Recreating Quentin Blake’s style using Corel Painter

Quentin Blake‘s art has inspired me from a very young age. He has such a wonderfully relaxed yet effective style. His use of a dipping ink pen and watercolour have defined generations of children’s stories. Most famously, of course, the work of Roald Dahl.

These days the mantle has been picked up by Tony Ross whose beautiful illustrations bring David Walliams‘ children’s books to life in a similar style.

Tony Ross illustration of David Walliams' Billionaire Boy

Tony Ross illustration of David Walliams’ Billionaire Boy

I recently perused Blake’s website and found a neat series of videos where he describes his approach and shows us how he illustrates a very simple scene.

Quentin Blake in action at quentinblake.com

In the past I used traditional ink and watercolour to illustrate my own work but now I am almost entirely digital. So I took a look at creating something similar to Quentin Blake’s work using Corel Painter X3 on iMac. I also use a Wacom Cintiq 22HD Touch.

One of the images that I used to initially research his style was taken from Roald Dahl’s BFG. I think it accurately represents the artist’s style both with the line and the colour.

The BFG illustrated by Quentin Blake

The BFG illustrated by Quentin Blake

There’s so much to admire right here in this art. I love the paper texture and the way the colour has been applied so crudely. Almost juvenile in its application, which is, of course, a huge part of the appeal.
I love the way that the water has blended ever so slightly with the ink to slightly soften the line.
If you watch Quentin at work you can see that he often blots his image as he is applying the watercolour. This helps to matt the appearance and makes for a wonderfully satisfying finish.

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Detail of the BFG by Quentin Blake

I also love the way that the artist cares not for staying true to the lines. What matters is that the final image is a fun representation of the text rather than an exercise in precision or detail.

The colour is applied with what appears to be a simple sable brush. For the larger areas the brush is tilted sharply and the colour applied with the broadest possible strokes. The brush is loaded with pigment and a healthy amount of water. This allows the artist to apply a kind of scraping effect that thins the pigment as the strokes lengthen. It’s a nice effect and something I’m looking to emulate.

All of this is possible using Corel Painter.

I created a new document at 8″ x 8″ x 300dpi and set the canvas to be a simple paper texture.

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For the initial sketch I use a Soft 6B Pencil to pick out the form.
This is similar to Quentin Blake’s own approach in that he uses a light box to layer his paper with the lowest layer being the initial sketch.

With the rough sketch in place (a young lad staring in through a window) I look to inking.
For this I select the Velocity Sketcher from the Liquid Ink Pens collection.

Untitled-20-7This really is my favourite of all the pens available in Corel Painter. It’s hugely satisfying to draw with and offers incredible texture and variety.

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By default the marks made by the pen don’t work well with my casual drawing style. So I nudge the Feature attribute up from the default 0.2 to around 4. This allows me to create a fantastic line.

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Drawn using the Velocity Sketcher in Corel Painter

The moment the pen hits the screen a new Liquid Ink layer is created in Painter. This is a specific layer type and only the liquid ink pens will work on it.

Untitled-20-6I try to create some balance between the thicker lines and the fine ‘hair’ lines. Much like Blake’s own approach I work fairly quickly and deliberately. If anything I apply thicker strokes as I enjoy the way the pen flows.

I don’t want to follow too much of the initial sketch as that would lose some of the fluidity, so I drop the opacity of the sketch layer to around 30%. Just enough to see it but not enough to feel that I’d be dictated by it.

The ink lines go down beautifully and the image takes some shape.

I’m careful but not overly so. I want the final image to feel spontaneous and fun. The areas that I typically concentrate on centre on expression.
The image I’m drawing here is from an actual piece of writing I created a little while back. The boy sees something through his grandparent’s window that he doesn’t initially understand.

Once the ink layer has all the detail that I require I duplicate it. This is purely to preserve it. On the layer panel in the UI I click the menu icon. One of the options there is Duplicate Layer.

With the newly duplicated layer I select Drop from the Layers menu. My Liquid Ink layer is now the Canvas and has lost its specific Liquid Ink attributes. This is fine. I now want to ensure that I can paint on it as a Watercolor layer. From the layers menu I select Lift Canvas to Watercolor Layer.

The top most layer is now a Watercolor Layer with my ink work on it.
The only Watercolor brush that I’ll use is from the Watercolor collection and is called Dry on Dry Paper.

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Detail of watercolour applied to standard paper texture

The default settings for this brush are fantastic but I want to modify it slightly to incorporate the behaviour required to generate the desired image.

The first thing that I do is up the Weight attribute of the brush. This will ensure that more pigment is left on the canvas once the water has dried. A lower weight value would have the pigment flow with the water longer and thin out.

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The effect of the Pickup attribute can be seen around the boys hand and in the shadowing

I also want to modify the Pickup attribute and increase it to around 25 – 30%.
This will help the brush to react to whatever is already on the paper (layer). For example, when I apply colour that crosses the ink line it will bleed slightly and look more authentic. I don’t want to overdo this as it can look like a blurred and badly painted image.

As I’m applying the colour I’m tilting the Wacom stylus onto its side. This has the effect of using the broadest side of the bristles to set the colour down and produces a nice washed effect as I ease up on the pressure.

I ensure that the Diffusion is delayed in the settings. I like to apply the colour and perform some minor blending before it all dries up. It’s just a personal preference as I feel as though I have more control that way as opposed to having it render more authentically in real time.

Diffusion settings in the Real Watercolor settings (Cmd B)

Diffusion settings in the Real Watercolor settings (Cmd B)

When I lift the stylus from the screen the diffusion takes place and the water dries.

Something that I particularly enjoy is working around the fringes of the colour before I release the stylus from the screen and have it dry. This way I can perform some neat blending that spreads the colour thinner and fades it neatly to almost transparent. The equivalent in some respects of the brush losing its pigment and being more of a water brush.

It’s important here to be careful not to move the stylus unrealistically and produce those ‘digital’ streaks or clear lines.

Shadow applied with a light grey pigment

Shadow applied with a light grey pigment

I build up the colour and where a shadow is relevant I use a light grey. You can see this on the boy and beneath the window sill. The effect created by having the brush ‘pickup’ existing pigment is very appealing to me.

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The final piece – watercolour over a liquid ink pen on basic paper in Corel Painter X3

I’m not a purist with illustration. Many would suggest that there is no alternative to the actual materials used in ink and watercolour illustration but I have to disagree. As much as I love natural media I think software such as Corel Painter has provided digital artists with some incredible features that goes a long way to creating authentic work and, perhaps more importantly, improving productivity.

Enjoying David Walliams’ children’s books

As a long time fan of Roald Dahl it made sense that I should at some point read one of David Walliams’ children’s books. Though I didn’t know anything about them I’d read that they were written in a similar style to Dahl.

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So I picked up Billionaire Boy. Purely because it was the first one I saw on the shelf.

Flicking quickly through the contents of the book I noticed some curiously named chapters. Chapter 2 – ‘Bum Boy’ :)

Reading the story was fun. A really well written little story with short sentences and some fantastic, punchy dialogue. Perfect for the target age group.

I wasn’t necessarily reminded of Dahl. Walliams seemed to borrow from him but not simply copy him. What was apparent was that both writers have their own style but the publishers are obviously keen to market them in the same breath.

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Little surprise that Tony Ross should illustrate the story with a Quentin Blake style of loose ink line and watercolour. Beautifully illustrated and the perfect way to bring the writing to life.

I heartily recommend the story (and Walliams’ other stories) to anybody with an interest in writing for the modern children’s market.