Sunday, 9 March 2014

How to Write and Illustrate a Picture Book Part 4 (of 6)

Picture Book Illustrating Course Part 1
Style and Characterisation

Ok so it's been a bit more than a week since our last session but obviously that's because I'm such a warm and understanding teacher I just knew you'd want a little longer to complete your last homework assignment and take in everything so far...

it has nothing at all to do with the fact that I forgot... a-hem...

and I've been busy working on new projects, like this;

Anyhoo, on with the lesson... quiet at the back...

We’ve spent the last three sessions looking at writing children’s picture books and now we’re going to concentrate on illustrating picture books - whether or not you intend to write them as well. In just three sessions I won’t have time to go into specific techniques and I can’t hope to cover an entire degree course but hopefully it will give you a good starting point from which you can develop your own work.... I’m completely self-taught (my degree was in Philosophy - not a natural path into book illustration!) and I believe that, as with writing,  if you begin to know your field and know what works and what publishers are looking for you can, with time, patience and a whole load of practice,  you can hone a more self-critical eye and start to shape your own work into something a publisher would be desperate to get their hands on.

Illustrating children’s picture books is a slightly less competitive field than writing children’s picture books as the skill set is more specific - you have to be able to draw! Where as with writing, everyone can string together a sentence so it’s not such a leap to believe you can write a book, with illustrating people tend to know whether they have artistic skills or not and would only pursue such a career (one would hope) if they do. I’m presuming in his course, therefore, that you have some kind of artistic skills to begin with! If not, take a basic beginners art course and learn to draw first.

BUT whilst it is not quite as competitive as writing them, illustrating picture books  is still an inCREDibly competitive field with hundreds of graduates churned out each year from illustration degree courses all with one aim - to get published! What I believe is sometimes lacking, however, in illustration degree courses is the knowledge on how to actually mould your work into something commercial enough for a publisher to want but unique enough to get noticed.

There are 4 things publishers are looking for in illustration samples; great....

Style            - what your work looks like! medium, feel etc.
Characterisation    - strong appealing characters
Composition    - using the page and text/image placement to best affect
Narrative        - telling the story through pictures

This week we’re going to look at Character and Style, next week Narrative and Composition and in the final week we’ll look at practical tips on what a publisher wants to see in a portfolio, how to send off samples, what to do when you get your first commission etc.

- To be successful you need to develop a style that is original and instinctive.
- It's impossible to say what publishers are looking for at any one time but suffice to say they know it when they see it!
- Rather than setting out to impress find a style that comes naturally to you.
- Look at your own abilities and find out where your strengths lie and perfect that style
this comes over time - you can’t force it - and it’s not going to happen in three weeks!

It is arguably impossible to become a great artist without first studying the greats so your ongoing homework is to spend time in libraries/book shops/on line looking at what’s currently out there... not with a view to copying them but to know what you’re up against and the standards expected. Your work needs to be as good, if not better, than what is currently on the shelves if it is going to stand a chance of being published.

When you look through these books do NOT read them at first, instead try to just look at the images and consider the following;
- style, characterisation, medium, narrative, composition etc. And if you can, fill out (or at least think about) the attached question sheet with each book so you really start to learn what makes good book illustration and why.

How to find a style??
- Use a sketch book and sketch freely with no particular style in mind - popular styles are often those that retain that fresh instinctive flow captured in sketchbooks.
- sketch children and animals
- go to the zoo! Great place to come up with new characters.
- Start off sketching a subject accurately then condense that sketch down over and over again to something more characterful and less fussy. Try different eyes, expressions, clothing, exaggeration of elements, softening lines such as an elbow into something more fluid... whatever works... just experiment
- analise your sketches to see what you do best and build on that. Then try to colour up a sketch in whatever medium comes naturally to you
- don’t try too hard - don’t view the final artwork’ as something separate from what you do when you sketch or doodle as you can run the risk of over-working your final piece and making it static.
- Think about what medium to use - what will come naturally to you.This could be...

- Line and wash (gouache,  water colour, acrylic etc. This is traditionally the most widely used style.)
(Chloe and Mick Inkpen's 'Zoe and Beans')

- Thicker paint - acrylic,oils
(My book 'Milo's Pet Egg', acrylic)
- digital
(Spread from my as yet unpublished work  ' Jungle Mumble' - Illustrator and Photoshop )

- pastels

(Tina MacNaughton 'Snuggle Up Sleepy Ones')
- collage, mixed-media

(Lauren Child 'I will Not Ever Eat a Tomato')
- coloured pencils

(Raymond Briggs 'The Snowman')
- a mixture of the above - anything goes really it’s the end result that matters not the journey getting there!

When you've found your medium practice, practice, practice! You can only get better.


Character Development
- A successful character must charm and intrigue readers.
- Not necessarily cute, but certainly visually appealing and attractive in some way
- The main character will probably be on front cover and publishers are always thinking about the possibility of merchandising, licensing, tv rights etc. which are always looking for interesting, loveable, eye-catching new characters.
- Again, start with your sketch books - there are a million ways to draw a pig, a cat, a boy, find a way to make yours unique.
- EYES are very important!! Look at other artists to see how they draw eyes.
- Think not only about your characters looks but about his or her personality and how that can be conveyed in your illustrations.

(One of MANY pages from my sketchbook playing about with characters for my book 'Missing Jack'. Here's the final cover illustration;)

Come up with a monster character. - think cute, appealing, fun, funny.... fill a couple of pages with different monster sketches, don't stress over each one too much, just loose initial ideas. Then choose one of your monsters and draw/trace his outline over and over and experiment by drawing the eyes differently on each one, dots, large circles, realistic eye shape, close together, far apart, large, small etc. etc. and see what works for you.

Character Consistency
One of the main skills needed in a book illustrator is to be able to not only design a great engaging, appealing character but to then be able to draw it from different angles, doing different activities, with different emotions and in a variety of settings all the while keeping it consistent and believable. This takes a lot of time and practice! So get practicing.

Character sheets
Often publishers will ask to look through your sketch books just to see if there’s any possible characters to work on, and then they may ask for a character sheet - either the same character in different positions, or with slight variations such as different eyes etc.)
(A fox character sheet from a previous book of mine.)

Homework - Come up with 2 character sheets.
One with different possible ways to draw the same character, like your monster,  (chose a character either from the book you’ve written, or a made up book, or an existing tale) and
another with your chosen favourite character from the first sheet in different positions like my fox sheet above, - front, back, side, jumping, sitting, from above, walking, dancing etc. etc.! Give your character a name and a sentence or two on his personality.

Enjoy. And come back next week when I’ll be banging on about composition and narrative.


  1. What media do you use?? So beautiful! If you are working digital, PLEASE tell me the name of the program!

  2. Very inspirational. I appreciate you sharing knowledge.

  3. Are you still running an online course. I'm a new writer/illurtrater and would like to be part of an online group. Love this blogg . How can I get to read the rest as I see this is 2016.

  4. Wonderful, as always. Many thanks Rebecca!

  5. Is this online course still available?


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