Monday 27 August 2012

An Illustrator's View by Emmeline Pidgen (guest blogger)

I have to say, I'm beyond thankful that I'm one of those lucky ducks who get to do what they love everyday and earn a living from it.

But I don't think I could count the number of times I've had people turn glaze-eyed with jealousy or scoff at the 'triviality' of my job when I tell them I'm a freelance illustrator. “Oh so you draw pictures all day!?” they say, well, I'm not complaining – but I'll tell you this, it isn't half as easy as it sounds. 

To mould yourself a successful career in the over-saturated creative industries, and in particular the children's book illustration field, you have the guts to jump into it head-first, with a battle cry of determination and with every ounce of gusto in your body – not to be too dramatic. 

Looking through the piles and piles of picture books in my flat, I find it hard not to think technically about how the illustrators have created each page; the character designs, the storyboarding, the flow and composition from spread to spread, the weeks and weeks of editing.  But don't worry, I'm not too jaded, I can still sit down and thoroughly enjoy reading them when I want to.

I've seen a number of posts here detailing the author or publisher's experiences of picture book creation, and I wanted to let you in on the perspective of the illustrator. 

Relatively speaking, I've not been in the game long.  I graduated from the BA(Hons) illustration course at University College Falmouth in 2010 and dived straight into self-employment.  Things inevitably started fairly slowly, but now I'm here – two years on – and I'm about to start working on my fifth published children's book, and I've got a number of great clients, collaborations and awards under my belt - not bad for a fledgeling I'd say. 

But behind the scenes there's a storm of stress, screen-wearied eyes and pencil cramped hands.

There aren't many moments more exciting than getting that call or email sparkling with the news of a new book commission, you might think it's silly, but it gives me that tingly feeling in my tummy every time. So, you've got the text, you've got the contract and you've got the guidelines. “Go!” shouts the publisher, “Go now and create beautiful worlds for our eyes!”...and so you do.
In my experience the projects usually start with a cup of tea, a thorough read through of the text, some notes and a few rough sketches detailing the images that first come to mind.  You discuss your ideas with the publishers and develop some initial character designs.

For me, the next stage is a series of loose thumbnails outlining a basic idea and composition for each page.  Usually, at this stage these are more or less indecipherable to anyone but myself, so I rework them bit by bit into something comprehensible for the publishers to make comments on.

Sometimes it can be a little frustrating having so much free scope with the visuals in a book, just that it means that there's a lot of back and forth with the publishers deciding what they like or dislike in the storyboards and even through to the final artworks.  As Malachy has said in a previous post, it's not often that the author and illustrator have much contact – however I remember clearly that for one of my books the author implicitly requested that I delete the knickers on the washing line!

It's a joy to be able to interpret the text however your imagination moulds it, it's exciting, but as opposed to the visuals on each page being dictated - there's more chance it's completely off the mark for the publishers or author.

Changes to the illustrations are pretty much inevitable, and can drag on for weeks.  It does feel very disheartening when a page you've worked really hard on is completely scrapped – or an idea you loved just isn't working, but it's all part of the bigger picture and in my experience, it's always made for a better book at the end.

There are a lot of subtle tricks and techniques that go into creating illustrations for a really well formed book.  It's much more than slapping a picture on every page.  One of the main things I consider is 'pace and flow' which is basically the visual rhythm and movement throughout the book.  A good illustrator can slow the visuals down and draw the reader in with a full bleed, detailed double page spread when the text slows, or speed things up with a heavily directed whoosh, whoosh, whoosh of spot illustrations when the story's fast paced. 

Colour is definitely one of the most important factors, at least in my work.  It's so connected to our basic emotions and signifies meaning on both conscious and subconscious levels.  It's natural for us to feel that an illustration of a big, shadowy coloured creature would be more frightening than a powder pink one.  Of course shape factors in to this a lot, spikey vs soft and all that, but it's the visual language of colour that can dramatically change the feel of a page. 

Playing with scale, shape and variety of the 'camera angle' keeps the pages interesting and the reader engaged, whilst little details mean the reader can spot something new each time they pick up the book.  It's mostly a case of thinking back to when you were a child, and what you would enjoy seeing. 

For me, the final artwork stage takes the most time.  I know of a lot of illustrators who tend to spend longer on the sketches, making sure everything is precise and perfect in pencil – which is obviously very useful for the publisher to get a really clear idea of what to expect at artwork stage.  With my work I don't incorporate the pencil sketches into the finals, and so if it fits with the project and the publishers are happy I prefer to fully refine everything whilst creating the colour pieces.  For my first book 'The Flyaway Blanket' I worked in gouache paint, which although lovely, was laborious and complicated to change later on (I did do very detailed sketches for this one!).   

More recently I've tended to work with ink line and digital, which is faster and much easier to make changes to – which is appropriate for the tight deadlines and quick turnarounds I've been facing of late. 

Although these days a lot of my work is digital, I always try to incorporate scanned painted elements or textures to give the illustrations some weight and a more organic feel.  Within the past year I've learnt a wealth of new techniques to get my illustration style looking the way I want it to look, as fast as possible, but without compromising the quality. 
I often think that my entire career is just my hands trying to catch up with my imagination.

With picture books, I like to consider the commission not as a simple job, but as a world you're creating alongside the author and the publishers.  A world to fuel children's imaginations and strike a nostalgic chord of adventure in the Mums and Dads snuggled reading the book to their children.
Anything's possible between the covers of a book and it's the illustrator's duty not just to visually replicate what the words say, or to replace the images in the reader's imagination; but to enhance it with a vivid snapshot, a window into that world you've all created together.


Abie Longstaff said...

Thanks so much for this post Emmeline. It's so helpful to read about things from the illustrator's perspective. Your drawings are beautiful and have such a graceful quality to them. My favourite is the girl with the red umbrella.

malachy doyle said...

Well said, Emmeline. Great to hear it from an illustrator's point of view.
It must be so frustrating when you've created something beautiful and they tell you to do it differently. And it's a shame there's so much pressure to work fast.
Love the illustration of the hug in the woods in the snow!

Moira Butterfield said...

Thanks Emmeline. I really enjoyed your post,and when I got to the bottom I was delighted to see Sylvester and the new Year, which I adapted for the publisher from the original old story. I'm really looking forward to seeing it. Your post will be a great help to everyone thinking about illustrating.

Paeony Lewis said...

What an interesting post. Thanks for sharing your insight and enthusiasm, Emmeline. I'm staggered anybody would think that professional illustration is 'trivial' or easy. I'd love to have the talent and I shall look out for your books.

Anonymous said...

It should be "DOVE right into self-employment", not "dived". Great post otherwise!

Moira Butterfield said...

Not in the UK, where 'dived' is correct and 'dove' is not in use.

Susanna Leonard Hill said...

Thank you for this fabulous glimpse into the world of illustration. As an author, it's something I know far less about than I'd like to. Your art is absolutely beautiful!

Anonymous said...

Excellent. I thoroughly enjoyed this post. Since I'm not an illustrator, it is very interesting to hear about your process. I am wowed by your talent.

ptnozell said...

I'm in awe of your pluck & talent - to dive right into the self-employment after uni & so successfully, too. An inspiration to us all! I look forward to enjoying more of your gorgeous illustrations.

Julie Rowan-Zoch said...

As an artist stepping onto the PB author/illustrator's diving board, I am very grateful for this post! bDo you have a blog of your own Emmeline?

Jane Clarke said...

Great post. I especially love the line about your career being your hands trying to keep up with your imagination.

Pippa Goodhart said...

Really interesting. Do you have a preference for whether or not you talk the illustrations through with the author? As an author, I love that process, but not all publishers allow it.

Emmeline Pidgen Illustration said...

Thank you all for these lovely comments! I'm so glad you enjoyed the post and found the insights useful.

Moira - I thought I recognised your name! You've done a wonderful job adapting the story. It should be heading off to print tomorrow which is incredibly exciting! I've also illustrated Far Far Away's 'Amour' and I'm starting work on a brand new one too.

Julie - I'm glad it was of some help! Good luck with everything! I don't know if it'll be of any use but I also write monthly articles about Creative Tips & Resources for emerging illustrators over at Ten Paces and Draw - this is my latest one 'Getting started, Getting seen'

I do also have a blog about my work and inspiration at

Pippa - I've not had that much of a chance to really get involved in working with authors, aside from a few comments from Allan Peterkin with The Flyaway Blanket. For the other books I've worked on the story's either been adapted from an old fairytale or has been written as a part of a team with the publishers. I would definitely like to try it out, especially if I found an author I really got along with, shared a similar vision to and our styles complimented each other. I've seen some really brilliant picture book author/illustrator pairings recently, in particular with Anna Kemp and Sara Ogilvie's wonderful books.

Thanks again everyone!