Saturday, 1 February 2014

Crash course in the day job

Bit preoccupied with work at the mo so thought I might as well post something about it! Right now I'm illustrating a book for a Korean publisher, it's for teaching English to toddlers. You've perhaps already heard about the current education system in South Korea and its high standards, a controversial subject that has raised the question of whether the pressure and resulting expectation on pupils is potentially as harmful to some as it is helpful to others. I can't imagine three-year-olds from English-speaking countries learning Korean! I didn't even learn our alphabet until I was five... Anyway, that's not for me to worry about, I know. My remit is to produce sweet illustrations for a simple animal story for Korean children, and I hope I can give them pictures that will engage and make their learning experience fun.

This is one of my favourite types of commission because I've had complete freedom to create the characters and compositions from scratch. I was just given the words for each page and basic story structure. Just in case you've ever been curious about how this ends up as a finished book, here's how it goes.

First I start sketching character ideas. Need to do a bit of research and in this instance, as there aren't any monkeys or elephants etc. nearby to draw from life I do a bit of googling (other search engines are available) and look through books to help inform with anatomical details. Then I pare back the realism, try to translate them into simplified, partly anthropomorphic versions (for example, I give my animals eyebrows, they help me convey facial expressions). The character sketches start off so scrappy but eventually something stands out. Next I visualise how the pages could look, and jot down ideas as thumbnail pictures – like a storyboard – miniature versions that are just an inch or two wide. Don't need to worry much about detail, it's just to get the compositions in place. This really helps, as working out how the pages will have space for the text and how they follow on successfully from one another with enough variation (as well as helping to tell the story) is a bit of a puzzle, so the drawings themselves can be pretty rough at this stage, just indications really.

First thumbnail ideas, drawn very small

Once these are approved - various ideas may get rejected or changed - I scan them, then scale the scans up to the actual book size (generally single page edges are somewhere between 20 – 30cm), print out and trace over the basic shapes using one of my favourite possessions of all time, my trusty light box.

Oh light box, I love thee

 Next I work on these to produce more detailed, actual size, pencil roughs. I love this part of the process the most, drawing in pencil is a joy.

 Full size pencil roughs

These are checked by the publisher, there might be some amendments to make but once they've been given the go-ahead, I get the light box out again and trace the roughs onto my final artwork paper. Then I paint. I hate the halfway stage of a painting, when it just looks awful, and I have to be patient and remember it'll get better eventually, but there are so many times when I just want to screw it up and throw it away rather than persevere!

Hate this stage!

The acrylic paints I use here need to be built up in layers for best effect so it's rather labour-intensive and can be long-winded, but the good thing is that you can also paint over your mistakes or change your mind about shades and get away with it (most of the time).

The whole process from start to finish takes a couple of months (and I get to listen to music all day!)  Then when all the paintings are finished I post them to the publisher for professional scanning. Their designer will add the text in. Six months to a year later it gets printed, by which time I've almost forgotten it and, with any luck, might be working on something else.  

Gets there in the end


  1. Speaking as someone without an artistic bone in his body, this little insight into your creative process is utterly fascinating. Thanks for sharing it with us.

    1. Pleasure, The Swede! I like knowing how things work and happen so hoped it might be of interest to anyone who ever wondered about picture books, it's a long old process sometimes!

  2. Crap...that's a lot of work.

    Obviously you can draw...and the colours and your ability with the paint brush is excellent but your ability to convey emotions is what set these things off.

    That hug between the mother and child is as Universally sweet as anything I've seen...and I laughed out loud at the monkey pinching his nose.

    The most important critic in this house is a fan of your work and so am I.

    1. Ah thanks so much, Erik. I've just finished the hug painting this afternoon as it happens, tried to make it as sweet as possible! I finding painting quite a struggle to be honest, would much rather just draw, but I'm very touched that you notice the emotions in the images, that's what I really try to get across, via body language, the position of an eyebrow, the curve of a tail or ears. It's fun!
      You're right about those most important critcs too. That's what it's all about.

  3. It does seem a lot of work, but must be rewarding too....Do you get a copy of the book?

    1. Yes you're right, it is rewarding (most of the time!) and I do get copies of the books, only problem is finding the space to keep them!


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