Walking in Gagudju Country by Diane Lucas & Ben Tyler, illustrated by Emma Long
Inside the CBCA Shortlist
Walking in Gagudju Country: Exploring the Monsoon Forest
Walking in Gagudju Country is an informed and warm invitation to walk into Gagadju (Kakadu). The authors, Diane Lucas & Ben Tyler, are guides and illustrator Emma Long enhances the book with imagination and rigour.
There is a sophisticated interplay between the natural, human, historical, oral traditions and more. There is also an authenticity in the telling and illustrating. These are real stories, places and creatures.
Children will know much about Gagudju Country after walking through it and being immersed in it as they explore this narrative nonfiction book.
Illustrator Interview with Emma Long:
Congratulations on being shortlisted for both the 2022 CBCA Eve Pownall award for information book as well as their award for new illustrators. The significance of your illustrations in Walking in Gagudju Country can’t be overstated.
Thank you for speaking to Joy in Books at PaperbarkWords.
How does living in the Northern Territory influence how you have illustrated this book?
My parents brought me to Katherine from Melbourne when I was two. Having grown up in the Northern Territory really helped me feel connected to the landscapes, the colours of the country and some of the stories that Ben and Di shared with me. When I read the manuscript, I had these really exciting moments of recognising elements of the bush, animals, ecosystems and cycles from my childhood observations. And of course, I was emersed in the landscape, if I had a day where I just couldn’t envisage the forest I could go out into one of them and just soak them in.
Walking in Gagadju Country invites the reader into the book with the authors (who address the reader and have a storytelling role). As illustrator, how do you also help children enter into the book and become a part of it?
I think that children are really engaged when they have the opportunity to make discoveries for themselves and are left asking questions, interested in knowing more.
As an illustrator I love adding those opportunities. I work with the manuscript then place visual cues for readers to discover and investigate. Little ideas that are connected to, but not necessarily explicit in the text.
It’s important to have fun with it as well. I imagine all of the fascinating little things that pop up in the bush, all of the things that my children get interested in when we walk in the bush, and then layer those in too.
How would you describe your style and what media and process did you use for the illustrations?
I am a natural history illustrator at heart. I have had to move slowly sideways, so that I don’t get too fixated on pure representation. I suppose it is a little bit of a graphic art style too. I grew up loving cartoons, comics and colouring – they have all influenced how I work to a degree.
The illustrations in Walking In Gagudju Country are all ink and watercolour. I feel like I have a very labour intensive process as I will pour over research for hours while I sketch and ruminate on composition.
The first draft was an A2 sheet of paper folded into a 32 page book layout, and I worked with Ben and Di’s manuscript to layout the spreads. This was sketched on, photocopied, cut and glued to become the first dummy book. It is tiny and is one of my favourite parts of my process.
From there I created some colour drafts and then got to work with the full size layouts that Di, Ben and our editing team devised, creating full size spread sketches.
I think a lot of illustrators hold back on too much detail at this stage foreseeing changes or amendments, but I just couldn’t help myself in researching and sketching. It became quite compulsive at the time and I felt really trustful of that process.
I felt really lucky to have Ben and Di so close and collaborative. If I had questions about a specific plant or animal species, or wanted to check that they were happy with my inclusions, they were both always available and really keen to guide or support the illustration process too.
How have you embedded or alluded to history and the rainbow serpent in your illustrations of the landscape?
I tried to be very careful representing the rainbow serpent in the illustrations. It is not my cultural knowledge, I am acutely aware of how important the rainbow serpent’s connection to country is. The book is about landscapes and ecosystems and the rainbow serpent is integral to landscapes and ecosystems. I worked closely with Ben to make sure that my illustrations were appropriate interpretations of the rainbow serpent on country.
Visually the serpent’s colours really balanced out with the rainbows of the rainy seasons and all the tiny pops of colour that emerge through the greens and browns of the bush.
Your illustrations are full of lush green colours. How have you prevented the colour green from overwhelming your illustrations?
See above ha! I was so conscious of this and to be honest, I still have a couple of spreads where I would have liked to have balanced out the greens a little bit more (and funnily enough one of those is Di’s favourite spread so it’s all often in the eye of the beholder I guess!).
Because the text is so information dense, the abundance of green allowed me to really emphasise all the smaller, colourful creatures and plants.
The opening spread was one of the first I completed, and it really drew my attention to the variety of greens in the bush. At a glance we see green but as we walk, explore and observe, the variety of the natural greens becomes apparent and it is really rather wonderful to be able to work with.
You’ve used perspective very well to create depth in scenes. What is a technique that you’ve used (or an example from the book) that could help aspiring artists with perspective?
Honestly it makes me happy to hear this because this was my biggest anxiety going into this book, having done minimal landscape composition before.
There were a couple of things that really helped me. Firstly, I had Craig Smith who is a really experienced children’s illustrator, with books like ‘Windcatcher’ and ‘Remarkably Rexy,’ mentoring me. He is really adept at ‘getting inside’ a composition and seeing all of the angles. Being able to break down some rough sketches and explore all the options with another illustrator was brilliant.
Secondly, I went right back to basics and broke all the compositions down to three layers– main subjects (focus) foreground, middle ground and background. I tried to imagine the scenes as if I was flying over them or from an animal’s perspective on the ground, considering what would highlight the focus of the spread best.
I also really made an effort to look at light and study where it fell within the landscape. The work of Albert Namatjira and the Hermansburg watercolourists was at the forefront of my mind with this as their paintings capture the gradients of the landscape so beautifully, you can just feel yourself melting into them.
Of which page are you particularly happy with your composition? Why?
My favourite compositional spread is tied between the end papers and spread 28/29. I found the process of creating them challenging but was thrilled with the end result. Spread 28/29 is another of my favourites. It is not as dense as a lot of the other spreads, but it wraps up the walk of the day so well with the soft gradient of the sunset and stories in the stars. It was my last painting and a really satisfying way to end the book.
As an arts educator, what were you most pleased about in your application of your skills in this book?
I actually completely surprised myself with these illustrations. The best thing was seeing my own progress from the initial stages of playing with colour to the final spreads. When I completed the first colour rough images (very early on in the process) I was so happy with what I thought was my best work then fast forward 6 months to the completion of the final colour illustration, and I was ecstatic to see my own personal progress.
My students get so sick of me saying practice, practice, practice to them but really, unless you have a very innate talent, the only way you will make fast progress is through consistent practice. It was gratifying to significantly refine of my own skills through regular practice.
What impact has being shortlisted for the CBCA Book of the Year: Eve Pownall award, as well as the New Illustrator award this year had on you or this book?
I can’t say I know exactly what impact these nominations have had on the book. I think it has given the book even broader exposure, though Allen and Unwin have already been amazing at distributing the book widely – I get so excited to see our book in book shops and post offices down here on the South Coast so far from the monsoon forests of Gagudju country!
I think the amount of time and energy that goes into creating in the arts industry is still fairly undervalued, or maybe more underestimated, in the mainstream. People like it and will consume it but perhaps don’t recognise just how much work goes into it so for our book to have national recognition just feels really elating.
Professionally, the exposure has opened up some great opportunities such as future book contracts and an upcoming Arts residency with Bundanon trust which I am really excited about.
Could you tell us about some of your other books or work?
Walking In Gagudju Country is my first published book. Prior to the book my practice has been really varied, from whole bodies of lino printing work for group exhibitions to digital commissioned work for health organisations, and lots of small multimedia experiments. Most of these bits and pieces have had a focus on wildlife and the way that people, children in particular, relate to the natural world around them. Thinking about it, a lot of my work is an attempt to quiet my anxiety about what kind of world we are leaving for the children of the future, and trying to infuse some joy and hope into the fairly bleak forecast for the environmental future – sorry, heavy!
This book has really been the first time I have taken the opportunity to build a sustained arts practice, and it was really wonderful.
What are you writing or working on now?
I am currently working on a couple of different projects including a concept for a new book with author Johanna Bell which I am loving – she is such a great collaborator, really pushing the way people think about creating, making and delivering arts. We are exploring the landscapes and nature of Dharawal and Yuin country while I am living on South Coast NSW for 12 months.
I am also back to working digitally on Procreate creating illustrations for Health projects. This work is always very different from my preferred style but always feels great to stretch my skills.
What have you been reading that you would like to recommend?
It depends if we are talking adult fiction or children’s books! We have such a diverse range of books make their way through our house after every library or op shop visit it is hard to narrow down what I am loving exploring most.
My daughter and I read books every night and we keep coming back to Bob Graham (Rose and Mr Wintergarten) and Stephen Michael King (Amelia Ellicott’s Garden, Mutt Dog). They both have such a playful and light approach to subjects that can be quite heavy such as grief, loneliness and fear and how these things can lead to division. I think the underlaying ideology of their books, around the importance of community, belonging and acceptance is just so essential for children to engage with from an early age.
I am also trying to hunt down as much Freya Blackwood (The Terrible Suitcase) as I can. Her books have similar themes and loose illustrations that are gentle and playful.
How can your readers contact you?
My main contacts are through my Instagram handle @emmalongillustration and my website emmalongillustration.com.