Sign up to the newsletter

An Interview with David McKee

We sat down with children's author and illustrator David McKee at the London Book Fair to discuss his creative process and the power of observation...


Where do you start with an illustration? 

You start with something you’re going to work on and something you’re going to work with, then you hang onto the end of it and off you go.

Is that how you approached working on Elmer?

I’ve just started on the new Elmer book actually, and the idea came visually from an image I saw. I suddenly thought 'Yes', that would help to change the look of Elmer so I’m at the point now where I’m doing rough drawings. I don’t always do roughs, I go straight into things if I’m clear. This one involves some ruins, a palace and other architecture, so I’ve had to do some research which I’ve never really done with Elmer before.

Can you see the whole book in front of you?

I know what each spread is going to be and now it’s a fairly straightforward process. Before, I used to work it all out and virtually trace the story, and now I don’t. I draw on the paper, but I do some working out beforehand. I wouldn't say I'm more relaxed about the process, just that my technique has changed a few times. This Elmer has changed in the manner of how I’m painting, for example. 

Do the words or the pictures come first?

Elmer started with the image before I had the story. Then the name came. Then the story came as if he told me his story. 

What inspires your illustrations? 

What you see. You’re stealing all the time. You see a tree or a flower with strange leaves and you think 'Ah, I can use it'. It’s yours. That flower could be growing in somebody’s garden or it could be part of a drawing.

Stuff’s there, just use it. Even art. Like Picasso said: If there’s something to steal I’ll steal it. Obviously I don’t think that I’m stealing things in that way, but I do think art isn't sacred. It’s there to use.

What attracted you to writing and illustration in picture-book form?

It was Andre Francois, the French illustrator who affected all of my generation. He affected Quentin Blake. Both Quentin and I talked about it. Everybody of that group was touched in some way by Francois. His way of drawing and the freedom that he had. There was a book called Crocodile Tears. It was Faber and when it was first issued, it was issued in a box – a decorative one that looked like a package. I knew his work from cartoons – I used to draw cartoons from the press. At that point I was already a storyteller – I used to tell stories at college – and I thought ‘I can do that.’ I have stories, I can draw. So it all came together.

When you’re drawing for the press & you buy fish and chips and find your own drawing with chip stains all over it. But a book was more permanent. It was that, the attraction of the book: not something that was so fleeting. 

What were your first experiences with the publishing process?

I never took anything to a publisher. When I was drawing cartoons, I would draw 10 ideas or so, put them in an envelope with another envelope so they could be sent back, send them to a magazine or newspaper saying 'I enclose 10 cartoons for your consideration' and they’d normally just send them back. Now and then, though, they’d buy one, sometimes two. If there was one missing, you’d make up another one and then send to another newspaper.

In working on a book, the system I used was to recycle my ideas. I took measurements – probably from Francois. I didn’t know about trim for the illustrations, no technical things. Didn’t know anything about illustration or certain number of pages. I sent it off to the publisher. The first one I sold, I sold to Klaus (Andersen Press) and full colour print was too expensive to sell.

The landscape has changed now, of course. People use agents. In fact, that’s another thing I say. An agent is good for taking away a lot of the refusals from publishers. I was used to refusals but it’s still not something you’re looking for. 

What advice would you give to young artists?

The only advice I can offer is if you really want to do it, you have to really want to do it. And if you want to do it, get all the pleasure you can out of it. Don’t look to be rich and famous. If that happens to come along, the 'rich' part is great. But being famous is a bit of a pain in the arse sometimes. It can be great as well, though. I once saw Mick Jagger parked in Bond Street outside a hat shop. It was fairly empty at that time and two traffic wardens came up. They just danced with them on the pavement and went into their hat shop. They weren’t going to get a ticket were they!?

I’m lucky in not having a problem. What I’ve always wanted is for people to read the books I've worked on and hopefully like them. I wanted to sell enough of them to live off but at the beginning I never thought that I would make a living off books. I just did the book because I wanted to. It’s a bit like painting. A book is like a painting in some ways in that you can work over all of it: you can change something at the beginning and right at the end.

What’s next for you?

I’ve started on Elmer & The Lost Treasure, which is the next book. I’m painting and doing other bits and pieces. I’m still enjoying myself, which is what matters most.


David McKee was born in Devon and went to Plymouth Art College, where he had a traditional training. On leaving college he drew regularly for, among others, Punch, Reader's Digest, and The Times Educational Supplement. His drawings were influenced especially by Saul Steinberg and Andre Francois. David is the creator of several well-known characters including King Rollo and Mr Benn. His most famous creation is Elmer the Patchwork Elephant which is now published in more than 40 languages and has its own successful global merchandise programme. His first picture book was one of the stories he had told at college, Two Can Toucan. This was published by Abelard-Schuman in 1964 and the version David re-illustrated in 1985 was re-issued in 2001 by Andersen Press. David has written and illustrated over 50 picture books for Andersen Press including 24 original Elmer stories. David lives in Arles, France