How Graeme Base became an iconic Australian illustrator

Swinburne alumni Graeme Base

Graeme Base is Australia’s most recognised children’s author and illustrator, with titles including Animalia, The Eleventh Hour, The Waterhole and Uno's Garden. A Diploma in Graphic Design from Swinburne helped to kick off what has been an illustrious 40-year career.

“When my older son James was much younger, a bunch of kids were talking in the school yard about what their parents do. James got a winsome look in his eye and said, ‘My dad stays home and colours in’.

The illustration business was where I was heading. The knowledge I gleaned from Swinburne helped to lead me to become an illustrator. I learnt how to lay things out on a page, including the placement of type on spine, the exact colours of the PMS (Pantone Matching System), and paper and font selection. I gained that confidence and knowledge from Swinburne.

Swinburne gave me an appreciation of design and of placement of elements in a field. I learnt spatial dynamics, typography, dark room techniques (it was long before we had digital), colour theory and more.

At the end of second year, Swinburne split us into diploma and degree groups. I was fairly aggrieved when I wasn’t chosen for a degree. However the Swinburne teachers had realised that I would be wasting my time. I wasn’t planning to build my own design studio. They knew I should just get out there and start drawing. They did explain that to me. I hadn’t actually been overlooked – I’d been well directed.

"Create for yourself first because that way your work has a certain honesty and is more likely to be original, rather than a copy or trend."

I got a job straight off and have essentially been working as an illustrator for 40 years. My first three jobs were fine places to work but the sort of work I was asked to do didn’t ring my bells. To keep myself sane as an artist I illustrated fantasy, dragons and made-up worlds in the evenings. I already had a folio of paintings together by the time I decided to take them to publishers.

Thomas Nelson publishers gave me work doing book jackets. I did one or two and thought that was pretty good and maybe I could write a story. I wrote the poem 'My Grandma Lived in Gooligulch'. That became my first published book in 1983 with Penguin. I spent the next three years doing the artwork for Animalia.

There are as many different ways of carving out a career as there are people. Nowadays, I think you need an incredible amount of resilience and the ability to slog away before finding your niche or publisher. I was terribly lucky I found my publisher first off, Penguin Books, and I’m still with Penguin.

If it hadn’t worked out, I would have kept on doing what I love. I’m not one to follow a trend. You should be your own market – decide to do what you love because you’re passionate about it. Create for yourself first because that way your work has a certain honesty and is more likely to be original rather than a copy or trend.”