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Illustrating History by Emma Dodd

Illustrator Emma Dodd talks about the challenges of illustrating historical texts - especially when the story is a graphic novel set in the Roman times. This is part of a series of articles created to support the ReadingZone Picture Book Competition.

'As a picture book illustrator, I am used to having a pretty loose brief.

Drawing babies, toddlers, animals and domestic interiors, I inevitably end up including many of my own surroundings and possessions in my illustrations, and my children appear time and time again.

So when I began my collaboration with K A Gerrard on 'The Adventures of Charlie and Bandit', a series of graphic novels for 7-10 year olds in which our heroes travel back in time, I knew that it was going to be a challenge - though I didn't realise just how much of a challenge it would be!

The first book, 'A Roman Rescue', is set mainly in Ancient Rome. Whilst the relationship between the main characters is very important, it was also crucial that the setting was as historically accurate as possible. The Roman Empire lasted for a very long time, between 500 and 1000 years, depending on whom you ask. During that time fashions changed, as they do now.

A good example of a mistake I made whilst illustrating the book was to include the Coliseum in the background of one of the scenes.

Kelly had set the story during the reign of Emperor Nero (AD 54- 68). Our publishers, Templar, employed a historical expert to look over the text and the finished illustrations just to make sure there were no really glaring historical mistakes. He pointed out that the Coliseum had not yet been built during the time of Nero. It was not built until AD72 and completed in AD 80.

Kelly kindly changed the setting to the rule of Emperor Hadrian, AD 117-139 and the problem was solved. I had already drawn Nero, though, so he was removed, and Emperor Hadrian took his rightful place.

As a child I was very interested in Roman history and had many books on the subject with fantastic illustrations. The Internet is also an amazing source of visual information with detailed reconstructions of Roman furniture and food.

When illustrating books set in historical times, I think it's important not to get too bogged down in historical detail. The pictures still have to be vibrant, engaging and fun, whether they are set in the ancient past or distant future.

Funnily enough the things I found most challenging were not the historical details. When we came up with the idea of setting the book in Ancient Rome, I told Kelly that I was "happy to draw anything except horses... I hate drawing horses". So what did she do? She only went and set a large part of the story in the Circus Maximus, where our friends, Charlie and Bandit become involved in a chariot race. And what pulls chariots?
You've got it... horses... and lots of them, too! Thanks, Kelly. By the time I had finished illustrating 'A Roman Rescue', I was a real expert at drawing horses!

Our latest book, 'An Egyptian Escape', is set not only in Ancient Egypt, but also in Egypt at the turn of the 20th Century when British archaeologists were excavating the tombs of the pharaohs.

Again, reference books from my childhood and the Internet were invaluable sources. I also visited the Egyptian galleries at the British Museum and made some sketches there, as well as buying several more reference books.

Hatshepsut, a real female pharaoh, was very interesting to research, and my illustrations of her are based on ancient portraits and statues, false beard and all.

In "An Egyptian Escape" Charlie befriends twins, Poppy and Jack, who are the grandchildren of British archeologist Professor Honeycutt. While he is a fictional character, he is loosely based on the real archeologist, Howard Carter, who discovered the Tomb of Tutankhamun in 1922.

I found some fabulous black and white photographs of his excavations of The Valley of The Kings, which were useful in showing the costume of the time. Poppy is the daughter of a suffragette and passionate about women's rights. She is a great character and good fun to illustrate.

Illustrating a graphic novel is a very different process from illustrating a picture book. Whilst a picture book has one or maybe two illustrations on each double page spread, a graphic novel can have as many as nine or ten separate boxes, each as important as the others.

The level of detail can be enormous. It takes a very long time. Space has to be left for speech bubbles, too, which risks losing some of my lovingly researched and drawn detail behind them!

I really didn't fully grasp what an enormous undertaking illustrating a graphic novel would be, but I am so glad I did it. It's been very challenging and has really stretched me as an illustrator.

I've leaned a lot about Ancient Rome and Ancient Egypt. I'm really proud of the books and working in such close collaboration with author and friend, Kelly Gerrard has be fantastic fun... even with all the horses!'

14/02/2012Illustrating History by Emma Dodd
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