Grab inspiration when it strikes: Benji Davies on being an illustrator

    With new picture book The Storm Whale in Winter out this autumn, Benji Davies talks to DACS about life as an illustrator, from his favourite artists and those moments of inspiration, to Payback royalties and how they help his practice.

    Why did you decide to become an illustrator and author?

    I’ve always loved books, illustrated books mostly, since I was small. It also stood to reason then that I would love cartoons and animated films. As soon as I could pick up a pencil I was drawing and it wasn’t long before I was recreating my favourite characters on paper. At some point I realised I could create my own characters too, and after that I never stopped.

    Which artists have had the greatest influence on your practice?

    I think newspaper cartoonists have had a big influence on my work - even with the area of illustration I work in being picture books, and by the look of my artwork, that wouldn’t be immediately apparent. As a child I’d always seek out the comic strips in the newspaper - Peanuts, Garfield, Calvin and Hobbes - a moment of joy, of character and movement, in page after page of black and white text.
    Also, my dad used to collect Carl Giles’ Annuals. For him it was more about their potential as collectors’ items than an appreciation of the artwork as such. But I pored over them for hours and hours, largely oblivious to the political subject matter. I just loved the way Giles was able to create a story within a single image. The movement of the characters and the atmosphere of each single scene - everything felt alive.

    Did you have a favourite picture book or animation growing up?

    My favourite picture book was The Tiger Who Came to Tea by Judith Kerr. I don’t remember being satisfied with a huge variety of picture books - but that one did it for me, and always stuck in my head.
    I loved anything animated, from Dumbo to The Real Ghostbusters via Count Duckula. But the film I loved most was Watership Down - we had a recording on VHS from the TV - I must have watched it a hundred times. I didn’t read the book till much later in my teens.

    When do you feel inspired? 

    When I’m least expecting it. In idle moments often. Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night and the way to tell a certain story I’ve been mulling over suddenly hits me. I’ve written several picture book drafts down on my phone in this way, illuminated by a screen in the dark. I think you have to grab inspiration when it strikes. Make a note, do a sketch. These become seeds, and somehow they develop in the back of your mind while you’re busy doing other things. The good ones persist and hopefully become bigger ideas.

    What made you sign up for Payback royalties from DACS?

    I first claimed in 2012. I heard about DACS through another illustrator on Twitter and thought it sounded like a wise idea to sign up. In the past Payback has enabled me to buy new equipment or contributed to studio costs. When the royalties come through it’s a friendly slap on the back - a similar feeling to receiving a Christmas bonus (I imagine!). It always feels like an unexpected and very welcome reward when the statement pops up in my inbox.

    Why is DACS important to artists?

    Even if you are only able to claim for a small amount, it’s important that the work of all creative professionals is recognised and given a value. For those who are unaware, it’s so easy to overlook the contribution that visual arts have and yet they inform almost every aspect of our daily lives, and increasingly so. So it’s really important for the future survival of artists and designers alike.

    What has been the impact of digital technologies and communications on your practice? Is it making a positive difference?

    It can only be positive. Everything is so interconnected thanks to social media, and the software that is available puts real power at your fingertips - it sounds a clichĂ© but it’s true. I’m very glad to be working at the current time; it’s so much easier to do what you want now, how and when you want, than it was as little as twenty years ago.
    We mustn’t forget the old ways of course. When I visit schools, I’m a big promoter of pencil and paper. Computers should always be seen as just another tool.

    Do you have any tips for those starting out?

    Be yourself, find your own rhythm. By that I mean draw the things you like to draw, be influenced by other artists but make it your own and create your own path. You also need to be a sponge. Soak up everything you can. Then get to work - but remember to keep moving.

    What are you working on at the moment?

    The Storm Whale in Winter comes out on 22 September 2016. It’s a follow-up to my first picture book, The Storm Whale, and my third time writing as well as illustrating. I’m now busy planning window displays, animated promos, events and lots on other things with the publisher which is keeping me very busy whilst I start writing my next book.

    'The Storm Whale in Winter' is published by Simon & Schuster. Find out more here.

    Learn more about Payback as an artist or artist estate
    Visit Benji Davies' website


    Image: Payback member Benji Davies in his studio. Photo © Brian Benson,

    Posted on 26/08/2016 by Laura Ward-Ure