Kent Life meets Michael Terry, author and illustrator

He's best known for his illustrated book The Selfish Crocodile, but Michael Terry is hoping a certain Wide-Mouthed Frog will become just as successful.

Words by Sarah Sturt pictures by Manu Palomeque and courtesy of Michael Terry.

Getting your bedtime story read by Mike Terry can take a while – as his youngest son found out. “When I used to read to Jamie I’d get very distracted by the illustrations and writing and Jamie would be, just read the story, dad!”

It’s an occupational hazard for this writer and illustrator, whose brightly coloured childrens’ books fill his studio and illustrations from his many works decorate the walls.

Home is the converted dairy by the village green in Saltwood, near Hythe, where he moved when he and Jamie’s mum split up; he has three grown-up sons from his first marriage, but it doesn’t look as though any are likely to follow in their father’s footsteps.

“My eldest went to art school but he used to see me sweating over deadlines and I think it put him off! But he does paint in his own time. The twins are in computer jobs and Jamie, 12, wants to be a chef, but he occasionally writes a story and expects me to get it published, just like that.

“A couple of his friends have now made the connection that I’m the artist behind The Selfish Crocodile, which they enjoyed when they were younger.”And Mr Crocodile really put Mike on the map. Written by Faustin Charles and published by Bloomsbury in 2003, the tale of the aquatic reptile who learns humility touched many hearts and remains a huge favourite today.

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“I just loved doing it because it has this real baddie, with all these teeth, and you could just go to town on it,” says Mike. “The crocodile wants all the animals out of the river, but when he has toothache, a mouse pulls his tooth out and he is so grateful he changes his ways and allows the other creatures back in the river.

“The author tells the story in libraries and schools and the children all love the spread in the book with the big mouth and the mouse walking across.”Born in Folkestone, where he studied graphic design at art school in the sixties, Mike, 62, then moved to London and worked as a graphic designer and typographer before becoming an illustrator.

“At first I was doing representational book jackets, then my friend Brian Grimwood, another illustrator, encouraged me to go and see the Push Pin exhibition in London with him.

“The work on show was very creative and full of ideas, a big contrast from illustration over here at the time. It showed the work of Milton Glaser, a very creative illustrator and designer in the US. Its influence was to radically change my work to a style with ideas in it and, of course, humour.

“I’d always done caricatures, right from school days, so I started to apply the photographic look to my caricatures and representational style.”The change led to a number of prestigious commissions, including illustrations for The Observer, TV Times, a very new Time Out and even Penthouse magazine, after the art director saw his black and white broadsheet and loved its American influence.

Mike produced The Queen’s Club tennis posters for several years, including a memorable Connors and McEnroe, and did the black and white posters for the Electricity Board’s share offer campaign featuring Frankenstein.

The work started snowballing, so Mike went freelance in 1972, moving back to Kent with his young family 10 years later. “I like this area – I like the sea and variety of coastline,” he says. 

I ask Mike how he works, and if he follows a set routine. “I get a story sent to me by my publisher, and if I like it I do thumbnail sketches and send them back, they approve those and then I do the pencil drawings, get those approved and do the artwork.

“I always work in pencil first of all, then in gouache, colour pencils or pastels – I just choose what I think is necessary to get the effect I want.“A book typically takes four weeks for the pencil drawings, from thumbnails to finished, then if I am pushing it, I have turned a book round with the finished artwork in another month – that’s 15 spreads altogether.” Writing and illustrating his own books started for Mike with a children’s book called The Rhino’s Horns, six years ago, but the idea for a series came almost by accident.

“One year, I asked my publisher, as I do every year, have you got a book for me – and they hadn’t. I was in Sandgate, walking along the seafront and mulling over some ideas, and the term the ‘old sea dog’ came into my head and I thought, I know, I could create a pirate dog character.

“Then I realised how much more work there was – the ship’s rigging, my dog characters and their cat enemies all had different costumes, and I also had to get the continuity right.

“In the end I bought a model of The Golden Hind. which helped me with the perspective and things like the rigging, sails and gun points, but a lot was down to my imagination. I even made a little model tricorne hat, so that I could angle it properly.”

This was the start of the Wag series, which now includes Captain Wag the Pirate Dog, Captain Wag and the Big Blue Whale and Captain Wag and the Polar Bears. A fourth Wag, which will be an underseas adventure, is planned.Is it not more satisfying, illustrating your own work? “I really enjoy it, and as the market is quite difficult it’s good to be able to do both,” says Mike, “and of course you get more royalties!”

Currently doing rather well in the book charts is his latest book, The Wide-Mouthed Frog, written by Iain Smyth and shortlisted for the Bishop’s Stortford Picture Book Award. Mike is hoping the adventurous frog will be as popular as his selfish crocodile – the book has already been taken up by publishers in Italy and Brazil.

Another of his fascinations is in wildlife, which probably explains why so many of his characters are animal rather than human. He has painted realistic interpretations of birds since his interest began about the age of 15. Mike has now launched a website which features his own photos of birds plus online courses on how to start drawing birds. If you want to take it up seriously and pay for a course, that includes feedback from Mike. His own favourite places for bird spotting include nearby Brockhill Country Park, West Hythe’s canals, the chalk cliffs of Dover and Canterbury.

I ask Mike if the artist’s life is not a tad solitary, and he agrees – which is why he runs a social group for about 15 other illustrators. Initially based in Tunbridge Wells, it’s now in Maidstone.

“We meet round each other’s houses and if you’ve got anything new, you bring it along. It’s a nice antidote to the usual solitary, monastic existence we lead and it’s great to get another professional’s view of your work.” He also gets inspiration from visiting exhibitions and looking at art books (his shelves are filled with them). “It really fires me up,” he says. “I love a mix, from Rembrandt’s draughtmanship to abstracts, and I have always liked the work of Steadman and Scarfe.”

For the future, Mike would love to get a best-seller in America, which has so far eluded him, and to see an animation of one of his books. The closest he’s got so far is watching The Selfish Crocodile acted by a touring company in Canterbury, and CBBC has expressed interest in Captain Wag. 

“I’d like to develop my fine art, with the realistic bird life – it was odd at first not ‘doing it funny’, which my work tends to be. And it’s always interesting wondering what other people will come up with for me to illustrate. It’s nice looking forward.”

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