It’s no secret that Elise Hurst is a champion in the world of children’s literature, with over 55 published books to her name, ‘The Night Garden’ being shortlisted in the 2008 CBCA Awards, and her unequivocal skill in fine art, portraiture and landscape artistry. Her works, such as ‘My Boots in Season’ and ‘Imagine a City’, are full of energy, imagination and surrealism, and at the same time touch their audience with their intense, nostalgic and indelible, classic qualities. It is a great honour to have had the opportunity to discover more about Elise’s creative world, and her secrets behind ‘Adelaide’s Secret World’ (read my review here)
Congratulations on the launch of your latest picture book release, ‘Adelaide’s Secret World’! Your recent exhibition displayed a stunning collection of your oil paintings from the story. Please tell us about the response you’ve received and the most rewarding part of the whole process.
It was really special to have the book wrap around me in the gallery, and for people to be able to read it as they moved around the walls. By far though, the best responses have been from people being immersed in the text and telling me about their genuine connections to the character. That has been from adults and children alike.
‘Adelaide’s Secret World’ is a touching tale full of imagination, reflection, serendipitous and courageous moments that empower change and finding one’s voice. Where did the inspiration for this story come from, and how did it develop?
I understand Adelaide, and I think there is a little bit of her in many of us. She is that person who has a beautiful rich world within her but no one notices. She is wrapped up in loneliness and has turned it into a safe place. She is observant and thoughtful, creative and active but she simply doesn’t know how to reach out to those around her. She grew from the coming together of many things – a painting of a solitary rabbit in a cafe that I created some years ago, a character of a woman striding through a street in New York with a strange huge bird, the memory of being at university before I had made new friends and how lonely that was even though I was surrounded by people. And the movie Amelie was one that struck a chord too, in dealing with a similar character. The more I thought about the character and the source of her isolation, the more she developed into a real person for me.
How long did the process take from inception to completion? What were the most challenging aspects of creating ‘Adelaide’s Secret World’?
Some of the earliest emails I was trading with my editors Erica Wagner and Elise Jones at A&U are from 2011 – so the story has been on the boil for some time. The character was still changing then and the story was quite different. Over the next 4 years we met and talked a lot about what we wanted the story to be and how to make it flow naturally. One of the challenges is to make the story reinforce itself at every turn. Picture books are short so nothing should be wasted. All of the tiny details should support the narrative and should be symbolic in some way – from the colour choices to incidental details. In an early version I had intended that Adelaide would have a red coat hanging on her wall which she wasn’t brave enough to wear until the end of the narrative. However, I changed that to have her wear a red coat throughout the story. This way she was a visual focus, but also it showed that she was the warm beating heart of the story. It was important to me that she was not seen as broken or empty, but that she had so much to give if she could just find a way to speak out. In the red coat she carried all of that imagination and warmth around with her. It was also a nice visual link to the red curtain, itself a powerful metaphor. The curtain changed from being a comfortable buffer between her outer and inner world, to being torn apart and reused as an agent of change and connection when it is pulled into a long strand. This is used to physically connect others in the community, as well as Adelaide, so that when they leave their houses in the morning they follow the red strings and meet each other for the first time.
I loved creating the paintings, but it was the story that was the biggest and most important challenge. I wanted a story with real heart, not just a lot of nice pictures.
Your paintings are contemporary yet reflect classic detail in their artistry. Which illustrators have been your greatest influences in becoming the successful artist you are today? How did your path lead you to illustrate children’s books?
I think I looked at people who had certain skills – and it didn’t matter what field they were in. I loved John Singer Sargent for his incredible portraits and use of colour. John William Waterhouse for his accurate but dreamy narrative works. The Lindsays and Albrecht Durer and other etchers for their line and drama. E.H. Sheppard and Beatrix Potter for expressive lines and capturing animal characters…
To some extent I studied them when I was a child, but after that I think I just carried around aspects of their work in my head, just the same as you keep certain music and scenes from films and books, characters you meet and things you witness. They all swirl around together and find their own way out. I was a traditional artist first, before moving into illustration. This was great for assembling the skills I will draw on for the rest of my life as an artist. What that area lacked, though, was story. And once I began illustrating I found the other artwork I was doing to be curiously hollow. I could like it for what it had achieved but I didn’t have the same feeling and excitement for it as I do with narrative works.
Your range of books showcase a variety of illustrating styles, from ink and watercolours to oil paintings, whimsical to soul-stirring. Do you have a preference over which medium you like to use? What is your process in determining which style best suits the story?
I used to change all of the time because I had all of these styles and media at my disposal (because of the traditional art beginnings). Now I have my two favourite styles that I think are the best conduit for my imagination. One is highly detailed and precise drawings in black and white. The other is expressive oil painting. They are opposites, really. Oils are fast and expressive, emotional and dramatic. The drawings are slow and considered, evolving and detail-filled. They are great for expressing completely different stories and aspects of the world I love.
What does your art studio look like? Meticulously organised or creative clutter?
It has evolved from creative clutter to meticulously organised. I used to love being surrounded by inspirational things, but it got to a point when the functional space in my room was about a third of its actual size. It had to stop. Having kids too, there needs to be one space where I can go that is organised.
What are your favourite figures / scenes to draw / paint? Why?
I like to draw without an agenda and see what happens. Unplanned drawings where a character finds themself in the middle of an adventure – that’s great fun. All I need is the beginning detail and it just goes from there. My inner child often gets to star there somewhere.
I think the writing and pictures are really two hands working on the same task. They may have different things at their disposal but they are always supporting each other. I pay particular attention to the strengths of each medium at evoking the senses and helping us to make connections. So colour has an emotional language for me where cools shades might be sad or reflective, and warm ones are happy or excited or angry. Likewise I’ll describe sound or smell with the words. The more connections we make, the more immersive the experience of reading can be and the more real the story becomes.
What do you love most about writing and illustrating for children?
I would have to say that I write and illustrate for me. And I sincerely hope that the adults enjoy the books as much as the children.
What advice would you give to aspiring writers and illustrators wanting to succeed in the children’s literature industry?
I guess – become good at what you love. Keep learning, keep practising. Go to life drawing classes and get to know the human body. But above all else keep experimenting to find what it is that comes naturally to you and how you can use that strength and individuality to create things that are distinctly yours.
What are you currently working on? What can all of your fans look forward to seeing from you in the near future?
I am completing a few commissions, while I think about the next story. I know it and the main character but I have yet to get anything onto paper. If you have read Adelaide then you have already met him. Next, the Fox gets his story.
Thank you so much, Elise! Looking forward to Fox’s adventures!
Teaching notes for Adelaide’s Secret World can be found here.