Friday 24 May 2019

Further Adventures in Illustration

By Nick Cross

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

It’s been a whole year since I last shared my experiences as a budding illustrator, so I thought it was high time to inflict more of my art on you give you an update.

The submission process for my illustrated YA novel has been taking its toll (see my previous post for more about that), and my writing has been on hiatus recently. To the extent that I’ve started to dread that question you get asked at writing events: “So, what are you working on?” Anyway, to compensate, I’ve been devoting more time to my art and illustration work.

Since I started illustrating two years ago, I’ve found my slow progress frustrating. A reasonable person might say it takes time, effort and patience to learn a new skill, but clearly I am not that person. As a type A perfectionist who is starting to feel the sands of time running out, I want instant results and I want them now! This intolerance for imperfection is, frankly, not helpful when trying to learn a complex new skill.

Do I enjoy drawing? Sometimes, although I still find it very difficult. I remember a long period of writing where I couldn’t make the words on the page come out how I wanted them to, and drawing has been the same. Except with drawing, I felt extra pressure because someone else could look at the source photo and see just how far my representation had fallen short.

Because I wasn’t enjoying drawing, I also wasn’t doing the one thing that everyone recommends, which is to draw every day. I would draw half-heartedly occasionally but never with a consistent goal. It occurred to me that working in Oxford, I had all these fabulous museums on my doorstep, including the Ashmolean, Natural History and Pitt Rivers. I resolved to take my pen and sketchbook, and spend a couple of lunchtimes every week drawing stuff.

There were pros and cons to this approach. On the plus side, there are lots of things to draw - you can pretty much wander into the Ashmolean and find something totally new every time. On the minus side, there are a lot of visitors and tours - I would regularly look up from my sketchbook to find a group of people blocking my view! But I did learn some important things about my method. Take these drawings of the same statue as an example:

The sketch on the left was something I did very rapidly, just as a warm up. I found that once I had got some of the perfectionist anxiety out of my system, I could concentrate on really “seeing” the subject. The sketch on the right (though the proportions are a bit iffy) reflects that enhanced concentration.

Although I went museum sketching for a couple of months, the very public nature of the process started to grate on me. I’m intensely protective of my creative process, and didn’t like the fact that people could watch me as I worked. Rather than use it as an excuse to show off, I became intensely paranoid and my work started to suffer. It was time to pivot again - I started booking empty conference rooms at work during the quiet lunchtime period, and working in seclusion.

This worked a lot better for me, removing prying eyes and the pressure of working quickly. I decided to stay with similar subject matter, selecting photos of Greek and Roman statues to draw from. Here are a couple of my sketches:

I was much happier with these, though at the end of the hour, the desk was always covered with grey crumbs from rubbing out. However, I read a recent interview with the late, great, Judith Kerr where she said (after a very long career as an illustrator) that she still rubbed out more than she actually drew. So maybe I’m not such a weirdo after all.

I started to realise that I wasn’t interested in landscapes or architecture like I'd thought - I wanted to draw people! My wife and I were watching the Sky TV show Portrait Artist of the Year, and I was encouraged by the contestants who used gridding to transfer the dimensions of a subject’s face onto the canvas. I decided to attempt a portrait (something I had previously thought way beyond my skill level) with a grid built using a helpful online tool. The photo itself was something I found on Unsplash, which is a copyright free image site:

I found using the grid to be a revelation! By reducing the size of the problem, it allowed me to concentrate on just what was happening inside each square. Any preconceptions I had about the shape of a person’s face could be safely ignored - I just had to draw what was in front of me. Once the pencil sketch was done, I wanted to shade it using fineliners, but it was clear from my tests that it would take a long time. So I opted for Winsor and Newton ProMarkers, which I had used for my earlier illustration work. Here’s the result:

It’s good, right? I was a bit amazed when I finished it to be honest! It was the first time that the lines on the page actually seemed to match the photo.

For my next drawing, I resolved to do a bit of fan art, based on the noughties TV show Veronica Mars, which we were rewatching. Kristen Bell is totally awesome in that show, and it was fun to try to capture her likeness. With the gridded pencil sketch done, I made a photocopy to try out different ProMarker colour choices:

I’d recently bought some Bristol Board to try out, so I used it for the finished picture. As well as being fairly expensive, It’s also quite shiny, but the alcohol-based ProMarkers work on practically any surface. The best thing about Bristol Board is how easy it is to rub stuff out! Despite the cost, I may have found my perfect medium.

I was less satisfied with this final artwork than my earlier portrait of the butterfly guy. Although the likeness is recognisable, something about the face just isn’t quite right, though I couldn’t tell you exactly what! It’s definitely much harder to draw someone whose face you’re very familiar with. I also had a lot of trouble with the blonde hair - in retrospect the black hair of the previous subject was very straightforward.

I did start a third portrait, but had to put it to one side because I wanted to tackle the optional task for a recent SCBWI illustration masterclass called The Wonderful World of Non-fiction Illustration. I’m also writing a review of the session for Words & Pictures, so I’m working on both posts simultaneously to avoid repeating myself!

The task was to make an A3 double page spread showing a creature in its natural habitat. That meant museum time again - I went to the Oxford Natural History Museum and took photos of various specimens.

I decided to pick the Japanese spider crab, because I liked the bright colours and the way it would fill an A3 page. The brief made it clear that the research was as important as the finished work, so I made various sketches and an A4 dummy.

To mimic a lift-the-flap book, I made the artwork in two layers. The top layer was drawn on tracing paper:

So you could lift it away to see this underneath:

In order to get everything to line up, I scanned my pencil sketch, added the text in Photoshop and printed just the text on the tracing paper. Then I added the crab’s body and missing leg on the top sheet in ProMarker. This allowed me to keep the bottom layer drawing as just the pure artwork. Working on top of tracing paper was still quite difficult though - if I’d had more time, I think it would have been better to draw the body and leg on a separate sheet, scan them in and composite the top layer digitally.

The bottom layer was drawn on lightweight marker paper rather than Bristol Board, as I needed to roll up the drawing to take it to London.

Later, as I inspected the other illustrations at the workshop, I had to wonder why I'd picked something so terrifying to work on rather than a nice fluffy mammal. There were a number of occasions while researching spider crabs that I had to stop Googling them because the photos were putting me off my lunch! And yet, my chosen style and medium wouldn’t have worked half so well on something with fur or feathers.

I pushed myself really hard with the task for the masterclass, even working on it the morning of the session (by which point I was terrified I would screw it up). I knew that I wouldn’t be able to avoid comparing myself with the other illustrators, so I wanted to make a good show of it. Which I feel I did in the end, and I got some useful feedback from the tutors. I was pretty exhausted that evening, as you can imagine!

I feel that I’m slowly becoming better at illustration and that’s a positive thing. Honestly, all I’ve ever aspired to be is competent! I’ll keep you posted on where the muse takes me next...


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. Replies
    1. Thanks Kathy. I'm so happy you're so impressed :-)

  2. I am so impressed too! Re the rubbing out comment, when Katherine and I went to one of the first Seven Stories exhibitions of picture books we discovered tippex was a BIG thing on drafts pre lightbox to get the finished pic. Also tissue paper overlays to cover mistakes. The idea that illustrators and authors get it right first time is one I try to show kids isn't the case.

    1. Thanks Maureen. I went to a Beano exhibition where they had original artwork stretching back years, and I couldn't believe the amount of Tippex they used!

  3. I'm impressed three! With your art and just generally.


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