How an Illustrator Chooses Their Style

People who take an interest in children’s books and comics learn to recognise individual illustrators by their distinct styles, but not many outside of the trade itself realise that illustrators can and do often work in more than one style. Nor do they understand how an illustrator chooses the styles they use most often – and how those choices can affect their career. You might assume that the style they’re known for is one they chose at the beginning of their career, developed deliberately, and that they fully intended to end up where they are. If so, you’d be amazed at the random things that can influence an artist’s path.

Illustrators rarely achieve the same kind of recognition as writers in children’s books, though creative credit is far more evenly balanced in comics. If you want to become recognisable as an artist, to have a brand, it’s best to have a single distinct style that will become tied in to your professional identity. This style will, in turn, dictate the kind of work that’s offered to you, which will affect how much money you can earn and the recognition you might receive. It can also mean that you can be in fashion as an illustrator . . . so you can also fall out of fashion.

There’s also the matter of what you want spend your time drawing or painting. The subject of your art might well be a major element in the enjoyment of the work, whether it’s caricatures, animals, machines, superheroes, architecture or whatever. Part of loving the making of art is the passion you have for your subject.

Unless you’re lucky enough to make a living from one style in your chosen subject early on in your career, however, you’re going to end up taking on a range of different jobs to get established . . . and those early jobs will have a serious influence on your development, and on the future of your career. And though I’d say technology is changing the nature of that development more than ever, art has always been influenced by the technology of the age.

Many illustrators can and do work in a variety of styles, either because they never settled on one they wanted to concentrate on, or because the opportunity to specialise never presented itself. For me, it was a bit of both. Some who do have an established style will also feel the need to branch out from time to time, either to take on more varied kinds of jobs, or just for the sake of doing something different. We learn early on that persistence and pure chance are as important to illustrators as they are to writers.

Changing drawing styles is much more common in animation, where every artist has to work within whatever style is being used for each production. Individuality has less of a chance to express itself, because unless you’re making your own film, you’ve a specific part to play in a bigger operation. You have model sheets to stick to, to ensure a unified look to the visuals. Corporate comics companies like Marvel or DC take a similar approach; if you want to work for them, you have to conform to their style first, though you’re expected to find ways to give it your own distinct flavour.

Imagine yourself at the start of your illustration career: the biggest influences will be the artists you love, the ones whose techniques you copy over and over again, though they may be a wide and varied bunch. To pick some at random, let’s say your favourites include Norman Rockwell, Beatrix Potter, Charles M Schulz and Jim Fitzpatrick; four very different illustrators. Which aspects of their work do you choose to emulate? Perhaps you decide you want to have two or three styles you can concentrate on.

When I was starting out, nobody I knew drew on computer, though digital art was starting to find its feet. Even if you did just settle on two or three styles, the tangible materials you chose to work in would affect the look of your work. Pencil gives a different line to a brush; dip pen, felt tip or technical pen will be different again. Your hand physically moves across the paper in a different way for each of these tools; most people are more comfortable with one rather than another. Does your black and white shading style lend itself to pencil, charcoal, ink or paint? Each one has a distinct finish. If you are providing what we used to call ‘camera-ready’ artwork for someone to scan – which was almost always the case for an illustrator, back in the day – necessity will guide your decisions. Materials like charcoal, chalk or oil pastel aren’t practical, being easily smudged or scuffed during transport or scanning.

Your choice of paint is a factor too: do you work in thin washes, as you would with water colour or ink, or do you go for thicker layers, like acrylic or heavy gouache? You normally wouldn’t use oil paints because they are too slow to dry. There’s all of this consider, even before you decide how you draw noses and eyes and all that stuff. When you do settle on a style, choosing a different material to finish it can be enough to introduce some variety.

Then there’s the time you need to think about. If the job’s not paying much, or if you’re working to tight deadlines (or both), this affects your choice of techniques. Black and white is faster than colour, line and wash is faster than fully painted work. Simple cartoons are faster than realistic drawings. Expressionistic, gestural art can be faster than a tight, neat finish – though not always. Even small tweaks one way or the other are already influencing the style that will, through repetition and habit, become a natural technique for you.

Or maybe you’re working in Photoshop, or one of the many painting apps available these days. As styluses and slates have improved, more and more artists are drawing straight onto computer, able to switch ‘drawing tools’ at the click of an icon. In which case, your style is being influenced directly by the technology and what it can do – and also what you can afford. Most of the artists working today however, started off using physical materials and many still rely on them for some stages, despite providing the digital finished product that’s expected by publishers these days. Their drawing and painting styles will reflect this.

Even working digitally, things like detail, perspective and the need for reference images all add time, which means extra cost, which either the client has to pay for, or else you have to put in that additional time and effort at your own expense – which you might well do if it’s the type of commission you want more of. Because it’s not just how you’re drawing or painting, what you’re creating is important to your career too. Being able to work fast does mean the ability to make more money, but only if the money’s there to be made. Normally, if a job doesn’t pay much, you get it done quickly and move on to the next one. The client won’t suddenly offer to pay you more for doing nicer work. Cost will dictate other factors too; for instance, if a book’s internal pages are printed in black and white or colour . . . and all of this will affect what the illustrator has to show to a client for the next job they pitch for.

A professional illustrator’s portfolio should be made up primarily of paid work. Prospective clients don’t want to see you doing it as a hobby – you have to prove you can produce quality art to a brief and a deadline.  They’ll judge you on what they see in front of them, so your past work is the single biggest factor in what future jobs you can get. The nature of paying work available to you, the opportunities you’ve been offered, start to shape what kind of artist you are.

Starting out, you may want to concentrate on a style for which there isn’t much work available in Ireland or the UK, say fully painted fantasy book covers or some funky collage work. In the meantime, you need to get established and make a living, so you take any paying work you can get, so you let the demands of the work steer your style, because you want more of the stuff that pays, so you can keep making a living. And all the time, you’re trying to work your way closer to the jobs you want to do, often by doing your own pictures on the side. Not only do you need to show other people this kind of stuff, you also need practise doing it, so you’ll be able for it when you get the chance.

Talk to most book illustrators, and you’ll find out they had a long and varied road to the work they do now – and chances are, they’re still taking on other types of jobs.

My background is more mixed up than most, which has been incredibly frustrating at times, though it’s ended up serving me well. I wanted to do that fully painted sci-fi and fantasy work. And the wacky cartoons. And the expressionistic stuff. And the Marvel-comic-style stuff. And the . . . Actually, what I really wanted was to be able to illustrate whatever story I wrote, and in an appropriate style. For me, there were so many different kinds of career I wanted, but telling my stories took priority over getting recognition for a single style of art. The only problem was, that meant getting published as a writer as well as an illustrator. Talk about making life hard for yourself.

For a long time, I took any job I could that paid. I did cartoons and graphic design and illustrated children’s books and school books. It didn’t pay much, so I learned to draw fast, so that I could make the time worth the money. I was a background layout designer for an animation company. I did paintings on commission on anything from paper to walls, motorbike helmets to leather jackets. Ireland was a small market and it was almost impossible to get enough work to make a living in just one style, and back then, working for clients abroad inevitably meant having to move abroad.

I don’t know if I’d have been able to keep working if I’d stayed in Ireland, but there’s no question my illustration style would have been influenced by the decision – perhaps I’d have stopped trying to make a living from varying my style, got another job and concentrated on honing one or two styles and then sought out commissions from publishers in the UK or the US. There just wasn’t enough work to be had in Ireland back then, despite the fact that there were very few full-time commercial artists in the country. Most of the work didn’t pay well and the use of cheap stock photos was just starting to eat into our commissions. I was seeing one person after another dropping out of the trade, so eventually, like so many before me, I made the move to London.

At a meeting with a couple of people from the Association of Illustrators, I was advised to have a maximum of three styles of art in my portfolio to avoid confusing potential clients. I imagine they’d offer the same advice now – I would. I ended up spending nearly a year working night-shifts in security as I tried finding illustration work, the meagre pay supplemented with regular cartoons for a local newspaper. Any hope of a clearly defined path into London’s illustration market was undone when I got a job as an art director in a small advertising firm, where I expanded into copy writing. Having an illustrator on staff was very useful to a small company with limited in-house resources. Weirdly, we ended up illustrating a higher proportion of our ads than a company like this normally would. Once again, I found myself responding to the demands of the jobs, rather than my own tastes, working in whatever style and whatever medium got the message across.

The key point here is that, not only was I not working in a specific style, but the subject matter of each illustration was out of my control. Commercial artists don’t get to choose what they create. I had to draw everything from engineering parts to Santa Claus for corporate Christmas cards; cartoon gags about computer telephony to the Photoshopping of product photos. It was enjoyable, and sharpened my skills further, but – ironically, considering the nature of the business – I was no further along the road in terms of developing a ‘brand’.

For me, this wasn’t such a bad thing, because the books were always going to come first anyway, but as I’ve already said, look into the past of any illustrator, and you’ll probably find stories like this. I came back to Ireland and found that publishing was changing. Illustration was being taken more seriously, and the technology meant there were more opportunities to work for clients abroad, while staying at home.

As the nature of the business has changed, the opportunities, but also the demands, on illustrators have been changing too. Illustration and design was going digital even as I was starting to learn my trade in the nineties. Physical artwork is in decline; working on paper has its advantages, and its pleasures, but it’s slower, because it needs drying time and scanning, steps we can now cut out of the process. I still love working with traditional materials, but they’re harder to fix and change, either for yourself or at the request of the client. The range of tools and effects available in art apps now is extraordinary, though the fundamental drawing and painting skills still apply. It will be interesting to see what happens as the influence of those physical materials fades and younger artists form new kinds of habits from scratch, some of whom might never get their hands dirty on charcoal or paint. We can already see new habits forming based on effects, short-cuts and trendy techniques that didn’t exist ten or fifteen years ago – just as my generation would have developed ours. And are still developing ours.

So next time you find yourself admiring an illustrator’s work, maybe go and have a look at their website or wherever you might find their gallery or portfolio, and see what else they have there. You could be surprised by what other kinds of things they do. And you might wonder what random happenings helped bring them to this point in their career, and where they might still want to go from there. There’s always a lot more than what you see on the page.

 

 

 

 

Writing for Children – The Easy Option

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. Easy Option-FartEven 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. Easy Option-Battery BrainA 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. Easy Option-Book BlastBut 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. Easy Option-Dodging SidewaysAll 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.

Writing for Kids

Hi All,

Just to let you know that there are still some places left on my Writing for Children course at the Irish Writers’ Centre in Dublin this weekend.

This two-day course will cover the basics of storytelling and the specific aspects of writing for children and young adults. Areas that will be examined include how to generate ideas, how to use observation, description of both character and setting, using dialogue and ensuring a good pace and plot. There will also be a focus on how to tailor your writing for different age groups and practical exercises, including a final writing task. I’ll also be giving tips on how to get published and how to market your books once you get published.

Get booking!

Cool for Cats – The Ideas Shop Comes to Kilkenny

The lovely Sarah Webb and I will be flying by the seats of our respective pants as we hold an ‘Ideas Shop’ event for the Kilkenny Arts Festival – without the calming presence of Judi Curtin. The event takes place at 3pm on the 12th of August at the Barnstorm Theatre.

In this show, we take a light-hearted approach to discussing how our childhoods influenced our approach to coming up with ideas, how we build our stories from nothing, and how we go about reaching our audience once we’ve completed those stories.

If you’re down that way, and your that way inclined, we’ll see you there.

Attention-Seeking

This is a bit of a mental week (I’m in eight different places this week alone – more, if you count individual libraries in a county), but I wanted to post a few things before I forgot.

First off, if you’re a budding new author – or indeed a frustrated old one – Irish PEN are hosting a panel talk on writing for children this Thursday (the 13th) in Dublin, featuring yours truly, but also properly interesting people such as leading agent, Julia Churchill; Puffin Ireland publisher, Paddy O’Doherty; and authors Sarah Webb and Anna Carey. You can find out more about it here.

I recently did a guest post for the Meath Libraries blog after running a series of comic-book workshops. You can read that here. I’ll be doing a few more in other places before the month’s out – I’ll link to them as they happen.

If you’re into science fiction and/or fantasy, I’ll be at Octocon, the National Irish Sci-Fi Convention in the Camden Court Hotel in Dublin. I can’t make the Saturday, but I’ll be there Sunday. Yes, there may be one or two nerds present, but they are mostly harmless, and often very entertaining (usually on purpose). Drop in if you can – it’ll be like Scooby Snacks for the brain.

And finally, my last post was a tribute to my old Mac, with which I have had a ten-year turbulent relationship, but whose design and reliability I have long been thankful for. The man who deserves the hero’s portion of that thanks died this week. Steve Jobs changed the way we regard technology, and though everybody talks about the iPod, the iPad and the iPhone, I got hooked a lot earlier than all that. Whatever issues I might have with Apple, I’m the first to admit that Steve Jobs and his people were among the first to make computers for the way human beings were designed to work.

Rest in peace, Mr Jobs.

Writing for Children

For anyone interested in writing for kids, there are still a couple of places left on the online course I’ll be running for Creative Writing Ink in September-October. Here’s the outline of the course:

I will cover the basics of storytelling and the specific aspects of writing for children and young adults. Areas that will be looked at include: how to generate ideas; how to use observation; description of both character and setting; using dialogue and ensuring a good pace and plot, as well as how to tailor your writing for different age groups. There will be practical exercises and a final writing task at the end of the course. I’ll also be giving tips on how to get published, and how to market your books once you get published.

The closing date for signing up is the 29th of August.

A Natural Resource

Ireland is famously proud of the number of high profile writers it produces. But given the ease with which a web resource can be set up, there is a shortage of professional-level sites offering down-to-earth, practical information for people in Ireland who hope to write for a living. I helped to develop one aimed at people who want to write for children (though it’d be useful to any writer), in the form of cb info, on CBI’s website.

Now there’s a new one, founded by Vanessa O’Loughlin, who runs the highly successful Inkwell Writing Workshops. It’s called writing.ie, and even though it’s only starting out, it already contains a large amount of useful info for beginners and experienced writers. Vanessa has drawn together a whole host of successful, professional authors to create a real hub of information, with contributions from people like Roddy Doyle, Sarah Webb, Martina Devlin, Claire Hennessy and Joseph O’Connor. If you’re into writing, or even if you’d like to be, or if you run courses you want to promote, or if you’re an established writer who wants to contribute, or if you’re just curious, you should check it out.