Friday 23 March 2018

Adventures in Illustration

By Nick Cross

Vintage book cover from the Baldwin Library of Historical Children’s Literature

Over the past few months, I’ve been taking my first steps to become an actual, genuine illustrator. This has primarily consisted of taking a weekly evening class in Oxford, studying Beginners' Illustration for Children’s Picture Books. The course is taught by Korky Paul, who many of you will know from his work on the hugely-successful Winnie and Wilbur series. Korky, a thirty-year veteran of the picture book industry, has run the ten-week course for over fifteen years. It’s also very affordable, thanks to being part of the Oxfordshire Adult Learning programme.

After my first term of studying art last year, I felt very apprehensive about jumping straight into something that sounded a lot more advanced. But my work colleague (and fellow SCBWI member) Imogen Foxell had been on the course two years ago, and she encouraged/bullied me until I signed up.

One of the prerequisites of the course was a portfolio containing at least five pieces of illustration work. This was a problem for me, because I don’t really have any prior work to speak of. So, a month before the course started, I decided to find a picture book story I could illustrate.

I’m not really a picture book writer, but I was very lucky that my friend Nick Bromley (Waterstones Children's Book Prize-winning writer of Open Very Carefully) is! Nick (not me, the other one) was willing to let me rummage around in his unpublished stuff until I found a text called A Sticky Situation. This anarchic, metafictional tale of subversive sticky notes really spoke to me, and I could see lots of creative potential for the illustrations.

With the text in hand, I started work on a couple of spread ideas for the book, which I supplemented with three spreads from the illustrated YA novel I’m also working on. Although I was immensely nervous the first week (and pretty much every week) of the course, I bravely took out my five A3 sheets and showed Korky what I’d drawn. In actual fact, it turned out that I knew quite a lot about the design and layout of picture books, even if I didn’t know much about the illustration side. Conversely, many of the other participants had a lot more artistic experience than me, but needed help to organise and present their ideas.

The objective of the course is that we should come out after ten weeks with three fully finished spreads and several roughs, suitable for submission to a picture book art director. I had already chosen my text to illustrate, but Korky also supplied a wide selection of alternatives, some in the public domain and others donated by writers specifically for the course participants.

Each week of the course follows a similar structure. First, we are all encouraged to bring in interesting picture books, which are then displayed to the class and discussed. Here are some of my choices:

As you can see, quite an eclectic selection - I wanted to be varied and explore some titles that weren’t typical picture books.

After the book discussion, we move on to an appreciation of the latest illustration work that the students have produced. Korky looks at our sketches, roughs and finished artwork, commenting on composition, layout and technique. The students are working on a wide range of subjects in several different media, and it’s fascinating to see how their work is progressing. Korky tries to treat the whole exercise like an editorial meeting, giving considered and professional feedback. He does like to draw all over the artwork as he is illustrating a point, but I’m quite protective and don’t like this, even on my roughs! But once I told Korky this, he was happy to draw on a separate sheet of paper instead.

After the editorial feedback, the final part of the class focuses on one of Korky’s own picture books. He has a whole room in his house for his archives, and each week brings in a giant folder containing all of his sketches, roughs and finished artwork for a particular project. It’s very instructive to see how ideas evolve, and Korky is always keen to point out areas that changed due to editorial feedback. Sometimes, an idea that he doodled in an initial meeting becomes the finished article, other times many drafts are needed to make the art director happy. The finished artwork is particularly exquisite - Korky has such finely-detailed penmanship and an incredible watercolour technique that I’m always a bit worried about ruining his paintings. Korky is also amazing at hand lettering - a necessary skill when he worked in advertising in the 1970s.

So far, we’ve looked at the archives for books such as Winnie and Wilbur Meet Santa and Sir Scallywag and the Golden Underpants, pantomime poster artwork for the New Theatre in Oxford, and even a couple of secret projects that I can’t talk about because they haven’t been published yet!

I always ask a lot of questions when I’m taking a course, and this one has been no exception. At times, I’ve wondered if that’s annoying for everyone else, but no-one’s told me to shut up (yet). Korky is always very patient with our queries and happy to explain all aspects of the publishing process.

There isn’t time in class for doing any actual illustration (though Korky did give us a watercolour masterclass one week). So that entails quite a lot of homework to make progress. I’ve settled into a rhythm of writing my YA novel during the week and doing illustration at the weekends. This seems to work well, especially as the larger artwork and materials aren’t particularly portable. I’m also very shy about my illustrations, so doing them in the privacy of my kitchen helps.

My chosen medium for picture book illustration is Windsor and Newton Promarkers. These are alcohol-based markers, which come in a wide range of colours:

They’re also readily available at art shops and even some branches of WH Smith, which makes life easier when one runs out at a vital moment. Promarkers are very similar to Sharpies or the Copic Ciao brand of markers - I love the vibrant highly-saturated colours you get from them. If you read my earlier post, you’ll remember how much I disliked mixing paint colours, so having something in a pre-mixed shade is perfect.

As with any new art technique, there’s been a significant learning curve. Windsor and Newton make special marker paper, with a coating that stops the ink bleeding through. However, as I discovered to my cost, this only works if you use the correct side of the paper! I ruined two carefully-inked pictures because of this, which was a “learning experience” for sure (interesting how "learning experiences" are often accompanied by a lot of swearing!)

I’ve also had problems with bleed from my ink work. To start off, I inked my pencil lines with a black Promarker, then used coloured Promarkers over the top. But although Promarkers are permanent on most surfaces, it turns out that the alcohol in the coloured markers reactivates the black, causing it to run into the lighter colours. I then tried a “waterproof” Faber-Castell Pitt pen, with the same result - waterproof doesn't necessarily mean alcohol-proof kids! Finally, after some research, I discovered that Copic make a special range of alcohol-resistant Multiliner pens, which should save me a lot of Photoshopping.

I’ve learnt a lot about my own creative process during the course. For instance, I’ve discovered that the way I draw is very similar to the way I write - I like to work iteratively. Starting in pencil, I ink the design directly on a lightbox, add colour and finally scan the page for fine-tuning in Photoshop. After Korky has given his feedback, I don’t generally want to redraw the whole thing, so I will return to the pencil work and correct it before inking and colouring again. Working digitally for the final pass makes it much easier to tweak and swap out elements, without going back to square one each time.

I’d never done any figure drawing or character design before I started the course, so it’s been a steep learning curve! I knew I wanted to do something quite cartoony - here I am trying out some designs for my main character, Charlie:

Because of my aphantasia (I lack a visual imagination or “mind’s eye”), I already knew that I was going to have to work from photos wherever possible. Google Image Search turned out to be a lifesaver here - I could literally type in a phrase like “woman wearing sunglasses in profile” and get lots of images to work from. Here are some snapshots from the evolution of one of my drawings, which shows Charlie’s mum having fun at the beach:

  1. My initial sketch. I did this completely out of my head, and you can see the results - poor body position, hands and legs.
  2. Redrew the body, legs and feet, and tidied up the hands. The bikini bottoms are much better here - she looked like she was wearing a nappy before!
  3. Inked the previous pencil drawing and coloured with Promarkers. The results are OK, although I didn’t really get on with the brush pen I was using - some of the lines, especially around the hands, are very thick. Someone on the course also pointed out that Mum wasn’t wearing sunglasses, which is the whole point of the drawing!

  1. Completely redrew Mum’s head by looking at a reference photo rather than trying to make it up. Sunglasses now present and correct.
  2. Re-inked the pencil drawing using Copic SP Multiliner pens. I used a brush pen for most of the lines and a 0.5 fineliner for some of the detail on the hands and face.
  3. The finished artwork, coloured with Promarkers

One thing I’ve struggled with is my pen control, or lack of it. I’ve found brush pens particularly frustrating - I never know how thick or thin a line is going to be until after I’ve drawn it. Fineliners are much more pleasurable and reliable to use, but they lack some of the organic flair of a brush.

Here’s the first finished spread of A Sticky Situation in all its glory:

Click to enlarge

At this scale, it probably isn’t obvious how many weeks of effort I’ve put into this! Hopefully, the following spreads will be a bit easier - in retrospect, having four separate pictures on the first spread of the book was rather ambitious.

The background gradients for sky and sea were produced by blending several Promarkers, which is quite challenging. I composited the backgrounds into the picture digitally, while still preserving a nice organic effect. Several people have mentioned to me that I could be doing all the colouring in Photoshop, but I’m really keen to learn the manual skills first. Also, a lot of digitally-coloured picture books look very glossy and artificial, an effect I’m keen to avoid.

Me and Korky Paul

Generally, I’ve been happy with my progress on the course, even if I won’t have the three finished spreads that were our objective. Whenever I’m getting impatient at my lack of skill, I have to remind myself that I’ve only been drawing for seven months!

After the course finishes, I’m going to take a short break from illustration to work on my observational drawing. I’ve bought a couple of great books on pen & ink drawing and perspective, but haven’t had much chance to try them out. I think some life drawing classes would also help with my figure work. So much still to learn, and a whole YA book to illustrate in the second half of the year. Wish me luck!


P.S. If you're interested in joining Korky Paul's Oxford course, it runs from January to March each year. The 2019 course dates aren't up yet, but they'll be published here later in the year.

Nick Cross is a children's writer/illustrator and Undiscovered Voices winner. He received a SCBWI Magazine Merit Award, for his short story The Last Typewriter.
Nick is also the Blog Network Editor for SCBWI Words & Pictures magazine. His Blog Break column appears fortnightly on W&P.


  1. Fabulous to read, Nick. I too have been translating myself into an illustrator and learning the trade. Without Korky Paul's help, sadly! Like you I want some hand-made element left. I have the Promarkers but am colouring digitally after scanning graphite, which leaves a nicely rough edge to the 'ink' work - this is the opposite of your plan in fact. I'm sure you'll get there. Especially as you have a book to illustrate and probably a publisher lined up! Thanks for sharing this post. Very encouraging to others.

    1. Thanks for commenting, Eleanor. We definitely all have to find our own preferred technique, which seems to involve a lot of trial and error!

  2. Fascinating Nick. You are so lucky to be learning with Korky Paul. His Winnie the Witch illustrations are amazing. There's so much energy and body language in the images. Well done for putting yourself through a new learning curve!

    1. I totally agree, Korky's work is incredible - I could never do what he does. So I'll just have to do my own thing instead!

  3. It's so inspiring that you're methodically setting out to achieve your dream. Love all the geeky stuff too! We should form a Society of Aphantastic Writers & Illustrators. Happy drawing, Nick!

    1. Thanks Candy. I think it's important to talk about the geeky stuff, because it demystifies the process. It's always encouraging for me to see other people's mistakes and how they learnt from them, so I want to do the same.

  4. This is wonderfully honest, Nick and I love how your progress is so clearly set out. I do however remain gob-smacked by the idead of Aphantasia.

    1. I suppose aphantasia isn't such a weird concept for me, because I've always lived with it! But it does make life more difficult where drawing is concerned. I was very jealous of an artist I talked to who said she could see scenes in perspective in her head, and virtually walk around to view the scene from different angles. That sounds like a superpower to me!

    2. I can't imagine it! But then I too have aphantasia!

  5. Thanks for the mention! And great work on the pictures - it's coming on excellently since I last saw it, and it works well as a complete spread. I'm a bit sad not to see any post-its yet (there are so many opportunities for observational practice as work). Looking forward to seeing where you go next with the drawing.

    1. Thanks for your comment (and your continued encouragement). It's ironic that the main reason I chose the book was the post-its, and they don't even make an appearance until spread 3! I now understand why picture books take so long to create...

  6. What a fascinating insight into the mechanics of illustration, especially all the 'hardware' talk. Even though I love buying various pens and sketchpads, I don't really have any urge to attempt to illustrate my own work - a serious lack of talent obviously plays a large role. Simple abstract doodles are as far as I go.

    As always, I'm impressed by your work ethic and determination, but as I'm expecting a signed copy get those remaining spreads done!


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