Tuesday 16 December 2014

Behind The Scenes - Illustrating The Lavender Blue Dress Picture Book

I often get asked about my creative process, especially with regards to illustrating picture books; but it's not always easy to explain everything without sitting down and talking for an hour or two.  So when Cargo Publishing asked if I could give a little insight into my picture book illustration process and talk about the early concept art for The Lavender Blue Dress, I thought it would be a great opportunity to get everything down on paper and share some of my advice.  The article has been up on the Cargo Publishing website for a little while, but wanted to share it here with my other creative tips as well.  This will hopefully prove useful whether you're just breaking into the industry, need a technique refresher or just fancy a little insight into how picture books come to life.

Illustrating a picture book is incredibly fun, as you might imagine. With the author’s text in a folder to your left, a pile of neatly sharpened pencils on your desk and a blank storyboard in your hands: you’re standing at the edge of infinite visual possibility.
That said, just beneath the fun is the knowing simmer that you’re shouldering an awful lot of responsibility. It takes a lot of time to really understand the intricacies involved with designing a picture book. I know that when I was younger I assumed it would be easy, but it’s one of those things where the more you learn about it, the more you realise there is so much left to learn.

When I started work on The Lavender Blue Dress with Aidan Moffat and Cargo Publishing, I was lucky in that I knew I was working with a team who would grant me creative freedom, and trust in my skills as an illustrator. Aidan had great initial ideas for some of the scenes and for Mabel’s character design, and we always felt comfortable in discussing each element; working together to make the book as amazing as it should be. I think ultimately that’s been one of the reasons the book has ended up being so special: each of us had so much faith in the project, and the trust that we would all be working together to make something we’re truly proud of.

I usually start a book illustration project by sketching out each and every idea that sparks when I first read the text. It’s surprising how often these very rough early ideas can ignite and become some of the most pivotal visuals in the book! After a few basic storyboards (which, if I’m honest, wouldn’t really be legible to anyone but me) I arrange a rough storyboard to send to the client, along with notes and a number of preliminary character designs.
There’s a lot to consider when you’re storyboarding a picture book. The visuals you use can drastically alter the pace and flow of the book: pages with small, multiple vignette illustrations tend to pick up the pace; whilst full bleed, highly detailed landscapes will slow the reader down. Same goes for use of colour, composition and shape to reflect the emotion in the story. Soft rounded shapes and warm, tonal colours will suggest a cosy, safe, slowed environment; whilst angular shapes and more hectic composition will make the reader feel more alert, emphasising dramatic situations.
You can see in this Lavender Blue Dress double page spread that I’ve used a faster-paced visual style on the left, with small illustrations showing a sort of flashback of Mabel’s family working excitedly on a surprise before she gets home; alongside a single page of warm colours and a rounded background, to really make the reader emphasise with the love and thankfulness that Mabel has for her family at this point in the story. Contrastingly, in the spread below you can see I’ve taken the time to slow the reader down with a sparse, horizontal landscape and cooler colours to suggest time and the solemn thoughts of Mabel’s melancholy walk home.
Thinking about the ‘camera angle’ (if you consider each page like a film shot) is really important too. Close-up shots of the character suggest a really personal connection between the character and reader, as if they’re talking just to you (you’ll be able to see this in action at the end of the book, I won’t spoil it for you!). Straight horizontal shots often give the reader a sense of the movement of time, or with a bit of an angle work very well in setting the scene and showing some of the story’s environment to the reader.
It’s exciting to work with such a vast intangible toolkit to be able to speak the volumes of a story that the words don’t say. What good is it to just illustrate exactly what each line says? There’s so much space for innovation and the suggestion of story-within-a-story, which for me is the absolute joy of being an illustrator.
The Lavender Blue Dress has been one of my very favourite projects to work on in my career. Everything came together so easily and ran so smoothly that you’d think something would go hideously wrong – but it didn’t at all, and we couldn’t be prouder of the picture book we’ve created.

You can see the full article and grab a copy of The Lavender Blue Dress on the Cargo Publishing website here.  You can also find this, and many more of my creative articles on Medium.  If you want to ask me anything, or receive some tailored advice drop me a comment on this post!

Wednesday 10 December 2014

Ebb & Flo Bookshop Event

I'm a big supporter of independent bookshops, so I was over the moon to be invited to Ebb & Flo Bookshop in Chorley to host a Lavender Blue Dress picture book event on Small Business Saturday.

I perched on a little chair and read The Lavender Blue Dress in a cosy room above the bookshop - crammed with parents and excited kids; answered questions about my processes, career and illustrations, and signed a few secret copies for Christmas presents!

I thought it would be a great idea to get the children involved in the creativity and hold a little character design workshop after the book reading.  So I pitched the challenge for everyone to draw a friend for the book's main character Mabel, and then that friend's family and pet - roughly following my own process for creating characters and storytelling.  

Some of the children were a little shy with their confidence in drawing people; so I took to a flipchart and covered it in bold, simple shapes and used those as a starting point for creating characters.  They were really inspired by that challenge, and it was great to see some of the shyer kids coming up and really sparking their imaginations with what sort of character each of the shapes suggested (well, we do have one tree as well!).  I found this to be a really good method of breaking down the creative process to its simplest form, giving a bit of an insight into the professional side of things, whilst being fun and accessible for everyone!

It was so nice to see all the drawings at the end of the workshop, I wish I had some of them to show you (if anyone who was there is reading this and wants to send one in, please do!), and it was particularly humbling to hear that some of the children were hoping to be artists and authors when they're older!

You can find out more about The Lavender Blue Dress book events across the country on the Cargo Publishing website here.

Friday 5 December 2014

Arms & Legs

Sometimes I find it best to just strip everything back in an illustration, and focus on simple linework.  These were great fun to draw, in the style of a study (though they weren't from reference) and arrange some lovely intersecting shapes with the two contrasting line colours.  

I often spend hours on illustrations, and they can become overworked - it's good to shake that feeling off with a few loose sketches and to have something finished within a few minutes! Highly recommended little exercise!

Wednesday 3 December 2014

Fentimans Mixer Launch (& Illustration Inspiration!)

Since my 'Best Arts & Culture' blog award I've been lucky enough to be invited to a number of exhibitions and events.  Living near Manchester (and having a bit of a sweet tooth) I thought this launch, for heritage soft drink brand Fentimans' new range, would be an evening well spent (and a welcome break from the studio!).

The launch was at the lovely Great John Street hotel in Manchester, and we had some of the world's best mixologists on hand to whip up some tasty treats.  

The Fentimans range sells itself on being botanically brewed (and established way back in 1905), so it was really interesting to grab the chance to learn about the unconventionally traditional brewing methods for their soft drinks.  It felt a bit like a real life episode of 'How It's Made', but honestly I love to learn about things I've never considered thinking about.

The room was littered with Victorian-curio style pots with various ingredients Fentimans use. I won't deny giving them all a sniff, but I have to say some of them taste far better in a drink than they smell in storage!

There's something that sparks the imagination about cocktails (with or without alcohol!); I think it's the inventive names, odd combinations of flavours and rainbow of colours - something about them suggests personality.  I thought it would be fun to draw up some characters inspired by a few of the soft drinks and cocktails available on the night.  The two that really caught my eye were Rosebud Fizz (a pretty pink Rose Lemonade fizzer, garnished with rose petals!) and CC Sweet & Sour (think Cola with lime and oranges!).

I'm often inspired by colour, and strong limited colour palettes are an obvious focus here.  I set myself a little time to create simple, quick character illustrations which honed in on the ingredients of the drink, the colours, the 'personality' and the slightest hint of Victorian style. 

It's definitely great practice to pull inspiration from odd sources, to be honest I think almost anything has the potential to inspire a character or illustration (no guarantee they'll be amazing if you choose a bin or something though...but prove me wrong!).  

It's worth the challenge to grab the tiniest hints of inspiration you can, and run with them - sketch strange characters, draw odd worlds - you never know what ideas they might spark later.

[P.S Big thanks to Neil Denham for use of his event photos. I had a bit of a disaster and lost all mine, Neil saved the day!]

Tuesday 2 December 2014

Colour Collecting

It's been a gorgeous Autumn, and I have more snapshots to share than anyone would have the patience for - but I thought these colour-grabs, from an afternoon adventure to Sizergh Castle in the Lake District, might give a little insight into the simple things I find inspiration in.

Most of these are from a small vegetable garden in the castle grounds, overwhelmingly bursting with colour.  It's great to take inspiration from nature, and these small capsules of fine leafy curls and dusty textures will probably make their way into my work at some point.

So make sure your harddrives aren't completely full of selfies, and take the time to snap anything you think might inspire you in the future.  It's so great to have a collection of forgotten moments and objects that can spark ideas years down the line!