In this new series we shine a spotlight on the work of contemporary illustrators, exploring their individual style and the impact of illustration in children's books. This month Richard Johnson shares his reflections. 

Do you feel your artistic style has been influenced by a particular illustrator? If so, can you tell us how this person inspired or influenced your work?
I think lots of things influence my work, sometimes it's sculpture or a particular exhibition. Sometimes it’s just the atmosphere of a place. More likely it's film. I think my work is primarily driven by the desire to tell stories, and I enjoy creating sequences of images, hence my admiration of film.
When I started out, I wasn’t sure what I was about really, though I did appreciate Lane Smith’s work. His use of character and painterly textures, fused with a dark humour, really captured my imagination for what children’s illustration could be.

I’ve always been drawn to artists that convey a sense of personality in their work, artists that bring something extra to the text that they’re illustrating. I’m proud to be represented by Arena Illustration Agency, as I’ve always admired the work that their artists produce. I know Tamlyn and Caroline are advocates of solid drawing, and I think this shows in the types of artists they represent. I think it’s useful to look beyond just children’s illustration too, so I’m always curious to see what work is being made in other fields, particularly graphic novels and other areas of authorial practice.

How would you describe your own style of illustration?
I suppose it’s fairly detailed. But I’d describe my work as atmospheric and probably quite theatrical. Left to my own devices, it's naturally dark but children’s illustration allows me to contrast these characteristics with lighter more decorative approaches. Children’s illustration also allows me to develop characters and develop extra layers of narrative, creating details that can be found through subsequent readings. I think I enjoy bringing out emotion in my work. And I guess The Thing at 52 is all about emotion, joy and loss.

Do you have a preferred medium?
Many years ago my work was entirely hand-made, drawn and painted. Over the years I have established a quicker process that develops my drawings into what I’d call digital collages. The process amalgamates scanned drawings and textures, which are built, layered and coloured in Photoshop. I don’t want the work to feel too digital, so it’s important that the foundation of the work is in the drawing.

How does the partnership between author and illustrator work?
I really enjoy working with authors. I think any good picture book is a combination of two voices that harmonize to say slightly different things through the book, bringing a story to life through both the words and pictures. Ross Montgomery had a clear vision for The Thing at 52. My job was to try to capture a sense of the characters’ relationship, bringing out parts of the story that aren’t explicit in the words. That’s why I always try to meet with an author early on in the process, to discuss what their vision for the work is and for me to try to understand what the author’s influences are too. We then share ideas and I begin to develop early character designs and storyboards. The work evolves from there! Designing the Thing was fun. He is a combination of guinea pig, gorilla, lion and rabbit - creatures that embody different aspects of the Thing's personality.

The Thing at 52 is a poignant story in which readers discover how small acts of kindness can grow into great friendships, and how the community you build from those friendships can provide comfort and companionship when you need it most. You can read more about the book here and download the first few pages.

Richard Johnson has illustrated books for well-known authors including Joseph Coelho and Katya Balen. His work is deeply thoughtful and conjures powerful atmospheres with detailed, delicate pencil strokes.