Kindness is a Wonderful Thing

This morning I received a Christmas greeting from a lovely illustrator of children’s books. It was unexpected, and most welcome. It reminded me how easy it is to reach out across the world with a kind word, and I wondered why we don’t do it more often.

As I sit here in my winter, behind with my projects and trying not to beat myself up for not getting my owl books finished for the Christmas stockings, her message from summery New Zealand lifted me and in some quiet way turned my thoughts back to my projects with a lightness I hadn’t felt for a while.

Later in the day I was tidying my large assortment of papers, trying to weed out a few of the older ones. Was it coincidence that among those papers was a delightful, but long-forgotten, greeting card from the same illustrator, sent on a very different occasion? lisa allen card

I enjoy her illustrations. They are whimsical, light, good fun. They can be touching, poignant, memorable. Somehow, even when the books are as diverse as “Anzac Day Parade” and “A Hot Cup of Chocolate” the illustrations still show her distinctive hand. It got me thinking about how, when we are being true to ourselves, things are cohesive; everything fits together well.

Lisa, who sent me both the card and the Christmas message, is also a kind and generous artist who has willingly given her time to discuss – at some length on the phone – the technical aspects of illustrating with me. So, this dark and foggy evening, my post is not about what I am doing, but about what we could all be doing. It’s about sharing kindness. Sharing a little kindness is not difficult. A message that takes you a few minutes to write might just be the sunshine in someone’s day.

And yes, Christmas is nearly here, but is not too late to add more books to the gifts under the tree. And if they are illustrated by Lisa Allen, you are sure to have fun with them too.

On My Desk

owls progress

Despite flirting with the acrylics last week, I am back into watercolour and watercolour pencil. Some things you just can’t fight. That’s what the owls seem to want, and if I am honest it’s what I want too.

When I have completed the first set I’ll come back in with pen around the main characters, but my main focus for this book will be on colour and action.

I am very happy with the Fabriano 4 drawing paper. If it were just a little heavier I would prefer it to Bristol Board. It is holding enough water to suit my needs, but in some ways with the smooth and sealed drawing surface (instead of using an absorbent watercolour paper) the watercolours are behaving more like acrylics. I’m happy with that.

Play Time

Today (after a tidy-up in the studio) I assembled all my pages and sketched a few more little owls fluttering their way up and down the tree. In the sorting of the storage area (not quite chaos) I found the remains of a block of drawing paper I had used for preliminary sketches for clients wanting a fresco in their ancient house some years ago. The paper is Fabriano 4, 220gsm smooth, and is about the weight I need; I have run out of the Bristol Board I was using in New Zealand. I thought I would try it with some Derivan Flow acrylic.

blog loosen up post

This isn’t an illustration for the book, but it was a couple of minutes of play time, exploring how much paint and water this paper will take, and loosening up my hand after some intense concentration in smaller, more detailed works. I think that the paper is going to be perfect for the light-weight acrylics, provided I drop my brush size down just a little to match. It doesn’t cockle (warp or wrinkle as it swells with the water) unless I use a very watery wash, and the acrylic slips and slides wonderfully on the surface. Best of all, it is available in my village, a two kilometer wander along the side of this beautiful mountain.

Can I build up an atmospheric background without it wrinkling too? Onwards…

Do Book Illustrations Have Gender?

I took a gentle wander through some recent photographs looking for one to post here today. It hit me that even photographs seem to have a gender bias. One folder of lovely wisteria against salmon coloured walls looked far more feminine than other folders of photographs. The observation surprised me, and set me thinking about gender bias in books.

I see this photograph as being feminine, yet the photograph could well have been taken by a man. Is it the colours that make me think this?

blog wisteria

When I took the photo I was looking at colour, depth of field, composition, but not thinking gender at all. Am I influenced by the feminine gender words bella vista, bella panorama, perhaps? Would I see it as less feminine if I had composed it differently, and thought of it as a great view?

I looked for another photo from that day. Is this one more masculine? It’s certainly of a great view.

blog wisteria b

I ponder this because, as I choose colours for my illustrations, I think it is something I need to be aware of. My drawings and paintings will match the stories that I write, but will there be an inherent gender bias in my choice of colours? Is that something I should consider, or doesn’t it matter at all?

I was an avid reader as a child and devoured the Biggles series of books as much as I did the Katy series. Did these books have a gender-specific target audience? If they did, I certainly ignored it and read every word with equal pleasure.

I Can Do That

blog drawing linesWhat is perfection, and should we aspire to it? My illustrations show action, colour, empathy, but never perfection. It is not my aim. It is important to me that my art for children is ‘accessible’.

I like to imagine that with pencil, paper, pen, paint and water, they too could begin to illustrate their own stories. I imagine a classroom teacher saying to the little ones “Can you see the pencil lines? What do you think she did next, after drawing the picture?”

I could remove all the pencil lines when the paint holds the form. In fact, I did remove most of them, but then added some again. If you look closely at the image you might see where some have been lightly erased, where the wrist and the sleeve meet. It is a calculated choice, what to leave, what to erase, what to put back more strongly to be read in the picture. It is this kind of interpretive interaction that brings out the creativity in little ones. And, perhaps, in the big ones too.

Once the brain engages with a process, or with imagining what might be in a space, the imagination is captured and brought into play. I don’t think that happens quite so much when everything is perfect; you are more likely to look, appreciate, and move on without actively engaging with the creative process.

As with all art work, illustrations have at least three aspects; what the artist intends, what the viewer sees, and what happens in the space in between. In shared reading there is yet another dimension, with the reader leading the discussion. I have considered putting in a page of discussion starters at the end of my stories, and more educational facts that I find in my research, but so far (apart from in the true story, Michelle and the Bumblebee) I have resisted this temptation. The readers will find what they are ready for, when the time is right.

But I digress. Back to the illustrations. In this digital age I think it is important that young children look at original art, and at the process of creating art. Art that is not ‘perfect’ with every line defined, every colour and shading transition smooth. I would like children to see my construction lines, and to think “I can do that”.

jamie helping Nonna blogSharing the process with a young reader. Quality time for both of us 🙂

The Research Stage

Is it a case of ‘once a teacher, always a teacher’, I wonder?

One of the things I aim for in my books is to educate, or to at least provide space for learning and discussion. Michelle and the Bumblebee is an example of this.front cover 2

When I agreed to write the story, I wanted to complement the true story with accurate pictures. I was surprised at how little I knew about the bumblebee. I had painted them from “life” (actually from corpses I had found in my garden) many years ago, but couldn’t remember the details. How many segments are there in the bumblebee’s legs? Which way do its ‘knees’ work? How many stripes does it have? Are the stripes all the same colour? Is it ‘bumblebee’ or ‘bumble bee’?

I enjoyed the research, which started a little like this:

bee details

As the story developed I also tried to give Mr Bumble Bee a persona. He became more of a cartoon sketch, his stripes became more random as his face took on more expression and his wings varied in size to create the effect I wanted. bee face

Despite this evolution, I kept the details of his body structure and legs accurate.


The teacher in me also had the last word. I concluded the story with a diagram illustrating the pollination cycle, and gave the last illustrated page to a realistic bumblebee.

bee small for blog

All of the illustrations were fun, but this last one was the illustration I enjoyed the most.

Which Medium? (part two)

Painting and book illustration, while related, are two quite different ways of thinking, and my approach to each is different. But even within the illustration work I am using different approaches, alternatively watching my choices and immersing myself in the joy of painting and drawing.

Danish author/illustrator Danish Henrik Drescher says “My books grow out of visual concepts. I ‘build’ the book as a picture book and apply the words last. I use whatever materials I need to express my ideas.” (Pg 47 Children’s Book Illustration and Design edited by Julie Cummins 1992, PBC international Inc, New York). I think that is an exciting approach, and maybe when I have finished the increasing number of books in my diary I can try that too. For now I am more a painter/writer turned illustrator and in creating the images take a mixture of approaches.

With the owl series the words came in prose. Some of them popped themselves into verse. Some images arrived with the text, and some images are still evolving. It’s little surprise that my family of owls is proving to be quite troublesome. It’s not because of Fluff and Scuff’s mischievous adventures; I can create them scampering up and down the tree without too much trouble. But I really would like to paint them in watercolour, and despite my best efforts they keep evolving into pen and wash or mixed media. I am being pulled towards acrylics too.

So what are the advantages of one medium over another? Watercolour can be fast, although I like to work with many washes which does slow the process down. Watercolour is a surprisingly expensive option, as each storybook has approximately 25 illustrations, and each sheet of watercolour paper is an invisible expense. Illustrations are usually created larger than the actual book page size.

Michelle and the Bumblebee was illustrated on 300gsm watercolour paper, on this occasion using cold-press rough. When Mum Fell Asleep in the Bath is on Bristol board, which is for graphic design but which will take a limited amount of water without the paper cockling (buckling). The Lost Happy illustrations are on cartridge paper, but will be reprinted onto a different more absorbent paper so that I can colour them at my leisure and release a hard-cover, coloured edition some time in the future.

I started the owl series of illustrations on 300gsm hot press smooth watercolour paper, my most expensive option. It was a thoughtful, reflective process as I created the characters, using many washes and building them up slowly. It is my favourite weight to work on, and that was the paper I had on hand at the time. I will change to a lighter-weight watercolour paper as I wont need to use so much water, and a cold press rough will give me some texture. I can add acrylic paint to it if I choose, provided that the paper is at least 240gsm. The acrylics I have chosen are Derivan Flow, as these are highly compatible with watercolour.

So the paper choice is made. The mixed media option has selected itself. Now to the dominant colours. Children’s books give absolute freedom of choice. I think I will clear off my desk, select a bright and happy palette, put the pens, ink blocks and acrylics aside, and get ready to start again in watercolour. I don’t want my drawings to be too tight. As the owls come down from the tree a more spontaneous, brighter, energetic look is called for. Tomorrow is a painting day. It will be fun!