November 22, 2016
Pictures are the language you learned without realising it. From before you were born, they have been influencing, informing and enriching your life. They were the illustrations in the books about babies your parents read with nervous anticipation as they waited for you to emerge from the womb. They were the health promotion posters on the walls of the hospital on the day you arrived. They were the diagrams on the instructions your parents followed to put the car seat in, to put together the baby gear and the toys that would promote development.
They were the illustrations on those toys, on the play-mat and your high-chair tray, your plastic plate and your bib. They were the images on the cloth books and board books that you chewed as your mum and dad gazed down at you with love. They were the cartoons you watched as you grew. As your parents and teachers first taught you to read, a systematic process laid out in the school curriculum, they used pictures to help you understand the meaning of words. But there was no systematic process to teach you how to read the lines, shapes and colours that made two-dimensional symbols on paper. It was taken for granted that you would understand these without being taught.
Even as you mastered reading words, you continued to read illustrations, because they made the early struggles easier, and still they showed you things that would contort words into knots to achieve the same meaning. These two languages were two aspects of the same thing, human expression, each as valuable as the other, though you wouldn’t know that from the way the world treats them. As ‘reading books with pictures’ became an idiom for ignorance and stupidity, as illustrators were sidelined, given a lower status than writers in publishing lists and book awards, you still looked at pictures in newspapers, magazines, adverts, adult cartoons, instruction manuals and road signs. You graduated from comics and cartoon strips, ‘growing up’, but it was still okay to look at political cartoons that could convey more meaning with one image than many of the news articles you read. Imagine the worldwide web without pictures. Imagine if the only images we had were the ones that could be photographed.
And now, as a new generation of parents around the world sit down to read picture books to their children – without explaining to them how to read pictures – remember what it was like when you were that age. Remember that you were able to learn this language of illustration so effortlessly, so instinctively, because someone else put in the time, hard work, imagination, passion and expertise to understand how a change in the curve of this line can be the difference between showing contentment and regret; how this shadow can give the illusion of depth to a two-dimensional image, how adding this colour will change the entire feeling of this picture.
You can read this language because an illustrator uses it so skilfully and expresses themselves so clearly. It is the language we use to learn other languages and it is the only universal language the world has.
We could do more to show our appreciation for that.
July 24, 2014
If you spent much time in the world of publishing, you might at some point start to wonder if the people who work in children’s publishing had an inferiority complex. Or if they didn’t, they must surely be on their way to developing one.
The main reason for this, in my opinion, is the perception that writing for children is the easy option. And it is fair to say, that children’s books are, in general, shorter, use simpler language, involve simpler scenarios and simpler plots and often feature less nuanced characters than books aimed at grown-up audiences.
When referring to these different audiences, I have to choose my words carefully here, as ‘adult books’ can imply something entirely different and actually, a lot of adults read children’s and especially YA books. In fact, in some cases, more adults are reading young adult fiction than the young adults themselves.
But the point about our stories having to be simpler to understand is true enough. There is also a lot of formulaic writing in children’s publishing. And though there’s plenty of it in non-children’s publishing too, it’s assumed to be worse in children’s books. Even the word ‘childish’ – to be like a child – is a negative term, referring to the things children like or the ways that they behave, as if they are automatically inferior to adults. Which begs the question, where did all these sophisticated adults come from and at what stage in their development did they become separate from, and superior to, their younger selves?
I don’t want to make any particular points about the quality of the different kinds of writing here, except to say, from over ten years experience of making a living as a writer of fiction, it’s harder to write well, simply and clearly, than to write in an obtuse and complicated way. After all, it’s not about the beauty of the language you use, or the complexity of the emotion you wish to convey, but whether your thoughts are received and understood by the reader. And the more complex or nuanced the idea, the more inventive you have to be to get it across in a focussed, understandable and emotionally engaging way.
It is communication and, in the end, it’s the effect on your reader that counts.
Now, there are people who might point out that older readers are more sophisticated, more informed, better educated, that they have years of literary reference, a more worldly perspective, that they have seen more, experienced more, have higher expectations and will recognize work that is unoriginal or clumsy or superficial. Which makes it more challenging to write for adults. And they’d be right about most of that stuff, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned that sets a children’s writer apart from others – at least one who wants to sell enough to make a living from it for any length of time – it is that they must have an awareness of, and curiosity about, a reader who by definition, is not like them.
So . . . writing for kids. The easy option, yeah? Let’s have a look at that.
You might be the most significant writer of the century, with a timeless story to tell, and profound lessons to teach the new generation, but if you can’t get them to turn the pages, it won’t count for anything. People have to put an effort into reading text. Unlike television, film or even audio-books, text requires active audience participation. A bit like bringing someone to hear an orchestra play . . . and handing them an instrument. One cannot read passively. It takes effort. It wears you out.
Now, imagine your reader isn’t very good at reading – that you can make no easy assumptions about their ability to decipher words or to comprehend them (which are two very different things). Imagine your reader has a short attention span, has tastes as arbitrary as any adult, has almost no terms of literary reference, they have an instinctive bullshit detector and are brutally honest with their opinions.
You’re also competing for these new, inexperienced and impressionable readers against films, television and games that offer visually spectacular and often well-written entertainment that’s increasingly easy to access, the like of which the book industry has never faced before. So you have to grab your reader’s interest from the start and hold onto it for dear life.
You’re trying to reach the same minds as the ‘grown-up’ market, you’re just trying to reach them earlier in their life, in a more raw, less developed state, when they’re every bit the individual they’ll be as an adult, they’re just less capable of meeting you halfway in the storytelling, so you have to work that little bit harder. But it does mean you’re reaching those minds at a stage when they’re more receptive and you’ve far greater potential to blow their minds with a book.
If you’re writing books for young readers, you’ll either need to be an illustrator yourself or put your trust in someone else to illustrate your story – to help tell it. So, having written your story, you then have to weave it together with a completely different art form in order for it to be complete. And no, it’s not just a matter of using pictures to decorate or act out your story. They are not just stabilizers for the bike of a weak reader. Done well, illustration should tell a side of your story that doesn’t appear in your words. So how do you write with that in mind?
Now imagine that your readers will always be growing up, so that once you’ve won them over, they will, in a matter of a few years, grow out of the books you’re writing for them, and you’ll have to win over a whole new audience. Your market is in a state of constant turnover.
Welcome to the life of a children’s writer.
As if that wasn’t enough of a challenge, now try getting your head around reading levels. Reading levels are often a subject of debate in the children’s books industry. The single biggest controversy I’ve experienced in my time as an author was the attempt by some UK publishers (including one of mine) to put ‘age guidance’ on the covers of their books. This sparked off a massive dispute over whether publishers should be dictating who should or shouldn’t read what books, and raised the question of what ‘reading level’ even referred to: the difficulty level of the language and story in the books, or the nature of the subject matter.
So a few of our own publishers were trying to place limits on who should be reading our books.
Most writers – and indeed, publishers – want as many people as possible to read their books, are pretty opposed to prescriptive practises and normally scathingly intolerant of censorship. The market itself tends to regulate the subject matter in books – up until our readers hit their teens, we write for kids, but we have to sell through several filters of adults. And a reader’s own ability will quickly decide if a particular book is too difficult to read. As far as I’m concerned, any kid who wants to read a book that is below their reading level should be allowed. Nobody’s going to fall in love with reading if someone’s trying to force them. I still read young kid’s books, and I can read just fine, thanks.
But if you want to be a professional children’s writer, or even if you’re pitching to a publisher and you want to show you understand the industry, you need to have an idea what level of reader you’re writing for. The publisher might disagree about your text, or you might find that during the editing process, you want to change tack, but because children’s ability and tastes change constantly, you need to be able to refer to the different stages for practical reasons.
‘Cos then it comes to marketing and selling our masterpieces.
There are thousands of children’s books published each year in Ireland and the UK. And they’re big sellers – they account for more than a fifth of the total UK book market. If you’re familiar with the literary supplements in any of the mainstream newspapers or magazines, have a look and see what proportion of their reviews are for children’s books. Do they enjoy a fifth of the media’s literary attention? Well, no. Not even close. Most newspapers don’t even have weekly reviews of children’s books.
Like other types of writers, children’s writers are expected to be the main advertisers of their books, setting up their own online presence and doing events in festivals, libraries and schools. Take note: the ability to do school groups is one of the big advantages for a children’s writer. But while other types of writers do events too, as a kids’ writer, an interview format or doing a bit of reading and taking questions doesn’t cut it these days. You’re expected to be a full on children’s entertainer because, frankly, that’s what it takes to hold kids’ attention.
For the difficulties in running a kids’ session, see the problems above when writing for them, then imagine a horde of them is sitting in front of you, waiting expectantly, with each temporarily focussed mind on the verge of wandering in a different direction to the others. All the techniques you use in your writing to grip your reader have be brought into play here too. You have to be an oral storyteller as well as just writing that stuff down.
Despite these extra skills you have to develop, I’ve heard from a number of sources (including one festival organizer) that children’s authors are sometimes paid less for festival events. They are certainly often treated with less prestige than their grown-up-market counterparts, even if their sales and audience numbers are greater. The children’s events schedule in a festival is normally a separate part of the programme and it is invariably at the back of the brochure, after the ‘main’ events.
Some events organizers will try and get you to do events for free – that is to say, work for free, for an event they’re often charging admission to – in return for the publicity and the huge numbers of sales the event will presumably generate. I’ve posted my thoughts on this already.
And while we’re on the subject of money, despite the dizzying sums you hear in the headlines (and I’m never sure how many of them are actually true), advances for writers of children’s books tend to be pretty small and certainly smaller than those for the adult market, which is surprising, until you realize your books are sold for lower prices than non-children’s books.
And finally, to impress upon you how writing for children requires more expertise, not less, than writing for adults, let’s take a look at a parallel: teaching. To teach students in college or university, it is assumed that you’re dealing with self-motivated adults, so when hiring a lecturer, the emphasis is on their qualifications in a given subject. Teaching skills are a distant second. To teach in secondary school, you specialise in a couple of subjects, but you know you’re dealing with teenagers, so a specific qualification in teaching techniques is required. You have to have studied how to get information into young brains.
By the time you reach primary school teaching, the range of subjects has become much broader, requiring greater versatility, allowing for less of that comfortable specialization and critically, the teaching itself has become the most important element. No matter what other expertise you have, the ability to communicate ideas clearly has taken priority over the subjects themselves, because without mastering the skills of teaching, none of those subjects will get taught. And if those primary teaching techniques fail, those adults-to-be will struggle through secondary school and may never even make it to third level.
Children’s writers are not teachers, but we face a similar challenge. This is why writing for children is not only as demanding as writing for adults – we have to craft more carefully what we write to communicate our stories clearly – it is actually more important, as it comes with a greater responsibility. One that many children’s writers, publishers and others in the children’s book community take very seriously.
Because if we don’t do our job right, those kids won’t read, so they won’t grow up reading, so they won’t read all those other books people are writing for when we’re ready to pass those readers on.
And that’s why writing for children is not the easy option. But if you fancy getting into it, it is a lot of fun.
March 7, 2013
This wasn’t the picture I was going to put up. To mark the publication day for ‘Rat Runners’, I was going to post the cover again, but I’ve done that a few times so I’m going to give it a rest for the moment.
Instead, I’m putting up this. When I finish the manuscript for a novel, I draw up a black and white cover for it. This was the one for ‘Rat Runners’. Like the others, this was not intended as a concept for the final cover, or even an internal illustration. I draw these for a few reasons, but mainly, they’re to remind me of something.
When I was a kid, I used to fill copybooks (that’s ‘exercise books’ for you folks in the UK) with stories and pictures. I fantasized about being a writer and illustrator. Sure, I wanted to be loads of other things, but it was always really this thing. I never really felt like I had a choice in the matter.
So here I am, twenty-five books later. This is the dream. But people who aren’t in the business must sometimes be surprised at how cynical full-time children’s writers can become, and I’m no exception. I can be quite the belligerent fecker at times. To people who are still waiting for their shot, this attitude must seem churlish and even ungrateful considering we’re doing what we dreamed of doing.
We don’t mean to be negative about it, and deep down, I think most of us feel really privileged. But making it in this job can be a REALLY hard slog, unless you’re exceptionally lucky – it can lead you to be frustrated, stressed and downright exhausted from constantly trying to break through, and then you start making a living from it, and you find there’s rarely any let up, unless you reach that tiny, TINY golden percentage at the very top.
But I do not consider myself a ‘struggling writer’. I am not a tortured soul, writing to fill a god-shaped hole, or to overcome my neuroses. I am not oppressed by the demands of my muse. I write and illustrate stories to make sense of the world, to connect to something greater than myself, but when you get right down to it, I’m still just the kid making stories with pencils and markers in his copybooks.
And that’s why I draw pictures on the the fronts of my manuscripts.
I hope you’ll check out ‘Rat Runners’, and I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it.
January 9, 2013
This is a post about the small ‘icon’ illustrations I’ve done for the heads of the chapters in my latest book, ‘Rat Runners’. I do pics like this for all my novels – or at least the novels I haven’t been commissioned to do by somebody. Partly because I want the inside of the book to look distinctive as well as the outside (quite difficult with a novel) and partly because some things are best described with a picture . . . and partly because I just like pictures.
I start this process in the first read-through of the galley proofs – where the pages are first laid out as they’d be in the printed book. As I read, I note down the kinds of snapshots of images that would make a good icon for each chapter. The trick is to choose something in each chapter that will be eye-catching, distinctive, different from the other chapters and helps describe something in the story. You also have to be able to tell what each one is when it’s very small – these illustrations are only couple of centimetres squared when they’re printed, and I draw them at about five centimetres squared, so they’ve got to be clearly recognisable.
The first drawings are little more than scribbles, ‘thumbnails’ as they’re called in the trade. I do these on the proof pages themselves normally, trying to figure out what will work and what won’t. Then I move on to the proper pencil drawing. I have a standard template I work into when I start, which suits the head of a chapter; a wide rectangle marks the absolute margin for the picture, but the circle is the main frame, allowing for a bit of breaking out of that frame in most of the pictures.
I’ll use photographic references for some of these pictures – you can only find appropriate pictures about half the time, and even then, there’s a lot of adapting and simplifying.
For the Wildenstern books, I used an old-fashioned style with a lot of linework and cross-hatching. Because of the modern setting for ‘Rat Runners’, I changed the look just a little bit, using a lot more solid black with some linear pen shading, more like the very blocky black style I used in my earlier novels.
Each picture represents an image from that chapter – sometimes just a object that features, one that may not be vitally important, but gives a flavour of the text.
There are frames on these icons, though I haven’t used frames for the last few books. I do up a single frame separately (which, in this case, suggests a camera lens) then place it over each picture in Photoshop, once the drawings are scanned. Then they’re ready to send to the editor.
This is often the last piece of work I do for any book, bar the odd little text revision, and makes for a nice sign-off. It marks the end of the book and time to start on the next which, incidentally, is well underway.
July 31, 2012
For the sake of my sanity, I recently carried out a purge of stuff from my office. I find it very hard to think clearly with too much unused or unnecessary stuff lying around, but until we can convert the garage into my long-dreamed-of studio, I’m in a fairly small room in the house.
I also prefer to work standing up most of the time, and have two standing-height desks – one for the computer, and one for the drawing board. I’ve had the computer on a normal desk because this room was supposed to be a temporary measure . . . that’s now been in place for nearly two years.
In the end, I went ahead and put the other standing desk in. It feels much better already, I like standing up working – particularly writing or researching – because this sit-down job will eventually knacker your back and your circulation and profoundly affect the size of your arse. I also like to pace while I think.
I made both these desks myself; they’re each about 120cm high (the height of my elbows when I’m standing) and 2 metres wide. The materials for both cost me less than a hundred quid. Eventually, I’ll have fancier versions in hardwood with some nice drawers, but these do the job just fine.
As for the clutter, I normally do a purge on a fairly regular basis, but I left it way too long this time. As a result, the room had suffered a near-disastrous build-up of crap. Want examples? What follows is a list of Shit that Doesn’t Have to Be in My Office:
Large Peter Pan pirate ship. Black & Decker hedge trimmer. 20-metre extension cable. Exercise mat. A packed up co-sleeper (small baby’s cot to go alongside a bed – recently returned by Maedhbh’s sister). A box of toys, containing a large plastic dinosaur, a large Buzz Lightyear and numerous other items. Walking boots (currently used for working in the garden). Small suitcase. Ratchet and socket set. Curtain rail (was still in packaging – I’ve now put it up so I have curtains too!). One dumbbell (currently unused – the other one is in the garage). My old Mac. A piggy bank in the shape of a running shoe (empty). One pane of broken glass from a picture frame. The picture that’s supposed to be in that frame. One shoe rack (empty). Two pairs of shoes (not on rack). One unused computer monitor. An empty flowerpot. A pack of five fat-balls for feeding birds. Three boxes of comics. Box of loose screws. Box of loose keys. Pot of enamel paint. Pot of wood filler. Box containing two stress balls (not used enough). Cork noticeboard. Two boxes of my books (‘The Wisdom of Dead Men’ and ‘Merciless Reason’). The fittings for a cot (the cot is in the garage). Manuals for the lawnmower. Basket of Electronics-Stuff-That-I’ll-Probably-Never-Use-Again. Four cacti that refuse to die, no matter how much I neglect them. Small, attractive empty cedarwood box, the purpose of which is long forgotten. And finally, a four-foot-long Tunisian spear.
I can now get from the door to my desks without weaving around or stepping over anything. What bliss!
January 2, 2012
I had a grand time in the two weeks running up to Christmas, partly due to the kids’ excitement, and partly because I got to spend most of my work-time drawing and painting. I was doing a painting for my sister as a present – both for Christmas, and for the apartment she got (after much ado) a while back. But before I could get onto doing that, I was working on the black-and-white chapter icons for ‘Merciless Reason’.
This is a kind of signature thing I do for all my novels – a small image at the head of every chapter. I figure you should do everything you can to make your books as memorable as possible, inside as well as out, and sometimes an image can set a tone or help the reader visualize something or even just act as a tease, a taste at the start of a new scene, in a way that words can’t. And besides, I’ll look for any excuse to get an illustration into a book.
The challenge with these is to find images that are distinctive and eye-catching; each one should be very different from the next and they must all work at a small size. I draw these no larger than 8cm by 6cm, but they appear at the size of a postage stamp. In ‘Merciless Reason’, there are thirty-eight of these little pictures. They’re a quiet pleasure to work on. For the Wildenstern books I do them in a classic brush-and-ink style to suit the era, though people sometimes assume they’re etchings or even wood-cuts. I’ve never done an etching, and only did a little wood-cutting in college. And due to the time involved, these types of techniques are used less and less in illustration, which is a shame really.
I originally wanted to do full-page ‘plate’ illustrations for ‘Ancient Appetites’, as you would have found in nineteenth-century novels, but the folks at Random thought that might make the book look as if it were trying to appeal to a younger audience (can’t old people look at pictures too?). They were very happy to go with chapter headers, however. Too many books just have a basic, graphic design repeated as a header. If you’re interested, you can see a sample of one of my proposed full-page illustrations here.
As the Christmas/New Year holiday draws to a close, it’s time to get back into planning for the next few months. I’m intending to hold a competition to promote the launch of ‘Merciless Reason’, and I’ve already got some events lined up over the next few months. Then there’s the production work on my next novel to get started on; ‘Rat-Runners’ – a very different story to the Wildensterns’ exploits. I’ll see what other projects I can come up with in the meantime. It pays to keep yourself busy these days.
Hope everyone had a fantastic Christmas, and Happy New Year to all of you.
December 5, 2011
With ‘Merciless Reason’ due out in March, we’re on the last stretch before it goes to print. The copy edits are pretty much complete, I’m working on the illustrations for the chapter icons at the moment, the team at Random House should have the page layouts done up before Christmas . . . and the cover is finished.
I know I’m biased, but I have to say I love it. I came up with the basic concept, but then James Fraser, the designer (formerly at Random, but now working freelance) took that and ran with it, recreating it in a brilliant layout. Then digital artist Steve Stone produced the final illustration, using a mixture of artwork, photography and computer imagery.
James has done most of the design work on my books with Random House and before this, Steve did the illustration for ‘The Wisdom of Dead Men’. Check out the portfolios on their sites – these guys are among the best in the business. Here’s the blurb for the book:
‘There’s no escaping this family. I’d have an easier time shaking the plague.’
It has been three years since Nate left Ireland, and his ruthless, feared family, behind. But the Wildensterns are not finished with him. When he discovers that his treacherous cousin is still alive, he is drawn back into their world of plotting, betrayal and murder.
At home, Daisy and Tatiana are among the few who are trying to stem the damage the Wildensterns are doing. The family has become even more hated by the people it treads upon in its thirst for power.
Fresh mysteries must be unravelled. The new church is being redesigned with strange mechanical devices built into its walls. An ancient relative is given control of the family. The children of an orphanage have gone missing.
One thing is for certain – the Wildensterns are back. Violence will ensue.
November 29, 2011
I still take on illustration jobs and private commissions, but it’s rare enough that I get the time to do some decent painting, so when a guy I owed a big favour to asked me to do an A3 poster of a role-playing game he’d run with his mates, based in the Star Wars universe, I thought I’d record the process. If you’re into illustration – either doing it or just looking at it – you might find this interesting.
If I was doing a painting to be printed A4, I’d probably work at A3, though it can vary. For best results, it’s always a good idea to start any painting with some decent reference photos and a lot of sketching, but I had to plunge straight in with this one after a minimum of preparatory sketches. Also, one of the problems with working in different styles, is that it takes time to get up to speed when you switch from one style to another. I hadn’t done something like this in a while, so this picture took about four days to do, from the first sketch to the point when I cut it off the board. Someone who works in this kind of style all the time could probably cut that time down substantially.
I always start a picture by doing a thumbnail sketch, drawing very loosely to map out the composition – setting out where all the pieces of the picture have to go, and what size they’ll be. This is a stage that normally won’t be seen by anyone but me, so it’s little more than a scribble, but it’s a vital stage nonetheless, as I don’t want to be moving big elements around once I start fiddling with details. This is a complicated composition, as there are a lot of distinctive characters which all have to feature. What’s even harder, is that the focus can’t be on any one character, as they all represent players, so each one has to be given a decent position. Normally in a picture, you’d have a few key elements that attract the eye, and everything else would be placed around these in secondary positions.
After the thumbnail comes the finished pencil drawing. Now I have to work the details out properly – I’ve been given a lot of pictures to help to describe the characters and the ships, but none that can be used as direct references; they all have to be changed to match the brief for the picture. This stage takes a lot more time – in this case, the best part of a day. I’m not too concerned with shading yet, if I’m going to be using a heavy painting style, as I will here. But I will normally give myself some indication of the direction of light. This picture is going to be absolutely filled with light sources, so there’s no real point worrying about shading at this point. As you’ll see with the next part, I’ll be painting over everything first anyway.
I create the logo in Photoshop and trace it off. I could do it freehand, if I wanted to give myself a real headache, but there’s no need. This is being hung as a painting, however, rather than printed as an illustration, so I will be painting the logo into the picture. If this were an illustration job, I’d place the logo in using Photoshop or Illustrator after I’d scanned in the final picture. The Star Wars font, as I’ve discovered, is a bit of an ugly sucker, and I’m having my doubts about using it for the main title – the bit on the frame looks okay. Also, having that ‘A’ in ‘A Dark Legacy’ (notice the change from the first pencil) throws off the composition, but that was the title of the game, so that ‘A’ has got to go in.
After I’ve done the pencil drawing, I’ll scan it in and email it off to the client to make sure everything’s the way they want it. If there are any changes, I want to do them at this stage – it’s a lot easier to change a pencil drawing rather than a painting. As it turns out, there was one change that came a bit late, but not a major one. If you can see the character with the beak halfway on the right-hand side, his beak needed to be closed, which only came up after I’d done the first wash. That’s the kind of thing that’s much easier to change in pencil than with paint.
After I’ve got the all clear to to start painting, I draw the picture again – onto a heavy painting paper this time – by tracing it using a light-box. If the paper’s very heavy, or your layers of paint hide too much of the linework, you need to use transfer paper or the like to copy down the drawing a piece at a time.
With the drawing done onto the painting paper, I then stretch the paper, by wetting it so that it swells – and often buckles – and then taping the edges down with a gum-paper tape. As the paper dries, it contracts again until it’s perfectly flat and can then be wet with paint without fear that it’s going to buckle or curl again. This is the way I work; other artists will use card so thick that it doesn’t buckle at all, but you can’t trace through that stuff. You have to mark the drawing onto the card using a copy of your drawing and transfer paper. Don’t mind the distortion in the photo that makes the edges look like they’re bending – that’s down to the slight fish-eye effect of the lens of of my camera. It’s just not made for photographing this kind of stuff. Something I’ll have to sort at a later date.
After the paper has dried and flattened out (a hairdryer can speed the process up a bit), I lay down the first few washes of background colour with a large flat brush. I start with a strong green, then gradually add black and blue to the green paint as I go. I’m using acrylic here, which won’t budge too much once it’s dry. Gouache will cover better and give a flatter colour, but it can lift back up when you lay another layer of paint over it. Sometimes that’s a good thing, but I want a solid base here.
The area around the eyes at the top of the picture is the only part that will be painted using a light style (painting with light washes, then gradually getting darker, as if I was using watercolour). For most of this picture, I’ll lay down the dark colours first and then paint lighter colours on top. This is where you really need to have a clear image in your head of what your end result will be, because you have to hide a lot of your drawing under these washes before you bring it out again. If you were inclined to worrying that you were going to cock things up while painting, this is where you’d be getting butterflies in your tummy.
The darker and heavier you go with the paint, the more you lose of your drawing, so either you reinforce your drawing as you go, or you draw it on again afterward. In this case, once I’ve laid down the darkest washes, I go over a lot of the linework with some thinned down black acrylic, to make the drawing more visible again. I also do some of the finer work around the eyes, with the same shades that I use for the washes. It’s at this point I’m starting to curse the slightly weird, square proportions of that Star Wars font. I should have used something else, but I’ve committed, so to hell with it.
Now is the time to start thinking seriously about where the light is coming from for each element of the picture, as this will dictate how I paint the lighter shades of colour, and where I can put down darker shadows. There will be a lot of different colours, but I want to keep some of this blue-green in the shadows of each element wherever possible, to help hold the picture together.
As I said, you need a strong sense of what your picture is going to look like at the end. If I had photos as direct references for all of these elements, this would be a lot easier. Anyone doing a real film poster would have plenty of stills to work from, but it would take ages to set up and shoot all the pictures I’d need – not to mention the expense of models and props – so I’m pretty much doing this all from my head at this stage.
Whenever possible, it’s best to work from the top left corner down – if you’re right-handed – so you’re not reaching across your finished work too often. It’s also the direction your eye takes across the page, because of the way we read, at least in English-speaking and European cultures. I paint in the lighter parts of those eyes, the spaceships at the top, the explosions and the blast from the jet-pack on the Boba Fett lookalike. There’s also a malevolent figure emerging from the flames in the middle there. These elements are now pretty finished, but there’ll be some retouching later as I go back around for another pass when I’ve got more of the picture done. While I’ve got some yellow on my brush, I do a few of the Fett character’s pieces of armour that are the same colour too.
Then I paint the remaining figures on the left side, again, trying to keep a hint of that green in the shadows wherever possible. It unifies what is otherwise quite a scattered composition. The black ‘darksaber’ in the middle of the picture acts as a mast, which helps too. I’ve got to add markings to the blade and a bit of a glow, but basically it’s little more than a flat black area running up through the centre. That character in the flames is now reaching out for the jedi who’s leaping away from him. Notice that the armoured figure beneath them is all brushed steel at the moment; that’ll change on another pass. I think I’ve made him a little too folded up, I should probably have done him further into the foreground, but his light-coloured armour would have overpowered the light from the all the flames and lightsabers.
I had originally intended to have stars in the background, at least behind the ships, but the picture’s so busy already, I decide to leave them out. With so many sources of light, I need as many dark areas as possible for contrast.
Now I finish off the darksaber, add some shadows to the eyes at the top, and go to work on the figures on the right-hand side. The character with the beak now has his beak closed. He is an old, wise character, in contrast to the young swordsman below him (the blue-tinged character between them is a ghost-like mentor for the younger one). The different lighting of these two characters reflects their two roles, but it’s only after I’ve done the younger man’s lightsaber red, that I realize it’s supposed to be blue. This changes not only the sword itself, but also the highlights on the character’s face, hands and clothes. As I’m using a heavy painting style, this isn’t a major problem. If I was painting with watercolour, with loads of translucent layers making up the dark shades, it would be.
I change that red light to blue. I also give the armoured figure in the bottom left corner a green tinge, and paint in some yellow highlights to tie him into the picture around him a bit more. The final figure in the bottom right corner is in an action pose, deflecting a shot from a blaster with his hand, jedi-style. As with the jumping figure on the other side, to show his full body, I have to show him much smaller in comparison to the other figures. This also gives the composition a bit more variation and balance.
All the most enjoyable stuff is done now. This has been a fun job – I haven’t drawn Star Wars stuff since I was a kid. At this point, I’m going back over things, strengthening shadows, defining the odd detail a bit better, doing what I can to pull the whole picture together . . . and anticipating doing that logo. Lettering is always tricky when you’re painting, and this square font is unusual; the weight is even through the curves and yet some of the letters are designed to join up, while others aren’t. Oh, and I’m trying to give it a kind of fiery gold effect, an uneven colour that makes keeping the edges even all the more interesting.
It’s not long before I’m really starting to hate this bloody font.
I finish up by painting a black frame all the way round, its edge broken only by the blue lightsaber on the right. As is the case with any illustration larger than A4 that I do on the drawing board, I can’t scan it myself. So I have to take it to a place in Dublin to be scanned. If this was a job for print, I’d then do a bit of retouching before I send it to the client – I do a bit on this scan anyway, even though the original will have to stand as it is.
Though I work a lot in Photoshop, I haven’t quite switched to doing painting digitally, and part of me will never want to, even though it makes sense for commercial illustration. The software is getting better all the time too, although a lot of digital painting still looks a bit too greasy or plasticky for my tastes. But there’s no getting round the fact that, soon the day will come when work restraints will mean taking the painting onto the screen, switching my pencils, paintbrushes and paper for a stylus and tablet. I do have to admit to being sorely tempted by the prospect of being able to back artwork up as I go, to play with textures and photos, and being able to hit ‘Undo’, when I cock things up. But you can’t feel graphics under your fingertips, or smell the colour as you mix it, or see the textures and sheens of the different types of paint, see the sweep or stipple of the brush in the surface. Do your work onscreen, and you’ll never be able to hold the original in you hands.
Back when I made my living entirely from illustration, there were some jobs I just didn’t care that much about – I did them to pay the bills. That kind of stuff I’d happily do on the computer. But though the phrase might seem trite, with very few exceptions that I’ve seen, digital painting has no soul. And I say that in the full knowledge that I’ve just produced what amounts to fan art of the world’s biggest entertainment franchise (or is that Disney?). I do other stuff too. It’s just that I haven’t spent most of my life learning how to paint (and as you can see, I still have a lot to learn), to see that work in a printout. So, wherever possible, I say: Keep it live. Keep it messy. Keep it real.
November 10, 2011
Children’s Book Festival has come to a close, and I’m starting to catch up on all the things that have piled up on the desk while I’ve been running around like a blue-arsed fly, and shouting at defenceless children. One of the things I’ve got to swot up for is the Green Inking Comic Event this Saturday. I’ll be chairing the proceedings.
This half-day seminar will take as its inspiration the increased visibility of graphic novels and comic books by Irish creators and/or concerning Irish themes. The event will take place at the Seminar Room in the National Library of Ireland from 10am until 1pm.
Here’s the schedule for the day:
10.30 – Luis Bustos
CBI and Instituto Cervantes are delighted to welcome Spanish graphic artist Luis Bustos, creator of Endurance, which chronicles Ernest Shackleton’s voyage.
11.15 – The O’Brien Press
The O’Brien Press introduce their new collections of graphic novels for young readers.
12.00 – Panel Discussion
Irish graphic novel/comic book panel with Rob Curley of Sub-City and Atomic Diner, Tomm Moore of Cartoon Saloon and illustrator, animator and printmaker Cliodhna Lyons.
I’ve also just done a guest post for Children’s Books Ireland, telling the story of a typical morning for me during Children’s Book Festival. I’ll have to do a proper round-up for myself soon (now that I’ve mostly recovered), but in the meantime, you can check out my piece on the CBI blog.