Working with Pictures: Mitch Vane
Mitch Vane has had a long career working as an illustrator and artist. She works in a variety of media, but is at her happiest drawing with a good old-fashioned dip pen and Indian ink. She has illustrated dozens of much-loved children's books – including The Patch and A Mountain of Mittens – and collaborates with her partner Danny Katz on titles like the Little Lunch series. We chat to Mitch about fielding corker questions from kids, her favourite Melbourne bookshops, and dream collaborations.
What was the first piece of illustration you had published?
If we are just sticking to children's books, my 'first time' was a book called My Dog Mab published by Reed Books. I had a dream run – I met the author, Jutta Goetze, and we got on famously. I even met her dog Mab, hung out at her house in the country, and we produced three more books in the series. I have since discovered that not all publishing jobs are that glorious and sometimes I don't have any contact with the author at all.
What’s the best part of your job?
Where do I start?
I draw for a living.
My job is drawing pictures.
I could stop right there.
Publishing is a great industry to be in – I am hard pressed to think of anyone I haven't liked – and we all have this common love which is making magical books for children. Bonus: my studio is in the back yard at home, so I never have to commute.
What’s the worst part of your job?
I think when I'm working on a book, and giving it my all, in the back of my mind I am wondering if this is gong to be 'the one'. Are children going to love this story, and go crazy for it? We all have egos. We all want to produce that book that will forever be dear in a family's heart. The reality is, there is a lot of gorgeous work out there, all shuffling for shelf space and air time, and often months and months of work that you are extremely proud of will be published and advertised, and then fade to the back of that bookshelf.
And the downside of having a studio in the back yard at home, is I don't get to work alongside other creatives as often as I would like to. Illustrating is a solitary occupation and I do miss bouncing ideas off other people.
What’s been the most significant moment in your illustration career so far?
When Danny Katz and I collaborated on our first book together. Black Dog Books approached us to come up with some ideas, and the Little Lunch series was born. It just leapt out of us like it was meant to be, and it is, to date, the creation I am most proud of.
What’s the best (or worst) advice you’ve received about illustration?
Best: If you're not enjoying yourself, then you shouldn't be doing it.
Worst: If you draw in a more 'fashionable' style, you'll get more work.
What’s the most surprising thing you’ve ever heard or read about yourself?
Besides people assuming I am a man, children's questions constantly take me by surprise. When I am doing workshops or school talks there is always one corker of a question that some kid up the back will come up with and I'll be completely stumped, or horrified, or both. But it is a constant reminder of the responsibility I have to my audience – to provide answers to any kooky questions and keep my illustrations as honest and relatable as possible. Thankfully no 'surprises' in terms of book reviews, other than not even getting a mention ... that hurts.
If you weren’t illustrating, what do you think you’d be doing instead?
I know this sounds corny, but in another life I think I would have been equally happy doing some sort of community work – either here, or abroad. I may even end up following that path more and more now my parenting duties are required less and less ... you might see me in a soup kitchen one day.
What’s your advice for someone wanting to be an illustrator?
Well there are so many more options to showcase your illustration work these days, so I guess I would encourage them to utilise social media and all the forums available. If I was starting out now, I think I would search out like minded artists that had a craving for creating work in lots of different mediums.
My advice is: Collaborate, experiment, discover what you are capable of. Exhibit, take risks, work for nothing, self-publish, what ever it takes. Be unique – shape yourself, don't let your chosen industry shape you.
Do you buy your books online, in a physical bookshop, or both?
I am a totally committed physical bookshop person – hard copy all the way. I am not poo poo-ing online books, but I treasure the book shops we have. They have heart, and opinions, and are the life and soul of our communities. My local favourite is Avenue Bookstore in Elsternwick and I have a soft spot for the Hill of Content and The Little Bookroom. I love the thrill of walking into the shop and being dazzled by the array of alluring books and the expectation of what is inside them. Also the people who work there are always so passionate and committed and helpful. There, I have said my piece on the matter!
If you could meet any character from a picture book, who would it be and why?
Well, there are many characters I'd like to meet, but right now, this minute, I think Leigh Hobbs' Mr Chicken would be my first pick. Odd choice, I know, he's a bit grumpy, but I'd love to hang out with him on his travels around the world and discuss the pros and cons of going vegetarian.
What’s the picture book that’s had the most significant impact on your life or work – and why?
Roald Dahl's writing, and Ronald Searle's illustrations – particularly his St. Trinian's series. Funny, dangerous, wicked, challenging. They both made me laugh and made me realiseI didn't want to do sweet pretty illustrations – there are plenty of illustrators that can do them way better than I ever could – but I wanted to draw things that I find funny, and hopefully make children (and parents) laugh as well.
What else have you been working on?
It's been an exciting and busy year so far! Black Dog Books is about to republish the Little Lunch series through Walker Books, in addition to a new book in the series The Off-Limits Fence, to come out in conjunction with the upcoming TV series on ABC3. Gristmill has taken the Little Lunch gang and recreated their world in a real life mockumentary format – 16 episodes will be shown at 4pm on ABC3 starting from 20th July 2015. It's been very exciting seeing our books evolve into a different medium.
I have just completed Belinda the Ninja Ballerina (Candida Baker) for Ford Street Publishing which will be coming out later this year. And finally, I am currently thinking up funny visual gags for new series of books written by the talented Jen Storer ( Truly Tan) for Harper Collins and getting to laugh while I'm working.
What's not to like about my job?