The Right Tools For The Job

Advice and Tips, Illustrator

“A poor workman blames his tools”, that’s how the old adage goes, or at least, it’s something like that anyway. To an extent, it’s right, if you’re good at what you can do you can create a masterpiece with shoddy equipment, but it won’t be super easy and it probably won’t be all that fun either. I for one am a big, big fan of having the right tools for the job. If illustrating is your job, or you want it to be, then here’s some ideas for pointing you in the right direction of what equipment you’re going to need – in my humble opinion.

Top of the list, you’re going to need a work surface. Not exciting I know, but there’s no getting around it, you’re going to need somewhere to do your artwork. I’ve got a desk and a drawing board and a lap top tray that fits on your knee. I use all of them from time to time depending on the situation. The desk I use the most, it’s right there after all and it doesn’t take any kind of preparation, whereas with the drawing board I have to prop up its little kick stand and the lap top tray I only use when I want to sketch and watch TV at the same time.

Where ever you have your surface, you’re going to need light. Ideally the best kind of light for creating artwork is natural daylight, not dazzling bolts of sun mind you, they’ll reflect off the paper and blind you. If you live in the North West of England like me, and natural light is in short supply, then you might want to look into getting a desk lamp with a daylight bulb. You can even get energy efficient daylight bulbs which helps the environment.

Next, we can start on the really fun stuff, paper and pens. I adore both, I suppose you have to really to be in this line of work. There’s few things I like more than some gorgeous pens and a pad of fresh white paper, so much potential!

The kind of paper you get is important of course. It depends entirely on what kind of medium you’re going to be using on it, are you a painter? Do you use watercolour, acrylic or something else? Each kind of paint will have a preferred paper to accompany it, different grains and gradients, hot pressed, cold pressed, thick and thin. Cold pressed paper is quite textured and very absorbent so it’ll swallow the water from your brush whilst you’re painting. Hot pressed paper is the opposite really, it’s smooth and much less absorbent so the colours are easier to blend and adjust before they sink in, and because of this colours tend to be more vivid on hot press. Bear that in mind when you’re deciding which paper to use for which paint job, if paint is your medium of choice.

If you’re more of a pen and ink kind of a person, like me, then you’re going to need to get some decent paper that is smooth and doesn’t bleed. Poor quality paper may have speckles in it, or it will likely cause your ink lines to bleed slightly. You might not be able to notice straight away, but when it comes to scanning your pieces into the computer you’ll see the frayed lines and despair! At the moment I’m using the comic art pad from Letraset it’s been treated to reduce bleed and it’s thin enough to be able to trace through.

Although if you’re looking for assistance when it comes to tracing things, you can’t go far wrong with getting a light box. I picked up a really great A4 sized one from a car boot sale for just a couple of quid, what a bargain! It’s small enough to store away when I’m not using it, then when I need it I can get it out, plug it in and I’m away. A light box, for those who don’t yet know, is a box that has a large Perspex surface area on top and a light bulb within. When it’s on the light gleams through the Perspex, you place the original image onto the surface, place a blank sheet of paper on top of that and you can see the original through it with crystal clarity. Then you just need to trace it. Although if you have to choose between buying a light box and buying a scanner, get the scanner. You’ll need it much, much more than a light box.

Then we come to the really fun bit, the weapons of mass creation! A good selection of black fine liners is a great start; you’ll need them ranging from ultra-fine, (0.05mm) to quite thick (8mm or more). You’re also going to need some pencils, I for one really like mechanical pencils – and I know many other illustrators who use them too. They’ve got a permanently sharp point for doing intricate detail, and you can get them to shade too if you practice. I’ve also got some blue lead for my mechanical pencil, a lot of the time I do my sketches using the blue lead because then you don’t really need to do any rubbing out. You just sketch away until you’re happy with the drawing, ignoring the mistakes, then you use your black fine liners to ink in the bits that you’re happy with. Scan the image on a black and white only setting and it’ll ignore all of that blue sketchy stuff. Brill!

When it comes to colours, it really is up to you what kind of medium you go for. I wouldn’t recommend oil paint though, it takes longer to dry and if you’re an illustrator, time is money. Acrylic is great, really bold and vibrant. Dries very quickly though and isn’t as easy to blend on the paper as, say, water colours. Watercolours are lovely to use, very subtle colours, great for children’s illustrations and landscapes. I’m a big fan of Letraset pens , I’ve amassed a fair collection so far but I’ve still a way to go before I complete the full range of about 148 of them. I’m using their Pro-Markers. They make different kinds of pens, so I can’t tell you about all of them, but from my experience Pro-Markers are very good and fun to use. They’re felt tip pens basically, but a rich pigment with an alcohol base which gives you the chance to colour an entire area in without the pen streaking. The colours meld together seamlessly and the overall image looks like a cartoon, it’s perfection.

So if you’ve got all that kind of thing, you’re pretty sorted in terms of hand drawn illustrations. When it comes to digital software for illustrations, I know that a lot of people swear by Adobe Photoshop and the images I’ve seen being turned out by it look pretty hot. However it’s expensive and takes time to figure out how to use. There are other image manipulation programmes out there, such as Paintshop Pro, works well and is much cheaper.

Well, hopefully all of this has given you some ideas for the kind of things you might need if you’re exploring the world of illustration. There are of course tons and tons more things you could get if you wanted to, or scale it right down to just a pen and a pad of paper…and a scanner.


Illustrating For Children’s Books – A Quick How To Guide

Advice and Tips
Captain Clean

A cartoon teeth cleaning superhero.

Many people think that children don’t know much, or that a lot escapes their notice.  You’d be surprised though; children have eery powers sometimes when it comes to noticing things. This is very true when it comes to illustrations in children’s books. Artwork that captures their attention will really excite them and they’ll return to the book again and again. Parents will tell other parents that their little angel can’t get enough of, such and such, and then more mums and dads will be out buying that book. The story of course, is quite important, kids like to know the words and they love repeating things, but chances are when they’re quite young they won’t be able to read. All they can do is look at the pictures, and if the pictures are no good, it really doesn’t matter what the story is about.

Firstly, if you’re going to do the illustrations for a children’s book, you need to think about the target age range. How old are the kids that this book is aimed at going to be? If they’re about one years old or less I’d recommend big friendly pictures, fairly simple style with large heads because at that age, faces are very important to them. Plus, a few animals won’t go amiss either. Children at that age also love to interact with their books, not really something an illustrator is responsible for, but books with fold out flaps always go down well.

If the children are a little older, between one and three or so, then they can appreciate much more complex illustrations. They like little hidden things to look at in and around the main illustration, rabbits poking their heads out of holes, a sleepy moon peeking from behind a cloud, an assortment of mice. They’ll spot them soon enough and then they’ll be looking out for them, plus the parent can add extra elements to the story by getting their little ones to count how many mice there are, or find the rabbits.

By the time you’re illustrating for the eight to twelve crowd, the images will be smaller. When it was for the little kids the images were full page and double page spreads; now they’ll be mainly embedded in the text, or occasionally a full page spread at the start of a chapter. The images now need to be detailed but concise, depicting a key event in the story. They’re also unlikely to be in colour at this point, so black line drawings are the order of the day. The characters are more likely to be human children around the same age of the target audience; the illustrations, whilst black and white and somewhat detailed, can still vary in style between realistic (e.g. William Brown) or friendly cartoon (e.g. Tracy Beaker) or somewhere in between (e.g. Harry Potter).

It is possible to study children’s illustration as a course all of its own, and there’s even a distance learning course available from the London College of Art, so you can do it in your own home at your own time. I myself haven’t taken this course, so I couldn’t tell you if it’s any good or not and as it costs over £300, I’m not planning on giving it a whirl any time soon. However, if it’s something you’re interested in and you haven’t the time to give up work and go to college, it might be a good plan. Here’s their site:

There are plenty of books you can read on the subject of illustration in general, and children’s illustration in particular. I had a read of “Illustrating Children’s Books: Creating Pictures for Publication” by Martin Salisbury but to be honest I didn’t get into it. Maybe it’s just me, but sometimes you get a book about art that’s really useful and interesting, and other times it just feels like a photo album of work that other people have done. This felt like the latter. Plus a lot of the other children’s illustration advice books tend to have been published ten, sometimes twenty years ago, and they’re so out of date.

If you’ve written and illustrated a children’s book yourself then you’ll be looking to get it published, I guess the same is also true if you’re solely a writer or an illustrator. Everyone wants to see their children’s book work hit the shelves don’t they? There’s a book called “The Writer’s and Artist’s Yearbook”. A new one is published every year, it’s chock full of publishers set out in order of who they are, what they publish etc. It’s really useful, you can find who does children’s books in there and then get in touch with them. Although, if it says “no unsolicited emails or letters” that means you’re going to need to phone them first and see if you can get the green light to send them your work.

Overall my advice would be, do your research online for advice and ideas of what books are useful to read, use your local library to get access to those books so you can check them out first and see if they are actually useful before deciding whether or not to buy them. After that, if you write and illustrate then start approaching publishers with your work, if you just illustrate then start browsing the internet some more for writers looking for an illustrator. They’re out there, just like you. Just make sure they’re not going to take you for a ride ok?

Being a writer or illustrator means one thing above everything else, be prepared to be rejected over, and over, and over again. Don’t let it get you down though, if you believe in your work then sooner or later someone else will too. After all, J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter stories were rejected dozens of times.