Working Methods

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When & Why


When & Why

I expect some people dream of becoming a children's author from their childhood. I didn't. In fact, I never dreamt of it at all.

During the twenty years I was working in ceramics, I pretty well stopped drawing and painting all together, except where it was part of the ceramics.

Around 1987 I started drawing again. I did a series of detailed black & white drawings that I had made into prints. (If you go to the Stuff to Download page there are a couple there you can download) I sent copies of these to all the pen manufacturers I could think of, telling them that I had drawn the pictures with their wonderful pens and how about giving me tons of freebies and what about commissioning me to do a calendar. Needless to say the postman was not weighed down with their replies. Fifteen months later I got a phonecall from Rotring UK and ended up doing a calendar for them in 1989. I then went on to do five calendars for Leeds Permanent Building Society.

I began to think of other ways to get paid for a lot of pictures in one go and I thought of book illustration. So I sent more copies of my prints off to all the publishers I could think of and went and visited some of them. They all told me they liked my drawings but no one worked in black & white any more. An editor at Methuen particularly like one drawing and asked me if I could do it again in colour and write a story to go with it. I did and then went back to see her. She liked the colour picture but not the story.

I don't know why but I thought I'd have another go at writing and the next week, in one and a half days, I wrote Ethel the Chicken. I got myself a literary agent and ten day later Ethel had a publisher. It all seemed so easy. I wrote them another story and they published my first two books in March 1991. Soon after Julia MacRae accepted my first picture book The Paperbag Prince. By the end of 2008 I will have had 51 books published.

So, I'm afraid there was no great blinding light making me think I had something to say to the world. There were no years struggling in remote Scottish cottages living on bread and jam. Hang on, yes there were, but they were nothing to do with writing. That just sort of happened.



& When

Well, I'd like to be able to say that each day I leap out of bed at the crack of dawn and I'm at my drawing board before the cock finishes crowing with two pictures finished before breakfast, but I can't.

Whenever I used to read about successful people they always seemed get up at some ungodly hour and then work a twenty-seven hour day. I think that basically I'm quite lazy, but in reality I'm probably just a victim of the brain-washing Victorian work ethic that says if you're not working you should feel guilty.

I seem to get a lot of work done so I suppose I do work long hours. It's just that if I'm not actually at the drawing board or my computer, I tend to think I'm not working. In fact with the sort of work I do, that's not the case. For example if I am working on a particularly detailed illustration, it's impossible to sit down, begin and carry on until it's finished. There comes a point when I look at the page and think - what the hell am I going to put there? It's as if I've emptied out the part of my brain that stores images and then I have to do something else while it fills up again.

Sometimes this just involves working on another picture and I often have two or three illustrations on the go at the same time. Other times I go and do some writing as that seems to use a different part of your brain. I hate anyone even being in the room when I'm writing but when I'm illustrating, I have music playing and am quite happy to chat to whoever's there. Other times I might fiddle around on the computer or go shopping, take the dog for a walk or do the washing up.

I enjoy what I do most of the time so it doesn't seem like work (the Victorian work ethic again, saying you aren't expected to enjoy your work). I have so many projects going on at the same time that if I don't feel like doing a particular thing any day, I can just go and work on something else. But I generally work every day but only the odd hour here and there at weekends. I have deadlines for each book and I'm never more than a few weeks late, though I often end up with a mad rush at the end.


Making a Picture Book

Once I have the idea for a picture book, I then sit at the computer and write the story. People sometimes ask me which comes first, the story or the pictures. The original idea could be a story or a picture, but until the actual story is written I never start the pictures. Picture books are nearly alway 32 pages long and you just can't do a set of pictures and then try and write a story to join them all together. As I do the pictures the story can change. Sometimes a picture might contradict the writing. Other times the picture may repeat the writing. In fact, the words aren't completely finished until the last illustration is done.

When I am happy with the story, I make a 'dummy'. This is a rough, and in my case it is very rough, mock-up of the book with the text divided up onto the right pages and a sketch of each picture. This is the blueprint from which I do the pictures. Some illustrator's dummys are works of art in themselves with beautiful detailed pencil drawings. Mine are terrible. I'm just too impatient to get on with the book itself to want to waste time on something that is going to end up being thrown away. Also, in my case, the finished pictures usually are completely different to what I said they would be in the dummy. My work is so detailed that there is no way I can plan anything more than a rough idea in advance. Each picture is more or less made up as I go along and sometimes even the basic idea for the picture may not be what I had originally planned.

In each book there are eighteen pictures - two single page and sixteen double page. Before I begin the pictures, I can't wait to get started. Then, as I work my way through the illustrations my enthusiasm changes to - will I EVER get this thing finished? Once I am past the halfway stage, my enthusiasm goes up and down and by then I'm thinking about the pictures for the next book. When there are only two or three left to do I get excited about the whole thing again and the last picture just flies by. I don't do the pictures in any particular order, just what takes my fancy, usually following a very detailed one with a simpler one.

Once the pictures are finished, my editor at Random House goes through the text again and makes her final suggestions. This is usually a fairly painless fine-tuning procedure because by then I have re-written the story several times as I've been doing to pictures.

The pictures are then scanned and a proof copy of the book is printed. We then go over it with a fine-tooth comb to look for any mistakes (On one of the calendars I did for The Leeds, February had two 25s and no 26. We were all so busy looking at the pictures that no one noticed the mistake until the calendar had been printed. With a whiteout pen in one hand and a black pen in the other and two assistants fetching and carrying, I corrected all 10,000 calendars by hand is just over a week! I also drew someone's hand back to front in Looking For Atlantis and had to re-do it) The different countries then translate the story and the book is printed. After thirteen books it's still just as exciting seeing the first printed copies. Then there is the long wait. By the time the book is in the shops I have usually finished the next one.


Making a Story Book

I started writing children's books in 1990. The first two stories I wrote were Ethel The Chicken and A Giant Called Norman Mary. They were published by Hodder & Stoughton in 1991 and each had a few black & white drawings. I found it quite hard to write at first, going over everything again and again until I was happy with it. People sometimes ask me what age group I write for and I have to say, I don't really think about it. I think I write and illustrate for a certain type of person not a certain age. There are things in my pictures that would appeal to adults and other things that only children would get. So I suppose my market age range is 6 to 90. The oldest person who has written to me is an eighty year old grandmother who had bought Looking For Atlantis for her grandson and then bought herself a copy. I think it's wonderful that people of all ages seem to enjoy my books.

I have written five books of short stories, three books of children's poems, one serious adult novel, two funny adult novels (though the publisher insisted they were children's books) and two children's novels. Where I've drawn since I was a child and sort of take it for granted that I can do it reasonably well, I have only been writing about 15 years and I'm amazed and delighted that people actually want to read what I've written.

Since I came to live in Australia I have started writing picture book stories for other people to illustrate. People seem to find it amazing that, as an illustrator myself, I don't mind other people doing the pictures. I think it's wonderful. I am not very good at drawing people and I often think of stories that I know I couldn't illustrate as well as someone else might.



Until 2002 all the illustrations in my picture books were all done on a very hard surfaced line board called CS10 manufactured by Frisk. Many of the effects that I used would not be possible working on other kinds of paper which are more absorbent. CS10 Board allowed me to lift colour off and work over something again and again without the surface breaking up. I always drew my illustrations much larger than the finished book, but now I work on the computer, I usually draw the pictures the same size as they will be in the book.

For my fine line work I used rotring technical pens mostly using inks that I mixed myself. For the colour I mainly used the fantastic range of Tombow ABT Dual Brush Pens which come in a range of 144 colours. For washes and large areas of colour such as skies, I used liquid watercolours. I also used Tria pens, various ballpoints, markers and pencils and occasionally traditional water colours. In my story books the black and white illustrations wewre done with inks or pencil.

All this is now irrelevant because I am now illustrating on the computer. I am drawing EVERYTHING my Apple Mac using a Wacom Cintiq graphics tablet and Photoshop CS3. I still like buying pens though.



My handwriting is illegible. My typing is nearly as bad so I always write on a computer. I use an Apple Mac Pro and I also have an Apple MacBook Proto work on when I'm away from home.

I live in constant fear of having a brilliant idea and forgetting it. For all I know this has happened many times. I've got a tiny little gadget that can record hours and hours of speech on a chip and fits in your pocket. All I have to do now, is remember to take it everywhere with me, which I don't. Of course a pencil and a notebook would do the job but as all collectors of boy's toys know, it wouldn't do it nearly as well.

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