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Tuesday 20 November 2012

A Spontaneous Reaction by John Hamilton

My name is John Hamilton and I am very new to the world of children’s books!

Over the last 17 years I have been a practising artist, based at Rogue Artists Studio in Manchester City Centre. I specialise in painting, drawing and printmaking.  My work has always been narrative or story-based and has always had a tale to tell.

I have developed a character that appears throughout my paintings and drawings, making my work instantly recognisable. I have exhibited and sold work across the UK, Germany, Australia, Cyprus and USA.

Storytelling has always been important to me and people have often asked if I illustrated children’s books. It is something I had always wanted to do but time has never allowed it. I decided recently that I wanted to do a Masters degree and I came across a Masters course in Children’s Book Illustration.  

This was a great opportunity for me to focus on children’s books. I had decided that I wanted to take the character that dominates my work and use it for the character in the picturebooks. Although there were some issues regarding eyes, hair, size etc. I think I managed to make it child friendly and loveable to suit children. I was encouraged to write my own stories.

I enjoyed learning about various book formats, layouts and dummy-books. As a painter I have always used sketchbooks and love the whole planning and preparation for a piece of work.

When looking through my own sketchbooks, it is often the scribbled bits, the notes written on the sides, the uncorrected mistakes that draw my attention. Rubbed out arms and legs that are still slightly visible, then drawn over the top. A redrawn head at a slightly different angle, or with a new expression. All these things give the work character, make it come alive and make it feel real. These are often images that other people do not get to see, they are in small notebooks, on bits of scrap paper, beer mats, whatever comes to hand when that idea comes into your head. It is the act of recording something quickly without too much thought. A spontaneous reaction. And knowing it is for your own personal, private records the quality may not be important. But it is these sketches and drawings that contain so much more life and are more personal, than the final version that may be created and become a painting or illustration for publication.

For many illustrators, reproducing these initial drawings is often too difficult, or some would say impossible, to do.  Trying to recapture that initial image has proved to be one of the things illustrators find frustrating. Most illustrators have commented on how they do lose the spontaneity, each time they have to redraw something and that by the time changes have been made to satisfy editors, designers, foreign markets etc. a lot of the dynamics have been lost.

For my book illustrations, I wanted to try to keep the initial spontaneous drawing quality in the final artwork. I decided that I would use watercolour for my illustrations, but produce my drawing on tracing paper, which I would then layer over the top of the watercolour. This allowed me to retain the quality of my drawings and combine it with the clean neat quality of the painting.

I produced three ideas for books on the course – ‘ Surprise Disguise’- a story of a boy’s dilemma of trying to choose an animal costume for a party. This was my first attempt and a learning curve! Looking back, the ideas and the story were good but did not have the knowledge to produce it properly. I need to revisit it at some date and illustrate it again.

The second story is called ‘The Day Dad Did Everything’. This follows the tale of how Dad tries to help out around the house but makes things a lot worse! The story is a funny look at the Dads attempt to multi-task through the eyes of the child, but as always, Mum saves the day.  

I’m really pleased with this story and want to return to it and continue with the colour work.

The third book is ‘The Boy who Really, Really, Really loves Lizards’. It follows a boy called Oliver who is obsessed with lizards and reptiles. Everything he does, eats, wears has to be of a reptile nature.

His trip to the museum opens his eyes to the real thing and his opinions change!  This is the book I completed for my final project and I’m really proud of the finished product. The Manchester Museum, where the story is based, are really keen to do something with the book or to work  with the department in some way.

In terms of the MA course, I had expected to have more contact with industry and some input from publishers. I wanted to have some ideas of what the publishers look for and how to approach them. Was the course worth doing? Yes. It made me get my act together and produce ideas and I ended up with a finished book – so I know I can do it and the time-scale to complete a full 32-page book.

I have yet to approach publishers. I am aware that getting published is not easy so I am preparing myself for a long ride but sure that I will get there in the end!

You can see more of my illustrations on my blog at

And my other artwork at

Any thoughts, feelings and feedback are welcome, and if there any publishers out there interested you can contact me too!


  1. Thanks John. I agree that the preparatory notes and roughs of a work are fascinating. I went to a book exhibition recently and saw a part of the original Lord of the Rings manuscript - it had doodles on it and you could see that the author was thinking visually as he wrote.

  2. Interesting post and lovely to see how an illustrator can turn words into images.

  3. John you are right about how hard it can be to recapture spontaneity - writers struggle with this too. Often an idea that starts off really fresh then gets worked and overworked till it feels limp and dry. I read something from John Cleese about this once - he said once he had finished writing and editing a sketch and was happy with it, he would put it away and rewrite it from memory. He said it was this that kept his work fresh. I've used this advice myself when the text feels heavy and dull and it can work well.
    I love your illustrations - your people have a lot of character in their faces. I wish you all the best with it!

  4. Yes, it is a challenge to keep things fresh after you've worked and worked on them. Thanks John for your perspective and striking images. Abie, I'll try following the John Cleese advice myself.

  5. Thanks. I love your illustrations. I really do. Very best of luck. And as for the John Cleese thing, that's great. I remember my sister losing the essay she'd stayed up all night writing for her degree once (she'd wordprocessed it and she accidentally unplugged it at the wrong time). She did the same: rewrote it from memory and was convinced it was better for it. So I've always remembered that since and have tried rewriting picture book mss that I've not felt were quite right, on occasion. It's good (but because they're short, you can often pretty much remember it word for word). I think it does make it easier to reduce word count, though...

  6. Interesting blog, John, and great illustrations. I always enjoy seeing the development of artwork. Yes, I too agree that sometimes the vitality of a rough image can become staid with repeated redrawing. And when you have to draw the same image of a character over and over, I wonder if you get bored?
    I like the John Cleese writing tip.

  7. Hello - Just a quick message to say the lizard book is being published at the end of Oct by Manchester University Museum! Will post more info when I get it so you can all go and buy it!