Interview: Briony May Smith
Briony May Smith is an illustrator and storyteller who specialises in children's picturebooks and graphic novels and lives in Berkshire. I first discovered Briony's work when she released Imelda and the Goblin King last year and I have been completely enchanted by her rustic artworks ever since!
Published by Flying Eye Books, Imelda and the Goblin King mixes the old and new, bringing together a contemporary, texture-filled aesthetic with a classic folklore-inspired plot to create a nostalgic and enticing storybook. Aesthetically, what is particularly special about Imelda is it's warm, welcoming colour palette - a blend of golden yellows, molten reds, moss greens and woodland browns. Other visual highlights include a cast of hand-drawn, energetic characters (including a fearsome Goblin King) and luscious gold-foil detailing on the book's cover and spine.
How did the idea for Imelda and the Goblin King come to you?
I was drawing in my sketchbook and drew a girl being hauled off by some fairies and goblins and wrote a line about her being carried off by the goblin king and his minions. I liked the sound of this character and explored this over the next few pages. What remains from this drawing is the goblin king, the fairies, goblins and a human girl for the audience to relate to. I explored a few ideas and decided I liked the concept of a real horrid character getting his comeuppance, dealt at the hands of the protagonist. I liked satisfying endings like this when I was a child, and wanted an ending that might not be expected. Baddies get what they deserve! But in a way that wasn’t brutal or cruel.
When did Flying Eye Books get on board?
I went to Bologna for inspiration and portfolio feedback, which included the overall advice to make Imelda a child, so that children could relate to her. Whilst I was there I received a call to talk about Imelda and the Goblin King which was on my website as sample pages. When I got back to the UK it went from there!
Can you talk me through your creative process?
I try to draw and write at the same time, normally a story begins with a character sketch idea that I may like the look of. Then I create the world they live in, their personality and the plot. Drawing as I write helps my mind wander a bit. Normally I leave it and go back and forth until something clicks with the plot. I sketch out really rough thumbnails to fit spreads, and draft the story in detail. This gets neater and clearer until it’s time to move to final artwork. For stories that I have not written it’s similar, I like to get to know the character with a few sketches, decide their face shape, clothing, movement - mainly because it’s fun!
I love keeping a sketchbook, a personal space that I take with me everywhere. Sketching from life is really essential as I don’t want to get too bogged down with imaginative drawings if they’re too stiff. Location work keeps me in practise and it’s calming! It’s also become a space that I can return to for memories from holidays, walks, meetings, all stored in sketches.
Although contemporary in style, the book retains a certain traditional fairy tale charm. Was this a conscious decision?
Thank you! I don’t think it was a conscious decision, I did it that way because that’s the process of drawing I enjoy! I have always loved folklore and fairy tales, ad so the artists I explored when I was younger reflected these themes. Illustrators and painters that filled up fairy books became my favourites. John William Waterhouse, Arthur Rackham, Cicley Mary Barker, these are artists I poured over in school. I loved the Pre-Raphaelites and their subject matter. I think this is an amalgamation of the influence of graphic novels, children books, folklore and Pre-Raphaelites! I read a lot of folklore from all over the world and that probably influenced the feel I wanted to capture in the story. There’s a fantastic randomness and acceptance of the bizarre in folklore, it’s very matter of fact about the improbable.
The colour wasn’t intentionally heralding the children’s books of the 50s/60s, although I’m pleased with that! I love yellow and based that as a main colour for Imelda, and coupled it with colours that I like and that suit it. Also, the pages are so busy the colours had to be warm and suit each other or it might be a bit harsh on the eyes!
Have you always loved reading and telling stories? What was your favourite book as a child?
Yes, I was very bookish. What I like has changed as I’ve got older! I loved all kinds of childrens books and Disney films when I was little. I read a lot of Fantasy books and manga in school, and always made up stories and wrote them down and drew the characters. I then discovered the stories the Pre-Raphaelites and Arthur Rackham and Brian Froud were painting and absorbed them, finding a real love for fairy tales and myths. I’d probably say ‘Ella Enchanted,’ by Gail Carson Levine was my favourite when I was younger. It’s a take on Cinderella and I always loaned it out of my school library. But that’s a tough one because there were lots of treasured stories!
Where do you do your creative work?
From my bedroom/studio. In a few years I’d like a house with a whole spare room for a separate studio! But I couldn’t work in a public studio space. I find it too distracting and I like to have everything at my disposal. If I forgot one thing I’d find it difficult to work effectively without thinking "I could really do with my 4B pencil" - the whole work day has been compromised.
If money was no object, where would your studio be?
That’s really hard because there would be lots of great places. In the middle of nowhere in Ireland, or Scotland, or a woodland cabin in a German forest, or somewhere with a mountain view, or Cornwall by the sea, or a cute village with a cafe nearby, or a busy, pretty city with lots of noise and business outside.
If there was a fire, (assuming all loved-ones are safe and sound) what one thing would you save?
Laptop or sketchbook I suppose! Let’s assume I backed my laptop up that very day - the hard drive I guess! But I would be very sad about my sketchbook. I have two hands, could I carry both?
Do you react well under the pressure of a deadline or work better calm and organised?
I don’t tend to find myself in a flap that I panic about, if things get tight, I knuckle down - it’s just a point in time, I can power through it! I’d rather not get too stressed, sometimes it can’t be helped when several deadlines arrive at the same time and it’s a bit intense. Sometimes I think I burn myself out, normally I need to go away from my desk for a few days, take a proper break, and then I’m ready to go again.
And what is your snack of choice to get you through it?
Tea and biscuits, obviously.
What is next for you? Any more books on the horizon?
I have a few new books I’m writing/ working on and I have a few ideas in the sketchbook to explore. There’s so many things I’d really love to work on! But there’s also projects I can’t reveal yet, watch this space!
Let’s end with a fun fact - tell me something weird or unexpected about you.
When I was 13 I broke my right wrist tripping over the hose on our patio in my rollerblades. I haven’t rollerbladed since. (I wasn’t very good)