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How to create beautiful illustrations - for children's books and much more

Updated: Dec 22, 2022

Willow the Wonderer, a story about a child's innocent search for happiness, had been incubating in my head for well over two decades. I would think about it mostly when I was looking up at clouds, forms would appear in them and then disappear as the wind reformed the shapes. I wanted to create a picture book that would not only look good and engage children but would incorporate this idea. What was most important to me, however, was that the book plant a seed of wisdom in a small child's mind, a seed I wish I had growing in my psyche when I was trying to figure out what this mysterious, diabolical but self evident life was about.

Early inspirations

My earliest memories are ones of being enchanted by art. All year my mother was a carer and provider, and then as if by magic at Christmas she became an artist. She transformed our ordinary house windows into portals of fantasy by painting snowy landscapes filled with red robins, hares and goblins.

In the schoolyard grounds one day I came across a tiny line drawing of a car - just a simple naive child sketch but it looked futuristic and sophisticated in a strange way. It transported my imagination into the future.

It was a drawing of a car that didn’t exist and would never exist because it was never meant to carry people, only their imaginations.

Fast forward a few decades and I find myself reflecting on my latest scribble “Willow the Wonderer’ and being asked to impart what I think it takes to create good children’s picture book illustration, and perhaps what it takes to make it enchanting and special .

The paper, the pencil, the drawing

There is a simpatico between my mind and hand when my hand draws something on paper, it is as though my hand has it’s own Intelligence and speaks in it’s own language to my mind. This doesn’t happen when I use a computer, bluetooth pen and a plastic tablet. It's a mechanical disassociated experience, it feels like I am in an aeroplane's cockpit, and I am controlling the plane with knitting needle hands. Finding good illustration produced on a computer is rare.

The foundation of good illustration is drawing, preferably on paper with a pencil. The better the drawing skills displayed in an illustration usually translates into a good final colour image.

Drawing is the foundation of most of histories great pictures.

Making the ordinary extraordinary in picture books

Next is vision, imagination and creativity. Giving an experience beyond the ordinary visual stimulus is a must or even to re-imagining the ordinary. We are bombarded with a mass of imagery every day making us inured, de-sensitised and somewhat spoiled.

The trick to cutting through the white noise is to offer up something new that hasn’t been seen, to disrupt the regime of known signs and therefor hold attention for longer.

In our picture book, Willow the Wonderer, I tried to make Willow’s ordinary trip to the beach into something unexpected, the waves are treated in a way that one does not see ordinary waves roll in, the waves are actual sea creatures.

This device is also evident in the campfire scene, I have reimagined a fire as a swarm of fireflies, owls and snakes, instead of flames.

The humble colour wheel and illustrations for picture books

Most humans like colour, so a decent array, in harmony, with different combinations does wonders to feed the eyes hungry for beauty and play.

It’s what the flowers use to attract bees and birds to attract a mate...after all.

The colour wheel is a good grounding in how colour operates, what colours go together and what repel. This can be used as a way of enhancing the mood and message of an image.

A colour wheel, based on red, yellow and blue, is traditional in the field of art. Opposite colours like red and green tend to vibrate when placed side by side, green and pink to harmonize. If I want as much colour brightness as possible I would use red and yellow. Cool colours like blues for cool moods, reds and oranges for warm.

A good understanding of colour theory and sensitivity to colours is primary in good image making.

In Willow the Wonderer I privilege a warm colour palette, using a minimum of cool colours. I do this to enhance the warm and fuzzy vibe of the book, it is after all a picture book meant to guide a child to happiness. The strong contrast in tones is a way of adding drama, excitement and anticipation.

An inspired story for an inspired picture book

Most importantly, for images to work, they need a good story or idea behind them.

If an image is interesting it’s because, beyond it’s pure style and character, it has come about because of an interesting back story. The image can be driven by an experience the artist has had, or the story the image has been made for can be interesting.