“Play belongs to the child as such it appears to be inconsistent with the principle of serious work. But without play… no seriously creative work has ever come to be.”
Stephen Michael King displays this quote by Carl Jung in his studio, and the words hint at the philosophy behind the work of the award-winning children’s illustrator and author.
It’s been about 16 years since Stephen, his wife Trish and their children made their home in the Manning after living in Sydney.
“Trish grew up in Taree and my brother-in-law and my sister have a farm in Krambach.
Video: by Scott Calvin
“I was sitting on their verandah in Krambach and in a magazine we saw this house was for sale and we just came to look at it.
“I’d only renovated a nice studio in Sydney 18 months before. I had this super nice space – and we moved.”
Originally a workshop, he had some friends help with filling in some sections, putting in doors and building mudbrick walls.
“The dream was to actually make that space the whole space (he gestures to another area) but this space was good enough and we moved in and I’ve never done anything else. I think I was going to render the walls outside.”
I’d only renovated a nice studio in Sydney 18 months before. I had this super nice space - and we moved.Stephen Michael King
Stephen writes and illustrates his own books but also illustrates for other authors.
The studio, only a short walk from the house, has all the tools he needs including his drawing desk, watercolour paints, pencils, nib pens (for inking), a computer and a light-box.
It also holds collections of his and other books, examples of his past work and sentimental, inspirational and quirky items, including Disney figurines and some of his dad’s things such as a pen/pencil holder with the phrase ‘Don’t Sign Anything!’ on it.
“My dad’s not with me anymore. These are his pipes. His two pipes and his pen and pencil thing that he made out of toilet roll, so it’s pretty daggy. But he used to tell me that, don’t sign anything!”
Also on display is a model of a Wright Brothers plane. “It’s not a real good example because you can’t throw it and fly it but I like all that invention stuff, people who were bicycle makers chasing their dream and thinking they can fly and stuff.”
One of Stephen’s favourite artists is Alexander Calder and he has some of his mobiles hanging in the wind at his house.
“He’s really interesting. He was a mechanical engineer and he knew how to do all this stuff but he just found ‘simple’. Everything was about simple.
“It started off he made these weird mechanical circuses that you could wind up and all these things and they just kept getting simpler and simpler, so I’m a big fan of his stuff."
A lot of his Disney figurines have been gifts (Stephen also worked as an illustrator for Disney for a while).
“I’m pretty specific. I like the stuff from when (Walt) Disney was alive and then even pre-1960 Mickey Mouse, where he was wild and naughty. I used to collect Mickey Mouse cartoons.”
Stephen reads a lot of biographies.
“I’m mad for artist biographies, just for the art factor. I’m a bit of a dag for a good old rock biography too because everything goes downhill one chapter after another. Even worse than artists,” he laughed.
“Disney was actually the first biography I ever read when I was at school and so probably found that fairly inspiring in some ways, in that he wasn’t a great artist but he knew how to work things and find good talent.”
He’s also a big fan of the Muppets, “because they did simple really, really well.”
”I’ve read Jim Henson’s biography as well (creator of the Muppets) and I love some of the stuff he said about working and playing it down.
“It’s part of my philosophy too, like where everything (I do) could be better or everything could change, you know, but he’s very much if you’ve got something you run with it and you know, it wasn’t even that it would be better afterwards, you don’t analyse it to death.
“So he had a great way of doing simple but sensitive and capturing people’s hearts and stuff.”
Stephen picks up a pencil and starts to sketch on a piece of watercolour paper on the drawing desk.
Beginning to add charcoal he explains he doesn’t use it very much and most often works in watercolour, ink and pencil.
“I do a lot of work in pencil just sketching everything else and then the sketching gets more serious. Once you start adding colour… it can be anything. I’m not even sure what it’s going to be so we’ll see… I’ll find some colours. I might make it a nice black and white.
“I often have to trust that very first mark and the more I play the further away I get. You know that sort of intuitive, I don’t know what you’d call it, that very first mark is often dead right.”
He glances down at what he’s working on.
“The charcoal is going to make a mess of it. I can’t handle those sort of smudges. I look like I’m messy, but I’m fussy.
“I’m seeing a whole lot of things wrong with that.”
Stephen’s hands move quickly, a skill that was honed during his time working for Walt Disney.
“I had to do 120 drawings a week back then but one of the animators said ‘Oh, you can do 200 or 300 drawings a week’ and I was like, ‘really?’
“You just get used to laying it down and trusting your mark. It’s probably like any sportsman hitting a ball with a racquet. You learn and you learn and then at some point all that learning disappears and you just do it.”
A lot of Stephen’s work is created by hand at his drawing desk, but the computer is another tool that comes into play.
“It all varies and depends on the work for me. Some of them are hand done and others not. It’s a choice.
”It’s a tool I’ve used forever, so it really doesn’t feel any different.
“I used to work in graphic design on kids’ magazines so I was always using a computer but probably a lot of my books are about kids running barefoot and free on windy hills and so a lot of people think I just steer right away from a computer but I’ve always been there.
It’s part of my philosophy too, like where everything (I do) could be better or everything could change, you know, but he’s very much if you’ve got something you run with it and you know, it wasn’t even that it would be better afterwards, you don’t analyse it to death.Stephen Michael King
“But there’s always something handmade when I am working on the computer. The work I’m doing now has got printed backgrounds. So the textures had been handmade and then I ink all the characters so, it’s kind of really just using a tool.
“It means I can manipulate the artwork a little bit into the colours I want and add layers and it becomes more like a construction sculpture instead of a carving. I don’t know if that makes sense?
“When you carve, what’s gone is gone and you go whoops. So, painting a picture is a bit like that. If I blot or make a mistake, it’s back to the drawing board.
“But with the computer, I can just keep adding and so I’ve already done 20 illustrations and I discover some little thing that I can easily go back and put it into other illustrations. So it’s a lot of fun at times.
“It kind of drives me mad after a book or two, so I have to go back to good old pencil and pen.”
He said the process for the particular book he was working on was pretty simple.
“They’re just little black and white sketches with pen. I would do it rough for that first and then behind you I have a light box and I trace through, ink it, scan it and then fill it and then the fills are all textured prints.”
The textured prints he had created during a day working with Manning printmaker Ali Haigh. ‘I’ve been manipulating them ever since.”
Other than when he paints, Stephen said he can work pretty much anywhere and up at the house he has a mini light-box and chair.
“I probably work there when I’m really having trouble and maybe if I’m judging my thoughts even before I’ve put them down.
“It sounds terrible, but if the family are watching TV and I sit there and draw, it kind of filters my judgement away and so it becomes doodling. The purpose becomes hanging out with my family and so I don’t get to the end of it and go ‘oh, I didn’t get a painting out of it’.”
He spends time in his studio most days though.
“And certainly, when I’m trying to create or do stuff I make sure I’m in my space for a few hours every day.”