No Shoes, No Shirt, No Clothes? For This Illustrator: No Problem
Rosie Haine’s lush ink work makes bodies beautiful
Rosie Haine doesn’t make ordinary children’s books. But who wants ordinary? The colorful ink drawings in her debut title It isn’t Rude to be Nude help carry forward a story about diversity and body positivity, exploring its themes with grace and empathy. Beyond the laudable message, though, Haine’s style is almost decadently beautiful—a treat for art lovers of any age.
We spoke to Haine about Picasso, losing control, and the universal appeal of butts (or bums, if you’re on the other side of the pond).
Your path to children’s lit has been unconventional — you first studied English, and then earned a master’s degree in Globalisation, Ethnicity, and Culture. What caused you to make a swerve in your career?
Looking back, I think the things I did before children’s book illustration were a swerve! I drew so much as a kid, it was the thing I was best at.
It’s funny, illustration hadn’t even been suggested to me when I was still at school and focusing my studies on art. Perhaps it had fallen on hard times and was out of fashion. I felt like my choices were fine art, or something like fashion design, and I couldn’t quite take the leap into either. So I did English to keep my options open, and then really enjoyed postcolonial literature and that led me to my masters degree.
At that time I thought I was going to be a journalist. I worked in magazines and websites as a copy and content writer and video producer, and then tried really hard, and failed, to become a radio documentary maker.
I drifted unhappily for a few years before my husband bought me a book called How to Find Fulfilling Work for Christmas in 2015. I don’t normally go in for self-help books, but this one’s message of making an informed decision to pursue one thing was what I needed, and so I gave myself six months to decide on a new direction.
I narrowed my new occupation down to illustration, or becoming a bespoke shoemaker! But illustration won — it seemed the less lonely of the two, and I was offered a place on the MA in Children’s Book Illustration at Cambridge School of Art. I didn’t stop to think, or even realize how prestigious the course was before I started.
Not overthinking this decision and going with my gut instinct served me well — I’d spent too long overthinking everything and it hadn’t got me anywhere.
Illustration has actually always been in the back of my mind without me knowing it. I’d also noticed that I was wildly jealous of anyone who was an illustrator, which was quite telling.
All along I was looking for a way to express my ideas. I enjoyed writing academic essays, exploring my own concept and argument, and I loved the research of coming up with documentary ideas and pitching them to broadcasters. All my work has been about telling stories, and although I’m not a writer of fiction, I do have this urge to get an idea across, which had not found the right vehicle until I turned to children’s books.
Children’s books can seem deceptively simple. What’s actually the most challenging thing about writing and illustrating one?
There’s that well-known Picasso quote “It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child,” and I would say that the naivety that some of the best children’s books have embody this very thing. How do you capture that playfulness, confidence, and simplicity, when we’re adults?
There’s a general misconception that being an artist is just pure fun, and being a children’s illustrator and author is an especially ‘lovely’ occupation. I love drawing, I love writing, and I’m so happy to be doing it, but the pressure of creating something joyful every day on your own is hard.
Then there’s practical considerations too: Is your work original? Are your drawings both good and appealing? Are they consistent, do they actually tell a story? And then the most practical of all is will a publisher want it, will it sell? So it’s very precarious, and then on top of that it’s not well-paid, and highly competitive, and so the pressures are similar to those in most creative jobs.
I’d love to hear a bit about the actual mechanics of your process.
I like working in layers and drawing shapes first. It was a bit of a revelation when I first tried this, it was something I first saw in the sketchbooks of the artist Charles Shearer, who was a visiting tutor on my MA.
I was blown away by the beautiful pale inky cow shapes in a drawing he’d done of a farm yard, and the more I tried it, the more I realized that line can be overused. Why do we almost always use a line to describe a shape? By focusing on the shape first I was able to capture more. I think it’s because you’re focusing on the mass itself, not the edge.
I did this in It isn’t Rude to be Nude, painting the body shapes in inks, and then working over the top in pencil crayon while the ink was still wet. I found I could get away with very little line, as the brain is so good at finding human forms in shapes.
I like to leave my work out, as I often ambush myself by doing something good at odd moments, like the last 20 minutes of the day before bed. I often have breakthroughs in these bonus moments when I’m relaxed, so having my colors ready to go allows for them to happen more often. The colors I’d mixed were also very important — I’d got into how the pigments separated when the ink dried, so there was an unpredictability about what I was doing.
I love surprises when I’m drawing — losing control can get the best results.
I’ve also applied this technique to printmaking, in particular offset lithography, where I again create one or more layers that are the shapes, and then work with line or texture over the top. My next book Hooves or Hands was created in this way.
Are you inspired by other children’s book illustrators? Or do you equally find inspiration in other corners of the art world?
I have huge admiration for a lot of children’s book illustrators. I grew up loving Posy Simmonds, Janet and Allen Ahlberg, Mitsumasa Anno, Edward Ardizzone, and a million more, and these days adore Beatrice Alemagna, Dahlov Ipcar, and Carson Ellis, whose book Home really changed the way I thought of children’s books — it made me realize that a book can be an idea, not a story as such.
Having said all this, I’d say that most of the inspiration for my actual artwork comes from fine art. I’ve always loved Picasso, and it was the ‘Picasso 1932’ exhibition at the Tate Modern in 2018 that got me into painting lilac people — I loved the way he used the color for his nudes. Looking at Sheila Robinson’s sketchbooks at the Fry Art Gallery in Saffron Walden made me feel similarly about bright skin tones — she used crimson ink to great effect on people’s faces.
I’m looking at mid century British landscapes a lot at the moment for a new book idea — particularly John and Paul Nash, John Piper, and Edward Bawden, and I love looking at anything by Katsushika Hokusai, he’s got it all covered.
I’m into textile design too, so get ideas from looking at designers like Josef Frank and Enid Marx (who also was a brilliant illustrator of children’s books). As well as that I pour over illustrational offset lithography, as I want to get better at it and can’t get enough of the textures and colorways. And I adore artifacts in museums — Greek pots, Roman coins, anything where the hand and eye of the craftsperson can be seen.
As you’re working on a project, do you ever ‘test out’ a book to see if the images and words are actually connecting with a younger audience? I’m picturing a very serious focus group full of 6-year-olds here…
I’ve sadly never done this officially… It would be a lot of fun! But I do test books out on nephews and nieces, and friend’s children. There’s nothing more satisfying when they like your work — I was overjoyed when a friend’s daughter laughed hysterically at a page in Hooves or Hands.
It’s amazing the assumptions we make as adults, so getting kids to see your books is definitely essential. The “Contains nakedness — and that’s OK!” sticker on the cover of It isn’t Rude to be Nude came from older children being nervous about opening it, so we put it there to reassure them that it wasn’t an adult book.
I also strongly believe that picture books are for everyone, and that adults and children are not so different. I really remember being a kid, and try to connect to that part of me in my work.
Given how sensitive people can be about their kids even thinking about sexuality, nudity, and their bodies, were you at all nervous about the book’s reception?
A few people told me that the book was really brave before it came out, and I didn’t really know what they meant! But looking back, yes, maybe I should have been nervous. I knew that some people would hate it, and quite a few publishers passed it up because they thought it was too risky to publish. The Tate were brilliant though, and gave me lots of support and freedom.
I believe strongly in the book’s message, and parents don’t have to buy it for their children if they don’t want to. The book is completely innocent, and bodies are not inherently sexual. Talking about bodies with your children is a really good way to protect them from abuse, teach them about consent, and to help them become healthy adults.
And it seems as though there is a group of parents and teachers who have been desperate for a book like this to come out, because it’s a funny, engaging way in to talking about bodies.
It isn’t Rude to be Nude is such an exclusive and diverse book, yet it never feels forced. How did you go about making such a lovely story that is…let’s say… ‘woke’, and certainly very empathic, without seeming like it is pandering or inauthentic?
I love drawing naked people, and mixing skin tones, and that’s where the idea for the book originally came from — it was a medium for me to do more. So I didn’t set out to do something political.
I can remember being unashamed of my body as a kid; nudity is a really normal part of being a young child. And children love anything a bit risque, especially if it includes bums, and I wanted children to enjoy the book first and foremost.
I tried as hard as I could to represent as many people as possible, I think the variety that we come in is amazing. Humans are beautiful, and all bodies deserve to be loved — they do such an important job for us, and yet get such a hard time.
My own ideas about bodies are there, subtly, in the book. I’ve done a lot of reading about gender, and purposefully didn’t use the words male, female, girl or boy in the book, as I think this is very limiting and does not account for different experiences, and often actual biological reality.
Whenever I draw imaginary people I end up falling a little bit in love with them, so perhaps this comes across, too.