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steven appleby

Have you always known that illustrating, cartooning and writing was what you wanted to do?

Not exactly. I always knew I wanted to do something creative. I liked to draw as a kid and I loved cartoons. I think I wanted to write first. After that I wanted to play in a band. I went to art college for about a year and got into a band. We tried to make it for a couple of years, without any success.

When did you feel you’d found your drawing style and how did it develop?

I went back to art college after the band, I was doing graphic design and it includedillustration. I was trying to find a style. I wanted to do expressionistic, dark, disturbing, scary work. I remember doing one brief and instead of finding it disturbing, everyone just laughed. I thought I was trying to tap into some kind of primal psychological thing and they all just laughed! So I think my work is inherently humorous somehow. Trying to do that sort of expressionistic, dark, scary work, I didn’t like the way I drew – I didn’t like my natural way of drawing. But eventually I realised you have to sort of live with your own handwriting. The weird thing is – I was looking back at some work I’d done at school, where I’d made this animated film and the style is amazingly similar to my style now.

How did you get into illustrating and cartooning?

When I got to London I ended up doing freelance illustration work for people, like the New Musical Express. They asked me to do a strip [which would become Captain Star] so that’s where becoming a cartoonist started really, kind of by accident.

What would your advice be to people hoping to build a career in cartooning, illustration or the creative fields in general?

Go for it. Follow your instincts. Don’t imitate anyone else. You have to deliver when people give you an opportunity. When your luck arrives you have to deliver something good, on time – and if you’re reliable and do something good on time, I think you can make a career. There is luck involved but you can kind of help the luck along by sending out work and promoting yourself.

Tell us about your creative processes…

The process is to try and get myself in the right frame of mind. There are things that help, like going to a cafe, sitting there daydreaming. Another thing I do when I’m writing is to go up to a cottage on my own and lie in the bath. With commercial jobs there’s often not the time to do that, so I come to the studio and I sit there and I kind of rotate the jobs in my mind. I’ll think about one and if nothing’s coming I’ll move onto another. The morning is best for me. I try to relax, have a cup of coffee and to daydream the ideas more than anything else.

Steven Appleby is a cartoonist and illustrator based in the UK. Tutored by the eminent illustrator Quentin Blake, Steven has become internationally acclaimed and his works have been published in newspapers such as The Times, The Guardian and The Sunday Telegraph; in addition much of his work has been exhibited and published in over 20 books. His work is observational and humorous and his influences range from artists such as Andy Warhol to writers such as Philip K Dick and musicians and songwriters.

Steven works with Winsor & Newton Black Indian Ink when inking his drawings followed by Artists’ Water Colour.

My influences are the people who helped me learn to think. Some are visual artists, like Edward Gorey or Andy Warhol, but many are writers, such as Philip K Dick or Kurt Vonnegut, filmmakers like David Lynch, or songwriters like Black Francis of Pixies. Thinking and ideas are vitally important to me because without them, what would the visual be about?

I ended up being a cartoonist because cartoon strips allow me to think, write and draw whatever I like (almost). I can create my own little world in the corner of a newspaper, bring it to life and use it to inflict my philosophical, observational or just plain silly thoughts on whoever happens to let their eyes fall upon it.

I still work in the traditional way, although nowadays I scan my cartoons and email them rather than delivering by post, by bike messenger or by hand. I sit at my desk using a dip pen and Winsor & Newton Black Indian Ink decanted from the biggest bottle I can buy into the smaller, flat-sided ones – with the grinning spider still on them. I love that the design hasn’t changed since I was a student.

I ink in my rough drawing using a lightbox – a method suggested to me by Quentin Blake when he was my tutor (see: How To Draw With Steven Appleby) When the ink is dry I colour the drawings using Winsor & Newton Artists’ Water Colour in half pans which, having tried many makes, and the tubes, has been my preferred choice for the past twenty years.

Stevens quirky nature definitely coms out through his work and joining forces with Linda Mccarthy both are doing well with success. Steven was kind to answer some questions to help get a better understanding of how he developed into the artist he is today.

1. What were you like at the age of 18?


Oh God, at 18 I must have been really invisible! I was shy, hopeless with relationships, hadn’t had a proper girlfriend – or boyfriend. I was very unconfident – though somehow, in a contradictory sounding way, beneath that unconfident outer layer I had belief in myself, which is what propelled me forward in the early days. I wanted to be in a band, and I think I was quietly pretty arrogant without, of course, having done anything to justify imagining I could be the next John Lennon or David Bowie. I was writing songs about things I hadn’t got a clue about – such as love! I remember there was one about a man who turned into a typewriter and ‘typed his stories in his head’. Sounds more interesting than it was.


2. What are you most proud of?


That’s difficult. I’m very proud of my two boys, and my stepsons, and how we’ve all somehow managed to make our rambling and unorthodox extended family work, what with my transgenderism, and so on. But I guess you’re talking about my work! Well, I’m proud of having managed to make a living out of thinking and drawing – and finding a way of putting my obsessions and interests into it. And I think that’s the key thing. You have to do what comes naturally to you. You have to be true to yourself and follow your instincts.

As to particular things I’m proud of… Well, I’m most proud, I think, of the worlds I’ve created. Captain Star and Small Birds Singing, in particular. If you can create a world then you’re not stuck just drawing, or writing. The world can be realised in film, animation, soft toys, teapots, cushion covers. Anything!


3. I remember you telling me about being taught by Quentin Blake. You’ve clearly retained an interest in him. What was it like to be taught by such a legendary figure, and who else inspired you as a youngling?


When I was 18 I don’t think I was aware of Quentin Blake, though I may have seen his drawing in Punch magazine, which my grandfather subscribed to. I certainly didn’t grow up with the books he illustrated. I got to know and love his work later. He was fabulous as a tutor at the Royal College of Art. He was interested in the students, and encouraging and inspiring, but left you all the space you needed in order to become yourself. I learnt from him that rather than inventing a style of drawing, you have to discover your own ‘handwriting’, as it were. And he introduced me to the way of working I have used ever since, using a light box. I describe it in ‘How To Draw with Steven Appleby’ on YouTube.

As a teenager one of my biggest influences was writing. I loved science fiction and particularly the work of Philip K Dick. I loved – and still love – the ideas in his books. ‘Only one man could save the world. And he was dead. Again.’ That sort of thing. What appears to be reality in a Philip K Dick book very often isn’t. That’s one of the themes in my work, too.

I also loved cartoons when I was growing up. My parents had cartoon books by people like Ronald Searle (St Trinians and Molesworth), Charles Adams (The Adams Family) and James Thurber, who wrote wonderful stories and drew crazy, surreal drawings. The worlds of all these people influenced me. Then, at art college, I discovered Edward Gorey, and his dark, sinister little books were a huge eye-opener. I realised that I could write and draw for adults, rather than having to be a children’s illustrator, and from Gorey I learnt that you can tell stories in dislocated fragments, rather than having to use a narrative that goes from A to B to C and so on. His books go A to P to D to Q… and it works brilliantly. He was a huge influence on Rockets Passing Overhead.


4. Do you prefer doing daily strips for newspapers etc, or the freedom of creating an entire book?


Because I wanted to write and draw and have ideas, becoming a cartoonist was perfect for me – in both strips and books. Newspaper strips, I’ve found, give me a huge amount of freedom. Every week I have a little oblong box I can fill with my own thoughts about the world. I can think, write and draw pretty much whatever I like – although if I go too surreal and weird I might get an email asking me to be a little less obscure next week. Books are also wonderful to draw, design and hold at the end of the process, and similar to the strips in terms of freedom… though, of course, in both these areas you have to please your editor as well as following your own path . Nothing is complete freedom!


5. Describe your daily routine.


These days I get up at 6.30 and have breakfast with my two boys, who leave for school at 7.30. Then I go round to the studio for about 8.30. My studio, which I’ve had for 12 years now, is an old shop two streets from my house, which is very handy but also separate from home. At the studio I try and work in the mornings until about 1 or 2 before I start looking at my emails, making calls, browsing eBay, and so on. But of course the best laid plans… I probably manage the morning working thing less than 25% of the time and usually phaff about answering email, having meetings and so on, and at the end of the day (which is 5 most days) I invariably think ‘Oh God, I’ve done nothing today!’


6. Practicality or aesthetics?


Aesthetics. High heels over trainers.


7. Animation or illustration?


Ideas over everything.

Actually, I’m not fond of the word ‘illustration’ to describe my work because it suggests (to me) the illustrating of someone else’s ideas. I sometimes AM an illustrator in that sense, but more of the time I’m writing and drawing my own ideas, so I tend to prefer being called a cartoonist. Or artist. I love animation, but as nearly everything I’ve done in animation originated as a strip or book, I’d have to say I prefer cartoon strips because they are the beginning. If the idea, or script, of the cartoon is good and works, then the animation will work.


8. Any advice for someone looking to break into illustration? (I might keep this answer to myself) And how did you get your break?


Um… Things have changed so much since I started that I’m not sure how it would be best to break into being a published illustrator these days. But I guess the main thing, as it always has been, is to get your work seen by the right person. The person who loves your work, and who will give you that vital first commission after which (so long as you do it well) others will follow. My work has been published a lot in Germany over the years, and that was completely due to one person, at one newspaper, who loved it. It was very lucky that he saw my work in the first place.

I’ve had lots of lucky breaks, but I think the crucial thing is to recognise when luck happens along so that you can grasp hold of it and not let go! My first commissioned illustration was for the NME (New Musical Express) when I had just moved to London a week before starting at the Royal College of Art. I was visiting a friend who designed record covers and showing him something I had recently done, when the art editor of the NME called. In the course of their phone conversation the art ed said he needed a drawing for the letters page by the next morning, and my friend said ‘I have just the person standing right next to me,’ which was how I came to end up working all that night and got my first drawing published. I could have panicked and said ‘no’, or I could have messed it up, but instead the NME was happy, which was the beginning of a fruitful relationship. Eventually they published my first cartoon strip, Rockets Passing Overhead, which has since (as ‘Captain Star’, been seen on TV and published in many countries).

So – the first thing you need to do is be an individual. Be distinctive. Follow your own path. There’s no point in being like other people. Then you need the right person/s to see and become aware of your work (lots of internet ways to do that as well as the good old ones like phoning up, making an appointment and showing your portfolio). Finally, you need some luck.

I once heard writer Frank Cottrell-Boyce say on the radio that he had lost count of the number of times he had watched people walk right past their luck without noticing it. So don’t walk past your luck!




Do you prefer to be called a cartoonist or an illustrator? 

I prefer cartoonist. It’s unpretentious and it suggests (to me) that I write and think as well as draw.

Have you ever woken up and found you’d drawn loads of things all over the place in your sleep?

I’ve sometimes scribbled all over the inside of my head.

What’s your favourite ever piece you’ve done? Ever? 

Oh, er, um… I think Captain Star. He’s such a hero and such an asshole. What on earth is he doing, just sitting there in that wheelbarrow waiting for orders which never come? Look him up on YouTube.

Ah man! I love Captain Star, that takes me right back to 6th Form – How did Richard E. Grant end up as the voice of him? Did you have him in mind all along?

Captain Star is a strange character. He appears to be calm, controlled and in command, but this is a façade. In fact, he’s utterly repressed and beneath the cool exterior seethes a boiling cauldron of ego, delusion and – frankly – insanity. We wanted someone to play him who could convey this clipped, arrogant and confident outer character, while somehow allowing the viewer know that beneath this very thin crust madness lies – something Star doesn’t realise himself. Richard E Grant did it absolutely magnificently.

Initially we were thinking of casting Richard O’Brian (who wrote The Rocky Horror Show and presented the TV show Crystal Maze) but he wasn’t available, I can’t remember why, and someone suggested Richard E Grant, who seemed perfect. An actor friend of mine went to a wedding a few days later and, lo and behold, he was one of the guests! So my friend said ‘You’re going to be approached about doing the voice of Captain Star. It’s great and you should do it.’ I’ve no idea if that had any bearing on the fact that Richard agreed to be Captain Star, but that’s what happened.

What was it like working with The Pixies on the cover art for Tromp La Monde?

I worked with the designer of all the Pixies graphics, Vaughn Oliver, not the Pixies themselves, but it was fantastic. I’m a huge Pixies fan and it was incredibly exciting to be even a small part of their history. Vaughn asked me to draw him a sheet of rockets of all shapes and sizes which he could pick from. He used them as little decorative, typographic elements on the sleeve. Seeing the finished cover was amazing. The curved silver rocket on the CD disc blew me away.

Where did the inspiration for The Coffee Table Book Of Doom come from?

Just from watching the world, day by day, going to Hell. We’re all horribly fascinated by doom. That was the start. Realising that I secretly want to hear on the news that a plague is getting worse, or an asteroid getting closer. Of course, it’s a relief when a potential doom scenario peters out… but it’s also disappointing. Now, why’s that? That question started the book. That and Art Lester coming up with such a great title.

Where can we see more of your work?

In The Guardian Family section every Saturday, or on my website, or go out and buy a copy of The Coffee Table Book Of Doom!




Steven Appleby



No matter how surreal or obscure my work might appear to be, it always starts from something in real life. Something I do, or have watched, or someone has told me about. Often it’s something pretty mundane, like making toast, or cleaning your teeth, or even loading a dishwasher. For example, Captain Star (my intergalactic hero who has appeared in comics and on television) is obsessed with hoovering the corridors of his spaceship, the Boiling Hell, and washing the windscreen clean of squashed meteorites.

My influences are the people who helped me learn to think. Some are visual artists, like Edward Gorey or Andy Warhol, but many are writers, such as Philip K Dick or Kurt Vonnegut, filmmakers like David Lynch, or songwriters like Black Francis, of Pixies. Thinking and ideas are vitally important to me, because without them, what would the cartoon be about? (see: How To Think With Steven Appleby http://www.youtube.com/user/smallbirdssinging#p/a/u/1/fUk5mrlIVIM)

I ended up being a cartoonist because cartoon strips allow me to think, write and draw whatever I like (almost). I can create my own little world in the corner of a newspaper, bring it to life and use it to inflict my philosophical, observational or just plain silly thoughts on whoever happens to let their eyes fall upon it.

I still work in the traditional way, although nowadays I scan my cartoons and email them rather than delivering by post, by bike messenger or by hand. I sit at my desk using a dip pen and W&N Black Indian Ink (is it now called just Black Ink?) decanted from the biggest bottle I can buy into the smaller, flat-sided ones – with the grinning spider still on them. I love that the design hasn’t changed since I was a student. I ink in my rough drawing using a lightbox – a method suggested to me by Quentin Blake when he was my tutor (see: How To Draw With Steven Appleby http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G_Vz7gTh1VE). When the ink is dry I colour the drawings using W&N Artists’ Water Colour in half pans which, having tried many makes, and the tubes, has been my preferred choice for the past twenty years.

Steven Appleby is a cartoonist and illustrator living in Britain. His work first appeared in the NME with the Captain Star comic strip, and other comic strips have since appeared in The Times, Sunday Telegraph and the Guardian. His work has also appeared on album covers.

What made you realise you are a writer?

When I found I had stopped drawing in the sketchbooks I always carry around and was filling them with writing instead.

What was the last book you read?

I just finished In Search of the Missing Eyelash by Karen McCloud. Lovely, thought-provoking book. Now I’m reading Death At La Fenice by Donna Leon.

What achievement in your life are you most proud of?

Am I meant to say, ‘Having two gorgeous children?’ OK. Yes, that… But also I’m really proud of managing (along with my brilliant ex and all the rest of them) to somehow hold our rambling and extended family together so everyone is secure and essentially happy.

If you were stranded on a desert island which three fictional characters, who would you like to be there with and why?

Kurt Vonnegut. He’s in some of his own books. If I’m not allowed him because he’s too real, then his character Winston Niles Rumfoord. I want to hear about being trapped in a chrono-synclastic infundibulum – what it’s like and what he’s seen as he spins through the universe. Also Gene Runciter from Ubik by Philip K Dick. I don’t think he’d moan quite as much as some of Dick’s other characters, but he’d be pretty interesting to talk to about death. In the background, wandering in and out of the edges of my vision, I’d like there to be one of Edward Gorey’s bizarre creations, such as The Doubtful Guest.

What phrase do you find is the most played in your head?

As I walk along I often find nonsense words bobbing to the surface of my mind. Usually made-up words which I suppose my subconscious must like the sound of. Often they sound like the names of unborn characters. Things like: Rancepool McAlpine; Randibus Throtmonik…Of course, put on the spot like this I can’t remember the regular ones and new ones are shy of appearing.

Have you ever wanted to do anything else with your illustrative skills, besides cartoons?

I have always felt that my skill (if that’s the right word) lies in imagining and inventing things. Maybe it’s the way I look at the world. All of which means it can be applied to anything. So with that belief in the back of my mind I’ve done anything that comes along, including exhibitions of paintings, ceramics, sculpture, writing a radio series for Radio 4, cartoons strips, animated TV series, books, a stage play… Ignorance and inexperience of a medium means I have no fear of having a go at it!

Has the way you work changed as we move into more digital times? Do you still use a pencil and paper?

Yes, I still draw and paint on paper. But nowadays I scan my own work, perhaps tweak it or colour it using a computer, then I can email it anywhere in the world. That delivery part has been a huge change.

Where do you find the inspiration for your characters?

The successful ones spring out of thin air. From some subconscious place. They are fuelled by what interests me and shaped by people I’ve met or seen on television or the bus. But unless they come to life in my mind in some mysterious way, then they don’t work. They don’t become real. They remain merely flat. Like drawings.

Can you tell us what you’re working on next?

I’m working on a novel which doesn’t quite have a title yet. Perhaps it’s called The Pointed Girl. I’m also working on an exhibition – part installation, part set of paintings. And I’m musing/playing with ideas for a graphic novel. Finally, Art Lester and I are talking about ideas for a follow-up to The Coffee Table Book Of Doom.

How did you get involved in the Book Swap night?

I went to D J Connell’s first Book Swap night and had a brilliant time. Afterwards I met and chatted to Scott who invited me along.


Linda McCarthy

Linda McCarthy is a filmaker specialising in stop motion animated films. She has made and exhibited ceramics, written and preformed marionette shows and is now writing and making animated films. After graduating from Glyndwr University in 2007 she formed her own animation company, Tiny elephants. Linda is currently calibrating with Steven Appleby in making a series of films adapted from Stevens cartoon trip, Small birds singing.

About Tiny elephants – Tiny elephants is a little company which makes animated films in stop motion. It was formed in 2007 by Linda McCarthy, who up to now has made four short films adapted from the cartoon strip small birds singing by Steven appleby, small bird singing is a country state somewhere in england, in which lives a dysfunctional family, their masked butler and a herd of tiny elephants who dust under the furniture. The cartoon strip appeared in the times magazine for eight yard. Loomus, Steve Applebys current cartoon strip can be seen in the family action of the guardian on saturdays.

“I started my animation studies in 2003 as a mature student. Already experienced potter, and a marionette enthuses. I was naturally drawn towards stop motion animation. I enjoy all aspects of the process from the puppet and set making to the filming and post production.

Films –

  • Small birds singing 2007
  • A traditional christmas at small birds singing 2009
  • The grand easter egg hunt 2010
  • Hinterland 2010
  • How to think within Steven Appleby 2011
  • Bradford animation festival ident 2011
  • The little circus 2006
  • The performance 2004

Lindas company website 

I think for animation Linda ha done very well and her business is growing, the same as with the light designer Linda first studied another subject before getting to her career choice in animation, this is proving to be a very good technique for these designers as it gives them a more open mind. Giving them more creative techniques so that they can stand out in business.Linda was very kind to answer a few questions to help with this post.
1. What inspired you to make animation filmmaking your profession?

I came to animation and film making by a rather circuitous route. Ever since childhood my mother encouraged my sister and I to be creative and make things. Memories of childhood include writing, making and performing puppet shows, particularly during holidays shared with my cousin Steven Appleby. During Foundation Art studies my interests extended to include film-making and ceramics. I then obtained a diploma in studio ceramics, planning a profession as a ‘potter’ and subsequently created a ceramics studio at my home. However, my obsession with marionette performance and film-making resurfaced in 2003, and I went to West Cheshire College and enrolled on a Media Studies Course.  I enjoyed the animation module and decided to do a Degree in Animation at Glyndŵr University. With my love of puppetry, I naturally gravitated towards ‘stop- motion’ animation.

2. Please could you describe your work and what inspires your work?

I approached artist Steven Appleby to see if I could animate one of his cartoon strips. He agreed and I chose Small Birds Singing, which had appeared in The Times for eight years and had always been a favourite of mine. It was a challenge to adapt his black and white, line drawn cartoons to a three dimensional environment and maintain the essence of his bizarre world.  Steve gave me access to approximately 400 strips from the series.  This stimulated many ideas for film stories. The first Small Birds Singing film was made as my graduation film and screened at many festivals worldwide, including Annecy in 2008.

3. Please could you describe the process you follow in creating work.

Once the script is finalised the dialogue is recorded.  Kerry Shale is a professional voice artist and speaks for all the characters. The voice is crucial in portraying each personality, and Kerry is a master of his art.
Using the voice recording and storyboard I produce an animatic, which allows me to plan the timing for animation. While the script and storyboard are being resolved, I begin to create the puppets, props and sets. I model the character’s head in clay, make a plaster mould and then reproduce many heads. Then I model an individual mouth shape or expression on each head, which is finished with an oxide wash and high fired in the kiln to 1260˚C. The bodies are made from foam latex, which is baked over an armature. The hands are made from silicone over a wire armature.
Wherever possible, I make props out of clay. This has become my trademark. The ceramic props are also made in a loose and wonky way, to reflect Steven’s style.
I have space in my studio for one set at a time, which is a consideration when deciding on the order of filming. I make and assemble the set and then my colleague Joe Dembinski comes to work his magic with the lighting. As animating progresses, I edit and build the film over the animatic, lining up the voice and adding sound effects. Fortunately, as an independent film maker, I set my own time constraints and can re-animate a shot until I am happy with it.  I enjoy this way of working – flaws and gaps can be spotted as the film is growing.
When I have finally finished the edit, I contact the composers, Verbal Vigilante Music, and the music is conceived.