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!

Which Medium? (part one)

Every time I return to painting in watercolour after using other media it is almost a home-coming. It is my favourite medium by far. So, I ask myself, why do I ever use anything else? Why can’t I choose watercolour for every work, and simply not move away from it?

My work as an artist demands that I respond to my clients’ requests for portraits, landscapes, gifts for anniversaries. In rural Italy that is usually a request for traditional oil paintings. The climate here, and tradition, mean that watercolours are less popular.

Occasionally I bravely give away all my acrylics and oils, claiming my space in the water colour world. A commission always takes me back to oils and acrylics. Acrylics are essential for under-painting in the winter, as oil takes too long to dry in my ancient stone house with small windows.

a fb arce ptg

Acrylic plein air painting of a rural hillside town in Italy, started in a group excursion and completed at home in the studio.

My styles change but my hand remains the same; I like a primary palette and I prefer to give the viewer access to my work by at least a part of it being easily recognisable.

My ventures towards abstract are most successful in watercolour, as I love to push the boundaries of water. This work (watercolour on 300gsm hot press smooth) is neither strictly abstract nor in a primary palette, but it does show the difference in the styles I have used to achieve the result I want. wc_washyWhy do I love watercolour so much? Maybe it is for at least some of these reasons: It is challenging, unpredictable at times, and allows me to push boundaries. It demands that I sit peacefully, reflectively, and enjoy the process. It can sooth, inspire, excite and thrill all in one session.

On a practical level, it is portable, watercolour works are easy to store, and the paint doesn’t ruin my clothes. Acrylics and oils somehow jump off my brush or palette and onto my clothes even when I am being super-careful, or when I forget that I haven’t changed into studio garb and want to make ‘just one more’ tiny alteration. (Can you guess who has ruined her vest, a sweatshirt, and two pairs of jeans in the last month?)