Nous Vous on illustrating for children in a way that encourages creativity

The London illustrative collective tells us how they created a series of books that encourages pre-schoolers to be more creative.

London illustrative collective Nous Vous have teamed up with Wide Eyed Editions to create the wonderfully frenetic and colourful children’s book series Show + Tell. 

Show + Tell: Animal Activities and Show + Tell: Transport Activities are essentially activity packs bound by book covers, including three fold-out posters, a colouring book and 40 stickers encouraging children to use creative imagination whilst learning with their families. 

After considering creating the illustrations entirely together, Nous Vous’ Jay Cover and William Luz decided to work on a book each. Although the activities themselves were mainly designed in-house at Wide Eyed Editions, Jay and William brought them to life.

The collective (which also includes Nicholas Burrows) the perfect fit for this collaboration. They have numerous projects with children under their belts throughout their 10 years together, including workshops for The British Museum, activity sheets and packs for Frieze, The Tetley and Walker Art Centre.  

As Nous Vous are about to finish their stint as the Illustrator in Residence at the House of Illustration, they’ve returned to drawing on the same page again.

We spoke to Jay about illustrating for pre-schoolers, drawing inspiration from 1950s graphic work and learning how to divvy up the workload within the trio.

 Miriam Harris: How do you illustrate for pre-schoolers in the way that encourages creativity and imagination?

Jay Cover: "I feel it’s very important to encourage inquisition. Not to overly dictate what a child should be thinking. To create visual language with enough space for children to interpret how they would like to, using their own imagination."

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MH: Where did you find inspiration for your illustrations for this book series?

JC: "I (Jay) worked on the Transport Activities book. William worked on the Animal Activities.  I was interested in referencing older vehicles, from around the 1950’s. I felt they had a really nice shape and were visually more interesting than modern vehicles for kids. I always have imagery in my head from that era, I would find it very difficult to pin point exactly what inspiration that is, as there’s so much good graphic work from that decade and I usually want to keep references and other illustrators out of my line of site.  

I prefer to give myself a general tone, a loose sense of what I like and what I want to do and figure things out myself. That era for me represents timelessness, a reduction in form, bold use of colour and texture, which is great for kids books and thinking about ‘leaving space’ for children to use their imagination. One thing I do think about often that I can reference is a teaching aid from the 1970’s called Another Look, which are rare and very hard to pick up - but absolutely incredible, nicely designed and the activities are very human. Aside from visual treatments - I have a niece Connie who, I have to say, is my greatest inspiration. She’s always very keen to make drawings, come up with stories, make things with me when I visit."

MH: How did you share the load of work between the three of you?

JC: "We began by trying to create all the illustrations together and figuring this out. But as you may imagine, if you’ve ever tried to draw on the same page, it becomes very difficult. We eventually decided between us that William and myself should produce the illustrations. We often work in this way when someone seems to be able to get a sense of the project or has a hunger to do it at that moment. This is totally boring, but sometimes it simply comes down to practicalities and who has the most time to dedicate to a project. We all 100 percent trust each other and feel we’d all equally be able to respond to a brief like this."

MH: How much creative freedom were you given with this project?

JC: "Rachel and Jenny (from Wide Eyed Editions) were very happy for us to develop the illustration ourselves, to bring it to life. I think if anything we tend to impose restrictions on ourselves. We have a tendency to go a bit wild with most projects then have to reel them in to make them appropriate for the intended audience. We do this by chatting amongst ourselves and creating a set of parameters, a formula for the way we make images."

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"As mentioned it was two of us independently creating the images, so we didn’t want the books to feel like they’d been produced by two different people - so we set a working method that we all developed together and stuck to it. This is always a tricky thing for most artists, who are constantly working on taking their practice in new directions, we’re always keen to show and share where we’re currently at and what we’re interested in. But sometimes this isn’t appropriate. And because we’re working in different areas with different audiences - there’s often an opportunity to put this somewhere else.”

MH: How was illustrating a for this book series different to your other projects?

JC: "I think it was the first time we’d actually decided it was more effective if we created the books separately and worked independently, but following the formula that we collaboratively established. Preceding this work was the Greenman promotional material we produced, which we worked on together and became very difficult at times to manage. Collaborating and finding working methods collectively is always an ongoing discussion with us. And we’re always keen to respond to this and try new approaches.  

There’s a sense sometimes when working collectively; that the project is no one’s baby, and we were considering whether this was a bad thing or not at the time. Whether we needed to start trying a different approach where the person producing the work had a lot more invested in the project simply because it was their responsibility and they had no-one else to answer to. Whether this would increase the quality. It’s something I find it hard to be objective about, because I believe we come up with better ideas and more interesting images when we work together, but I prefer looking at Nic and Will’s personal visual language unhindered or uninterrupted by my own."

MH: What can we expect to see from your time as Illustrator in Residence? 

JC: "We’ve revolved back around to trying to draw on the same page again. Or finding a way of doing it where the idea of authorship is really challenged, by making it difficult for any one of us to control the way we make an image, or control the line we lay down. To do this we’ve built a drawing machine – which the three of us (or three people) need to operate manually with pulleys and levers. You may see this machine visiting places at some point but at the moment we’re trying to create a large suite of drawings on it. Quality varies massively, it’s extremely difficult to produce something that looks nice on the machine. But things ‘looking nice’ isn’t something we’re overly concerned with in this context at this moment, within the relative freedom, experimentation and development a residency affords in contrast to commercial work."

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JC: "We’re illustrating a novel called Three men In a Boat by Jerome K. Jerome (originally published in 1889), a humorous travel guide that documents the japes, scrapes and happenings of three friends who go on a boat trip down the Thames together. The content and theme of the book also serves as a way of talking about collaboration, being silly, having fun, getting frustrated, trying new things, failing - all the things that happen when you try to work together. This will culminate in a show at The House of Illustration in March."