Benji Davies is an award-winning illustrator and author. He is best known for his acclaimed picture books The Storm Whale, Grandad’s Island and The Grotlyn.
Gallery Nucleus is currently hosting Davies’ first US solo exhibition. The exhibition is running from 6-20 August at their California flagship gallery. For the show, Davies has cherry-picked his favourite images from over a decade of books and turned previously digital work into brand new physical artworks, exclusively for this exhibition.
We previously featured Davies’ work way back in 2016, so we’re thrilled to have the chance to talk to him.
Illustrators’ Lounge: Can you tell us about your path into picture books?
Benji Davies: I studied animation at university. Due to a big shift towards CGI at the time I graduated, it was really hard to find work in that industry. We had trained in more traditional forms of animation storytelling, techniques like hand-drawn and stop motion, and whilst I continued to develop and seek work in animation, I looked to illustration as an outlet. While applying for a job as a designer at a publishing house, I didn’t get the job, but I had the opportunity to show them my portfolio and I was lucky to be offered a job illustrating a non-fiction picture book about the moon landings.
After a couple of years, I did start to find work in animation, being represented for commercials and music videos. This continued for quite a few years, working in both animation and illustration. But I never had the chance to tell my own stories which is where writing picture books came in.
IL: What were some of the most important lessons you learned from your time in animation?
BD: Working in commercial animation making adverts, and pitching on many different subject matters really pushed me to think in different ways and work in styles and tones that weren’t so obvious to me.
I guess one of the biggest gifts it gave me was the realisation that whilst I was making a living from animation directing work I wasn’t being creatively satisfied, and I found it quite soulless working for commercial clients. I needed to be more wholly the creator of the work. Writing and illustrating stories in my own picture books enabled me to do that. It was another way of “making films” as I had studied at university. I got to write the scripts, make the costumes, be the actors and cinematographer but the films I was able to make were actually books.
IL: Noi’s adventures in the Storm Whale books are charming and idyllic, what inspired them?
BD: This goes back to my days as an animation student. The film I made was called A Bowl Of Soup. It was the story of a little boy who finds a whale on the beach. As the years passed I had always wanted to see if I could turn this student film into a children’s book. Then one day I was in a seaside town called Whitstable in Kent, UK, and I saw some oystermen’s huts, old fishing huts along the shoreline. It put me in mind of the film I had made several years before so when I got home I set about turning some sketches and photos I had made of the huts into a new piece of artwork. This image became the starting point of me developing the picture book now known as The Storm Whale. The process took about three years before my publisher gave it the greenlight. The main character was nameless in the original student work but I had heard the name Noi when watching an Icelandic film at some point in the intervening years and felt it would suit my whale-saving boy.
IL: What’s your creative process – from the initial concept to the tools you use?
BD: All my books have unfolded in slightly different ways. But when I set about writing a new picture book the first thing is usually a seed of an idea that I have been brewing for some time, maybe several years. Ideas tend to gather over time, from concepts or moments, maybe even images such as the oystermen’s huts. I tend to build the idea in my head, and then at some point when inspiration strikes I will have the first line of the book – this happened with my book Tad. “Tad was a frog. Well that’s not quite true – she was almost a frog”. The rest flowed from that sentence. It’s then a much bigger job to storyboard the book, edit the text and make everything work as a picture book. I sketch out the story as a sequence of thumbnail images, the book illustrations as I imagine them to be in a small rough form. I then scan these and drop them into InDesign to create a dummy version of the book in PDF format. I can tweak and edit until everything is just as I want it.
Once I have the go ahead from the publisher I set about creating the artwork. I take each page of the PDF into Photoshop and start to paint digitally, building up the layers, objects and characters in the scene.
IL: Your career has gone from strength to strength, with a string of highly acclaimed and much-loved books, so what’s next?
BD: It’s a very good question! There are several things I have on the boil. One is writing a much longer book for older readers which I dip in and out of when I get the chance between deadlines. But also more picture books, and developing some of my published work into animation. But after creating these new paintings for the Gallery Nucleus show I’m also leaning into the idea of spending more time with my paints and brushes making some work which isn’t related to books and stories – that would be interesting and fun to explore.
IL: You have an upcoming solo show with Gallery Nucleus, what can people look forward to seeing at there?
BD: The show at Nucleus was a unique opportunity for me to look over ten years of creating picture books and cherry-pick my favourite images, then set about turning them into real painted works. I used a variety of mediums and techniques to achieve this, from gouache and acrylic, to ink and collage. The whole process was one of discovery and rediscovery. I’ve relied on a digital way of working for many years, both for the style it enabled me to produce, but also its expediency and editability. It was surprisingly meditative to find myself away from a screen, only hearing the brush strokes and scratches of pen on paper while I worked and has made me reconsider how I will work going forward.
IL: Finally, one of our goals here is to widen people’s pool of inspiration – who are the artists/illustrators that inspire you?
BD: Gallery Nucleus is a great place to start for anyone looking to be inspired, they represent such a great range of talented artists, it’s a real honour to be placed alongside them.
Some artists who have inspired me over the years tend to be ones from the past – Tove Jansson, Gustaf Tenggren, Mary Blair, Ronald Searle, and Eric Ravillious.