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:

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:

Shout Out to the Girls, process + cover

The cover (not designed by me) has been released! I posted my portraits! Everything is happening! Well, the book itself isn’t coming out til Feb/March… but still, you can pre-order!

Early on in the year I was wandering through a book shop and I noticed some cool non-fiction titles in the kids section and I wondered if I’d ever get to contribute to something like those. And then in July I got an email inviting me to create some portraits for a book celebrating Australian women. (Everyone always says that publishing houses just contact you out of the blue, but I didn’t really believe it. It’s a hard thing to believe. You especially don’t believe they’re gonna contact you about your dream project.)

Anyway, one thing I didn’t consider in my dream-fantasies (because you never have anxiety when you’re imagining all the cool opportunities you might have) was the weight of responsibility of illustrating a non-fiction book for kids. It was only once I’d signed my contract that I started to panic. For a whole bunch of reasons. But mostly because Nancy Wake and Elizabeth Blackburn are not recognisably iconic women. Which means that there will be lots of kids (who grow into adults) for whom my illustrations of these women will be the way they imagine them. A fixed image on paper, created by me, will anchor their interpretation of entire other humans. So that’s terrifying.

I spent a lot of time sketching them, which helped. This was easier for Blackburn, who lives in a time of digital photos, than for Wake, but I dredged up enough photos of Wake to eventually feel comfortable with my drawings of her too. And I tried to get to know them, by reading interviews, so I could compose the images in ways that made sense for who they were and what they’d done. 

Eventually the fear went away and I’m pretty happy, in the end, that they feel *right*. I can always improve artistically, and that’s not a problem. I’m never going to see a picture of mine and think “ah yes, this is perfect, no errors at all! couldn’t be better!” But I can look at my own work and think that overall, at its essence, it feels like it’s trying to do the right things. And that’s how these feel.

Lemme know if you have any Qs about my process. I’m never really sure what of the BTS stuff is interesting, but I thought some of the face sketches would be cool so I popped some up there 🙂

For my next biggish project, over the next 1-3+ months, I’m going to document my process and post it as I go. The reason the timeframe is so vague is that I haven’t quite decided the scope. I’m kind of umm-ing and ahh-ing over doing maybe 4-5 full pages or, like, 10-20 plus some extra spot illos.

  • Book: The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf (Book 1 of The Tribe)
  • Author: Ambelin Kwaymullina
  • Genre: Australian MG/YA dystopian future

Spoilers below the cut!

To start, character and world design. 

The two main settings of the book are the Firstwood, Ashala’s home, and the detention centre, her location at the start of the book. The detention centre is decribed as all white, very clinical and bare, for the most part. The Firstwood is a sentient forest based on the Country of the Nyoongah people, in the bottom corner of WA, and is filled with life and nature. I’m pretty sure that the contrast between these two locations is going to be central to how successfully my illustrations work as a cohesive set. 

Before I get into sketching composition possibilities I’m going to spend some time drawing tuarts and peppermints (the trees mentioned most commonly in the book), as well as that landscape more generally, to get a feel for how to make it feel alive. I’ll probably also look through some pictures of harsh modernist architecture to get some inspiration for the detention centre.

Character-wise, I’m trying to figure out the hierarchy of importance, and this is sort of dependent on how many pictures I intend to draw. Ashala Wolf obviously needs to be created. On top of that we have Connor and Jaz (SPOILERS) who feature quite heavily throughout. We have the villains: Neville Rose, and Miriam Grey. We have Ashala’s best friends, Ember and Georgie, who are vital to the story but admittedly feature more strongly in the sequels. We have Briony and Dr Wentworth who are in crucial scenes but not in the story for particularly long. I kind of want to do character designs for ALL OF THEM but I know that will take a while and it’s probably more important to get really good designs for the ones I choose to feature. Anyway, we’ll see. On top of this there are some dinosaurs and a giant dog-robot and an ancestral spirit who’s a huge snake, so I’ll need to spend a bit of time figuring out how I want them to look, if I want them to feature in the illustrations. (They’re important, but I do sometimes think there are things better imagined than illustrated.) (Also I’m a little uncertain re: drawing the ancestral spirit, given that he is based around the Rainbow Serpent. I’m gonna have to go do some research before I make any decisions re: whether to, and how, to draw him. I’m liable to skip drawing him because if I was actually hired to do illustrations for this book, I’d definitely want to consult the author on this point.)

Next update will have my initial sketches and studies of characters and settings before I move on to the ‘which-scenes-to-illustrate’ conundrum.

I really want to improve at rendering (a variety of) materials without going too far into realism. Shiny/reflective surfaces are something I’ve barely touched in my art, so that’s where I’m starting. I’ve noticed a lot of children’s illustrators don’t really show shiny/reflective surfaces very much, and maybe I’ll land back there too. But, if that is the case, I want it to be a decision rather than a limitation.

Shoutout to @davidjozols for breaking it down into physics that made sense.

sketches vs finals

Some days art is frustrating. And there’s something to be said for the idea that “no one knows how it was meant to look in your head”. And there’s something to be said for putting your best foot forward and not pointing out the mistakes in your own work. And there’s something to be said for the fact that you’re a bad judge of your own work anyway. But I posted one version of this piece on twitter and another on tumblr, so I’m gonna ignore those ideas and talk about dissatisfaction with my own art.

I gather I’m not unusual in my frustrations about the whole sketch->final thing. The beauty of a sketch is it’s all loose and flowy, and your eye skips past any mistakes because…. well, it’s just a sketch, and our brains are good at finding meaning in mess and joining the dots of an outline.

Earlier this week I sketched this for Colour Collective:


And it was so pretty! It had so much potential!

I was busy this week, so I couldn’t give as much time to the picture as I wanted to. And I figured it would be okay because it’s rendering people that takes the most time and effort, so probably I could just spend a few hours on Friday evening on it.

So I did, and I ended up with this:


I felt pretty good about it honestly. I thought it was nice. Until I compared it back to the original sketch and saw it was missing like 90% of the emotion. I scheduled it for Colour Collective anyway, but went to bed discouraged.

This morning I decided to just have another go at the background, seeing how much I could keep, and if I could capture some of the magical feeling of the original sketch. I spent about an hour on it and came up with this:


I like it a lot more than the version I had last night, and I don’t plan to do any more with it, but I’m still frustrated. There’s a weird spot where you’ve got to keep the energy of the sketch while also making it look ‘finished’ and I’m really struggling to find it here. I found the halfway zone but now maybe it’s lacking in energy and also clarity? 

I feel this final piece looks too ~messy~ and a little off, which I assume is my lack of proficiency with the oil pastel-y brushes. I also hadn’t really wanted to use the pastel brushes. I’d wanted to stick with the pencil-based techniques I’ve been using in other work recently, because I feel like I should be able to convey the same emotions using those, I’m just not quite sure how.

Anyway, that’s my art brainspace right now. Trying things outside of your comfort zone is useful, but it can also be discouraging. Don’t get me wrong, there’s good in this picture and there’s a lot that I like about it and I think others will like it too, or I wouldn’t have posted it at all. But that doesn’t make the frustration go away.