Interview with Owen Bell

If Thomas fans cherished any books while growing up, chances are that these were illustrated by Owen Bell. Here, Owen shares his recollections of his artistic contributions to Thomas' world from 1986 to 1996...
~ October, 13 2011

Owen, how did you first become involved with and interested in illustrating Thomas storybooks?
In the late 80's I was working as a freelancer in the UK for a company called Manuscript in Cornwall where I lived at the time. Manuscript produced fine art prints and were approached by Britt Allcroft to produce a Thomas print, but there was no available artwork which was suitable and so some needed to be created. Britt Allcroft stipulated that the artwork should bear some resemblance to the original artwork in the 'Railway Series' published in the 50's but 'updated' slightly to look more like the TV series. So Manuscript asked me if I could come up with something based on that brief, which I did, and Britt was very pleased with it, so much so that she asked if I would create ALL the artwork for the worldwide merchandise. It's important to point out that at this time, Britt Allcroft only had the license to produce the tv series and accompanying merchandise, NOT books. That license was held by Kaye & Ward (later Heinemann UK) at the time. So that's how my involvement with TTTE began.

Manuscript Trevor & Edward Print by Owen Bell
Manuscript Trevor & Edward Print Serial Number
Owen Bell's Trevor & Edward Manuscript print.  (Image courtesy Kate Potts - click image to see larger version)
The framed Manuscript prints of Owen's artwork were all individually numbered. (Image courtesy Kate Potts)

Your work captures a lot of the essence and charm of the TV Series and Rev. Awdry's characters and locales, were you already familiar with the TV Series or the Rev. Awdry's Railway Series books?
I knew of the 'Railway Series' but I grew up in Australia and although the books were probably available here, I didn't have any when I was a kid. To be honest, I wasn't that into trains then and never had a train set!

Samples of Owen's 'Thomas' artwork - click image to see more (images courtesy Callum Walker)

Given the varied railway characters on Sodor, what reference material did you use or were provided with to illustrate them?
Britt Allcroft provided me with a Style Bible which had line illustrations (side, front and back elevations) of all the trains, at the time, around 12. In later series, they introduced a lot more but that was after I stopped illustrating them. They also provided screen shots from the series and videos (remember them?).

Most if not all of the Thomas story books you've illustrated credit your first name as "Owain", not "Owen". Can you shed some light on this little mystery?
No mystery really. Many years ago I saw a children's storybook with a character called 'Owain', which is the Welsh spelling of 'Owen'.I just thought it looked a bit unusual, and so I used it on the TTTE work. When I came back to Australia in '94 and stopped working on TTTE, I stopped using it.

Many of your illustrated Thomas-themed books are interactive for the very young e.g. Thomas the Tank Engine's Big Lift and Look Book (1996). Did the illustrating and submission of your work to the Publisher for these interactive books require different art medium or techniques?
No, not really. All the artwork was painted in gouache, colored pencil and ink. Some of the flap books and pop ups took some working out technically, but the painting technique was the same.

Thomas and the Hide and seek Animals
Example of Owen's interactive flap book:Thomas and the Hide and seek Animals (Heinemann 1991)

Another interactive book - Thomas and the Hide and Seek Animals (1993) is a favourite with fans who recall being fascinated by the illustrations when they were small. Given your interest in wildlife art, was this one of your favorite Thomas books to illustrate?
Yes, it was fun to do and one which I still have copies of.

Some of your artwork is featured on the covers and story illustrations in the Thomas annuals during the 1990's. Fans love the detail that you put into these illustrations....
Thank you! I always packed a lot of detail into my art and still do. There were lots of little 'in jokes' which only a few people knew about, mostly my family, especially my 2 daughters, Amber and Clover who were little kids at the time. I put them into most of the books and some of the jigsaws.

Re: inside jokes inserted into a few of your illustrations - can you share some examples?
One that I remember (although I can't remember which book it's in) shows Henry and an ambulance which has broken down. A guy with curly dark hair, wearing a yellow t shirt which has 'Joe's Garage' written on it, is fixing the ambulance. That guy is meant to be my all time hero, musical genius Frank Zappa.

Henry meets Frank Zappa
Inside Humor: Henry meets Frank Zappa - From Thomas Noisy Book (1993). Image courtesy Owen Bell

Note: Another example of Owen's clever inside humour in his illustrations can be seen here - this one being a veiled reference to a famous Monty Python song :P (cheers to Chris Signore for finding this one.)

1993 Thomas Annual cover art by Owen Bell
Owen's cover art for the 1993 Annual

As an example, the cover of the 1993 Thomas annual (Fat controller towing a boat) is superbly detailed - right down to the wellies and catch of fish seen inside the boat. I understand that this was originally (or later became) a poster.
Scandecor did a poster of it and it won an award.

Could you tell us what size the original artwork was for the poster and Annual stories?
As I recall, the poster art was about A3 (16.5 x 11.7 in). The book artwork was all done at 'repro size', depending on the size of the book. Much of that detail was done through a magnifying glass using a 0000 brush.

Did you ever receive any feedback about your work from Britt Allcroft or the Awdrys?
Sadly, not that much. Britt was always too busy with the TV series to talk to me that much and so I liased with the team of young ladies she had working for her in Southampton. I also saw Angus Wright from time to time, but he didn't say much either! However, I can only assume they liked my work because they kept giving me more!
 
As for the Awdrys: I met the Rev Wilbert once and Christopher a couple of times. They didn't say too much either but what they did say was complimentary. The Rev was very protective about Thomas & Friends (understandably so) and sadly towards the end of his life, he had a 'falling out' with Britt over some 'creative differences' and after that I didn't hear from him or see him again. I guess he associated me with Britt and he wasn't talking to her either! I met Christopher again in the late 90's in Western Australia when he was down here for a promotion and he was very gracious towards me.

Were you ever invited to tour the model set filming at Shepperton?
Yes, I did go to the set at Shepperton once. Very impressive as I recall. I remember being surprised at how big the trains were. I didn't meet anyone on the team that I recall, although I guess I must have met someone there...and no, I never met Ringo either! I wish I had done, but it never happened. While it might appear I was part of the 'team', I wasn't really. I worked from home and only visited the offices in Southampton a couple of times a year. Not sure why, but it was up to Britt to make stuff like that happen, not me.

In all, how many books and related works of art (posters, puzzles, packaging) would you estimate you've created for Thomas & Co.?
Well, I did around 40 books for Heinemann UK and Random House NY over about 6 years. Merchandise? I have no idea HUNDREDS of pieces. I have none of the original artwork. It's all owned and held by either Britt or the two publishing houses. I have copies of most of the books but not much merchandise. I gave most of it away to friends and family.

There is a lovely sketch you drew of the Rev. Awdry, his wife Margaret and "Thomas" that is briefly featured in the Bookmark documentary The Thomas the Tank Engine Man (1995) . Is there a story behind this that inspired you to create it?
You know, I'd forgotten all about that. I think it was for their wedding anniversary (Golden?), but I could be wrong. As I said, I have none of the TTTE artwork in my possession, including that piece. After all, I did do it for the Rev, and so I suspect Christopher now has it.

Owen Bell's gift sketch to the Awdrys (30/08/88)
Owen's gift sketch of the Awdrys to mark their Golden Wedding Anniversary in 1988

Can you tell us a bit about yourself and when your interest in art and illustration began?
I've always drawn and painted. It's just about all I ever did when I was a kid ( no train set, remember?) I have always worked in the 'art field', although I had other jobs from time to time when I was 'working my way through college'. Like hairdresser, shoe salesman, scenery flyer in the theatre and ever watercress picker. I have been full time freelance illustrator since 1974. My other main interest is as semi pro musician. I play a number of instruments, including fiddle, alto sax and mandolin but my 'main' instrument is a 'horn' fiddle (it has a horn like an old gramophone, instead of a body). I play English Country Dance music, mainly because I was a Morris Dancer and Musician when I lived in Cornwall. While living there I also did a bit of acting in the theatre, but not professionally.

Owen  Bell pictured right with his horn fiddle. Owen adds...
"It was made in Finland and currently is the only one in Australia. You might also like my glasses. If you take a CLOSE look. They are not sunglasses, they are my 'normal' glasses, designed ( but not made) by myself."
(Photo courtesy of Owen Bell to SiF)

Owen Bell with Horn Fiddle

I've seen examples of some of your exotic animal paintings/portraits - all so very beautiful :) Do you prefer painting/sketching wildlife over any other non-wildlife commisioned work?
To be honest, I do mainly that, because that's what pays the bills. Despite what most people think, I am not a millionaire because of Thomas. I didn't create him. I just painted him and his friends for a few years. There were no 'royalties'. Each job had it's own flat fee. For the last 10 years or so I create all my artwork digitally. People often mistake it for photographs, but it isn't. It is all painted, just as before but instead of paint I use LIGHT. The program I use is Corel Painter v X on PC. The natural history work is for the WWF Stamp Collection.  I am one of a number of artists creating artwork for the collection. It's interesting and quite challenging, but I'm happy to paint other subjects if asked to.

On the subject of stamps, I recall seeing some of your work on a series of Isle of Man postage stamps issued in 1995. Can you tell us details as to how this project came about for you? Did you ever get the chance to visit the Island?
It came about simply because I was also designing stamps at the same time I was working on TTTE, and so the two jobs overlapped in the instance. No, I never went to the Isle of Man, and I've never been to any of the other countries I've designed stamps for over the years. If I had, I would have seen some very exotic places.

Own Bell's artwork featured on IOM stamps in 1995
Thomas postage stamps issued by the Isle of Man in 1995

If it's not to personal to ask, could you tell us what attracted you to emigrate to Australia from the UK?
I didn't. I was born in Australia and went to the UK in 1966, mainly to avoid being drafted and ending up in Vietnam (not the holiday destination it is now). I had no idea how long I'd stay in the UK but it ended up being 28 years. I came back briefly in the early 70's, couldn't re-settle and went back to the UK and didn't come back here permanently until '94. I doubt if I'll be moving anywhere again, especially overseas...

Can you tell us about any current or upcoming projects that you're (will be) working on?
Mainly it's work for the WWF Stamp Collection. I did create a proposed cgi animated tv series for kids, wrote all the scripts, modelled many of the characters in 3d on the computer and pitched it to various production companies, but it would have been so expensive to produce, (AU$20M) it never happened. I am attempting to re-package it as a series of graphic novels which I hope to market as eBooks. The series is called 'Nemesis'. It might happen, but I've only just completed 2 volumes out of around 40 and they take about a year each to do....and I'm 63...you do the math...

Re: Nemesis - the series' name sounds intriguing. Can you tell us what it was about and what age-group it was intended for?
It's a 'quest' type of story aimed at anyone from 10 upwards. The main protagonist is an 11 year old boy, Ignatius (Gnat) Mutto, whose father is a dictator controlling Nomanzann Island. He has told the boy his mother is dead and when Gnat finds out she isn't and is actually locked up, along with a bunch of other 'dissidents', by his father and his evil partner in crime a swiss femme fatale by the name of Hilda Von Schadenfreude, he plans to rescue her. He is discovered by Hilda, and after they fight in which Gnat thinks he has killed her, Gnat runs away and joins up with a bunch of freedom fighters called Nemesis who vow to overthrow Umberto Mutto (the dictator and Gnat's father) and release all the prisoners, including Gnat's mother. It's a pretty complex storyline with around 30 characters...which is why it would be so expensive to make into a tv series. In another life maybe...

Lastly, is there any special message that you'd like to pass on to the fans of your Thomas work?
It's lovely to know that people know my work from all those years ago and still enjoy it. Thank you! In many ways, it's sad I no longer do it, but nothing lasts forever and it was fun while it did. I like to think that even after I'm no longer around, some of my TTTE artwork will be and will hopefully continue to bring enjoyment to kids both large and small. Thank you for getting in touch. It's been fun.

We'd like to express our many thanks to Owen for sharing his insight with the fans, and we wish him all the best with his present and future projects. :) Owen can also be found on Facebook.

From Owen's sketch of the Awdrys (1988)