruce’s website:


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