Science Illustrated: Q&A with Ben Clifford
High in the Australian Alps lives the mountain pygmy-possum, a tiny marsupial that is small in size but huge in appeal. Bringing the story of Tiny Possum and the Migrating Moths to life is Ben Clifford, an artist from Hobart, Tasmania.
From a young age, Ben found inspiration for his art through his family, environment and, of course, books. We spoke to him about how he fills his creative cups and his approach to illustration.
Who or what inspired you to become an artist and illustrator?
Firstly my older brother – I tried to copy his drawings. He could make a single character entice an epic back story.
Then in 1986 my school librarian presented a new book. I remember the spreads displayed and how excited she was. We were in awe, inching forward on the green carpet. That book was Animalia. I still have the copy I received that year which Graeme Base signed thirty years later.
A few others are Frank Frazzetta, Bruce Pennigton, Brian Schroeder, Alphonse Mucha. A big influence from other creative types in completely different fields are directors, musicians, photographers, writers, actors. They carved their own way without seeking permission from their industry and creating work firstly for themselves.
And more importantly my parents. Mum always made sure paper was available. We went to a market to collect giant drawing pads. Dad was the self-employed adventurer inspiring us to do anything. For instance, he would round up the neighbourhood kids on the back of his 4×4 ute and drove us bouncing through the bush. We felt invincible laughing all the way like wide eyed, tail wagging dogs out of a car window high-fiving branches whizzing by. We built tree houses, explored the creek and made life an adventure while wallabies ate the front lawn and possums crossed the roof every night. Times like that all lead to inspiration for being creative.
Do you think science illustration requires a different creative approach?
For myself it’s equally as creative as fiction, but I found the approach to be a different direction. Decorating the main subjects that I like to do is still possible.
Can you share any interesting behind-the-scenes details about illustrating this book?
All of the plants, fauna and bugs can be found in the Australian alps. I researched these keeping note the time of year they flower. I’ve done this with a previous book set in Madagascar.
The moths flying in the suburb spreads were the most revised drafts I’ve ever done. I wasn’t stuck for ideas but came up with many options that no one has seen. It’s a normal process. The spread in the book was the obvious choice.
What kinds of stories do you love to illustrate?
Where I can add layers to the story that aren’t suggested in the text. In other words if the story and characters are an empty Christmas tree, I then get to decorate it, pushing the narrative.
Do you have any tips or advice for aspiring illustrators?
Keeping my three cups full works for me:
1) Process – Is the medium I’m using fun? Is the location I work comfortable? Is the time I illustrate the best? Is the amount of time I’ve given myself adequate?
2) Subject – Am I enjoying what I illustrate?
3) Outcome – Is the reason I’m doing this enough?
If I have these three cups near full then I’m motivated and persistent. These might seem like obvious questions but I find it easy to lose track. These also don’t have to apply to illustration. It can be anything; education, sport, reading, cooking, writing, exercise, gardening. Have fun!
Tiny Possum and the Migrating Moths is written by Julie Murphy and illustrated by Ben Clifford, and is available to purchase on our website and from all good bookstores. Free Teacher Notes are also available to download from our website.
To see more of Ben’s work, check out his website.