Debbie De Mornay Penny

A lovely chat with the illustrator of the new edition of ‘Normal For Glastonbury’.

The Illustrated edition of Normal For Glastonbury is the first collaborative work I’ve done as a writer. As I work on my own I get to be a bit of a control freak, for the first edition of the book I even did the cover art and the layout myself. However, when I first saw Glastonbury-based illustrator Debbie De Mornay’s drawings I knew they would be perfect to accompany my writing. I was quite nervous about working with an illustrator initially, although I’ve done lots of work with creative people I’m not used to commissioning them and telling them what I want them to do! Debbie soon put me at ease though, we had loads of meetings in her lovely house which is full of art and bric a brac, she would make me lunch and we’d spend at least an hour chatting before we got around to doing any work. It was a great process and I really enjoyed working with Debbie. She has had a full and interesting life, which I’m sure will interest you, so I made notes while we had another of our long chats all about her work, dressing up, and what she loves about living in Glastonbury.

I’m trying to remember what happened. you contacted me because you liked the blog. Then I think I wrote back and said “perhaps we could do some work together?”

I read your book. I was laughing all the way through it and I was reading it to my partner and he was laughing his head off and I said, “I can see funny drawings. It’s just crying out for funny drawings”. Then we made contact, met up and started to have conversations about what sort of pictures might be appropriate to some of the chapters, and we were of laughing and sharing ideas.

What was your favourite piece to illustrate?

I think it was the chapter that really made me laugh, the Glastonbury stone circle story. It’s a tiny little drawing, of a man with a flip chart and a stone circle, but I really like it. I liked the story about the Co-op and the Glastonbury magnet too, that’s quite quirky. I think every chapter has something.

‘Midsummer Eve’

How did you come to be an illustrator?

I knew I wanted to do something different when I was a child. I wanted a different life, to meet different characters, and gain different experiences. I’m fascinated by women in history who’ve stepped away from the norm.  

I come from quite an arty family, an ancestor on my Mother’s side was Edward Robert Hughes, the Pre-Raphaelite painter. He painted one of the most well-loved fairy paintings ‘Midsummer Eve’. He was a student of William Holman Hunt and helped finish Light of the World. My Dad’s side of the family was much more practical, but Dad was always drawing funny little caricatures. So we grew up painting and drawing and making things, having fun and dressing up. I made my own clothes, I’d buy old evening gowns and turn them into costumes. I got into dressing up not because I wanted people to look at me, but because I liked giving people something to look at. We had a lot of fun as children, we didn’t have much money, but there was a lot of humour. 

Debbie De Mornay Penny Artwork
An early example of Debbie’s work!

Mum suggested I went to fashion college, but I wasn’t keen. A boyfriend was in a band and he suggested art school to me, it was quite a risk, but I’ve never looked back. I formally qualified as an illustrator in 1983. 

I’ve always drawn pictures and made money from them and combined it with other work I’ve done. I’ve also taught art and used art as a medium to help people come out of themselves, particularly people with little confidence, that’s enjoyable too. I love it when people say they can’t draw, I like showing them they can. We can all draw, we’ve been doing it since we lived in caves.

I was bought up North of London, we knew mum’s family came from down here but didn’t know much about them, but then a cousin did the family tree and I found out we had loads of relatives from the West Country. Mum’s ancestors were from Wells, one, Edmund Davies, commissioned Beryl House to be built and lived there in the 1800’s. I first visited Glastonbury in 1997 and have always felt comfortable in the West Country. 

How did you develop your style of drawing?

When I first arrived at art school I went in with the perception that to be an artist you had to be good at drawing things realistically, In the first year we were taught things like colour theory perspective, shape and form, and we studied different artists and techniques, at this point none of us really had a unique style, we were learning to become proficient, but then in the second year, aided by the tuition where we were taught not only different ways to produce images, but also different ways to think, our lectures included psychology, those early years not only taught me how to become an illustrator but also taught me lots more about myself, made me a lot more confident. Every 6 weeks we had a critique, it was a really good experience for life, it was quite scary, but I learned to take criticism. I’ve carried that through in everything I’ve done. 

After the first couple of years, suddenly I can remember sitting doodling, doing preliminary drawings, my tutor saw what I was doing and said “that’s it that’s your style, keep doing that.” I then started producing these quirky, fun images. I was inspired by Tony Ross, Ralph Steadman and Quentin Blake. Their work made me realise it was OK just to scribble, but over time I realised that freehand, spontaneous drawings were just as hard as doing representative drawings, you might have to do 20 sketches before you arrived at what you wanted. It’s all about capturing movement and depicting someone’s gait in an image, you might even try walking like that person, or pulling your own face to capture an expression. Quite often while I’m drawing I’ll have music on in the background, I’m always moving, I’m never just static, The essence of the creative process is about your whole mind and your body, getting yourself in the right frame of mind to create. 

I really like how you draw Glastonbury’s architecture,  there’s one of the Marketplace, with the Market Cross. It’s so simple, but it’s instantly recognizable.

I think that’s one of the most difficult things to do actually. I could spend hours and hours trying to make something look beautifully realistic, that’s a skill in itself. But it’s equally as hard to come up with something with just a few lines that is recognizable. I remember when I was at art school we were given about six lines, all of different shapes, and we had to produce an image with them and that image had to be recognizable as something. You had to be able to sort of switch your mind from what you actually see in detail to the key components that make it what it is. That little squiggle, that little line that is so indicative of the object or the place.  You might do lots and lots and lots of them until you get the one that you think yeah, that’s it. So it’s a sort of different way of thinking and way of using your mind. 

Are the characters you draw mostly from your imagination, or are you inspired by real people?

Sometimes, I’m absolutely just making them up. I sit with a sketchbook and I just draw little characters. Where did they come from? I suppose they’ve come from my whole life of observing. They’re sort of imprinted in your mind somewhere and you’re translating them onto paper. In the case of your book, some of them are absolutely fictitious and others are based on real characters. I think when I was younger, I would find it very difficult to just produce very comedic squiggles of people, I had to have the life experience that I’ve had. I love the caricatures, the little idiosyncrasies of people that you can pick up on. The things that people do that I find amusing. A drawing may not look like a particular person but it might capture how they sit awkwardly to the left or how they kick their shoe off or whatever. They might always have glasses on their head or a particular smirk. It’s the funny aspects I like to pick up on. I can make up a lot of things, I like doing that too. I used to like sitting in cafes and just sketching. But you know, then when people see what you’ve drawn, and it’s quite a funny representation of who they are, some love it but sometimes I have to say “really it’s not meant to be you. It’s just me having fun”. 

What are your favourite spots?

I like it down at the Market  Cross because it’s busy. There’s always something going on. And wherever you sit there are people walking by. You’ve got to be fast and immediate. And sometimes the best drawings are fast and immediate. So if you can actually capture them as they’re happening that’s great fun.

That’s funny, really, because I suppose if I need inspiration, then often I’ll sit outside the market cross and I’m producing caricatures with people in words. And sometimes I don’t think I’ve got anything to write about. But obviously, if I sit there for more than five minutes, something funny will happen. And if I apply myself and sit down with a pen and paper I can turn that into a little funny little account. Yeah, I suppose that’s why our work complements each other, we both find humour in it

I can remember a while ago, when there was a Fairy event going on, I was outside the Winking Turtle. I wasn’t drawing anyone, but I was observing and watching and looking at the detail. There was a lady in front of me wearing lots of white chiffon and fairy wings and ornate makeup, she looked sensational. She was so serene, she looked like she should be on a throne out in the countryside with little fairies flying around her, but she was sitting on a little plastic chair with her cup of coffee and a piece of cake.  The incongruence of that was comedic, I went home and I drew her, the image was printed in my mind, enough to translate it into a squiggle. I didn’t need any more than that. If I’d had more of it, I might have been trying to make it much more of a realistic image. 

Yeah, I think that’s one of the things I really enjoy about Glastonbury – that incongruence I was talking to somebody recently that was saying that they built Glastonbury up so much in their mind before they visited that they came here expecting Harry Potter World. Initially, they were disappointed that it was relatively ordinary. But then after a while, you become more aware of the incongruence.

It can be a basic thing, like someone wearing an amazing costume but then you look at their footwear and they’ve got something very ordinary on their feet that doesn’t go, but it’s comfortable, practical for walking around and that’s quite quirky. People walk into the supermarket in a complete costume. They’re wandering around in the Fruit and Veg aisle in the Co-op and sticking things in a shopping basket, but they’re dressed as a wizard and no one bats an eyelid. 

Debbie De Mornay Penny Artwork

I was sitting outside the Queen of Cups a while ago, and a woman came past dressed in a lemon yellow, layered, obviously designer outfit, and she was very made up, she had very high heels on and she wouldn’t have looked at all out of place in a fashionable city. But I found myself thinking she looked really over the top and rather silly, I know that was a bit judgemental of me! Then another woman walked past her from the other direction wearing a pair of rabbit ears. It didn’t occur to me at all until a good few minutes later that there was anything unusual about wearing rabbit ears in the street.

I think that’s what’s lovely about living here, anything goes, so whatever you feel like on the day, whatever it is you want to wear, you can wear it down the High Street. You can promenade in your bunny ears and it doesn’t really matter, I like that, I like the curiousness of it. People can be unique, which we all are.

I have a lot of visitors say that they love the fact that they can come to Glastonbury and wear whatever they want and not feel uncomfortable like they would in their hometown. I also think, as an older woman,   I feel much freer of the sort of societal pressures of what you can and can’t wear when you’re over 40 Because basically here you can wear whatever you bloody well like

Yes, and you can find it all in our charity shops Why pay more? You can get that look. All you’ve got to have is the front. The front and the confidence. I think that when people actually become who they really are, what they perceive themselves to be, and they do what they want to do and wear what they want to, they become stronger and more confident anyway. 

Glastonbury is a funny place. It has a serious side also, there’s a lot of beliefs here and it’s very multicultural, that’s a fantastic thing. But it’s also very comedic and I think they’re all of equal value. There’s something here for everybody. I just pick up on the comedic and the rest of it I find quite peaceful and restful. 

How long have you been here now?

I think I must have been here almost 20 years. The first time I visited Glastonbury I was living in Bristol, it was about 1996. I remember coming to Glastonbury on the bus. It didn’t look anything like it looks today, it wasn’t as vibrant, and there wasn’t as much going on. It was probably a dreary day. There wasn’t the cafe culture that we have now. I didn’t come again until 20 years ago, I liked it here, it was fun, people were having fun. There’s a lot going on, it’s busy, it’s a small community with a small population. It’s very much like a village. You can get to know people, you will always find someone that you know to have a little chat with. People on their own don’t need to be lonely. Newcomers soon make friends. Obviously, it’s a beautiful part of the countryside as well. It’s lovely.

How about Somerset folk? Do they give you inspiration? Do you ever find yourself drawing farmers on tractors?

Debbie De Mornay Penny Artwork

I have and I know quite a few, I like listening to that Somerset drawl. I really must do some more things to do with farming. Because we do we live in the most rural county in England, don’t we? I love it when you’re driving around on the Levels and you’ve got the little farm shops, where you can buy fresh produce and plants and things like that. And the old farm yards and the ducks and geese, we’ve still got all of that, it’s lovely, the rickety old buildings, it’s not all been renovated. We’ve still got the old quirky, broken-down sheds and people living on plots of land.

Yes! there are certain barns that I drive past regularly, I’ve been watching them slowly collapse over the years and I love a corrugated iron roof.

Yes, and they haven’t been turned into a plush holiday home or anything. It’s just been left to blend in, with the sheep looking on. I also think what’s lovely is that wherever you walk out on the Levels, or if you drive or cycle out there you can always see the Tor in the distance. You can’t really get lost, it would be hard to

I did manage to get lost on Ham wall nature reserve one of the first times I walked around it!

Maybe you could do a guide on how to get lost on the Levels!

I think because you’ve got all the rhynes, you might be able to see your destination but actually getting there can be quite twisty and turny. I often wonder what it was like in a bygone age if you had to traverse the Levels at night when the mists were rolling in, it must have been really quite spooky.

I can see the pictures in my mind, walking around with just an oil lamp!

So what’s next?

As you pointed out I love characters I love comedic people. And I’ve got quite a lengthy list of projects I want to work on. But they are all people-focused. I like drawing women having fun, middle-aged women when they go out, how they dress, I’ve got that as a theme. I love cats, I’ve got a little cat project going on and also another little book that is a short story about finding your perfect place. It’s a bit what you could call spiritual, but it’s mainly a sort of practical physical thing. It’s a little quirky little story. Also, I love dancers. People dancing in costumes. 

I know you love fancy dress parties. You and your sister have always dressed up, haven’t you?

We’ve continued on since childhood. We always dressed up as children and my mum loves dressing up too. There’s something about when you’re in costume, you can be somebody else. Whoever you want to be for the day. I just find that fun. the whole idea of making something or turning yourself into something else and being a different character. My grandmother had two really, really old dresses and one of them had a crinoline that came from a great, great, great Aunt. When we were children, we used to dress up in it and parade around the house, they were our favourite dresses. 

So Glastonbury is perfect for you really, isn’t it?

It is. I’ve lived in lots of different places. I was a bit of a gipsy. In my early years. I moved around a lot, mainly in the West Country and I did have a brief stint in Australia. Glastonbury is a gem of inspiration for drawings, but there are all the other places that we have nearby, like Bath, it’s an illustrator’s heaven, everywhere you look at you’ve got different characters, all trotting about. What you see is completely different to Glastonbury but they’ve still got all their quirky little ways. Then we’ve got all the lovely little villages around here and finding their eccentric people is great fun as well. You write about them, I sketch them. I would love to do a book of Somerset that showcases the characters that live here. I like drawing flowers and birds and bees and things, but people are my favourite subject and exaggerating some of the things about them.

To see more of Debbie De Mornay Penny’s work check out her website by clicking Debbie’s signature below:

To buy the new illustrated edition of Normal For Glastonbury, featuring twenty-two of Debbie’s illustrations, please click here. 

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