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The Toolkit of a Picture Book Illustrator. Skills and knowledge that are useful for an illustrator.


Being an illustrator

is not just about pretty pictures, it is about telling a story with pictures, working in partnership with text and bringing something new to the table.  The way that I like to view it is by having my illustrator’s toolkit and I keep learning skills/reading information to add to my kit. It is one of the reasons that I am doing my Master's degree in illustration, I want to ensure I have a great toolkit and best possible foundations as an illustrator.  I do not feel that a degree is the only or best route to becoming an illustrator, there are many great paths we can take to get to the same destination. I do however feel that it is important, is whichever path we take we do not have tunnel vision. There is an understanding there are so many skills needed to be a well-rounded illustrator. It was something I was guilty of in my past, example was when I studying for my GCSEs (high school/Secondary school level) I got obsessed with Disney style that I would only study that, later it was anime style… BUT growth does not happen without board foundations, results do not happen by skipping steps. This blog post is just a little advice based on what I learnt the "long" and "hard" way AND giving away some of my secrets. I do hope to share more and maybe one day as I "make it" become an mentor and give back.   Know the Rules to break them.  We hear often enough that “Art is subjective”. This is true; however, it is also an incomplete mindset. Most of the artists that are successful that fall under the “subjective” umbrella, will also know the rules and have the core foundations of the art principles in place. Picasso is a prime example, aside from his contemporary abstract pieces, he is a stunning draftsmanship artist.  Another way to view it is that you are building a house with your illustrator’s toolkit, and you need to make sure you have steady fountains in place. I am not saying that you need to be able to draw perfectly. In fact, at times, I do not think you need to be able to draw more than a stick figure. The difference is understanding how to use the stick figure is the game changer… That it no longer matters that it is a stick figure!  Guess what I am saying is that it is “handy” to be able to draw well, but not the be-all and end-all of an illustrator’s skills… you can make a career cutting shapes and putting smiley faces on them if you know how to use the shapes to tell a story.  I am the first person to say I hate rules and boxes, I believe most barriers need to be removed... However it is easier, Much easier if know what you are doing first. The best bit is you can learn these thories and principles in everyday life as well as studies. Narrative Illustration and Visual Story Telling. 

Rough (2020) thumbnails of a scene

It is so much more than “show and tell”, in a good picture book you have the words that tell one thing and the illustrations another*. Illustrations can describe the characters, the emotions they are feeling, what they are physically doing and setting the pace of a story. For gaining these skills I studied the art of filmmaking, breaking down scenes and learning also from the Masters of Animation. Storyboarding is a must for a skillset when comes to narrative illustration.  Task. Take a little bit of paper, create a page of small retangles (*Thumbnails) and watch a scene from a movie/t-show. Every time there is a new action or viewpoint doodle the scene really quickly. It is a great exercise to do to see how narrative is broken down in story telling. *Little note depends on age range. Photography gives great fountains for composition and angles, knowing when to tilt the lens to influence and play the audiences’ emotions.  How does this all turn into narrative illustrations suitable for picture books? You can start by turning these into three frames panels, then five and before you know it you can have a story play out over 24+ pages. Learning from the likes of Scott McCloud (Understanding Comics) and how to pace/set up a comic are all skills that marry into the life of an illustrator. 

Task. I recommend taking pictures in black and white (not colour changed to black and white) I feel it is a good way to take pictures and really pay attention to what you are focusing on and the shapes. Later go home and sketch some of these. Colours that tell the Story. 

Playing with textures and colour

My advice for colour and learning how to use it is to understand colour psychology and start with black and white. Learn how to create contrast, and draw the viewers’ attention and visual interest in a subject. Then start to add colour… I try to stick to five main colours, a dark tone, mid-tone, light tone and a colour pop (followed by the final being an illustrator’s choice) and learn how to use these colours in balance with each other so that you have a dynamic eye-catching piece.  Task Create a colour palette of five colours, next five illustrations will be using these colours only. While the colour wheel is useful, it helps you find the colour pop. I personally feel it can resrict you as an illustrator and you are best at learning from the world around you, from interior design, surface patterns, and nature. Colour mixing at its actual source with pigments is everything and learning from master artists such as J.M.W. Turner. (Back when colours were limited) Learn how to mute a colour, why colours can be dull, and how to create black and that perfect green. (Tip – Colours can be dull because you mix a cold colour with a warm colour… Hint - Did you know you can have a cold red and a warm blue)  Books I recommend  Color Mixing Bible – Ian Sidaway Colour and Meaning Art, Science and Symbolism. – John Gage  2000 Colour Combinations – Garth Lewis  Colour and Light – James Gurney  Finally studying colour scripts, colour scripts are similar to storyboard thumbnails but aimed at the story via colour. UP by Pixar/Disney is an example of an excellent colour script. This can be found in “The Art of Pixar” all the Disney “Art of” books are excellent sources of study in terms of adding colour in illustrations, Including Masters Mary Blair and Eyvind Earle and another amazing source of influence is Studio Ghibli   Then there is the science of seeing colour. “What colour is the dress” or “The Shoes”. There is a science to colour and what we can and cannot see and how we can change colour by the tones and colours around it.  Hint – If you want a bright colour, it does not mean painfully bright neon yellow!  Your illustrations do not need to end up an acid bath of colours to get the colours that pop.  Over time you will also have your own colour scheme that becomes part of your creative voice/style. 3D Total has an interesting book in its Artist Master Series "Colour & Light" that really gets into the science behind colour.  Face and Body Expressions.  Drawing from life is one of the ways to get started, Later fusing into micro-expressions and understanding body language, as a deaf person this is very natural to me, everyone has this still but, guess I have always been hyper-focused on reading body language to understand what is happening around me. Expressions are worth mastering as give one of the strongest visual cues to how the character feels. (This can be done with simple circles for the eyes and the eyebrows) In another blog post, I will talk more in-depth about each area, such as line of action, gestures, breaking bodies/faces into shapes and the “human bean”. I recommend this website for pictures of expressions of bodies and faces and best bit it also does timed sessions so can be treated like a life drawing class.  Another source is “Disney” They mastered the body and expressions for animation and there is a lot to learn from them. There are quite a few techniques for mastering the human form. (Force, Loomis, Reilly, Silver Way, Hogarth)  Proko on youtube covers a lot of these on his YouTube channel, I learnt a lot from him a few years ago and sort of tried different techniques until I became comfortable in drawing my way.    The world around you  is one of the best ways to learn how to be an illustrator. The way people interact and move through life, the colours, movies, music, smells… Anything that inspires the senses you can use and apply to your work. Everything and Anything can be an influence.  Task. Visit a Museum with the goal of learning something new. Museum Checklist. (For the people who do not like galleries/museums)  My daughter is not a fan of museums, she does not see the value yet to her own work. She likes to draw animals or human-animal characters. I more than understand that this isn’t always everyone’s cup of tea.  So I challenge you to walk around stop at pieces of art and think about the following and how can be applied to your own toolkit.  Colours – how do they work together, have they used a colour pop and are the colours fooling you? What colours would you mix to get that tone?  Leading your eyes – Is there something drawing you into the focus of the image, is it leading lines, colours, shapes, or details? Use your figure and find the direction your eyes follow the artwork.  Find the Happy Accidents/Secrets. Look for “Mistakes” in the artwork, such as one year I found a painting where the shadows had different directions /light sources. I concluded likely painted throughout the day with changing shadows.    What is the mood/pick an emotion for the artwork (Even if it is a line)  Tell a story with the piece. - Make up your own story (never know may be a future picture book idea!) So, let’s talk about Drawing Skills The type of illustrator I am, it is important that I can draw. Having core narrative skills means that you can take very simple means (a shape, a toy, a collage of magazines) and direct the image with other skills. This being said, it is easier if can draw and the more drawing skills in your illustrator’s toolkit means you will be able to tackle a wider range of visual problems. I stress again that Drawing from Life, is the best way to learn. Life drawing classes, on-location drawing and observational drawings.   

Gesture study of people

Five, Ten, or twenty minutes a day drawing something will improve your skills, could be a flower on a walk, or a person on a bus. Doodling, never stop doodling.  Next is a personal favourite of my own observational studies. Here I can bring a lot of elements together, colour studies, and compositional studies as well as fine-tune my skillsets.  Do classes, and courses and read books. One is never going to be a complete course as your skills come from all places, I think if I learn just one thing from a book/class or course then that is worth it. All this mix match of things you pick up all form your creative voice (more on creative voice in another blog)I highly recommend SkillShare and Domeskitia (Also 24 and Draw are pretty decent) Don’t cheat your own growth/learning process. It is easy to want to trace, line art from AI art but the only person you will hinder is yourself. No one has to see your work behind the scenes or the “bad” pieces. I have shared in this blog some of the more looser lines/mistakes however for every good piece I have, there are 100s of bad takes that it took to get there. As good as my skills get, sometimes I just have a bad day, or I am creatively drained that it is not working. That may mean I need a break, walk, or shower. In some cases, I need to start again, do a course/class or try some observational sketches (related or not) Allow yourself to do bad art/Illustrations.  Multi-Media, is it REALLY a case jack of all trades and yet master of none?  My personal views are that you can be a jack of all trades to master your game. I often talk about how skills lend to each other and so far we have discussed photography and filmmaking and how they lend to narrative tools. I also find that when I learn to use physical paint, by making marks and mistakes I can improve my digital skills, I can try things digitally to fine-tune things in physical mediums.  I like to use Watercolour Gouache (Acrylic / Water-based) Ink Acrylic Ink Liquid Watercolour Crayons Biro Paper Pencils. and Digital (Even better-mixed media or college of mediums and digital by scanning / digitally placing together)   I can also use Pastels (Dry/Oils/Wax) Colour pencils, Charcoal, Acrylics. I love to give a lot of things a go, it is fun working with the different limitations and learning how to use, these skillsets that help with using brushes, blocking in illustrations and knowing how/when to layer.  My least favourite medium is Oils, mainly because I do not have the patience for it. So, you will find bits you love and hate, but if you learn then the investment of your time has been worthwhile.  Playing around with mediums and marks can also be used as overlays/textures in your work (digital brushes and textures) adding a very organic vibe to your work.

Then there is the business side and skillsets needed to read/create a brief/get the information needed from clients and work out own needs when it comes to client projects, this may feel like a never ending list of skills, but if your heart is in illustrations you will be always adding to your toolkit. SUPERSTAR TIP (okay maybe a little prep talk) is to Illustrate You will never get anywhere unless you actually illustrate. Forever worrying about the day, that you are waiting until you are perfect, will hinder your growth. Like me and writing, I stopped writing as I knew I needed to work on things and improve my skills, and now here I am writing a blog knowing I am still far from perfect. I could turn on AI and have my words written perfectly for me. But, will I learn? (PS AI has a place and makes things accessible, I am not frowning on the use of AI... Just how can hinder growth when you wish to improve your skills)


NEVER stop.

Illustration is a skill that needs to be used, fed and explored. Always be a student, keep drawing and keep learning.

I started getting serious about my skills and creative voice in 2017 (just over five years ago) I have come a long long way, if was possible for me, it is also possible for you. Start building your Illustrator toolkit today... Let me know if have any questions or topics you like me to write about.

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