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We interviewed Dale Blankenaar, the brilliant illustrator of Quill Soup! He offered some brilliant insights into the process of creating the artwork for this beautiful, colourful book. Based on the traditional ‘stone soup’ fable, Quill Soup is an African retelling about a very hungry porcupine who goes looking for some food. Read the interview below!

How did you find the process of illustrating the book?

The process of making this book was one of the most challenging of my career thus far. This was largely because of the patterned flowers and plants on each spread and also that there were always 2 layers which each had a different style: the foreground, with all its bright colours and the background with its almost X-ray grey tones. These elements always had to be in balance, but also create and interesting tension and narrative. 

Another big challenge were the characters: I tried to create characters that really seemed alive despite the fact that many of them are quite stylised. Each character whether in the foreground or background seemed to have its own story to tell and I had to find out what that story was and then follow the character throughout the book to see what it would do next. Each character in its own way, had to contribute to the narrative and concept of the book in an interesting way. 

As an artist from South Africa, what was it like to illustrate a story with an African setting?

It was a great opportunity to do something different. I think many people have an idea in their minds of what ‘African art’ looks like. The bushman paintings and similar work seem to have become representative of African art and in South Africa you see them cheaply reproduced at every craft market and tourist gift shop. The challenge was to find something unexpected and interesting  within various African cultures, and do my contemporary take on it.  

Your illustrations are full of beautiful patterns and bright colours. What was the inspiration behind this? 

I did as much research on African art and culture as I possibly could and I found inspiration in the art of Tanzania, the wood sculpture of western Africa and the costumes & masks of the BWA people of Burkina Faso. I combined these references with my love of experimentation with bright primary colours and the result was unexpected even to me which was exactly what I wanted!

Why some spreads are black and white and some coloured?

This idea started with a discussion with the author Alan Durant. He mentioned that something that influenced his version of this tale, was the way we, as human beings, treat strangers. I felt this was a very relevant theme  and I wanted to visually portray it in some way. I ended up doing it by illustrating Noko, the central character, in a completely different style to the rest of the animals. He is this sad grey-white figure amidst a world of colour. To convey the idea that he looks different because he comes from a different world, so to speak, I created completely black and white spreads illustrated in the same style as Noko, so the reader would understand why he looks the way he does. The stark contrast between colour and black and white is meant to represent the fundamental differences there are between strangers.

Your illustrations are full of detail. What do you want readers to gain from this?

I always try to create a book that will allow an endless amount of readings and the discovery of something new each time. Little puzzles and sub-stories for the reader to unravel as they read the book again and again. Each detail was very carefully considered, each gesture and facial expression and movement is there for a reason…and even if these reasons are known only to me, I hope that the reader will make their own meaning; create their own reasons and stories as they grow up with the book.

Did you go and see the animals in real life before drawing them? 

There are lots of strange birds where I live…so many of them may have crept into the book. We also see baboons and pigs and cows quite regularly, but I wasn’t able to go out and see them specifically as reference for the book. I relied mainly on my trusty Google to show show what the animals looked like in real life. In the end the animal characters are actually quite closely based on the shapes of West African wood sculpture. 

How did you personally relate to the story?

When I was a child I had an overpowering need to belong. During my childhood I think I felt like a stranger in my own skin…my peers would make unkind assumptions about me because I was different in so many ways. There was always a lot of teasing, which, I suppose happens to any child. I always found myself trying to change to belong…I guess in many ways, especially at school, I felt a lot like Noko…a sad, grey figure amidst a world of colour…present but never really a part of. Fortunately I found art and books and people that I love and who love and accept me for who I am. Happy endings for both of us then.

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