Creating a Picture Book – Part 5 (My Picture Book So Far)

Over the last few months, I have shared my thought process and planning for my current picture book project.

What we have covered to date:

  1. Approaching the project with deliberation, instead of wild enthusiasm.
  2. Focusing on creating a consolidated idea.
  3. Doing all research before starting.
  4. Doing a lot of work on the manuscript and illustration work in the rough stage, and not impatiently rushing this stage.

In today’s blog, I will share more about the rough stage work.

  1. The manuscript has been assessed twice. I was advised to change my target age, reduce the number of characters, simplify the plot, etc. I am happier with the story now.
  2. Have started the character design process and spent considerable time developing the protagonist, as he will be in every scene and needs to be the most well-rounded character. Have also worked on two minor characters and have a few more to go. As I work on each character, I figure out how to create the other characters who are unique and distinct from the character’s already designed. I would like each character to be totally different to the others and plan for each character to wear different colours, have totally different costumes, etc.
Prototype Illustration

This is a prototype illustration from the story – I experimented with Strathmore Crescent board, which is a dream to work with (but expensive), a possible colour scheme (which I do not like, as it does not replicate the colours I have in mind) and gave me an opportunity to see if I still like my protagonist (which I do). I am going to the draw the background more loosely for future illustrations.

Some character sketches. Also going to start painting these and adding them to my portfolio, as the characters are diverse in age, ethnicity, etc.

Ongoing plans for the picture book development:

a. Preferred method is for graphite sketches with watercolour. I considered using pen and ink outlines for some elements in the illustrations, however, have now decided to use dynamic colour schemes for the important elements (primary characters) of every scene and use less saturated and muted/subtle tones for mid-ground and background parts of the composition.

b. Hot-pressed watercolour paper is my preferred choice for illustrations, but have considered using cold-pressed watercolour paper. I would like to use the heaviest weight of 100% cotton paper I can afford, since I do not want to stretch each illustration (I don’t have space for the stretching boards), and plan to work on all illustrations simultaneously, in order to maintain cohesive colouring. I did this in a previous picture book, and was super happy with the results. I have tried Strathmore Crescent board and loved using it, but it is extremely pricey. I have also bought Hahnemuehle Andalucia (500 gsm) cellulose paper and like it, however, I think it dulls the colours of the watercolour slightly. I love using Arches 100% hot-pressed paper, so I will see what weights it is available in. Please comment if you have any suggestions.                                                                                 

c. Initially envisaged the book being in landscape orientation, as there is going to be A LOT of action, and wanted the page to be like a wide-screen television. The standard landscape picture book sizes are (in centimetres) 18.5 x 18.5; 17.5 x 25 and 25 x 20. However, I now feel that the same action can be conveyed in portrait orientation and that will, hopefully, mean painting less distracting background. The standard portrait picture book sizes are (in centimetres) 14 x 21.5, 15 x 23, 15 x 23, 18 x 25.5, 20 x 25.5 and 22 x 28.                                                            

d. Also planning to work larger in scale than the picture book size, in order to define the details, I love in illustration.         

 e. Looking forward to story-boarding so the number of illustrations required can be determined. Would also like to illustrate the end papers and love books which have story illustrations starting before the text narrative and even having the last word on the endpapers or cover. To date I have created about 12 story-boards for the current project; however, none of them were right, so will keep going until they are!                                                                                                                                                                             

f. Will be working in watercolour and plan to do grisaille underpainting on the illustrations. Usually create neutral tones from a selected colour scheme, so will experiment with that first. I love the slightly irregular granulation that can be achieved doing this, and think it endows the illustrations with subtle detail. It also ensures that there is never a clash of colours as no more than 3 or 4 colours (limited palette) are being used. If that doesn’t work, I can try using Paynes Grey, or even Sepia grisaille underpainting and see which works best. Will b experimenting with different combinations of the primaries until the right combination of secondaries and tertiaries are found. For instance, I have three yellows in my palette: Nickel Azo Yellow, Hansa Yellow and Benzimidazolone Yellow. Only by testing these yellows against my various reds/magentas and blues, can I determine which combination achieves the results needed for the illustrations. I will blog about this process, as it is one of the most important decisions a painter makes.                                                         

Until next time…


Creating a Picture Book – Part 4 (My Picture Book Preparation)

With regards to my current picture book project:    

* My idea evolved from a character study I developed for a drawing course. I wanted to show my students that realism study + animation and/or caricaturisation = character. I liked a particular character I had illustrated and hoped he would inspire a story. He did. I am adapting that character illustration to better suit the story.                                                                                                                                                                                      

* I have spent several months thinking over this picture book idea. I have learnt it is best to do a lot of mental organisation before putting it on paper. My note and sketch preparation have been more targeted. The sketch process and story notes invariably introduce surprises that can change the direction of the book.                                                                                                                                                                          

* I am dedicating a sketchbook to this picture book process. It will contain all the preparatory work: manuscript development, idea notes and sketches, character development sketches, setting development sketches, storyboards, etc. I also bought a watercolour sketchbook to use for colour experiments. It will be easy for me to keep my work organised and taking up little space.

* I am excited to develop the other characters too. A couple of years ago, I did Nina Rycroft’s Skillshare course: Face Shapes – Explore Character Using 9 Simple Shapes ( ). The course assignment was to use different shapes to develop a variety of faces. I never imagined how that assignment would inspire my illustrations in the future. I will be adapting some of those faces for characters in my story and creating new ones. I reviewed Nina’s Skillshare courses in a blog. You can read it here:

Join me in a month when we talk about how the picture book is going so far.

Until next time…


Creating a Picture Book – Part 2 (The Idea)

Since I am writing and illustrating my book, the blog will be written from the perspective of a picture book creator, not just that of a writer or illustrator.

You have an idea for a picture book, or maybe you don’t, but you want or need to write and illustrate a book.

Here is the process for becoming inspired and for working on the idea:

  1. Keep a notebook and/or a sketchbook handy – this is your idea library. Ideas fall into our laps from the strangest places: a conservation overheard between young children, a comical scene, something beautiful or fascinating, etc. Whenever you feel blocked or uninspired, your ‘idea library’ comes into play.
  2. Ideas cannot be forced. Even when you have an idea, sometimes it can take days or weeks to foment into a usable concept. I find concepts crystallise when I am walking the dog, showering, trying to sleep, trying to distract myself from brooding over my concept by reading a book, etc. Discussing your concept with a writing group can be helpful.
  3. Don’t try to produce a finished and perfect book at this point. Just note the ideas. Play around with them. Give the ideas a chance to speak for themselves – let them come to life by themselves.
  4. Don’t over contrive them. You want the scenario, characters and setting to be fresh and believable.
  5. Don’t fight change. Just because your initial concept appeals to you, does not mean that it must remain the same as it was initially. Concepts tends to evolve. Sometimes they taper down to something simpler, sometimes they develop complexity. I find my concepts often look very different in the end. There is a core of the original idea, but its end result is usually much better than its initial concept.
  6. Do your research and check your references. If your story is about elephants in the Okavango Delta, then read up about them and the location. Draw African elephants. Draw the Okavango landscape. These study sketches will not be in the picture book, but they will train your hands, eyes and creativity so that you can use what you learn to create the illustrations.

Join me next time for the third part of this blog series: Creating a Picture Book – Part 3 (What to Consider When Creating a Picture Book).

Until next time…


Creating a Picture Book – Part 1

Maurice the Magnificent

I illustrated my first picture book when I was 17 years old. The illustrations were for a story my mother had written when we were quite small. The tale was a gorgeous epic about garden creatures. We loved the story. Because we enjoyed ‘Spinky Sparrow’s Garden Adventure’ so much, we wanted to share it with my younger cousins. My sister wrote the story in a sketch book and I created illustrations. The illustration bug had truly bitten!

As with many other aspiring children’s authors and illustrators, I was strongly counselled to find a different occupation. Some of the arguments against my preferred career were:

  • Illustration is a boom-time business. What happens if the economy is bad and you can’t get work?
  • It is almost impossible to break into the business.
  • Your work isn’t up to the standard (and ‘you might as well quit’ was the unspoken insinuation).
  • There is fierce competition. Are you sure you are up to it?

The list goes on.

You have probably heard some or all of these; and perhaps more objections.

Nobody advised me to keep illustrating, be patient, work hard and illustrate part-time while having a job to pay the way.

I eventually figured that out for myself. That is also the advice I will give everyone else, and ‘Keep at it!’

For about ten years, my art supplies were exiled to the wardrobe, and I slogged at my day job.

My now almost 11-year old niece re-awoke my passion for illustration when she was about 2 years old.

But I had to relearn to draw – or at least, work very hard to get my drawing skills to where I knew they needed to be. At least for me, it was several YEARS of drawing and painting to arrive at the point where I felt I could have some success illustrating.

The irony, of this journey, is that no matter how much I improve; I can still see how much further I need to go!

I have illustrated 3 picture books in full; and created concepts for a few more, but none of the work has been published. I am not feeling sorry for myself, as experience has taught me why my work wasn’t then suitable for publication. It is with those lessons in mind, and embracing my arsenal of writing and illustrating tools learnt along the way, that I prepare to embark on my new picture book.


Having been advised not to share the manuscript and illustrations (apparently the publishing industry frowns on ‘spoiler alerts’), I will be blogging about:

  1. My process for creating a picture book.
  2. Why I am following this process.
  3. The initial preparation of a picture book.
  4. Lessons learned during the process of creating this book.
  5. And hopefully, the journey from creation to publication.
  6. I will share some of my preparatory sketches, but nothing that may be published.


I am looking at this project taking about 2 to 2.5 years (perhaps longer, though I would love to think that I could do everything in a fraction of that time).

Many illustrators have other jobs apart from picture book illustration. I tutor children and adults with learning disabilities and my illustration work includes blogging (about illustration work and reviewing picture books for cognitive elements), teaching drawing and painting and creating illustrations for customers, my online stores and my portfolio.

Recently, I was also invited to enter artwork in to the 2019 Semarang International Illustration Festival. I had ten days to conceptualise and complete an exhibition piece. I loved producing the illustration, but it meant dropping other illustration work. Very few picture book illustrators can focus solely on picture book illustration.


Over the years, I have taken picture book writing courses, done illustration courses and read countless books on writing and illustrating picture books.

Here are some of the books I have found useful:

  • Illustrating Children’s Books, by Martin Ursell
  • The Picture Book Maker: The Art of the Children’s Picture Book Writer and Illustrator, by Karenanne Knight
  • Writing with Pictures: How to Write and Illustrate Children’s Books, by Uri Shulevitz
  • Illustrating Children’s Books: Creating Pictures for Publication, by Martin Salisbury

Please comment if you have come across other useful books that may be a help to our community of picture book writer-illustrators.

With all my other picture book projects, I approached them with the naive eagerness of a puppy, threw myself in and swam in square circles. I thought my enthusiasm would steer me straight, but my sentimentality drove all logic out, leaving the manuscript and illustrations with gaping holes.

After doing a project management course (which had nothing to do with literature!), I realised I needed to change my approach. Distilling all the information I had gathered over the years, I designed a process through which I intend to produce my new picture book.

I now believe that equal parts of passion and deliberate, strategic design will be the better method for moving forward.

In other words, I am trying to move away from being fully Marianne in ‘Sense and Sensibility’, to being a little more like Elinor – controlled passion.

The Steps

  1. The idea – I already had the idea.
    a. This step involved thinking through the idea and figuring out how it can be transformed from idea into a usable and logical picture book concept. I used a couple of sounding boards – my long-suffering mother, and my much-appreciated writing group. The feedback was positive, but more importantly, constructive. With their support and advice, I decided to proceed with the current idea.
    Many of my dog-walks have been spent mulling over possible plot scenarios and the narrative arc. I have never considered the narrative of any of my previous works half as much as this one. In my future illustration blogs, I will run through the steps taken to help consolidate the story.
    Remember – you have to have gallons of passion for the book and characters, as you are going to be spending a lot of quality time with them. If you are not excited to do so, that is the first sign that this book is not for you.
    b. This step also includes coming up with an idea if you are suffering from a lack of inspiration.
    I keep a notebook and sketchbook. Whenever I have an idea, hear or see something that appeals, I make a note of it. When you are in the proverbial ‘inspiration desert’, consult your notebook and sketchbook.
  2. The rough stage – this is a massive stage. It involves:
    a. Writing, rewriting, editing, re-editing, assessing, reassessing, rewriting the manuscript. You get the idea.
    b. Doing research (if necessary).
    c. Drawing ideas to later develop into character sketches and settings.
    d. Story boarding.
    e. Creating characters (concept).
    f. Creating settings.
    g. Making dummy books.
    h. Drawing new storyboards and dummy books until the pictorial narrative flow works.

3. Submissions – sending out the manuscript, dummy book and concept art to either agents or publishers, and hoping one of them has the same vision, or is willing to work with you to create a mutually-accepted vision.

4. Book development – amending the concept to the publisher’s requirements and creating the final artwork.

5. Kicking the ‘baby bird’ picture book out of your ‘nest’, pointing it in the direction of the publisher and their team of experts, who will coax it into a printed book, and finally seeing on the shelf of the local book shop.

In my next illustration blog, I will discuss the IDEA PROCESS. At this point, I would love to invite you to join me on this adventure. Please feel free to keep me company as I develop my picture book and would be so pleased if you would share your experiences with me. If you are keen to create a picture book at the same time, maybe you can share your progress too.
I am in for the long haul. If you are too, ‘Bon Voyage!’

Please join me this time next month when I review a couple of lovely picture books.

Until next time…