Oliver Jeffers on art, the universe and everything

By Eliza Williams

A master storyteller working across books, art and commercial projects, Oliver Jeffers is getting philosophical in his latest children’s title, Here We Are. We talk to him about how it was made

It’s fair to say that becoming a parent for the first time often alters your perspective on the world. Assailed with intense emotions and befuddled by lack of sleep, it can feel as if you are discovering the universe anew. For most of us this leads to trite proclamations to friends on the wonder of nature and life, as they smile patiently on.

Renowned artist and children’s author Oliver Jeffers has recently gone through this process, and has produced a book on the subject, prompted by the birth of his son two years ago. As you might expect if you are familiar with his previous titles for children, including Lost and Found, Stuck and The Day The Crayons Quit, he addresses the subject with far more sophistication than your average new parent. Titled Here We Are: Notes for Living on Planet Earth, the book acts as both an explanation of the world to his first child and a reminder to parents of our responsibility as guides for our children. And thankfully, it contains a number of his characteristic humorous touches too.

Spread from Here We Are: Notes for Living on Planet Earth

“It started off by almost seeing the humour of giving this two day-old baby a tour of our apartment and the fact that nothing was going in probably,” he says of the book’s genesis. “But [I had a] realisation of just how little people know when they first arrive, and the responsibility of parents and communities to inform the way in which a human being views their world, and interacts with their world.”

I was quite careful that nothing went into the book that would be offensive, but also that nothing went in that could be disputed.

The book, with its beautiful illustrations and simple language, addresses the essential qualities of our world, from looking at planet Earth and the solar system it sits within, to our relationship with other humans and animals. For the latter, Jeffers was also inspired by the political changes he saw emerging in both the US, where he lives, and across Europe (he is originally from Northern Ireland).

“It’s funny because the book started off as me making this tour for my son, but then I was making a lot of social media posts from the time that my wife was pregnant and knowing that we were going to have a baby and things just seemed to be going weird politically everywhere. Sort of feeling this responsibility to do something about that, to not remain silent.

Above: Works from Oliver Jeffers’ ‘Dipped Paintings’ series, where he creates a detailed portrait of a sitter, only to dip the bottom half in paint. This process always takes place in front of a live audience, who are the only people to see the full work

“The world seems to be riddled with broken systems that favour the few,” he continues. “As idealistic as that sounds, it shouldn’t be too complicated to address those issues…. It became about that and it became about this urgency as this sweep of xenophobia continues to travel…. Seeing a far-right party come into German politics for the first time since World War Two is terrifying because that points to very scary trends. And the reality is that people do want to look after themselves but there has to be a way in which that can happen [that is] not at the expense of all these people who clearly so desperately need help.”

Work from Oliver Jeffers’ ‘Dipped Paintings’ series

Being a children’s book, Here We Are is not overtly political, yet Jeffers hopes that it addresses the core of humanity. “[The book] outlines what I think are the absolute, very simple basics of humanity,” he says. “And how it all comes down to very simple things. I was quite careful that nothing went into the book that would be offensive, but also that nothing went in that could be disputed. If I could make the points I wanted to make byb doing those two things then I thought it would be a success.”

Picture books and beyond

Jeffers has enjoyed great success as a children’s author for well over a decade, part of a period of expansion in the industry, in spite of doom-mongers predicting the death of books. During this time, he has paid refreshingly little attention to the wider world of book publishing, and even to what his competition is up to, however. “I’ve always kept one foot in the fine art world, and one foot in the publishing/picture books world,” he explains. “Other picture book people finish a book, and they then go out into the world and see what else is going on, and tour with the books, and I have really stayed away from that to a degree, because then I’ve been tied up with projects that are not in the publishing world. It is easier to just stay in my little bubble and make work, and not really know where it is hitting.”

I make books because I feel a compulsion to, and I make art because I feel a compulsion to … it’s not financially driven at all.

His other work includes fine art projects such as his recent ‘Dipped Paintings’ series. A mix of painting and performance art, Jeffers creates detailed portraits of sitters for the series before enveloping the bottom half of the works in paint in front of a live audience. By not documenting the pre-dipped paintings in any form, those present are the only ones who ever see what the full work once looked like. The finished paintings therefore address themes from representation to memory and identity.

Jeffers acknowledges that he has to determinedly carve out time to do his fine art works alongside his books, and also the other commercial projects he embarks on, which in recent years have included creating a music video and tour visuals for U2. He sees all the projects that he works on as part of a wider unified practice, however.

Tour visuals created by Oliver Jeffers for U2's Innocence + Experience tour in 2015
Tour visuals created by Oliver Jeffers for U2’s Innocence + Experience tour in 2015

“I make books because I feel a compulsion to, and I make art because I feel a compulsion to,” he says. “I’m not making books because I think that’s easy money, it’s not financially driven at all. I like making good art and I like using my art as a way to explore things that I don’t fully understand.

“Learning to say no is difficult, but once you have, it’s a great tool to have,” he continues. “I generally say no to everything and if they come back again and it’s really intriguing and it’s something that I wasn’t going to do on my own anyway, if I can figure out a way to make it fit into the schedule…. The one thing I don’t want to do is end up working 20 hours a day. I like being at home every night for dinner and I like having my weekends now to be with my family and do things. Whereas before being in the studio on the weekend and the evenings were my most productive times because there was nobody else there to distract or interfere.”

Another shot showing Oliver Jeffers’ tour visuals for U2 in action (for the Innocence + Experience tour in 2015)

On being a ‘gun for hire’

Jeffers’ commitment to only making the work that he feels compelled to is a learned process. In the past, the majority of his earnings were coming from advertising jobs or commissions, though eventually he decided to move away from this kind of work. “I was never really happy when I was doing that,” he says. “Some people are cut out for that and I wasn’t…. I’m happy with much of the work that I made during those years, but I was spending a lot of time doing work that I wouldn’t have chosen to do, if it weren’t for money. The amount of time it takes to do anything is extended because there’s so many people involved. Often there are people who are pitching in with comments I think so they can justify being there. That became very frustrating.

I realised that unless I cut out this gun-for-hire stuff, I’m never going to be able to make this art that I want.

“I realised that I was spending a lot of my time doing these other things for money and I had a rack of ideas building up that were never going to happen,” he continues. “And I realised that unless I cut out this gun-for-hire stuff, I’m never going to be able to make this art that I want. I knew there would be a gulf between the financial security that I had there and then going off and doing these things, and I knew it would take a long time to come back around. But [I’m] so happy not having to be ordered around…. I’m probably never going to do another advertising job again. Unless it was something that I felt would be really interesting and the benefits wouldn’t just be financial for me. There would have to be something else there that would satisfy my integrity I suppose.”

The process of creation

Working out of a studio in Brooklyn, New York, Jeffers has a small team of assistants, though still does the vast majority of the creative work himself, with help from certain key colleagues. “Hannah has been my right-hand woman for several years and she helps me with doing some of the Photoshop work,” he says. “I direct and she scans various bits and helps with sending the files to the printer. But it took several years for me to trust her to work on the Photoshop, the actual files.

“I work with my brother as well, he designs all the books, his eyes I would trust as well,” he continues. “That’s an important thing to learn, how to delegate and not just bottleneck everything. Delegate the things that you can because it frees you up to do other things. Some things it’s not so good to delegate because it might not be done the way that you would do it, and it just ends up not looking like your work, it becomes something else then.”

Miracle Mural 2014, photograph ©Chris Heany

Perhaps unsurprisingly then, Jeffers’ projects can often take a long time to complete. This was particularly the case with Here We Are, which he worked on for around two years.

“That one was a very long process,” he says, “just because the book was fairly ambitious, and it took me a while to figure out how to actually make the art. I tried a couple of different experiments – maybe I’ll make the art all really large and then go from there, but it didn’t have the right feel. Ultimately it was using a combination of actual painted backgrounds, some digital composition and then iPad for detail, that felt like the nicest, cleanest balance.

“It took about two years, with only some minor projects happening on the side. It was very, very, very involved, it was a long process for this one. Some of the books happen a little faster – normally it’s about a year for a book, but that’s while also working on other projects. And I do like, once you feel like you’ve got the layout and the manuscript sorted, I like to leave it for a little while, and go away and do something else and then come back and look at it with a set of fresh eyes. Often you’ll think ‘yes, this really works still’ or you’ll immediately spot all the glaringly obvious mistakes or errors of judgement.”

Here We Are was largely written before Jeffers began creating the visuals for it, though more commonly he’ll begin with imagery or just individual words, despite the finished works always being story-led.

Cover of the book Here We Are

“Often it’s happened before where I have a sense of something, it’s a vague bubble that has words in a rough direction,” he says. “I almost think about it in three-dimensional terms where I know roughly what happens and I know roughly what I want the feel of it to be and what it will look like and then I start picking it apart from all angles at the same time. This one came together entirely in written terms before.

“Sometimes it can be absolutely the other way round where a very strong image will be the jumping off point and then youb try to extract a story from that. So it is different every time.”

A changing industry

Jeffers is unusual in that his work has been successful across so many different disciplines. This has not come without its problems: he admits that at one point he considered using a pseudonym so that his success in one field did not tamper with how he was seen in others. He is excited now though that a forthcoming monograph of his work from Rizzoli will feature pieces from across all areas, from children’s books to fine art.

Oliver Jeffers at work on Here We Are: Notes for LIving on Planet Earth

“Times are different now than they were when I was starting out,” he says. “There were much more defined boundaries between say fine art and fashion, and design and children’s illustration. Everything is getting mixed up and blurred a lot more, it’s less confusing…. It used to not make sense to people so I used to … not avoid talking about it, but I attempted to not confuse them. I didn’t put a lot of energy into trying to make sure everybody knew everything…. At one point it felt that I’d maybe missed the boat and I should have created a pseudonym, but almost as soon as I thought that, I [realised] that would have felt like I was betraying myself. I’m glad I never did that.”

Jeffers’ work has been hugely influential on those who have followed him –walk around any student show today and you’re likely to see many illustrators emulating his style, and his impact can easily be recognised even in other published works. So when it comes to giving advice to those starting out now, it is perhaps unsurprising that he encourages them to discover their own voice.

Oliver Jeffers at work on Here We Are: Notes for LIving on Planet Earth

“One of the hardest things to do is to stop caring what other people think,” he says, “and have a degree of honesty with yourself about your work. The next big thing was never the last big thing and I think a lot of people get caught up in trying to make their work look like somebody else’s and the really great work doesn’t care about that, it just is what it is.”

He admits that this was a journey he himself had to go on. “I felt the compulsion to create but I had this false sense of needing validation externally,” he says. “And I don’t know where that came from. But once you’re able to extinguish that demon to a degree and just make art for the sake of it, and be happy with the art you make, it becomes infinitely easier.”

One of the hardest things to do is to stop caring what other people think, and have a degree of honesty with yourself about your work

As to what he sees for his future – beyond a second child arriving at the end of the year and hopefully some time off – he says: “People say ‘what’s next’, and I’m like, ‘more of the same, but bigger and slower’.

“Getting to spend more time on stuff and getting to spend more time with an empty brain,” he explains. “I think that can be one of the most interesting things – you have ideas when you’re not completely distracted by everything.”

Here We Are: Notes for Living on Planet Earth by Oliver Jeffers is published in hardback by HarperCollins on November 14, priced £14.99


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