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The art and wisdom of creating Willow the Wonderer picture books

Updated: Jul 17, 2023

Clap! My hands, came together as I became fully aware that my life was finite and I would die some day. I was 10 years old. I remember thinking that I have only a limited time to achieve my life goals and so made a pact with myself that I would make haste, hopefully fulfill them and make death bring closure to my life with another clap.

This action (clapping) I later surmised was my way of demarcating the movie of my life, much like a movie set clapperboard might punctuate the start of a scene. In my case it was the start of me being conscious of a limited lifespan. I would then imagine the virtual ‘clapperboard’ closing the movie of my life in my final moments, hoping that I would've lived my life so fully that death would tremble at my coming into it's fold (Bukowski).

I didn't have crystal clear goals per se but I did know I wanted to leave no stone unturned, to find meaning and ‘suck the marrow out of life'. I also had an inkling that I had a conscience and would be at its mercy at the Perly Gates.

I would gaze up at the stars from my bedroom window, gazing in wonderment at the stars, thinking there must be more to all this. I would wish a space craft would come down and a little green man would hop out, gesture me with a 2 fingered hand and some indecipherable sounds that I somehow understood to mean, "Get in we're late for dinner''.

My parents saw me growing up as a quiet, nervous and shy boy, the notion that ‘leopards don't change their spots didn’t apply to me they’d say as they gazed upon the naked photos of their son roped to a Rolls Royce car as a middle aged man. This was a performance piece as part of my Master of Art studies… but I digress.

The first picture book, awards, accolades and emptiness

It was at University that I illustrated my first childrens' book but it took 35 years more to do a second - a lifetime if you are a Grévy's Zebra. Why so long? You may ask dear reader and I will explain in more detail over the next few paragraphs but suffice to say it was the necessary time for me to gain the wisdom to do the second.

After finishing the first picture book at University I didn't think illustrating children's books a grand enough pursuit, it didn't seem important or worthy of my efforts.

A grand pursuit for me at University was to feature on the cover of Time and the L.A Times magazines, winning many of the major illustration awards in the world while riding into the sunset on a guilded chariot filled with more industry accolades.

As fate would have it I achieved most of this by my mid twenties; the chariot I confess looked more like a Honda Civic but the awards did arrive as rapidly as the groceries at the end of an Aldi checkout, ka-ching!

llustrations by Darren Pryce

So, all well and good - even, very good, but what I hadn't envisaged was that it left me with no where else to go, no more career goals to kick, no motivation or purpose.

I was published in international award annuals alongside my heroes, yet I wasn't levitating; the firmament hadn't opened up to a crescendo of angelic harmonies - I felt flat. I was left with a feeling of unnerving emptiness, with no one I could turn to for counsel.

The next few years were literally spent staring motionless staring at a brick wall surrounding my corner work station. There was so little action there that a colony of ants had moved into the woodwork of the desk and chair. Roger Harvey, a colleague I shared the studio with, drew a caricature of me at the time with a busy spider sitting happily on a web it spun connecting me to the desk light.

A first world privileged position it was indeed but nonetheless, one that the western education system, family and wider culture hadn’t prepared me for.

I was schooled to compete and win, to see my competitors as a hurdle to either step over or step on, or as George Orwell wrote, "to kick where you see a head.”

Society privileges competition and physical domination rather than imagination and collaboration and while on the surface it seemed to bring about commendation and material gain if one was good at it, it somehow seemed hollow to me.

Wisdom and Willow the Wonderer picture book

Fast forward three decades of life, deaths, heartbreaks and Cardiff City FC still languishing in the lower divisions and it's finally dawned on me what was missing, a deeper sense of meaning to my life. One not based in competition and bounded ego but one that expanded my concerns beyond myself and my coterie.

Life has come full circle and I find myself now on a charge to do a series of children books with a deep sense of purpose and meaning - I am speaking about the Willow the Wonderer picture books of course.

Marcus Aurelias the great Roman Emperor said the bee is only as healthy as the hive; the Covid crisis of late has made this alarmingly prescient.

This goes against the modern conditioning we receive in the West where the individual is seen to be paramount. The 17th Century Enlightenment period was born out of a scientific revolution, championed by Copernicus and Sir Isaac Newton. It helped to drive the French and American Revolution and contributed to our sense of ourselves in the West as autonomous individuals, separated in consciousness from all others.

But later scientific discoveries indicate otherwise: Einsteins discovery of entanglement is one of the greatest discoveries of the 20th Century. The quantum state of each particle of a group cannot be described independently of the state of the others; in simpler terms the stuff which we are all made is all connected even when the particles are separated by a large distance i.e across the universe.

This places us all, at a quantum level at least, in a cosmic soup where we are all interdependant. The 2022 Nobel Prize for physics was awarded to three physicists for furthering the research on this.

If this theory is good enough for Einstein I thought then it’s good enough for Willow the Wonderer; It directly influenced the illustration style that I developed for the first picture book.

Throughout the pages I embedded the animals into the folds of sky, sea and land so that a dolphin might appear to be made of an ocean wave and the wave in turn be made of the dolphin.

Our hero Willow journeys through these entangled panoramas until he finally discovers some wisdom and an insight into the root of happiness.

Children are encouraged to look for the animals and count them. It is a fun thing to do and parents will enjoy the glee on their child's face when they discover the hidden treasures. Some may even feel a sense of relief that they didn't have to find them ... Some creatures are so well hidden that I even forget where they are sometimes, seriously!

It’s a book for 3-8 year olds but the feedback from parents has been that its also a book for adults; there is a timeless wisdom that many of us, or maybe, almost all of us still need well into the Autumn of our years.

Willow the Wonderer picture books have been given a five-star rating by over 100 verified buyers. The book is not meant to be a panacea for all the worlds ills but rather plant a seed of wisdom that may one day inspire children to take ownership of their lives; to give them pause to consider a better way to navigate the irksome vicissitudes of life.

The makings of a classic children's book

There is a fashion in European and Australian picture books at present that extols a naeive, expedient style that doesn't look laboured. Call me old fashioned but I love the craft of illustration from the first half of the 20th Century. I believe a richness in craft is not wasted on the forming infant brain and is appreciated by all adults.

Each creature 'entangled' in Willow the Wonderer (the first picture book) needed to be legible and the situation naturalistic, therefore it was necessary to adopt a more classical chiaroscuro painting technique.

The aim was to produce a classic book that would not look dated in many years to come, time will tell.

Stylising Honey Time, the second picture book

Willow the Wonderer - Honey Time is the second picture book in the series. The thread of finding happiness continues in this story with the theme explored more deeply through the idea of slowing down and appreciating the ‘little things in life’.

The title came from my partner and writer Reeta Dhar's nickname for me, ‘Honey Boy’ - A charmingly derogatory name I’m called because I seemingly go through life as if I’m encased in a blob of honey... She’ll wax lyrical about me staring at an onion for hours at a time before proceeding to cook with it, but in reality the staring rarely exceeds an hour.

In Honey Time we have juxtaposed a frenzied Willow with a pacified honey-balled version. He’s forced to slow down and discovers all this things we miss when hurtling through life with blinkers, like the smell of a rose, the patterns of light reflecting on water or who was it that’s been eating all the biscuits.

As well as being a beautiful picture book I wanted to showcase some new digital aesthetic innovations.

'Honeytime' incorporates some of the techniques I have developed in my fine art practice. I used combinations of photoshop filters ,mixing up the different layers, overlapping them in unusual combinations to discover new effects that I have never seen before. In the first half of the book, I have used these filters to help accentuate the frenzy of Willow as he tears through the pages.

I am an advocate for using ‘happy accidents’. Keeping an open mind when things go wrong in the painting process to turn the mistakes into a virtue. This way of working I learnt from studying Picasso and Francis Bacon, good enough for Picasso...

After the frenzy has subsided Willow settles into calmer, more focussed pages where the digital effects diminish to reveal a bonanza of details, color and life.

It helps to think of real life experiences when illustrating nature and for 'Honeytime' the pages are replete with memories of my life in the Mid North Coast.

The forest and surrounding hills of Bellingen get a mention, the dragonfly scene is a direct mind flash from days in the Never Never; the Christmas water hole there is the most magical place I have been to in my life, and no amount of stupendous, searing hyperbole does it justice.

Similarly, in Willow the Wonderer (Book 1) the eagle in the clouds was inspired by a huge sea eagle that appeared in front of a gold sunrise during an early morning walk, the fire scene from the many full moon beach soirees hosted by Kamala Hope, the enigmatic matriarch of Hyland Park and custodian of the wizened paper bark gums...

So, life has come full circle and I find myself now on charge to do a series of picture books with a deep sense of purpose and meaning (yes, there will be a few more Willow the Wonderers). This time it’s not for ego but to plant seeds of wisdom, the hope being that subsequent generations will be wiser than mine and I breathe my last breath with a sanguine smile. Clap!


Give the gift of wisdom to the special little ones in your lives.

Check out our beautiful picture books that plant seeds of wisdom.

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