Neasden Control Centre – the illustrator, designer and artist otherwise known as Stephen Smith – is no stranger to creating casts of characters that set out to intrigue and delight. Take the friendly critters in his installations at the Royal London Hospital’s children’s dental ward – a compelling woodland assembly to help take the edge off potentially rather unpleasant procedures – or the jovial crab and chums in a similar project for the Bellhouse Children’s ward at John Radcliffe NHS Hospital Oxford.
For anyone that knows his work, and even those who don’t, it seems strange that Smith’s images haven’t graced a children’s book yet. But thankfully, that has changed with the launch of Born Bad. Written by CK Smouka and illustrated beautifully by Smith, the book is centred on a ‘bad’ wolf who, through meeting a variety of other animals, realises that maybe he doesn’t have to be so bad after all. “It explores the essence of a wolf in sheep’s clothing, with the focus on how other animals’ identities change according to their environment,” explains Smith.
Smith created initial sketches by hand “with my favourite chinagraph pencil”. He went on to create collages, sculptures and “lots of sketchbooks” before bringing the various elements together digitally to produce the final illustrations.
“My main focus was to translate the story into illustrations that children would love and respond to,” says Smith. “As an illustrator, my image-making process involves integrating abstracted motifs with figuration and vice versa, so I wanted to exercise this way of working as much as possible.
“We wanted this picture book to be read in different ways, and for adults to enjoy it too! Children often see things that adults don’t, so I wanted to play with scale and the colour of objects in different ways. I wanted to explore how the backgrounds and environments could be abstracted to complement the characters.”
Smith’s character development process saw him create a number of models to better understand them. For his lupine protagonist, he created a number of clay models to explore different positions and expressions, which he then drew from. Using a reduced colour palette allowed him to develop a cohesive visual language for the book.
So what’s the moral of this illustrated tale? “That you can be happy with yourself just the way you are,” says Smith. Aww.
Born Bad is published by Cicada Books. You can order copies here