interview with an illustrator
Ali Stringell trained as a set and costume designer at the Slade School of Fine Art. She taught art at Portland Place School, London, for many years and is now a designer-maker of contemporary silverware and sculpture, and a children’s writer and illustrator. She recently published her first book, Miss Moo-Poo, with Railway Land Press. Ali lives, works and exhibits at her studio in Ditchling, East Sussex, a village with a great artistic tradition and history.
How did you get started as an illustrator?
Really, I fell into it with Miss Moo-Poo! I trained as a Theatre Designer at the Slade School of Fine Art, and then spent many years working in theatre, film and TV. Illustrating Miss Moo-Poo was very similar to designing the sets and costumes for a play, opera or ballet. I used the same skills and processes, and applied them to visualising the characters and story. The only difference was that this was in book form, rather than as a three-dimensional, moving image.
Who are your influences?
My theatrical background has to be at the forefront, it seems to be the thread that ties my work together and is at the core of my ideas. Ralph Steadman and Gerald Scarfe were huge influences at the beginning of my theatre designing career. Still are! As well as Léon Bakst and Ballet Russes for costume designs. In terms of book illustration, I think Emily Gravett’s The Rabbit Problem and Little Mouse’s Big Book of Fears are stunning.
As for historic artists, there are so many, but there is Egon Schiele for his drawn line, Otto Dix and George Grosz for ink work and drawings, Francisco Goya, Joan Miró, Antoni Tàpies and his mark making, and of course Picasso and his sculpture. Goodness, where to stop? The thinking of the Surrealists, historical fashion plates of the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries have all filtered through. All in that pot! There are so many more, both contemporary and past, but the list would be too long and the pot too vast.
What are your current projects?
I would like Miss Moo-Poo to meet many little ones; the naughtiest and moodiest little Moos! And for them to meet her. In bookshops or schools, wherever, I’m looking forward to introducing her to as many children as possible.
What or who inspired Miss Moo-Poo?
The main sources of inspiration for the ideas behind the story, and for the character of Miss Moo-Poo herself, have to be my niece, Kaia Lily, and my grand-niece, Sienna Lily, who were 3 and 4 years old when I was writing it. Kaia, particularly for the all-important YELLOW WELLIES! I gave her a pair on her first birthday and she would wear them all the time; even fall asleep in them. Sienna was more of a ‘dressing up’ girl, and trying on her mummy’s high-heeled shoes filled her with delight. She was so amused and obviously felt so grown up. Alas, she ‘wobbled’ and ‘wibbled’… and so Miss Moo-Poo’s character formed and the story began!
How did you develop the storytelling?
As a costume designer, the best bit for me was always visualising and drawing the shoes and hats of different characters. Researching historical fashion was paramount, but being able to embellish, adorn and exaggerate was vital. This has filtered through, and so Miss Moo-Poo had to have those shoes, ‘this hat’ and ‘that hat’!
Also, being a teacher and working in education for a number of years – with the responsibility of persuading pupils to work hard and achieve their goals – encouragement, metaphorical bribes or ‘carrots’ always helped. I was constantly having to find new and effective ways to encourage pupil learning in the classroom, to placate their little moods and wishes. This is seen in the endeavours of Mr Milk-Tom. Perhaps I am a little bit of both Miss Moo-Poo and Mr Milk-Tom myself. Reflections of my own childhood are in the story, plus being surrounded by children with their quirky ways.
How would you describe your work?
Whimsical, humorous, quirky, theatrical, satirical.
Can you tell us something about your creative process?
The drawings or illustrations inspire the writing and vice-versa. The costume illustration and designing skills certainly have an influence here, in finding the character. Drawing is at the core. A drawn line, a smudge, a ripped piece of paper, that unfinished sketchbook idea scribbled down in a moment… it always becomes something more, or different or utilised in a different way.
I always try to draw through a problem, adapt and change it, until you know you have that moment of wonder and it’s right.
How did lockdown affect your work?
As hard as lockdown was, finding Miss Moo-Poo gave me a purpose. The idea and her character had been with me for many years. However, I couldn’t see her or visualise her. Lockdown gave me the time. And due to the ‘non-essentials’ being unavailable during lockdown, all I had to hand were a few pieces of different papers, inks, Conté crayons and charcoal. These gave me a start, a small step forward alongside a huge leap of faith. And so she arrived. She saved me!
Any tips for young illustrators trying to get started?
Believe in your story and create from the heart.
Text and Illustration copyright © Ali Stringell / Railway Land Press 2022