03 October 2018

Want to illustrate picture books? Here’s how you start …

Sarah McIntyre, author-illustrator
by Sarah McIntyre Writing Tips

Sarah McIntyre is an illustrator and writer whose solo picture books include There’s a Shark in the Bath, Dinosaur Firefighters and The New Neighbours. She also illustrates books for older children, working with Philip Reeve – their latest, The Legend of Kevin, is new out – and she’s the founder and co-director of the campaign, Pictures Mean Business, which calls for better professional recognition and terms for picture book illustrators.

We are thrilled to welcome Sarah to CBC as the tutor of our brand new Illustrating a Children’s Picture Book course. Her friend and Jampires co-author David O’Connell, is the tutor on the Writing a Children’s Picture Book course – and together they teach our combined Writing and Illustrating a Children’s Picture Book course. Here Sarah gives some great tips to help you build your confidence, develop your ideas and get going with children’s book illustration:

Sarah McIntyre self portrait

1. Quantity over quality: Fear of the blank page is a real problem and it’s one of the first things you need to get over. When you’re starting out, don’t kick off with an epic plan or immediately expect to produce a full set of picture book illustrations. Instead take little steps: Experiment with ideas and try some online drawing challenges like the ones I run at @studioteabreak on Twitter. Keep a sketchbook and draw in it every day – and you could even join in with Hourly Comic Day on 1st February, in which you draw a comic panel or panels every hour that you’re awake across a day. Sometimes, when you’re learning to draw, quantity is more important than quality.

2. Ask yourself questions: Sometimes the best way to get an idea for a drawing or a book can be to ask yourself ‘what if’ questions: What if … you woke up and the sky was raining violins? What if … you arrived at the supermarket and it was flooded and full of manatees instead of people? What if … amoebas had their own world cup tournaments? Start with something preposterous but then follow it up very rationally. How would it look, right down to the details? What would happen? Anyone can come up with a silly idea – the real humour and interest comes from working out the logistical details.

3. Change and experimentation: It’s easy to get stuck in a rut, trying to make your drawings perfect – perhaps obsessing over just one or two pictures and working into them over months so that they end up all tight and claustrophobic, with pained characters – or copied too closely from photos. When this happens, it’s good to try a completely different way of drawing. Try switching media – for instance, sculpting with clay. Or make a deliberately bad drawing – this might help you loosen up and can retrain your brain. Who knows, you might even find something in that bad drawing to use elsewhere …

4. Limitations can boost creativity: Sometimes the trick to creativity is not having too many options. Try limiting your use of colours – for instance, working with only two or three. That way you’ll have fewer decisions to make about which colour to use, and you might find your work actually looks stronger for being pared down. If a blank white page scares you, try switching to coloured paper or start out by splodging ink or paint over your page and making yourself work to turn the stain into something.

Illustrating a Childrens Picture Book

5. Create a strong, sympathetic central character: Usually, the first thing I do when I’m working on a picture book is to come up with the main character. Ideally this should be a character that readers can connect with, which touches your heart and which can potentially be used in further stories. I’ve got loads of tips for you about how to do this in the Illustrating a Children’s Picture Book course – but to mention a couple here: Try lots of different ways of drawing the same character before you settle on one. For instance, when I was designing Morris the Mankiest Monster (for the book co-authored with Giles Andree), it took me about 140 drawings to find a way to make him loveable and revolting at the same time. The turning point was when I realised I needed to simplify him – and I did this by creating a very basic shape and hanging his monster features off it. Then I painted him yellow, rather than the traditional monster-green – this worked really well, and I’d suggest it’s definitely worth changing even the most fundamental things about your character to find a new direction. Another pointer is to think hard about the eyes – if your character isn’t working, drawing the eyes differently and placing them differently on the face can give a complete character overhaul!

6. Less can be more: On a related note, don’t over-complicate your drawings unnecessarily. If you look at the characters people love, many of them are composed of very simple shapes. Think of Mickey Mouse, Calvin, Peppa Pig … And there’s a reason for this: The simpler the character, the more we can project ourselves onto it. A yellow smiley face can be almost anyone who has two eyes and a mouth – whereas if you draw a very detailed, almost photographic character, it can be only one specific person. People may admire your drawing, but they might possibly relate to it less.

7. Read lots of new books: Your pictures will need to tell a story just as much as the words do, and the best way to learn about storytelling is to read and look carefully at a lot of recently published picture books, and try to analyse what the illustrator is doing that makes the book special, funny, striking … Visit your local book shop or library and look at a broad range of new books. Think about which ones you like and which you don’t – and develop your own taste and ideas about illustration through doing so. Look at whether the illustrations tell exactly the same story as the text – are there little bits of story or characters which appear only in the pictures? Do the pictures sometimes even say the opposite from the text? There are so many tricks and methods of storytelling that you can learn simply from reading widely.

And there are also so many tricks and methods that you can learn on Sarah McIntyre and David O’Connell’s courses …

 Illustrating a Children’s Picture Book 

Writing a Children’s Picture Book 

Writing and Illustrating a Children’s Picture Book 

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