Dads Who Draw
Interview with illustrator Ben Javens
Tell us about your dad.
He has a great sense of humour and rarely acts his age (he’s 63). He loves football, which is something neither my brother nor I have taken to our hearts. Possibly due to being dragged along to watch him play on Saturday mornings while Mum was at work. I suspect my own kids will have the same disregard for record shopping.
How do you parent differently from him?
He was a lot more relaxed, whereas I find it difficult to not get stressed over the smallest of things.
How do you parent the same as him?
I hope that my inherited sense of humour shines through and my kids get the same funny dad that I have.
What’s one thing your dad has said to you that you’ll always remember?
He always used to say I should do well at school so I wouldn’t end up in a dead-end job like the one he had. I hope to impart the same wisdom on my kids so they’re able to do something they want to get out of bed for in the morning.
What was your experience of birth?
Jenny wanted to have as natural a birth as possible and, as supportive as I wanted to be, I had reservations about home births. Instead we opted to go to a midwife-led unit at our local hospital. I’m sure most men say the same of their partners, but Jenny was amazing and had no pain relief—which, considering she has to lie down when she bumps her elbow, is pretty impressive. Second time ’round was exactly the same, only everything happened in the blink of an eye and I almost missed the birth when the midwife asked me to move the car.
Describe your first year as a father.
Full of worry and an irrational fear that Mabel may perish if we didn’t have the heating on at just the right temperature. By the time Molly came along all those fears were long gone, which is why she’s a little more robust.
What is the most interesting part of being a father?
Watching my kids grow and develop and the speed at which that happens. I’m quite lucky, because being a freelancer and working from home has meant I’ve been able to spend a lot more time with them than I would have if I’d had a regular 9-to-5 job. Although, there are days when I’d kill to be out of the house in a 9-to-5 job.
What is the most challenging part of becoming a father?
Learning to let go and not to be so uptight. Five years down the line and I still haven’t got the hang of it, but I’m sure I’ll have figured it out by the time I become a grandparent.
What have your kids made you realise about yourself—good and bad?
I can only think of the bad things. Like, how little patience I seem to have and how quick-tempered I am. Prior to having kids I would have described myself as a relaxed and easygoing person who never lost his temper, but these days I seem to be pulling my hair out before I’ve even got out of bed in the morning.
How did you get your start into illustrating?
I studied fine art—sculpture—but didn’t do anything with it after leaving university. Instead I just bounced from one rubbish job to another. After several years I got my hands on a computer, which opened my eyes to new ways of making work, and, around the same time, a group of friends started putting on shows and they asked me to be involved. I then spent a year drawing for fun and another year figuring out I could make drawing my job—and that even though it meant having far less money, I would be happier.
Who do you draw for professionally?
I’ve worked for some really good clients and have also done editorial work for The Guardian and The New York Times. I’ve just finished illustrating a children’s picture book, too—but I’ve also had some tough quiet periods, which wasn’t all bad because it gave me the opportunity to think more creatively. I recently made a series of images from collage and pencil drawing for a solo exhibition, and it was possibly the most exciting and fun work I’ve done for a long time.
What is your favourite thing to draw?
I’m not sure I have a favourite thing; I only ever seem to draw the same characters over and over. I guess my favourite thing is not the characters themselves but experimenting with ways of drawing them differently, regardless of how subtle those differences appear to be on the surface.
How do your kids inspire your drawing?
Worryingly, I think my recent illustrations reflect the dad I want to be—bright, bold and full of fun—and not the dad I think I am, which is just grumpy.
Do you involve your kids in your creative process?
I’ve yet to really let them get involved in how I work as an illustrator, mainly because I think they’d find it boring (I have a fairly long-winded way of creating my work that involves more mouse clicks than pen strokes), but we do paint and draw together and have experimented with different printing processes. I’d much rather they learnt to be creative in this way than be spoiled by digital processes.
What was the last illustration you worked on with your kids?
I was recently reminded of a game I used to play with my dad as a kid, and so I’ve started playing it with Mabel. Basically, one person makes a mark or scribble and the other person then has to turn it into a drawing of something. It’s a great way to get her to use her imagination and practise drawing things she might not draw otherwise.
What do your kids request you draw?
I suspect they think all I’m good for is drawing the same silly faces I draw when I’m ‘at work’. Which might explain why they never ask me to draw anything for them. I did once get a request to draw an elephant playing the drums but nothing since then, so it can’t have been very good.
Do you draw any kid-centric stuff?
In a way I think everything I draw is aimed at kids, but work that I’ve made specifically for kids are things like Pam & Tom for Anorak magazine and the picture book I’ve just finished working on, which will be out later this year. More recently, I’ve been trying to get my own picture book off the ground. I wrote and illustrated the story about two years ago but then just sat on it without really knowing what to do next. I was scared that it was no good and would be rejected. But I showed a publisher recently, who liked it. I’m still waiting to hear if they want to publish, but even if they don’t, I’ll have the confidence to take it elsewhere.
What have you come to realise about being a father that has surprised you?
I’m not really surprised by this, but I have a far better understanding of how tough it is to bring up kids and how selfless you have to be to make sure they have everything they need. By this I don’t mean material possessions, but more that they are loved, happy and nurtured. I also realise how hard my parents must have worked and what sacrifices they would have made for me.
What do you hope your kids will remember about you as their father?
That I was fun to be with.