A Lesson from KidLitVic 2019

I missed out on the Illustrator Showcase this year, and I was super disappointed about it. But missing out meant I felt more compelled to get a Portfolio Assessment, and that was the best decision I could have made.

I’ve spent most of the last year in a kind of hibernation. I was focussed on moving my art in directions I’m happy with, telling stories I want to tell, and developing techniques without too much outside influence. I think that was a good decision, and will be incredibly helpful moving forward. But I did also need a reminder to move forward, and the advice Susannah Chambers (of Allen & Unwin) gave me really helped me realise that.

In short, I had been so focussed on the stories that I personally want to tell, that I had forgotten the practical side of things. Form with no function, as it were. So, while my dream project may be to do full page illustrations for a weird collection of middle grade sci fi poetry… there aren’t that many projects like that floating around. And it’s not like it’s the only thing I’m interested in.

Specifically, Susannah pointed out that usually, as a junior/middle-grade illustrator, you don’t often get the luxury of full pages to work with. And if that’s all that’s in my portfolio, then it can seem like I’m either not interested in making the kind of illustrations they need, or that I can’t.

To turn all of this into another field: I love wearing short denim shorts. I would be happy wearing them every single day. Except that obviously I can’t or I would be cold and miserable. And there are tons of winter clothes I love wearing too, so it’s all good. But my portfolio shouldn’t just be filled with denim shorts or no one will ever hire me to wear bootcut jeans and cute sweaters. Yeah?

That is to say, I need to survey where I’m at right now, and find where it intersects with illustrations that people want, and then show them that I can do that (and want to!) by posting about it on the internet. Publishers are busy people, making books is risky, and they need to know I’m up for the project.

And also, separately, I need to continue my development work in a safe space free of outside influences, so I can look across at that and use it as a guide to stop me accidentally buying skinny jeans when I know I hate wearing them. But that’s for another post.

Goldie Roth


This piece is fan art of Lian Tanner’s Museum of Thieves. Goldie, the main character, is just about to venture forth into her new life as a runaway. She’s a determined kid, but she’s just spent all day crying, and is alone for the first time in her life.

goldie thumbs

I really wanted to capture the city as an imposing secondary character, and to include the Great Hall as an obvious focal point, looming over the scene. I settled on a close-up view of Goldie, so I could show her expression, and the (plot-relevant) ribbon around her wrist.

Stylistically, I tried to call on middle-grade illustrations I love. From Helquist to Riddell, I find there’s a common thread of stylised but rendered. That is, things don’t necessarily need to be fully realistic, but they should have a sense of solidity, of depth and detail. You want to feel that the world continues beyond the pictures. 

Goldie at Docks2

From there, I collaged the picture together – painting and drawing bits and pieces, scanning them in, and layering them up. I’ve been trying really hard to bring my ‘sketchbook style’ into complex finished pictures, and collaging is what’s working best at present. The scan below is what I used as a guideline for various elements. Other parts of the picture (like Goldie herself) were drawn almost entirely digitally. And, yes, that hair was super fun to draw.


For fun, and because I’ve been told I really need to show I can work in vignettes (more on that in a later post!), here’s a quick alternate version with just Goldie and the boat:


Have a nice Sunday, friends, and expect some more blogging sometime soon 🙂

Process: SCBWI Entry

I posted my entry a few days ago, and mentioned that my process had become kinda shaken up, in a good way, by Blaugust, so I wanted to document it in a little detail.

The idea of the contest was to illustrate a story in three images. The story must be on the theme ‘misunderstood monsters’ (inspired by Frankenstein), and it must show: dilemma, conflict and resolution.

I started during Blaugust, with a general brainstorm of monster characters and plot points. What type of monster can I have? What kind of story do I want? I latched onto the idea of a monster protecting its babies (or eggs) from human action and being misunderstood as simply hating humans. From there I got excited about princesses and dragons and different ways that humans and dragons could come up against one another (mining etc). I researched different historical views on dragons and got sidetracked learning about King Tamar and medieval Georgia and just focussed on learning about that to spark ideas. Here are my sketches at this stage:

New regent is faced with killing an old ally to protect her people.

Going off to battle.

Messier, but the idea is that she’s looking at a hatching dragon egg. The dragon has taken pity on the foolish young regent and decided to explain her actions.

(You can see that a lot of the compositional ideas stayed with me even as the setting changed dramatically.) At this point I considered adding an advisor character, got a little frustrated by the ‘why’ of the story and – inspired by Shaun Tan – decided to write some accompanying words to clarify it all in my head. These words actually stayed through the whole process and you can see an alternate version of my entry on tumblr.

betrayal comes as questions

how could she?

why would she?

they are rhetorical, but you do not notice

it’s only later you realise

there may have been answers

Then I threw the whole thing up in the air and tried to work backwards from the text, creating a different story in a different world. I no longer wanted to be working in a medieval setting and I kinda wanted a modern or steam/cyberpunk story. I write a lot of notes in my sketchbook when I’m brainstorming, which is kinda cool because I can follow back my thought process later.

“dragon was useful because it’s a crest and also a monster. the juxtaposition is built in.”

“I can’t quite figure a way to give it the gravitas of medieval royalty”

and then on the next page:

“it’s her own invention! it IS Frankenstein (…) she created life that could create life.”

And that was basically the final key to the ideas in the narrative. A few more pages of sketches and miscellaneous ideas (what kind of monster, again) and I sketched something that set a visual tone for me and created my main character:


I designed the robot from pterosaurs (the true dragons) and bats and birds. And then I finalised the compositions using ideas I’d already generated earlier.

At this point I also had to actually render the pieces. And this was the most scary part, but also maybe the best news of the whole project, because it was more fun than rendering has been for me for a long time, much quicker and less stressful on my body, and I liked how free it felt when finished. It’s mostly made of watercolour elements that have been scanned in, resized/rotated and layered over (and sometimes inverted). On top of that I added the main characters in digital paint with digital pencils over the top.

I still have a lot of experimentation to do, and I don’t think I’m going to render every picture this way from here on out. But it was an enjoyable way to build a piece and I liked the sort of photo-negative vibe it gave off, leading me to feel like the whole thing was taking place in an industrial cold-war type setting.

Taking my time to let ideas percolate was really useful and led me down paths I wouldn’t have otherwise gone. Using words to help me attach emotions to the pictures was also interesting, and I think it really helped me distill the concept in my head. And I’m excited by the prospect of using traditional materials more in my work. So, good stuff all round 🙂


Day 21 and I’m flagging

Blaugust is beginning to fall by the wayside. I’m not too upset about this because I feel like it served a pretty useful purpose, and the reason I’m struggling to blog is because I want to spend all my time experimenting and making art.


So today let’s just talk about that. On the weekend I went out with my watercolour set for the first time and did the two images above and below this paragraph. I sat with my brother in a warm food court and we sketched a rainy Melbourne. On the practical side of things I learned that it’s good to have more than one sketchbook, so you can swap between them as paint dries. I brought them both just so I had options and it turned out to be really useful. On the art theory side of things, I mostly learned that I should go out and do this a lot more.


At home I’ve been trying to stretch myself out to more complicated scenes in traditional media, with characters, settings, and lighting. I’m working purely from reference at the moment, and am loving Jamie Oliver’s recipe books as a source of interesting reference material. This picture was done from a lovely atmospheric photo in Jamie’s Italy and, while there are a lot of flaws, I think it’s a good starting point. I’m getting to a good value range and, above all, it’s just fun to paint a full scene in my sketchbook. It gives me a taste of what I could get to.


I’ve been using my black pencil a lot, and I also want to experiment with shadow lines in blues and purples and browns. And I’ve gotta remember to use pencils first and then crayons, because you can’t use pencil on top of crayon…

All in all though, it’s going well, and I think maybe (for all that I set new goals just the other day) it’s a good idea to run with experimentation + reflection for a while, and then dip back into theory once I’ve let myself find my own way.

So see you sometime soonish, maybe. But also maybe I should just stop attempting to predict what I’m going to write about because I could equally be back tomorrow with theory 😀

Day 19: The Learning Process

The thing about learning something new is that you just have to do it a lot. I’ve been experimenting with different types of paper, different types of media, trying to make myself use colour, and finding ways that feel right to me.

Ostensibly I’ve been researching the medieval Kingdom of Georgia, but it’s really been much more about putting paint down on a page and saying ‘oh no, that’s not what I meant at all’ to myself lots of times. Learning.

And I finished a mini sketchbook. (I made it myself from a bunch of different types of paper!)

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Reference images: Tamar, St George, Oshki, Vardzia, Katskhi Pillar, Shatili, Caucasian Agama (1,2,3), Georgian horsemanJvari Monastery, Georgian helmet, Gelati Monastery, Bolshoy Thach. Some of these links are sensible, others definitely don’t lead to the original image :/

Some overall thoughts

As always when learning something new, the quality varies hugely. I did put up every page even though my pride really didn’t want me to. Inconsistency is such a struggle, because you get so proud of how you learned to do something right! And then you do it again and it’s a disaster.

Patience and excitement go a long way, as does confidence that an error will not render the page worthless. So much of it is psychological, and panickily trying to ‘fix’ an error inevitably makes everything much worse. Staying calm is important, but so is caring about the end result. It takes effort to get things right, so I’ve got to stay engaged throughout the process.

I really like toned paper and white charcoal pencil, which is not that surprising. Way back when I first started to draw, my parents sent me art supplies for my birthday, including two toned paper sketchbooks and some black and white charcoal pencils (thank you!). I prefer the (less smudgy) black coloured pencil now, but it’s basically the same. And, actually, I’m still using the same white pencil, although not for much longer because it’s getting small. I’m going to start working more like this, even though it’s not bringing colour into things. I enjoy it so much that it seems silly that I’ve not been practising with it. And even without colour, the ability to use light and dark lines is pretty relevant to the directions I want to go in.

I like the watercolour on toned paper too. Probably because it helps me get a bit of unity in the piece, and keeps my colours from being too bright. I still have a long way to go on mixing colours to the value and hue that I want, and I’m considering just limiting myself to three or four colours (from my palette of 11) for a while, so I can get some of that unity and learn to mix things with fewer variables to worry about. I can always add extra colours over the top with pencil and crayon anyway.

Paper (and which side of it I’m working on) makes a big difference. I’m going to just let this go for now and keep using bits and bobs of all kinds of definitely-not-designed-for-watercolour-paper because I don’t need these sketches to look fancy, and I think there’s a hardiness you can learn from using whatever paper is around.

And now, onto another sketchbook!


Day 17: Pause, and Begin Again

This was always going to be a bit of a mess. You can only form the coherent storylines once the process is complete. But I can take stock of where I’m at, what I’ve learned, and start wandering in other vague directions.

Big Blaugust Lessons

The things that I really want to hold on to:

  • An illustration needs a purpose (an emotion, idea, or narrative) and communicating that purpose is more important than communicating that I have any particular technical skill.
  • Style and technique are there to serve the goals of the picture, and my overall artistic goals, rather than ends in and of themselves.
  • I need fodder to make interesting illustrations. Drawing observationally, as research, and from life, gives me material to pull into illustrations. I shouldn’t just draw within narrow research bounds, but more widely to give myself ideas.
  • And I need to draw to practise seeing. I need to draw to practise knowing what I care about in a scene, and to experiment – in a low-stakes situation – with how to represent that.
  • I can spend more time on individual illustrations than I have been. I can do many roughs, including colour roughs. It’s important to take my time in order to render in a way that feels right to me, rather than rushing it through in a way that I don’t really like.
  • I’d really like to get better at traditional art.
  • Experimenting with new materials, new techniques, new ideas is A+ good stuff, and that’s where a lot of my development comes from.
  • It’s important to get good enough at the things I don’t care about so that they fade into the background and don’t attract attention away from the things I do care about.
  • On that note: it’s okay to care about some parts of a picture more than other things. Necessary, even. I should stay curious about what things I personally care about, and be aware so I can amplify or tone them down to fit certain illustrations.
  • It’s worth chasing the things I care about, and continuing to try to build them into my practice, even if I’m not sure how.

robot ruin1.jpgWhat were the goals again?

  1. Figure out the kind of stories I want to tell
  2. Consider the pieces of art I really like, stylistically
  3. Analyse the way those styles and techniques support the stories and emotions they’re conveying
  4. Tie this all together by doing studies and experimenting with new techniques

Have I achieved them? I’ve definitely done a lot of 2 and 3, but there’s a lot more to cover. I’ve been doing some of 4, though you haven’t seen much evidence of it. And 1… well, the realisation that pictures need to be about things rather than about skills has just sort of done away with this as a question that needs to be answered. I was looking for an answer like ‘oh, yes, draw people-based stories from Ancient Civilisations, sometimes fantastical’ and then I could start ticking boxes within that category. But that all seems backwards now.

In the rest of the month I’d like to expand on points 2,3 and 4, by considering elements of illustration I haven’t yet investigated.

I want to look at different methods for creating contrast and leading the eye. I want to look at various ways that illustrators seem to consciously step away from realism, and their reasons for it. I want to focus on some specific things like illustrating people and illustrating in greyscale. I want to go back in history to other art movements/illustrators I like and see what they have in common with modern illustrators I like. I want to do some studies of individual illustrations to really get into the nitty-gritty of how it works. This is a slight change of topic, but I also want to reflect a little on organisation of materials, projects, folders etc and how to make it easier for myself to create. And I might start posting some of the sketchbook experiments I’ve been working on.

robot ruin2.jpg

That’s a lot of stuff and I’ll be busy volunteering at, and attending, the Melbourne Writers Festival in the final week of August, but we’ll see how it goes 🙂