A self-published children’s picture book about a frog

Wow, it’s two years since I self-published my first picture book for children about a frog named Bob. The book was indeed titled A Frog Named Bob.

A Frog Named Bob

A Frog Named Bob

I remember vividly sitting in my local cafe (and second home) and coming up with the idea of drawing a series of pictures about a frog who had no idea what sound he should make. His name was Bob and he’d be the most miserable frog that ever lived.


Sat sketching in the cafe

All that Bob wanted was to be able to make his own sound. The birds chirped, the owl twit-wooed, the bear growled, the mice squeaked, the cows mooed, so on and so forth. But Bob, well he had no clue what sound he should make. So he set forth to discover.


When I came up with the idea I knew that the words in the story would need to present me with an opportunity to create some fun and colourful cartoons.


I looked around at popular children’s picture books and found that rhyming was a key feature.
Julia Donaldson’s Gruffalo was obviously riding high in the charts for children’s picture books so I pored over it and took some notes.
Sure enough the rhyming was cool and great to read aloud.

I made the decision right there to create a rhyming picture book that would be colourful and fun. I’d also aim it at very young readers who enjoy a fun story before bed.

At the time I was using an iPad with the wonderful Procreate app installed. I also had a Wacom Intuos Stylus so creating cool concept sketches whilst enjoying a coffee in town was pretty straight forward.

untitled_artwork-38 untitled_artwork-37 untitled_artwork-36 untitled_artwork-35

With a bit of research into writing for children I found that 32 pages and around 600 – 700 words was the ideal for a picture book. So I set to work.

At home I have a Wacom Cintiq 22HD Touch running with an iMac. A dream combo and coupled with Corel’s Painter X3 I was able to transfer sketches produced in Procreate to the iMac to create something a little more polished.

Before long I had a manuscript and a bunch of rough sketches.
A week or so later (and several nights of little sleep) I had a complete portfolio of artwork for the book.

I self-published using Amazon’s Createspace service. Within a week or two of placing the order I had a box of brand new picture books that I could distribute around the local book stores.


Proudly holding my first two picture books

I’ve had several reviews about A Frog Named Bob that have all thus far been very positive. From reluctant young talkers finding their voice to hyperactive children settling down for a good giggle right before bed.

The success of A Frog Named Bob encouraged me to continue writing, drawing and self-publishing. Something that I’ve been doing ever since.

You can see my list of books on my dedicated page – my picture books for children.

Character design using Procreate

Writing and illustrating books for young children is really too much fun. With modern tools I am able to reflect my thoughts and ideas pretty much anywhere and have them at an advanced stage before returning to my desk at home.

As a digital artist I look to ease of use as a key factor when deciding which hardware/software combination to use. Savage Interactive’s Procreate is my first choice for sketching. It’s an iPad app and the perfect mobile digital artist’s companion.

I routinely take myself out of the “work space” and sit amongst people. Cafes, bars, restaurants, parks… that sort of thing. I take the iPad and sketch out my thoughts and ideas. More often than not some of the everyday characters that I encounter lend an interesting idiosyncrasy to a developing character. It might be a way of talking or a style of walking. It may be their clothes or the way they eat! Anything. Real life is pretty unbeatable inspiration when it comes to fleshing out a new character.

So when I’m thinking up new stories and characters being able to rough out my ideas “on the fly” is pretty valuable.
I wanted to share my thoughts on the process that I use in creating character designs on the fly.

A new story that is coming along very nicely involves a cuddly monster. I’ll make use of the concept sketches that I created for him to illustrate my process.

Create the Procreate document

Tap the + at the top right corner of the screen.
I always use the preset document size of 2048 x 2048. In the past it had a limited number of 7 layers but since the last update we’ve seen this rise to 20. More than enough.


By default you get a layer to work with as soon as the document is created.
When you want to create more layers you tap the +. Providing you’ve not reached your limit a new layer will appear above the “current” layer.
To reorder your layers tap and hold the layer you want to move. It will “lift” and you can then move it in to the new position. Very useful.

Selecting a pencil

I always kick things off with a simple unmodified HB pencil from the Brushes palette. I like this “brush” as it works very well at the resolution I’ve chosen for my document. It offers a really nice amount of texture and line variation which I find perfect for roughing out my ideas.

Colour selection

I also choose a simple blue colour shade to draw with initially. Although the entire piece will be nothing more than a “rough” I always start with a base layer that is simply a scribble of the character. Above that I will add some detail with a darker pencil.
I use a fairly dull tone. This is really a personal preference. You could use bright pink if that’s what floats your boat!

Brush size and opacity

The HB pencil is a fairly narrow brush when applied to such a large document resolution so setting it’s size to maximum is no problem. The top slider down the right margin in Procreate controls brush width.
Beneath that is the opacity layer. Again I choose maximum for this. I like the tone of a full pencil. A personal preference.

Sketching a basic character frame

When I first dream up a character I have a number of things in mind – scale, re-drawability, character, detail and the ability to have him in any pose.
Scale is pretty vital. If I’d created a 60ft monster then it would hog the entire page and every other human character would be drawn with minute detail. I created this monster to be 3 x a 10 year old child in height. With those proportions I still get to draw with some detail for every character on the page.
I’ve always loved the classic Disney style approach to constructing characters. Artists such as Preston Blair and Don Bluth have adopted this approach and have their style of working in print for us all to benefit from. Both are also of course former Disney employees.

Identifying direction
I start by drawing a very feint line for the direction of the character. In the case of this monster you may not be able to see it but there is a slim arced line bending from the floor in his feet up through his torso and out through the centre of his eye.
The angle of the action is “leaning” forward. It’s also slightly stooped.

Constructing the body shape
I use circles to define the basic shape of the character. A circle for the head and a proportionate circle for the torso / belly. A further couple of circles highlight the position of the hands. Finally I cement the feet with a couple of ellipse.

For more information on the construction of a cartoon body look to the work of the Disney artist Fred Moore. There are examples of Moore’s work everywhere but I particularly like this one: http://blackwingdiaries.blogspot.co.uk/search/label/Fred%20Moore

From there I essentially flesh out the character shape paying particular attention to the facial expression.
I use deliberately big eyes since this affords a huge amount of expression and emotion.
For now I’m not concerned with textures or fine details.

Onion skinning #1

With the lower frame sketched out I concentrate on the more detailed layer above. First I drop the opacity of the lower frame. With the layer selected I tap the magic wand and select Opacity. I can then drag my finger across the screen from right to left to reduce the layer’s opacity.

Onion skinning #2

With the base layer set to around 30% I can still see enough of it to act as a guide for the “detail” layer. A process often refered to as onion skinning in animation circles.

The top layer

I continue to use an HB pencil for the upper most layer and set its colour to a mid grey. Approximately 80,80,80 in RGB terms. Using this pencil I continue to draw with a good deal of fluidity. I try to avoid overly curvy images but for chubby characters it’s obviously not so easy.
The concept of curves vs straights isn’t new. Check out any of Don Bluth’s animation tutorials for more information on this. It’s a key principle of crafting effective and visually interesting characters and something that I have long tried to adhere to.

Adding some detail

Without affecting the width of the pencil brush I add some finer details. In this case slightly more whispy hair and some small spots on the non-furry parts of the monster. To achieve this I’m simply pressing a lot lighter on to the iPad’s screen with the stylus. (Wacom’s Intuos Creative Stylus)

Completed drawing

So ultimately I end up with a pencil drawing of my character. I remove the base layer and have something that I can either leave alone or work with to add further interest.

Duplicating a layer

A pretty cheap method for intensifying the lines of the drawing is to duplicate the layer. In the layer stack simply swipe right to left across the layer to reveal a few options. Tapping Duplicate will copy the layer and paste it above the current layer.

Adding weight

I quite like this approach. It doesn’t so much double the line thickness more it just adds weight. This won’t work with every brush but it certainly works well with the pencils.

Adding colour

Cartoons need colour. To apply the colour I’m once again adopting the onion skin approach. I create a new layer that sits beneath the original lined layer that I just completed. 

Colour selection

Procreate’s colour selection is simple yet powerful. Tapping the colour wheel icon brings up the spectrum. I try not to use full bright colours too much so most of my tones occupy the upper central area of the circle.
The palette functionality in Procreate is superb. Simply select your colour from the wheel and tap a vacant slot in the palette below to store it. You can store multiple palettes. Access them by swiping your finger from right to left across the colour circle. Then swipe the other way to bring the colour selection wheel back.
I always predefine my base colours first and then modify as I go for such things as shade and highlights. Perhaps it’s my background in palettised game sprite creation that does this to me but I’m very fond of the approach.

Shading and highlighting

Selecting relative colours in Procreate is simple. I usually block out a large area with a flat colour using something like the Gesinski Ink brush. (Available from the Pens tab on the Brush palette)
I use a fairly broad brush width to achieve this. I also don’t much care about going over the pencil lines. Far better for me to confidently paint in to the shape and worry about cleaning up afterwards.
If you hold your finger or stylus down for a second (you can configure this in the settings) you will automatically replace the current colour with the colour immediately beneath your finger / stylus in the painting. From there you can edit the colour using the colour selector. I slide in to the light for highlights and further in to the darkness for shade. I also avoid using “black” and “white”. Far better for the light and dark shades to be obviously of the same colour at this stage. Depending on the look that I’m after I may use a slightly more “impressionist” approach with warm and cool shades. But not right now.


When applying light and shade I’m generally fairly liberal with the shade but quite selective with the light.
It depends very much on the character, obviously! For the hairy monster I follow the lines of his fur with each stroke and offer some highlights where his body is at its chubbiest.

Cleaning up and the final image

Where the paint has quite obviously overlapped the pencil lines and looks messy I take the eraser brush and zoom in. Zooming in is a simple case of pinching your fingers in and out on the screen. Zooming down to the pixel is perfectly possible and a really powerful feature of Procreate.
I like to set the eraser brush width to be quite narrow and I generally use it in Studio Pen mode. (You can tap the eraser icon and select any brush to have as your eraser)
Working my way around the image I erase untidy edges and occasionally deliberately cut in quite a bit. That is, I wipe some of the colour from inside the lines. It gives quite an interesting effect.
So there you go.
I hope you find this approach pretty useful. All in all I can create this type of drawing in around half an hour. Perfect for sitting in a cafe drinking coffee and eating a sandwich whilst on a lunch break!
You can find me on the Procreate forum.

Suranne Jones portrait – a study of light, shade, texture and composition

Using a photo of actress Suranne Jones I wanted to explore a slightly different approach to composing an image. I constructed the darker areas first and then painted over with the light.

Blending was once again achieved with a damp brush and the gel pen for fine hair styling.

This is my favourite so far since it is much more of an artist’s solution than anything technical or methodical. I also refrained from shading with charcoal since the image was fairly contrasting in tone already.

Finally I worked on two layers. The lower layer is the crude composition of colour and tone whilst the layer above is a duplicate that I use to apply blending.
I lose detail around the eyes when blending so I set the eraser to large scale and around 30% opacity and carefully erased areas of the top layer. This partial revelation of the crude layer beneath provides a wonderful texture to the image.

Step 1. Crude (very crude) painting

All but the eyes get a very quick treatment of wet paint here. As I’ve mentioned before I’m a big believer in breathing life in to the portrait through the eyes. I focus on the detail of each eye and zoom in and out frequently to achieve the desired effect.

You can see that the initial marks that go down to represent the hair are really just there to identify differences in light and tone. There is no consideration for strict composition or texture. That comes next.

Step 2. Some fine tuning
Switching tools to the blend/blur tool in Procreate and selecting the gel pen I can now focus a little more on “pulling” the hair through each shade. Of course it’s vital to obey the direction of the hair as it falls around the model’s head. Also vital to consider are the roots and how they dictate the flow of the hair. Flicking between reference layer and active layer I can quickly deduce the hair lines and start to create some shape and texture.

I enjoy pulling the hair in to place. It’s quite a theraputic exercise and immediately satisfying. A good image relies on a good starting point. i.e. a good reference photograph. The image that I used of Suranne was beautifully lit and very natural. Her naturally dark hair does wonders with a single light source and throws up a multitude of shades. I’m not precious about being precise with each hair, more I want to simply represent her hair. 

Step 3. Blending the face
I much prefer the term blend to blur. I don’t much like blurring tools since they imply a loss of detail and texture. I’d rather think of the process as merging or blending two neighbouring areas of the image.
As with the previous couple of portraits I obey the directions around the model’s face.
Suranne has a wonderful shape to her face and a real youthfulness. It would be stupid to leave such a large amount of crude and dark lines around her cheeks and mouth.

But alas I fear I went a step too far.
The eyes have lost something. They no longer have that wonderful, crude texture that appeared to give them life. It all looks a bit too plasticine now and I don’t want that. I want the textures back.

Step 4. Backpedal a bit
Procreate allows me to work in layers. So I return to the previous layer that you saw in step 2.
That layer still contains those textured (crude) marks that I first laid down to construct the shape of the face.
I don’t want to bring it all back just a little around the eyes and hair line.

As previously described I select the eraser tool and set it to the water brush at about 30% opacity.
Carefully brushing around the eyes on the upper most layer I start to see some texture reappear from the layer beneath. The mixture of the two layers works much better for me. It looks far more like an artist’s representation rather than a computer.
I continue the process sparingly and include the areas under the hair and around the ear.

Step 5. The final image
I set the final image to a black background. There’s probably an argument for using some lighting in there but for now I quite like the stark “blackness” of it.
It’s pleasing to me to accept that you can go too far with this and that there needn’t be any right or wrong in terms of the final piece.
It’s pretty much about achieving the effect that I wanted to achieve. That is, matching the vision that I’d had for the image all along.
Procreate on iPad lets me accomplish all of this. 

Cersei Lannister – a study

I’m pretty much addicted to Procreate on the iPad. It’s just such a pleasure to use. Especially with Wacom’s Intuos Creative Stylus.

I am a complete nerd for Game of Thrones. I’m fairly sure I’ve never seen a TV show that has grabbed me so much in all of my 44 years. It’s a beautiful combination of, well, beauty and brutality. The energy, passion, violence and intensity of pretty much every scene is right up my street.
I love so many of the characters. The people’s favourite Tyrion Lannister is right up there. As is the delicious (can’t think of a better word) Daenerys Targaryen. But it’s Cersei Lannister that steals the show for me. Always elegant, always devious, always gorgeous and always more than half way to being pissed she just shines. Actress Lena Heady is every bit as beautiful as her scheming character but she is at the same time quite different in appearance.
I wanted to paint Cersei and see how far I could push the image in terms of applying brush strokes and working in the detail.

Take 1. The original “completed” image
I was very pleased with this. All of my work so far has sat on a white background. I like that style of presentation and saw no reason to change it.

But there was something missing. A sense of depth that clearly belonged to the darker regions of the image. The neck, hair and eyes stood out as being prime for improvement.

Take 2. Added shade
I applied the shadowing to the areas I mentioned and really liked the effect.

The lighter regions now stood out much more. This was an image that really demanded a darker canvas.

Take 3. The darker canvas
Rather than simply applying a black background to the image in Procreate I exported it to Photoshop.

Photoshop is obviously a massively powerful tool but all I wanted from it was to apply some lighting.
I picked an omni light and applied it to a grey-ish background. Roughly 30,30,30 (RGB) since you cannot apply lighting directly to a pure black layer.
By providing a light source it instantly gave Cersei a relevance in terms of her position in the image.

Take 4. Blending
I loved the rough nature of the blending in the previous “take”. But on closer inspection it was really rather out of place. So I adjusted the blending tool to be a damp brush, reduced its size to around 50% and altered its opacity to around 80%. I didn’t modify the brush shape or dynamics in any way. It’s great just the way it is. At least it is for the textured effect I was aiming for.

(Incidentally I always create A4 sized images in Procreate)

I did my best to honour the “direction” and shape of the character’s features. There is really only one direction that you can take around the chin and nose, for example.

As with the previous image I switched to a fine gel pen to blend and blur the hair. It provides a really fine detail and by pulling the hair out over the darkness you can also hint at those whisps of hair that add a little more interest.

As with all portraits it is the eyes that capture the character. Expressions, mood etc they are all centered around the eyes. I was a little worried that I’d lost something by over-blending around the eyes. Taken in context the eyes and features in general started to look a little “botoxed”.

I really hate this and it is something that I don’t like to see in digital art. Too much blur can render an image “plasticy” and fake.

I was desperate to preserve the eyes. Cersei’s expression is a classic show of beautiful arrogance. She sits right at the top of the food chain and boy does she know it. Nothing impresses her or seems to move her and this million yard stare captures that brilliantly. I couldn’t mess with it.

Taken out of context (i.e. in the detail above) the eyes work well for me. They have depth and character.
I think it will perhaps just take a little time to adjust to the style of the blur tool using the damp brush as opposed to the more precise etched feel of the gel or ink bleed pens.

All in all I’m very happy with the results.

I think I’ve honoured the actresses beauty and the character’s mood. It is of course a direct study from a still from the show so I can’t take credit for the composition. But I’m happy that everything translated well from source to final piece.

Painting a portrait in ProCreate on iPad

Good art for me is all about expression. In fact when pressed I’d happily stress the point that art and expression are synonymous with one another.
As a developing artist – that is, somebody with a lifelong passion for drawing who wants to be a better “all round” artist – I’m keen to explore different techniques in constructing images.
I am and pretty much always will be from this point forward a digital artist.

Lately I’ve taken to plonking myself in cafes and just drawing people using the iPad. To that end any work that is created as a result of a lazy hour or so in a coffee shop is generally the result of a few observational sketches and some interpretation using a variety of media in the wonderful ProCreate app.

I wanted to shift my focus a little and try to develop a technique that perhaps contradicts my stance on artistic expression. At least in the construction of the image.

So here is my short step by step approach to constructing a portrait using iPad, Procreate and Wacom’s Intuos Creative Stylus.

Step 1. Photography

It all starts with a good photograph. I use the iPad’s native camera to take the picture.
I like contrasts. Actually I LOVE contrasts. Strong light versus shade. The famous Chiaroscuro technique popularised by inimitable artists such as Caravaggio and later adopted by the French artists who rather reluctantly came to be known as the Impressionists.

I was sat in Ginger and Pickles tea shop in Nantwich yesterday lunchtime.
I asked the lady that served me to pose for a photo so that I could paint her and to my delight she agreed. It’s easy to see why I should ask her. She has a lovely smile and striking eyes. The light behind her coupled with the low lights of the cafe produced a wonderful range of deep orange, tan and skin tones.
I didn’t alter it at all. The contrasts were perfect.

Step 2. “painting by numbers”

The real beauty of Procreate is that it allows you to use direct reference. By direct reference I mean that you can quite easily layer your work such that your source image sits below your “active” layer.

In the screen above you can see that the source photo is sat at the bottom of the layer stack. It’s hidden in that shot but as I begin to construct the image it’s in full view and using 100% opacity. i.e. no fade. I want all of those rich colours.
With the source image in place I simply tap the “+” top right and create a new layer to sit above it. This is the layer I will use to paint. Effectively painting over the photograph but not altering it in any way.
Another fantastic feature of Procreate is that it lets you select colours immediately. To do this you simply hold the nib of the stylus to the iPad’s screen for a split second. The new active colour then becomes the colour directly beneath the nib. This is reflected in the small colour circle that appears under your nib’s position. It’s pixel perfect so you can move the nib around ever so slightly to select the best colour. 
Using the repeat process of selecting the best colour and constructing shapes I build a rough jigsaw of an image over the source photograph. It’s very rough and very much an exercise in building a strong colour palette that contains the best light / shade contrasts. I generally do the eyes last in a portrait since they require the majority of attention and detail. Lousy eyes kill a portrait.
My brush of choice incidentally is the Water Brush that is found in the Brushes palette. I don’t modify it much since by default it has a really nice feel and bleed.

As the image begins to take shape the effect is not too disimilar to a filter applied to an image in Photoshop. I’m acutely aware of this and the rest of the process is very much about my placing my own mark on the work. 
Before long and with a reasonable amount of experimentation I have a jigsaw puzzle of colours and shapes. This really does remind me of painting by numbers. It’s how I blend these colours that will define my style.
Step 3. Stitching the pieces together
To fill in the gaps of the jigsaw puzzle I create a new layer and sit it beneath the “jigsaw”. I no longer need the reference photo so that is hidden. From here on in I’m flying alone and using my own judgement to complete the piece.
Using a similar brush I pick “average” colours from the layer about and paint between the gaps.
This can be quite rough since the detail is in the layer above. All that I aim to do here is create a complete image in terms of the colours all being correct.
Step 4. Blending
This is where for me the real art comes in to play. As interesting as the patchwork of shapes is to look at it’s not at all what I would want as a final piece.
To blend the colours and shapes together I select the Blend tool from the Procreate tools palette and opt for the Damp Brush. Again it’s unmodified. I really like the texture in the Damp brush. As I drag the colours in to one another the textured smear effect is beautiful. I’m trying to avoid “blurring” of colours. Texture for me is always vital.

Pinching the screen to zoom in I get to see the effects of the damp brush in some detail. By reducing the brush size and focusing on the light and shade around the eyes I get to blend the tones with good effect. It’s almost as though I’m applying make up to the model. Note that I leave the detail in the eye well alone. The eyes are vital to this image and I don’t want them blurred at all.
The blending process is generally quite a lengthy process and involves a good deal of brush resizing and fine tuning to cater for the “direction” of the strokes.

As I continue to blend the colours I pay close attention to the direction of the model’s features. Looking closely at the shapes around the nose and cheeks for example it’s clear that I can’t go crazy cross-hatching and blending for the sake of it. Much like a potter at his wheel I’m trying to smooth out the colours by obeying their natural direction. You can perhaps see this reflected in the model’s nose as I pull the blending tool down the course of the nose’s central line.

Step 5. Hair
Hair gives people nightmares. I can see why but I do also think that you can waste too much energy stressing about the intricacies of rendering hair. I prefer to look at where I can make hair look “obviously” like hair. For this I look to the edges. 

To blend the hair colours I use an ink pen from the pen palette in blend mode. This provides a very fine point such that when I drag the pen across the hair it produces some wonderfully thin strokes. At the edges I allow the ink to streak over the background producing small whisps of hair. These aren’t present in the original photograph but don’t for me look out of place.

Step 6. The result
The final image is the result of a number of techniques that are initially applied quite crudely and then with some careful consideration and application.

I enjoy this process. Hopefully I don’t come across as a fraud in that I’m using direct reference. My intention here is to develop a strong ability with different media and techniques such that I can paint without direct reference. The point is that I construct a base image to manipulate via a variety of techniques.
It’s certainly true that I’m benefiting hugely from spending a lot of time “zoomed in” to each subject and understanding skin, texture, tone and expression.
Thanks for reading. Please feel free to share your own thoughts in the comments.