Illustrator Jason Cockcroft writes a special feature for Egmont to celebrate National Non-Fiction Month.
Did you know there is a creature in the world that can live for hundreds of years, or that can alter its size and appearance in seconds, change sex at will, give you an electric shock or survive being frozen or buried or covered in boiling lava?
We could be talking about a superhero or mythological idol, a monster from fairy tales, but, as we know, the truth is often more extraordinary than fiction – because such creatures exist in our everyday world, beneath our feet, in our seas, in the trees above us, if only we look.
I’ve been lucky enough to collaborate with Chris Packham on three titles with Egmont, and each has highlighted the everyday magic of the natural world, magic we don’t always notice.
For instance, in Amazing Animal Journeys I discovered that leatherback turtles can live for a century or more, which means that a turtle swimming in an ocean today could have been born during the time of the First World War.
Or in Amazing Animal Babies, Chris explains that in the pregnancy cycle of a seahorse the female lays her eggs in the male, and he gives birth – to up to as many as 2000 babies, or ‘fry’. In his new book, Chris describes how the shell of the Hermit crab is temporary, not permanent, and can be exchanged for an upgrade, like moving house.
Rather than coming as a result of exposure to atomic accidents or ancient curses, these seemingly extraordinary abilities develop through necessity and an evolutionary instinct to survive and thrive as species. But that does not make them any less magical. If anything, it makes them even more worthy of our wonder.
My own process in producing the illustrations for these books begins when Chris’s text arrives, along with a list of the creatures that will be featured, then the editorial team and I set about choosing reference photos to work from. Storytelling and mood is the main focus in our illustrations, but accuracy in appearance is essential.
After I’ve sketched the roughs for each spread, the team and Chris review the images, suggesting changes in composition and character design. Once the roughs are approved I go ahead to the colour work, which starts with me scanning the pencil drawings and placing them into a digital file, which I then spend some days rendering until we’re happy with the colour and texture.
When the artwork is completed for the full complement of spreads, the work is reviewed and final tweaks are made, and eventually, the files are sent to print.
A book can do many things: entertain, distract, inspire, or just allow us to spend time in the company of other people, other worlds, other species. Working with Chris has been a great privilege, not only by being able to share in a wonderful series of books, but because of how much I’ve learned.
One of the many benefits of being an illustrator and author is the opportunity it offers to absorb new information and discover truths that change, in subtle ways, the way we see the world. Each book is an education of sorts, whether fiction or non-fiction, for both reader and author.
Perhaps that is the true wonder of knowledge… not the act of owning such knowledge, but understanding how little we do know, and how much there is left to learn. Think of all the extraordinary things that we are still yet to discover. And when we do, our authors and naturalists and, even our illustrators, will do the best to share such wonders, so we can all revel in the beauty of the living world.
About Jason Cockcroft
Jason Cockcroft is an award-winning illustrator best known for his internationally acclaimed children’s picture book illustrations and his cover artwork for the final three Harry Potter books.