Publication + Process

Congrats to Nicki on publication day for The Detective’s Guide to Ocean Travel!!! To celebrate, I’m gonna share some of the cover process.

I came into the cover process for The Grandest Bookshop quite late in the piece, after all the major design decisions. Not so with The Detective’s Guide! Here, with a full cover illustration, I was involved from the start, and it was a blast.

Those of you who are super quick off the mark and have already read the book will know that the characters are a really big focus. There’s the kids, of course, and there’s also the rich (and weird) first class passengers (aka suspects). Nicki writes them all with such joy that I really wanted the cover to feature a whole bunch of characters.

Then, of course, the setting is vital. The fact that they’re on a 1920s steam liner is a really cool thing that lots of readers will love, so that’s got to be obvious. Not only obvious, but dramatic and opulent too!

Those two key components (interesting characters + huge beautiful ship) provide something of a conundrum for an illustrator. How can we make the ship look big without the characters being tiny dots? How can we show lots of characters without relegating the ship to mere backdrop? These were the questions, and I have infinite gratitude to my AD Meg Whelan at Affirm for helping me answer them.

First I had to sketch a lot of steam liners, to see what compositions might be possible and workable. These are some of the early ideas, after the first research phase. I’m still stuck between wanting to focus on the ship and wanting to focus on the characters.

But both aspects were too important to let one slide, so we pushed a little further and tried using the dock to give us some more options.

The dock was a useful idea, but the lure of actually being at sea won out! Onto colour sketches…

And then, to the final:

The Detective’s Guide to Ocean Travel

In one month (Feb 23) The Detective’s Guide to Ocean Travel by Nicki Greenberg will be out in the world! I’m a sucker for a good whodunit, and these characters and setting are fantastic. For me, creating the cover was as much about trying to convey the reasons I loved it as anything else, and it was the absolute highlight of my career thus far.

The first middle-grade novel from award-winning author Nicki Greenberg, this book is a classic whodunnit mystery set aboard a grand ocean liner in the 1920s. With first-class glitz and glamour and a deliciously plotted intrigue featuring an uppity stage star, a missing diamond, a leopard and a loveable cast of child sleuths, The Detective’s Guide to Ocean Travel is an exciting romp on the high seas, perfect for fans of Murder Most Unladylike and The Good Thieves.

Thank you to Meg Whelan at Affirm Press for being an incredibly supportive art director throughout the creation of the cover. Process post to follow at some point 🙂

Melody Finch

Melody Finch is out today! This is a middle grade eco-fantasy journey across Australia, from Queensland down to the SA coast. I got to draw the Murray river! And a diamond firetail! And I designed the title font, which is new for me!

The cover was a collaboration with the authors, and I’m very proud of how it turned out. All the best Ian and Gary, I’m glad this book is out there in the world now 🙂

The Grandest Bookshop in the World!

Today is release day for The Grandest Bookshop in the World by Amelia Mellor, and, delightfully, the first time my illustrations appear on the cover of a published book. The entrancing cover design is by Affirm Press, and I contributed the characters and window illustrations. I can’t wait til I can go to a bookshop and see it for real. But, in the meantime, it has been a pretty exciting distraction from Covid lockown.

As for the actual story: it’s a glorious middle-grade fantasy adventure set in 1890s Melbourne, and the bookshop, known as Cole’s Book Arcade, was a real place. I loved it, and it feels like such a special story, grounded in Melbourne history.

Thank you so much to Meg Whelan, and the Affirm team, for bringing me into this project.

Here’s the book trailer:

And here’s a little close up of the MCs :

Cover Process

Look at this! My illustration on the cover!

The cover story is a fictionalised account of a real kid – John Hudson – who spent his early childhood as a chimneysweep, was sentenced to a prison ship for theft at age nine and was on the First Fleet to Australia at thirteen. The First Fleet convicts were given clothes, and fed relatively well, so in the story the kid’s feeling happy and hopeful.

I really wanted to capture that sense of peace, relief and new beginnings on the cover. I toyed for a bit with the idea of showing London in the background – a grey smog against a blue sky. And I even had some complicated ideas about the shrouds forming a metaphorical jail cell. But in the end the sails and the birds seemed to work best to convey freedom.

The trickiest part of this stage was making sure the ship was historically accurate while also forming a backdrop that was (a) clearly a ship, (b) emotionally powerful and (c) not too convoluted or distracting, especially behind the character. I had to really push the perspective to get it to work how I wanted, but I was happy in the end. It helped that I had a stack of reference photos from when I visited the Polly Woodside – thanks past me!

In the final rendering stage, I knew I wanted to stay away from black linework. I wanted richly coloured dark lines, and bright light lines. This is the little experimental style guide I made for myself before I started the final piece:

Lessons from others

I wrote a little about my Sketchbook Skool class the other day. Yesterday I had a chance to put into practise a lesson I picked up from Rebecca Green:

Art is not fragile. Nor do you only get one chance at it.

I watched in her demo as she changed her mind many times. Painted over previous sections, then coloured over them with pencil, then crayon. In her Q&A she said that changing her mind is her usual process and she can often just rework a section, without ruining the illustration. Additionally, when the materials do start to crumble, she just starts the final illustration again – now with more information about what she wants to do with it.

I started the final of this illustration yesterday, and it felt like my second pass with paint was an absolute disaster. Hence yesterday’s post. But I sucked it up and decided to push the piece as far as I could, in the hopes that I’d learn something from it. What I learned was that the second pass wasn’t a disaster at all. It just needed more. I layered and scrubbed and scribbled and scraped and smudged and painted over mistakes. It turned out really well!

Today I’m gonna have another go at the same piece. I probably won’t post it again, unless I learn something really cool. But there are some things I want to try. I want to change the drawing a tiny bit, and I want to test some different ways of handling the pencil textures.

The Psychological Side of Things

So much of the creation of art is just mind games with myself.

Right now I have, of course, reached a point where I’ve managed to develop several sketches pretty well into actual drawings. This is, definitely, a huge success.

Unfortunately I’ve become very attached to them. I really want them to work. I really want to capture that emotion and convert it into a picture. I really want them to become finished pieces of art that I can share and show you and be proud of. I know that these could be great illustrations.

But, of course, that’s not the point at the moment. The point is to push myself to learn to finish illustrations traditionally. I have just (admittedly half-heartedly) attempted that with one piece and… it’s not going well.

And so I get scared. I worry that it will never work. I procrastinate because I don’t want to fail and I do nothing, because that’s psychologically easier than trying again. I put in a half-hearted effort because why try hard?

Fortunately, I knew this was going to happen, and wrote down why I am doing all this at the beginning, so I could refer back when I didn’t want to anymore. And so, here is the essence of my why:

I really like a lot of traditional pictures I’ve made. I want to be able to do that consistently, and for imagined scenes. I want to explore my own artistic voice in other mediums. I want to see if I can transfer my sketch style into finished pieces. I want to sit down, without a computer, and create something beautiful and meaningful.

Right now, of course, this doesn’t feel like quite enough. But it’s a useful reminder that this is all part of an ongoing learning curve. I’m doing this for the sake of my many, many future sketches, that I will love as much as these ones.

Time to take a deep breath, and figure out a way to make this work.

Illustrating for The School Magazine

This year I’ve been very happily illustrating for The School Magazine (a NSW-based literary magazine for primary school students). I love it. I feel like there should be a lot more to say, but that’s really it. I’m learning, I’m challenging myself, I’m generally pleased with how my illustrations turn out. I’m enjoying the wide variety of texts (including poetry!) and artistic possibilities. It’s good stuff and I can’t wait til I can show you September’s illustrations. And October’s. And November’s. But for now, here are the June and August illustrations.

Nikola Tesla and his cat Macak:

A spider for a poem:

And finally, Benjamin Franklin and Frank Epperson: two historical kid-ventors, along with Brandon Cowan, a modern one!

Zoo Trips – Week 2

I only made it 4/5 days this week, but they were all very useful! I definitely understand lemur hands and feet more than this time last week.

I spent a fair bit of time chatting with the keepers, who taught me fun lemur facts (they hate water, including rain) and explained how to tell the lemurs apart. There are two with shorter tails, two with longer teeth, one who’s always a bit dishevelled, and another with a lopsided smirk. They’ve also got varied markings, particularly in their faces. I can only pick one or two at the moment, but maybe I’ll learn more in the next few weeks.

Some of the keepers asked whether I was learning to draw lemurs for a particular project. Beyond ‘learning to sketch more’ the answer was no, but now of course I’ve started to come up with one. So that’s fun too, because in trying to sketch lemurs from imagination I learn what it is that I still don’t understand about their shape. At this point the only reference I’m allowing myself is my own sketchbook, which is really showing me what I still need to learn. Mostly it’s to do with movement, and those really quick gestures, but I still have a few anatomical confusions too.