Illustrating classic children’s stories with ink and watercolour

I’ve enjoyed some fairly relaxed drawing this past few days. With an ink pen and some light watercolour I created a few scenes from some of my favourite children’s stories.

The tea party

The tea party

The family Bucket

The family Bucket

Pinocchio and the whale

Pinocchio and the whale

My intention was to tell the story of the text with just the lines but as I created each piece I felt that there was a real need for shading. I didn’t want to just use a pencil so I applied some light watercolour.

I enjoyed drawing these very much and they’ll form a key part in my portfolio for submission to illustration agents.

The frustrations of attracting an illustration agent

Attracting an illustration agent is a little frustrating just now. I’ve tried for so long but consistently receive the polite rejections.

I have many styles that I enjoy using as an artist but no way of knowing what is currently required by agencies and their clients. If only I could find out!

One of the real joys of being an illustrator is that I draw upon numerous influences. Over the years I’ve tried countless styles and techniques and many of them remain in what I may call my ‘signature style’.
But I can adapt to most styles and enjoy them all.

Following yet another rejection email I decided to take a much closer look at the market. Make no mistake, I analyse the market in some detail before submitting my work to potential agencies. To the point where I am selective with my submissions.

Something that I’ve often pondered is whether or not it’s actually worthwhile submitting my work to an agency with artists in a similar genre. I’m not sure it’s beneficial to have my work displayed alongside similar artists in the portfolio. But then, what if those other artists are in demand and that demand cannot be met?

I’ve tried to change my style to be more niche. But that then limits me and almost pigeon-holes me. Something that I’ve always tried to avoid.

Having said that, when I look at the illustrators that I truly admire -Quentin Blake, Gris Grimly to name just two – I see that they have a clear and distinct style. Agents will naturally look to attach these guys to specific projects based on knowing exactly what they’re going to get from them.
But I always figured that having a range of styles would make me more attractive as an illustrator and present more opportunities.
Is this the wrong approach?

What is my signature style?

I’ve asked this question a number of times recently. Perhaps the style of art that I’m producing and submitting is simply not relevant to today’s market.

cookiejar pig duckfeed3 arcadephantom-1

I always draw with ink. Whether it’s digitally or using traditional media I start with a pencil and complete with ink. My style is akin to cartooning but I always try to add texture with the pen.
I’m a huge fan of bold expression with my characters. I like to see a character’s actions exaggerated a little and have their mood reflected with fun facial expressions.
I am also a big fan of colour in my work and often use a cartoonist’s approach in that I ‘colour in’ my inked outlines.

It’s interesting to note that looking around the portfolios of numerous UK based agents there is a fair amount of work in a similar style.

I’ve never been much of an environment artist. I use a minimal amount of the background when illustrating.

For example, if a character is in the kitchen I’d generally only draw the immediate surroundings rather than the entire kitchen suite, table, sink, kettle and oven.

To this end my work tends to sit neatly on a clear white background. This is something that I rather like as I think it helps the characters to stand out.

Which market am I trying to reach out to?

The sort of authors that I want to work with are chapter book authors that target 7 – 11 year olds. Authors that create rich and ridiculous characters are the kind of authors that I’ve always enjoyed reading. I think my style suits their work in that I enjoy creating those characters myself.

David Walliams is the obvious high profile author in that genre right now but he’s really one of many.

Another illustrator whom I greatly admire is Chris Riddell. Again for his strong sense of character and expression. His ink work is an enormous inspiration to me and he’s obviously used that to great effect with some fun and adventurous chapter books.

It would be my dream to work with authors such as Paul Stewart who co-created a number of stories with Chris Riddell.

Just how clogged is that market right now? Are there enough new authors out there in that genre to warrant yet another character illustrator?

Which is the largest genre in children’s book publishing?

Are picture books always going to be the most popular? Just looking around the bookshops in town and online I can see a wealth of picture books on the shelves. Is this my way in to the hugely competitive children’s illustration market?

Do I need to offer something really unique like Oliver Jeffers did with his first book How to Catch a Star ?

I buy the Children’s Writers and Artists yearbook each year and pore over it to learn of new trends. I enjoy reading there and online the views of established illustrators and how they suggest approaching agencies. It’s all good and I’m always buoyed by what I read.

I guess in some respects I’d love to actually sit down with a panel of agents and ask them these specific questions. Or just the one question What style of art do you really need and will never go out of fashion?

Illustrating a character for a children’s story using Corel Painter

I love Corel Painter. The version that I use is Corel Painter X3 on iMac.

One of my on-going projects just now is a story about a young boy and his dog lost in a magical realm. It’s an adventure story for children aged 6 – 9 years. I’ve been writing it for a little while and have tried numerous art styles to bring it to life with pictures.

I’m currently angling toward using Painter for all of the artwork. Here’s a snapshot of my process.


Rough outline sketch using a Soft 6B Pencil on a textured canvas

I always start with a good sized canvas. This sketch was started on a canvas 5″x7″x300dpi.

To start with I’m using a Soft 6B Pencil to pick out the form and the composition. In the story the kid and his dog are stepping across a lava pool using tiny stepping stones. The dog, as always, is pretty fearless. But the kid is extremely cautious.
So I have two things that I need to show; trepidation and bubbling lava.

The pencil is a wonderful way of quickly laying down some form. I particularly love using it against a heavy canvas. You can see the texture that it presents, below. For me this is pretty vital. I really like to enjoy every aspect of the sketching and producing these marks on the canvas is extremely appealing.


Detail of 6B pencil on textured canvas

For the outline I use the Flat Color pen set to black. This is a common theme in my work. I just love the variation in its stroke. With little pressure – a barely visible hairline. With more pressure – a wonderfully satisfying thickness.

Something that I never do is pause for any length of time before starting the inking process. I like to dive right in. It’s far easier to adjust an image once the marks are down. I do find that if I stare at the canvas for too long I can become quite precious about the lines that I make.


Applying an ink outlined with the Flat Color pen

I build the composition around the pencil sketch and add a little texture with the ink. Notably around the hair and some of the clothing. I also like to add the darker areas with a thicker ink stroke. It’s important not to overdo it and this stage takes a fair bit of zooming out and looking at the image from a distance to gauge the balance of the strokes.


Detail of the Flat Color pen’s varied line strength

You can see just how much more interesting the lines are when you zoom in a little. That variation in the line strength adds some interest to the final image and helps to prevent it looking like a vectored / computer generated piece.

For the colour I work on the lowest layer with a Fine Tip Water brush from the Digital Watercolor collection.

I deliberately set the Diffusion level to 0. This provides a satisfying fringe to each stroke that I think works quite well. Any setting above 0 would produce a level of Diffusion that I think takes something away from the final piece.

As with the ink work I’m not overly precious about the colouring. I certainly don’t worry about being tight to the black ink lines. For me it’s more interesting an image where there are areas left blank.
That said I am conscious that the best effects would be to have the lighter areas on one side of the image.


Detail of ink and colour applied with the Fine Tip Water brush (Digital Watercolor)

As with the 6B pencil, the texture that the heavy canvas provides for the digital watercolour is very satisfying.

You can see from the detail above that the canvas clearly shows through. I have the Grain setting on the brush set to around 70-80%.

To help get a feel for how the image may appear in a book I mocked up a paperback presentation in Photoshop and placed the image in amongst some text.


Mock up of the final image in a paperback presentation

The layers were merged and set to Luminosity in the layer blending drop down.

And that’s pretty much it!
You can see a short video of me producing this work on YouTube via the link below.



Presenting my illustrations in a mock paperback format

I draw so much that I sometimes find it hard to maintain a particular style. So many different styles resonate with me and I often enjoy turning my hand to them to see how they work.

As an illustrator in search of an agent I’m always looking at different ways to present my work. So I crafted a paperback spread using Photoshop and applied some of my more recent drawings.


Paperback spread created with Photoshop (click to view / download)

The drawings I wanted to present are from a collection I’ve been working on that involve a young boy and his dog in a fantasy realm. Here’s an example. It’s a linear style that I enjoy using when creating some interesting textures, such as wood or a gravelly floor.

barter for the bird

Here’s another one. This drawing was created using Mischief. It’s a much looser style and perhaps a bit more fun.


I took a couple of images using each style and placed them onto the paper background.


Line art on a paperback background


Loose cartoon style on a paperback background

I honestly like both styles. Which to present?
Or both, even!

To create the desired effect I used Multiply from the layer blends in Photoshop. It renders neatly against the paper backdrop.

The type is Georgia.