Catherine Rayner is on a whirlwind publicity tour following the publication of her new book, Sylvia and Bird. She arrives at our meeting brimming with enthusiasm after a visit to a London primary school.


‘The children asked lovely questions,’ she beams. ‘I love going to schools, because you spend so much time on your own drawing and writing, and when you go to schools you see their faces light up and they ask you questions and are interested and give you ideas.


'They were really interested in how books were made. They asked how you make the characters look the same on each page. I had to explain that you have piles and piles of sketch books and you draw things over and over and over again until you get a complete feel for the character, as if it’s totally real.’


Art was Rayner’s only real interest when she herself was at school, but although she didn’t believe it was possible to make her hobby into a career, she decided to study illustration, and followed a foundation year at Leeds College of Art with a degree at Edinburgh College of Art. She studied at Edinburgh almost by accident, but the traditional course proved the ideal place to develop her style.


‘It suited me down to the ground. I got into Edinburgh more on the strength of my A-level work, which was more traditional painting than the wacky, crazy stuff we’d done trying to be up to the minute and fashionable on the foundation year.


'I didn’t get into Glasgow School of Art, and I was devastated at the time, but now, looking at the people that came out of Glasgow School of Art, it would have been too of-the-minute for me. I’m more old-fashioned with the way that I work. I just like raw materials, I like thick paper, I like getting messy.’


‘In the final year when we got left to our own devices I was really stuck for a few months, but I just kept drawing and drawing. It all came together on a day when I’d forgotten my pencil case.


'All I had in the bottom of my bag was a dried up tube of watercolour, acrylic inks, which I’d been playing with for ages because you can draw with them, and a couple of watercolour pencil crayons and some acrylic paint. They were tiger colours. I just messed around. I started working by layering different textures, and, I thought, this is really interesting. Now I love working like that.’


The tiger colours eventually evolved into Rayner’s degree show book, Augustus and His Smile, which earned her the Best New Illustrator Award at the Booktrust Early Years Awards in 2006 and a Kate Greenaway Medal nomination the following year. In 2008 she was named one of the ten best new illustrators as part of the Big Picture campaign.


Still only four years out of art college, she has published the follow-up to Augustus, a story about a hare called Harris Finds His Feet, and she has illustrated Linda Newbery’s Posy, about a kitten. Thus far, her books have had simple, classic themes, and the latest is no exception: Sylvia and Bird is about the friendship between a seemingly incompatible pair of animals.


Rayner’s painterly approach and insistence on rendering animals realistically - as wild things rather than cuddly creatures - has prompted comparisons with Brian Wildsmith, which, she says, is ‘amazing’.

‘I wanted to portray animals so they were children’s characters but they were still quite real. But I still make them very child-friendly, which is a balance.’


‘I do want them to think of a tiger as being tigery as opposed to a bouncy cartoon. And I’m trying to raise awareness a little bit. In the back of Augustus there are tiger facts. It’s only in the paperback because of the way the book’s printed.


'I thought that that was really quite important. People do read it and children do pick up on it and say things to me when I go into schools.'


'I don’t know what to do about hares yet. Hares are quite endangered too because the hedgerows are going because of farming. They use grass verges to have their young, and of course the farmers plough the fields or rip the hedges up, and that’s it.


'So I was reading that in some places farmers are starting to plough fields in the middle as opposed to going from edge to edge, to give the hares more time to escape. And they’re leaving bigger grass verges. The population has risen, but they are pretty rare.’


Given her lifelong interest in animals, it is somewhat surprising that the protagonist of Sylvia and Bird is an imaginary creature. ‘I was trying to think of what to do next and an editor said to me as a joke: what about a dragon? I said: I can’t do that. Then I thought, I quite like a challenge. I hope people find it magical, because it is quite magical.'


Magical though it is, even her dragon is rooted in reality. Rayner uses her own pet dog, cat and horse as models in order to get a sense of the anatomies of her artistic creations, and Sylvia is no exception.

‘My cat and dog help a lot with how they sit, for example: how their bums and their thighs work and how they tuck their feet under when they’re sitting, and how they balance. I had to work out how Sylvia would balance when she’s sitting on a branch.


'It just took loads of sketching until it looked right. Her face was based on a sea horse called a weedy sea dragon. I wanted a long snout. There’s komodo dragons and other kinds of lizards, but I didn’t want her to be like that.’


With the four books she has already published and the three she is working on all featuring animal protagonists, it is apparent that Rayner prefers animals to people, and I wonder whether she has any interest in ever illustrating human characters.


‘I keep getting asked at the moment by publishers when I am going to do a people story,’ she says. ‘I think you can avoid it quite cleverly if there’s a creature in there, though I would consider it. I can never imagine what anything would look like before it’s done.


'In Posy, I think everyone envisaged that there would be a person. When it says “cuddle earner” and “charming purrer” they were envisaging hands. With “disappearer”, they thought of children looking for Posy.


'But I managed to completely avoid that. “Cuddle earner” was a mother cat cuddling her baby cats, which I think made it better. There was less interference. I think it’s better without people sometimes.’


Rayner creates textural interest through the use of screen printing, a technique she discovered at art college and uses to great effect, both on animals and landscapes.


‘My degree show was made up of big screen prints which really played with space and scale. I realised you could make it smaller in books and it still worked. Screen printing is amazing.


'You can do a drawing, but then when you translate it to screen printing and put colours behind it, it completely transforms it and can trigger off other ideas. I’ve just done a big dappled horse. I got a piece of charcoal and laid paper on top of bubble wrap and did a rubbing of the bubble wrap and that printed brilliant dapples. I just love stuff like that. It’s fun to do and I think it makes it fun to look at.’


The exploration of spatial possibilities that she began in her degree show has led to a continuing interest in the use of space in her work: all of her books leave plenty of room for the shapes on the page to move and breathe. ‘Space is very very important,’ she confirms. ‘The negative space is just as interesting, sometimes. It’s nice working with designers who are into text design because there’s a lot of space to work with.


'We talk at an early stage about what space I want to leave. But some publishers do try and persuade me to fill the space more. They say there’s too much white space, and I have to say: "no no, the space is really important".


'If people want books that are full, there are books, but a bit of space leaves them to imagine what’s in that space, what else could go there. If you talk to children about it, they will say there might be a sun, or hills, or more leaves. The tree could finish there, or it could go into the forest. It exercises their imagination.’

All of Rayner’s books have been printed on luxuriously thick, creamy paper that shows off the artwork’s subtle variations of texture and colour to great effect.


It took a lot of searching before she and her publishers Little Tiger finally settled on the wood-free matte paper that does the job best. It absorbs colour, which is an added complication, but, she believes, it’s worth the trouble. ‘I think it makes such a big difference. The paper is really crafty; it makes the books feel like artwork. I want people to think that it’s not just an illustration. It’s a piece of art.'