Drawing the Circus with Briony May Smith

  • Nell & the Circus of Dreams

The award-winning illustrator tells us about her work on Nell Gifford’s first children’s book, Nell & the Circus of Dreams

Briony, how did you develop the look of the main character, Nell?

Nell [Gifford] and Oxford University Press had a fair idea going into the project of what Nell and the circus family might look like. I think she embodies the spirit of a little Nell Gifford, so she was always going to be blonde and, since she lives on a farm, she had her wellies from the earliest character sketches. Horses play a significant role at Giffords, and from Nell’s autobiography and seeing the show myself, I put a horse pattern onto the character’s dressing gown to reinforce this.

What are some of the unique challenges involved in drawing a circus?

There are always multiple characters, performers, circus crew, families, animals, in every scene, from the set up of the circus, the performance, to packing up and going home. This makes every page very detailed, which is lots of fun because you can hide lots of scenes for children to spot! But it also means it takes a long time to get right, with the perspective, and making sure all the characters and their clothing don’t overpower or ruin the aesthetic of the overall spread.

Do you have a favourite spread or illustration from the finished book?

I really enjoyed drawing the scene where Nell was just about to enter the circus world, running up the meadow towards the wagons. I had lots of fun trying to make it look like the sunrise was just starting to light up the hill, and colouring each individual flower!

When was your first visit to Giffords, and what were your impressions?

It was over the Summer in 2017. First was to the circus headquarters, when rehearsals for the show were underway, and then again a few months later to see the show itself. I loved the care and attention that went into the appearance of the circus, the tent itself, to the wagons and caravans the circus sold merchandise in, and the crew stayed in. There was always a buzz of activity surrounding and leading up to the show. The show itself was fantastic, it was thrilling to watch the acrobatics, and the horses were amazing. The glittering costumes and set were really inspiring and really helped me to imagine the sort of circus that the picture book would contain.

Did you ever want to run away and join the circus, as the real-life Nell did? Or did you always dream of being an illustrator?

I think, like Nell, I’ve been very lucky in that I have always known what I wanted to be, and this was indeed to be a children’s book illustrator! I did enjoy being up on stage at school (apparently I stormed off a stage as a toddler at ballet - I don’t remember this) but I knew that I would have to do something in art. But the great thing about all my favourite subjects at school is that they all fed into each other. And so I think there’s a little of the circus world in there, I just didn’t pack my trunk.

What words of advice would you give to children who’d like to become illustrators or artists?

My own experience has been, keeping a sketchbook and drawing all the time (which is easy when you want to draw all the time) will help you develop as an artist. You will constantly be improving, and that’s the great thing about drawing. Practical advice would be, you should look at what you’re drawing more than the piece of paper - I personally believe observing is a major part of development. It helps to have varied interests, consume culture and read, too, to build up the scope of your imagination.

Find out more about Briony at www.brionymaysmith.com