Inspiring Young Readers

posted on 15 May 2016

Jane Ray

This award winning English artist has illustrated over 70 books for children, including several that she has written herself and has also designed greetings cards, book jackets and posters. She has worked with many prestigious authors including Carol Ann Duffy, Michael Rosen, Kevin Crossley-Holland and Jeanette Winterson.

a_Jane_Ray_1_-_Copy1.jpgShe studied Art and Design at Middlesex University, with ceramics as her main subject and this aspect of three dimensional design and love of pattern shines through all her subsequent work. After qualifying she started out as a freelance greetings card designer for Roger La Borde cards in the 1980s and she soon became known for what the Times Educational Supplement described as an "exuberant patterning and celebration of colour", that is clearly  influenced by a variety of Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cultures. Part of this influence was expressed through her use of intricate decorative borders that now frame many of the central images in her book illustrations. "Luminous",” enchanting” “glittering” and "vibrant" are among the many adjectives that critics have used to describe her beautifully detailed work.

She uses a range of media including coloured pencils, inks and watercolours. She loves travelling abroad for inspiration but also studies and draws people around her to inform her work and often visits the British Museum which provides a rich resource, a short journey from her home in North London.


She cites Beatrix Potter as one of her most enduring artistic influences, which is reflected in the meticulous attention to detail and use of colour in all her books. In a recent interview for the Letterpress Project she explains:

 ‘I was fascinated by detail of her work. She was a scientist as well as an artist and I found that mixture of extremely detailed observation of the natural world and the pure fantasy of ‘dormice in bonnets’ captivating. I used to ‘go into’ those illustrations – imagined I was walking along that lane in Tom Kitten, or sitting amongst the foxgloves in Jemima Puddleduck, or walking up the stairs of the doll’s house in  The Tale of Two Bad Mice’.

Brian Wildsmith was also a big favourite with his innovative use of colour and design that is generally considered to be a major influence in lifting the status of picture books into objects of art in the 1960s. Like Wildsmith, Ray often uses gold to embellish and transform a story into something exotic and magical.


Another influence on her style was Jan Pienkowki whose distinctive stylised use of silhouettes can be particularly seen in the illustrations for ‘ Jinnie Ghost’ by Berlie Doherty


In an interview with the Book Trust, Ray points out the importance of including children from a range of backgrounds in her illustrations:

 'The children I meet are ethnically diverse, and I would frankly, be embarrassed if my "audience" wasn't represented in the books I am making for them. So, from the beginning of my career I have included characters of different ethnicities, and I have particularly enjoyed bringing those differences to the traditional "flaxen haired" European traditions of Grimm, Perrault and Andersen.’

As part of this inclusive approach, she has also been actively involved for many years in campaigning for books that include a range of characters with disabilities. One of my favourites is ‘Moonbird’ by Joyce Dunbar, a fairy tale where the Prince happens to be deaf.

She also runs an art workshop at a centre for asylum seekers and refugees to help ‘create a little oasis of calm and colour’.


In the Letterpress Project interview she explains that ‘the perfect book is one whose contents has just that hold on my heart and memory, and is also a thing of beauty in itself, with a lovely binding, glorious illustrations, lovely typography’.

In my view, all her distinctive books so far achieve this and so are gorgeous desirable objects in their own right.


Karen Argent

11th May 2016

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