Illustrator Sion Ap Tomos on working with schoolchildren - and turning what they make into beautiful books

We recently launched two vibrantly illustrated leperollo booklets as a result of outreach projects with Hackney and Camden primary schools. Here, we go behind the scenes to find out how they were made...

Details

  • Sion Ap Tomos
  • Education

One of our brilliant freelance team, illustrator Sion Ap Tomos delivered a workshop at Princess May School responding to the local market, Ridley Road. A second workshop, this time at King’s Cross Academy, saw pupils focusing on the rich history of King’s Cross Goods Yard and Granary Square. 

The students’ beautiful pen, ink and watercolour illustrations were carefully scanned and digitally collated by Sion to create expansive landscapes that tell the story of the areas they depict. We were amazed by Sion’s effort to include work by every student across the four classes he worked with, sometimes having up to 200 layers in his Photoshop files open at the same time. He used inventive ways to encourage the students to produce compelling illustrations and observe their subject area in new ways, from acting out historical scenes to drawing with ink and sticks.

Here, Sion shares his teaching tips and explains how he turned hundreds of illustrations into these two fantastic books…

King's Cross

For the King’s Cross Goods Yard booklet pupils drew individual pieces of track, both straight and curved, so that we could create a railway running all the way through it. They had a simple template to draw on which just marked the length of the track and the width at both ends so that all the pieces would fit together easily but were free to draw and colour each piece in their own ways. 

The Year 2 Pupils learned about all the different jobs that were done in the Goods Yard such as moving the heavy railway wagons around with the help of a huge army of horses, lifting heavy sacks of grain sometimes with the help of hydraulic cranes and transporting goods on horse-drawn carts and sail barges. The pupils discussed what it is like to do hard physical work and, before drawing the Goods Yard workers, they acted out pulling heavy loads and carrying sacks of grain. This helped them create fantastic action poses for their figures.

The pupils enjoyed hearing about particular people who worked at the yard such as the team of female porters in the 1930s who unloaded wagons of glass drinking bottles. It was very unusual for women to have such jobs on the railway at that time. They also liked the sound of the cat man whose job it was to feed the vast number of feral cats kept because they helped keep the rat population down.

Fish were important goods that came through the yard. The invention of the railway meant that fish could, for the first time, be transported long distances while being kept fresh. This helped boost the popularity of fish and chips and make it the iconic British dish it is today. The pupils loved drawing the fish, creating vibrantly drawn and colourful specimens of all shapes and sizes with wonderfully expressive faces. They are among my favourite things in the booklet.

For many of their drawings, the pupils uses both the pointed and blunt ends of wooden skewers dipped in black ink, a lovely way for them to experiment with drawing. After the ink had dried they added watercolour, lightly and simply so as not to obscure the drawing.

For the booklet these drawings were combined with others created using coloured pencils. Graphite pencils were not used at any point in the project as graphite doesn’t always digitally scan very well and this also kept the drawings consistently colourful. The railway wagons and barges were created by collaging colourful bits of paper for the basic shape and drawing over the top. This was so they would have a different visual weight to them and hopefully serve as a satisfying contrast to the other types of drawings.

Ridley Road

For the Ridley Road Market project, Year 5 pupils at Princess May Primary School spent a day practicing before visiting the market to draw. To do this, mock market stalls were created in the classroom, one displaying a wide variety of fruit and veg (bought at Ridley Road) and the other displaying boots, shoes and bags. The class teachers pretended to be stallholders and pupils set about drawing what they could see whilst I shouted out market phrases every now and again so they could get used to that type of noise going on around them as they would in the market itself. Probably the most important thing they practiced was drawing standing up as there would be nowhere for them to sit in Ridley Road.

Drawing in the market, which we did over four sessions, was challenging. We visited in November so it was often cold and damp and of course the market didn’t stop its business so we could draw pictures of it. The pupils were fantastic though, they didn’t once complain of the cold and immediately threw themselves into the task of drawing all the hustle and bustle going on around them. They took no notice of the occasional complaint about our presence and took great delight when market workers and shoppers interacted positively with them and posed for drawings which many did.

To create the market panorama featured in the booklet, the drawings were digitally scanned and cleaned. Cleaning meant getting rid of all the visible white of the paper so all that was left was the drawn lines and shapes. This allowed for the drawings to be laid next to each other or be overlapped if necessary and also got rid of any accidental marks and smudges.

The drawings themselves were not altered except that sometimes only parts of drawings were used, being careful not to alter their original meaning. For example, a jumper from a drawing of jumpers hanging on a stall might be taken and added to other jumper drawings to make a jumper stall that several pupils had contributed to thus ensuring that all pupils work could be represented in the final image. 

As the pupils had diligently recorded the market from one end to the other, it was possible to piece their images together to reflect the order of the stalls along the market road, with fabric stalls situated on the east end of Ridley Road (left hand side of the panorama) and fruit and veg stalls on the west (right hand side).

We were keen to get the pupils’ instinctive responses to their experiences at the market so we made audio recordings of their thoughts and occasional conversations with each other and with people at the market. The text in the book is almost entirely verbatim statements taken from the recordings to compliment some of the images.

It was a pleasure and a privilege to work with both groups.

Find our more about how we work with schools here.