"Ever since I was a kid, I loved to make things up," says Martin Springett. And in the five books he's illustrated, he has "made things up" in a bold and vibrant style very much his own.
"As a kid, I was always looking at things. I learned to draw through copying lots of science fiction comic strips," he says. He also grew up influenced by a number of illustrators and styles. He loved the work of Aubrey Beardsley, whose drawings are full of exaggerated human figures and large contrasting areas of black and white. He enjoyed the pictures of Arthur Rackham (1867-1939), rich with detail, texture, line, and form. He found the strong graphic style of Japanese woodcuts powerful and appealing. "All these illustrators," Springett explains, "only showed you the essence of what was going on."
Essentially self-taught as an artist, he spent only six months in art school in England. When he was eighteen, his family immigrated to Canada. Here he worked in a winery, a hotel, a hospital. "I did a zillion odd jobs," he recalls.
At that time Springett also began to get seriously interested in music. Playing solo and with bands for seven years, he travelled to Switzerland, Germany, and Austria. As with his art, he is largely self-taught as a musician. And here too, his influences are varied, ranging from the folk-song style of Joni Mitchell to the classical tones of Debussy.
Gradually Springett began to pursue his interest in art, both through commercial work and by illustrating books. But it is the latter that gives him the greatest pleasure. "Books are the thing I really love doing more than anything," he says.
His first picture-book was Mei Ming & the Dragon's Daughter, by Lydia Bailey (Scholastic Canada, 1990), a poetic tale of a young Chinese maiden who saves her drought-ravished village. Mei Ming finds a secret lake guarded by a dragon and discovers the key to unleashing its water for her people.
His pictures are full of vivid characters and striking backgrounds. Each page is framed by attractive borders that keep your eye focused on both words and drawings. Although the art is sharply defined, it never overwhelms the text-not an easy balance. Springett succeeds because, like Beardsley and Rackham and Japanese woodcut artists, he is acutely aware that what you leave out is as important as what you put in.
He never tries to duplicate what a camera can do, but selects each element carefully. "The place I want to go," he says, "is not through the lens of a camera. My thing is to create first of all from my mind and my heart. When I have a sense of who the characters are from the story, I might use a model. I try to merge the imagined wit h the real."
Before he begins a book, Springett does a lot of research, absorbing and learning about the costumes and places in the period in which the story is set. Then, within that framework, he interjects his own vision of the characters and location.
That fusion is apparent in his latest illustrated folk-tale, Too Many Suns. In Julie Lawson's story of ten brothers and ten suns, the world is almost destroyed because of the bravado of the nine larger suns. It's only the youngest brother's good sense and courage that save the smallest sun and prevent the world from being plunged into darkness.
To illustrate the story, Springett uses strong black lines, sharp angles, and curves, even more strikingly than in earlier work. Yet here again, he found that the images sprang directly from the words.
After reading the text, he researched the book's general period (the 1600s in China) in the Far Eastern Library at the Royal Ontario Museum. Then he confronted several challenges. "My greatest challenge was the suns," he explains. "They all had to look similar yet different." Through his reading, he found that the sun is a male symbol in Chinese mythology, so he decided to draw the suns as warriors. "They're not villains," he says. "They cause all this incredible harm but they don't mean to do it."
Too Many Suns is Springett's third Asian folk-tale. He's enjoyed the folk-tale projects, but is now ready to move on to different styles and periods. "I'd like to get the hang of watercolour," he says. "And I'd like to get back to rendering in full perspective. With the Asian books, perspective is generally not part of the visual scene."
Springett is also writing stories himself. Currently, he's exploring a story set in Dickens's London. In this tale, he's focusing on mood and character. And there's a villain that he's "longing to draw." He feels that children find great villains appealing. "This villain, a master thief is an enormous guy," he explains. "He's one of these Dickensian characters who wears ten great coats and a huge stovepipe hat."
He has also brought music into the action. "Whenever my thief, does a burglary he unfortunately finds someone at home. Then he tortures them by doing a song and dance for them. It's actually amusing," says Springett. "He's not an absolute black-and-white villain. Most villains that work have something about them, even in Disney films, that makes them stand out."
It's obvious from his illustrations and conversation that he is not attracted to sentimental tales but to dramatic and emotional stories. A sense of place is important to him also. "Most artists make pictures," he says, "of places they want to go to themselves. I want to go to a lot of places and each place I go to I love. For a while it becomes a world to itself and then I want to go somewhere else."
That intensity, that total involvement with a subject and place, and the belief in the importance of a strong personal vision are reflected in all of Springett's art. It will be exciting to see where that passion transports him next. l
Frieda Wishinsky is a freelance writer. Her most recent children's book is Jennifer Jones Won't Leave Me Alone (HarperCollins Canada).