In the depths of Melbourne’s lockdown winter, I was glad to have a distraction in the form of teaching. The School Magazine hosted a Literary Festival in late August, and I was invited to contribute some of my thoughts on illustration.
As always, teaching helps clarify ideas that have been floating in the back of my mind, forcing me to nail them down. And the TSM folk set me some interesting prompts to answer, which led me to question some of the things I do without thinking.
Growing up, I wasn’t one of the kids who was super into drawing, and it’s always really important to me to make sure that kids know it’s not a thing to just be ‘good at drawing’ (or ‘good at maths’ or anything else). You get better at things you spend time working on, and anyone can learn to draw (and do maths) whenever they want. It’s also really important to me that illustration is not simply ‘being good at drawing’. There are so many skills that go into it, and for these videos I found myself focussing on how to be the best illustrator you can be right now, even if you’re not happy with your drawing skills.
Another thing that filtered into my thought process while making the videos is more of a personal reflection. When I was young, and people asked me the question ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?‘, I never knew what to answer, because mostly I just wanted to read (and climb trees…). But I didn’t really want to edit books, or review them – making judgements seemed horribly difficult – I just wanted to delve into them. I could never have guessed, at nine years old, that drawing would be my pathway to that, but I’m glad I found a way there.
Transcript of both videos below the cut.
Hi everyone, my name is Sylvia, and I am an illustrator at The School Magazine. Today I am going to share with you some of the things that I think about while I’m creating an illustration.
So let’s start with my favourite part of illustration, which is not actually drawing at all, but reading. I love reading. And my favourite days are when I get emails from Jose, our art director, and those emails have in them stories, plays, articles, and poems, that I get to illustrate.
So, I don’t even draw anything at all for ages. I just sit down, and I read through the text. I take notes. I note down the themes, the ideas, the moods of the story. I’ve gotta really understand what the story’s about, so that the author and I can work together, even though we never actually meet.
Next, I’ve got to figure out what to draw. I can’t draw everything that happens, so I’ve gotta figure out which parts are key. And that’s where the themes and the ideas really help me.
So for a fast paced action adventure, I might draw a super dramatic moment, where the character is mid-swing with a sword or something. For a more reflective story, which is all about a character learning to overcome their fears, I might instead draw the moment just before the character decides to act – when they’re still unsure whether they’re even going to. These text themes also help me figure out how to draw the pictures. Do I want an expansive landscape? Or do I want a close-up of the character’s face? Well, if the world is more important, and the character interacting with the world is important, that tends more towards a landscape. If instead, the character’s emotions are more important, then I’m going to draw them a little more close up, so we can really see those emotions.
I’ll show you an example now of my thinking sketches, for the story Talking to Tomorrow, by John O’Brien. [Images at 2:05 – 2:45] It’s quite a spooky, eerie story and the character Ethan is really worried, and he feels alone. Because he feels alone, I wanted him to be quite small in the scene, looking helpless. I tried looking at him through a window, or sitting casting a shadow. Those ideas were okay, but they didn’t feel like quite enough. The text also has him feeling alone in the company of his friends, so I tried that too, and I liked it better. Here his friends are engaged with the world, but Ethan himself is still and withdrawn. I needed him to look like the main character though, so I moved everything around to centre him in the page and make him the most obvious person.
Alright, once all that thinking is done, I settle down into the drawing. I do a rough version for my editors, and then when they tell me to go ahead, I do the final illustration. And I know I skipped a lot here, don’t worry, we’ll talk more about that stage in the next video.
For this video, what I really wanna emphasise is that illustration is not just about drawing, it’s also about thinking. I know that learning to draw takes time. But don’t let that hold you back from illustration. You can communicate a lot with little sketches, even if you’re not confident in your drawing skills.
That brings me to my Three Top Tips for illustration.
The first one, sort of what I just said. A lot of illustration is about visual communication. Focus on what it is that you want to say, and don’t worry about it if your drawing’s not perfect.
Two, the world is big and fascinating. Let that make your drawings more interesting. If your story needs a rock, have fun figuring out what kind of rock might work best [example at 3:29].
Three, illustration is a superpower. You get to create the world’s inside people’s minds. And like all superpowers, it’s also a big responsibility. So use it with love and care, and make a better world.
Welcome back to part 2, where I talk about the missing step from before: turning my messy sketch idea into an illustration ready to print.
One way I think about this stage is as if I have a big control panel filled with lots of dials I can turn and switches I can flick on and off [image at 0:14]. So here I have a dial for realism vs simplification. To turn the realism dial down I look for big shapes. Is a wren’s beak really just a triangle? Nope, but that is the simple shape to use here. If we turn up the realism, it’s still the same wren, really, but every bit of it is a little closer to reality [image 0:37]. The beak has a curve, the legs have their little knees up here. See how these two pictures have a slightly different tone. I use the information I talked about in the last video – about theme and mood and ideas – to make decisions here too. Generally for sillier stories I’ll tilt more towards simplification and for serious ones I’ll tilt more towards realism.
When I’m illustrating something that’s sci-fi, fantasy or historical, I’ll generally turn up the backgrounds, turn up the details, so it’s easier for you, as the audience, to feel immersed in that world. Whereas for a comedy play set in the real world, like Hair and There by David Hill, which is all about a dad being ridiculous, the focus of the story is on the character’s emotions and their imaginations, so I turned the background and details right down [1:25]. What I turned on was exaggeration. In reality, people don’t kick their legs up like that when they’re searching in a bin, but the exaggeration makes it more obvious that it’s a comedy [1:32].
And, while we’re on this play, I also want to talk about the colour dial. I like to use the colour dial strategically. By keeping all the colours very similar, anything different stands out and grabs your attention. I kept all the colours quite muted – pastel pinks, greyish browns – and then BAM, there’s the dad’s beard, all bright red and orange, the focus of the story. It looks jarring and out of place, which is great, because it’s an imaginary beard.
Of course it’s not the only way to use the colour dial. You can set it permanently to black and white if you like – some people do. Or you can use it quite realistically – only changing it for the weather, the location, the time of day. Everyone has a different control panel that works for them. For example, my realism dial does not go all the way to realism, because that’s not what I’m interested in drawing. You add new switches and dials to your control panel as you go. You can experiment with different styles and mediums, like collage, paint, anything you like, as a way of figuring out what kinds of things you might want to add in the future. At the moment I’m practising drawing on paper, with black pencils and black and white paint, instead of using my computer. I’d like to add that to my control panel as something I feel confident with soon. I really like this picture of my cat, standing over her fallen foe: the vacuum cleaner [2:51] I’m still working on drawing people in this way.
To finish up, I want to tell you about my favourite illustration that I’ve done for The School Magazine. It’s for the poem Fox! By Janeen Brian, which I loved [3:02]. I turned up the realism because I wanted it to feel serious. But then, in the reflection, I used completely unrealistic bright colours, to draw your attention there, and make the magical world of the fox – who can see scent trails in a way that we can’t – seem really enticing and exciting. A bonus tip! To turn up the magical dial: add some sparkles! Get a dark background, then flick and spatter tiny drops of pale paint over it, along with a few wavy lines if you like. In an illustration for print, this looks way more magic and sparkly than glitter itself. That’s what I used to create the trail behind the fox here.
That’s all from me today! Thank you for joining me, and have fun creating your own illustrations!