Friday 9 August 2013

Why did the picture-book illustrators grumble about drawing a certain animal?! by Paeony Lewis

In a picture book it’s easy to write Twenty-nine ancient elephants jumped over the dancing ladybirds. Or even Three smelly dinosaurs munched a castle built of diamonds and opals. But what of the illustrators? It’s not so easy for them! That’s why I tried to be really careful about the unpublished picture-book text I picked for two illustrators who were scheduled to perform a fast-paced ‘Sketching Duel’.

Sketching Duel: John Shelley  (Paeony Lewis)  Mike Brownlow
The live sketching event was to be in front of an audience at the Millennium Library in Norwich (the most popular public library in the UK). It was part of a day of writing and illustration activities organised by the Eastern Branch of the SCBWI* to accompany an exhibition of members’ illustrations. 

Even for professional illustrators, the 'Sketching Duel' was quite a challenge. The illustrators weren't allowed to read the text beforehand, and each double-page spread was to be read out in turn, and a rough illustration drawn in mere in minutes. Yikes, don’t blame me, I didn't make the rules! So I chose one of my picture-book texts that had a very simple, traditional structure and no over-the-top scenes. What could possibly go wrong?

The two professional illustrators were:
 John Shelley and Mike Brownlow.

John draws all sorts of things…

Mike draws all sorts of things…

So with two flipcharts and an expectant audience, we began. I told them the story was about a horse named Ivor.


Yup, a horse. Not so bad? Ho hum, it seems I could ask them to draw penguins or dinosaurs or humans or bunnies or anything EXCEPT horses! But it was too late. It was horses.

As I've said, John and Mike are professionals, so they began. Reluctantly…

John Shelley drawing Ivor the horse

Mike Brownlow
 In this image Mike has given Ivor the horse a thought bubble containing a child. Oops, I hadn’t explained that the other character, Little Nelly, was a foal, not a human. We writers sometimes forget that although we know the story inside out, the reader/illustrator doesn't.

Of course, despite my unintended attempts to thwart the illustrators with horses, they didn't turn away from the challenge and went on to produce delightful images that reflected and added to the story. Here are a few they drew in mere moments, with a snippet of the story (not all their images were so similar).

Above Mike, below John.

Story snippet:
Clip clop, clip clop, Ivor trots on until he sees a wide river. He jumps.
“Whee! Oops!”
Splosh! The golden sugar lumps plop into the mouth of a huge salmon. “Yummy.”

Above Mike, below John.

Story snippet:
Clip clop, clip clop, Ivor trots through towering trees.
Shadows move and out bursts a sneaky squirrel.
It grabs the dazzling red apple and dashes up a pine tree.
“Yummy yum!”

Is Mike smiling because he was allowed to draw a bunny?!

John explained how an illustrator can hint at something that has happened, without actually drawing it. Here, Ivor the horse runs up the hill, and then begins running down. Hoof prints are the clue that he has already run up.

Whilst here, I asked John why he’d drawn the rear of Ivor. John explained that illustrators sometimes do this to show a transition scene. It’s an illustrative way to show the story is moving on to something new. It also gives a sense of anticipation.

John Shelley
Finally, here are the last pages, and I was intrigued how the horses had developed over the twelve illustrations. When I asked how illustrators decide on whether to use a cartoon or realistic style, the illustrators explained it often depended on the story. The more anthropomorphic a story, the more a story is likely to need cartoon illustrations because a realistic horse would look ‘wrong’ doing human-like actions.
Mike Brownlow

As somebody who writes, and doesn't illustrate, I was blown away by John and Mike’s fast, unprepared sketches. I also learnt new things about the way words and illustrations combine. However, I still didn't understand what it was about horses that made them cringe. So later I asked them.

Mike Brownlow
“I draw in a stylised, cartoony sort of way, and I think part of the reason I don't like drawing horses is that they're almost impossible to draw standing up. Everyone's idea of a horse is of an animal on four legs. But the really popular children's book animals such as bears, penguins, dogs, cats, rabbits and pigs can all be made to act as substitute humans by putting them on two legs instead of four. It's really tricky to do that with a horse. I can't honestly think of an example of one in popular children's literature apart from Black Beauty. That was a very naturalistic story, though, and horses were drawn realistically. In the modern picture book era, I can't think of one. Can anyone else? Maybe it's the long face. Cue old joke.”

John Shelley
“What's the problem with drawing horses? I actually like drawing horses when I have plenty of time, but conjuring a horse character straight out of your mind can be more of a challenge!

Some animals can be distorted or simplified and still read correctly – draw a furry body with heavy haunches - add long ears and it will be read as a rabbit. Same figure with pointier nose, round ears and a long tail - you've got a mouse. Horses though have clearly defined front/middle/rear proportions, and look awkward if you stand them on two legs. Lack of hands or paws makes it difficult for them to gesture. Then there's that big long face with small eyes! A challenge, but not impossible! I’m a great admirer of Norman Thelwell’s work, a brilliant artist who really knew how to instil character into a horse.”

At the end of the day of events, another SCBWI member and writer, Annie Neild, read out one of her picture book texts. This time John used charcoal instead of red highlighter pen (a frustrating medium). Mike stuck with pencil. Plus another professional illustrator was able to take part, Bridget Strevens-Marzo. Juggling pandas, giraffes, lions and crocodiles were all illustrated! Everyone was happy… NO HORSES!

Look what I've found:
a multitude of small animals, and no horses, in this lovely illustration
by John Shelley (Japanese book: Hoppy's New House)

 You can find out more at our websites:

Blog by children's author, Paeony Lewis

Mike Brownlow
John Shelley
Bridget Strevens-Marzo
*SCBWI Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators (British Isles)


Simon said...

Very interesting. I wrote, illustrated and self-published a n alphabet book called 'Narwhal Plays the Nyckelharpa' in which each animal played a musical instrument. I used a mixture of natural and anthropomorphic poses, with realistic instruments drawn from photos.

malachy doyle said...

Best picture book horse I know is Stripy Horse, in the Jim Helmore books, illustrated by Karen Wall. Horses are very popular - my book 'Horse', illustrated in photo-realist style by Angelo Rinaldi, has outsold all my other picture books.

Abie Longstaff said...

This is such a great post, Paeony. I wish I could have been there for that event - it must have been very funny!

Moira Butterfield said...

Wow! Those guys really performed under pressure. Impressive!

Pippa Goodhart said...

How wonderful - and enlightening - to see your words turned into visual images via two different artistic brains! And how brave of those illustrators to agree to duel in public. Thank you, all.

Jane Clarke said...

A wow! from me, too. Fascinating post. I'm in awe of all you clever illustrators out there.

Paeony Lewis said...

I like Stripy Horse too, Malachy, although he's more of a soft toy (with bendy 'arms' and legs) so I suppose that's one way around the difficulties in anthropomorphising a horse. And wow, I'm relieved I don't have to pronounce 'anthropomorphising'!
Interesting that 'Horse' has outsold your other books. I see it's totally realistic, like 'Cow'.

Paeony Lewis said...

And no horse! ;-)

Paeony Lewis said...

Thanks Abie, Moira, Pippa and Jane. John and Mike (and later Bridget) were awesome (or am I too old to be allowed to use the word 'awesome'?!). The illustrations they did for Annie's panda story were even better.

I couldn't do what they did - I hate it if I have to think up stories on the spot. The worst is if you are with an editor and are expected to sit there and think up brilliant sentences in front of everyone. I like time and a keyboard.

WriterSideUp said...

These two guys have GUTS! :D

Bridget Marzo said...

Great post Paeony- thanks!
I so enjoyed duelling with John and Mike to Annie's text - and regret not having done yours too Paeony. I'd have drawn horses if I'd had too...even if, like deer, I find them harder to make funny (Thelwell's horses being the exception that proves the rule IMHO).
Since I first duelled with John and Paul Zelinsky in Bologna, I've been recommending drawing under pressure to illustrators - the adrenalin can make for some nice fresh results - a nice antidote to solitary labour.

Paeony Lewis said...

Bridget, I'd have loved to have seen you do a charcoal drawing of Ivor :-)
Your comment about the benefits of drawing under pressure reminded me of another recent guest blog. Teresa Heapy talked about the benefits of taking part in a regular comedy improvisation show on stage - she said it improved her writing. So I suppose the sketching duels could be the illustration equivalent of this? Interesting.

Stephen Aitken said...

These two illustrators obviously have a lot of experience drawing under pressure (prepared by publisher's ridiculously short deadlines?). They did a fabulous job of it, and demonstrated courage and a fun-loving spirit to boot.
I also would have cringed at the choice of a horse story. Horses can be so unforgiving when you try to stylize them.
Thanks for a great post Paeony and what an interesting duel.

Paeony Lewis said...

Thanks, Stephen. What about a donkey? ;-)

Diana Kimpton said...

Personally I admire anyone who can draw horses at all - my attempts always look deformed. Garry Parsons managed to draw my equine picture book character "Doctor Hoof" standing up on his hind legs but I know I couldn't have done.

Paeony Lewis said...

You're a horse expert, Diana, and today I enjoyed the blog you wrote earlier this year on horses in picture books. Great discussion and here's the link for anyone who'd like to read further on the illustration of horses in pbs:

Jon Burgess Design said...

I missed this one as i was away, but a belated rrrrrespect to the illustrators being coerced into drawing horses ;-) Horses can't do much other than BE horses, they can't be ciphers for children very easily, and they are a bugger to draw! ;-)

Paeony Lewis said...

Wondered why the Picture Book Den illustrator was quiet, Jonathan! So you're another who isn't a fan ;-)

Linda Strachan said...

Fascinating. It sounds like a lot of fun, but pretty scary for the illustrators I imagine. The closest on the writers' side of things was a consequences game at last year's Edinburgh Book Festival when three writers were given the start of a story and had to continue with it on the stage. A lot of fun but I know the writers concerned found it very challenging to do in front of an audience!

Chi said...


Paeony Lewis said...

Thanks Linda and Chi.
I've just discovered that Maurice Sendak's 'Where the Wild Things Are' was originally 'Where the Wild Horses Are. He said:
"I couldn't really draw horses. And I didn't, for the longest time, know what to use as a substitute. I tried lots of different animals in the title, but they just didn't sound right. Finally I lit on things..."