Monthly Archives: June 2011


In my experience, an artist’s most scathing critic is themselves.
Back in the day, when I did all my work with pencil, paper and paint, there were lots of times when I’d tear up near finished pictures because they didn’t look like the image I had in my head, or they weren’t going in the direction I hoped. It could be utterly frustrating and probably made me look a little mad.

Nowadays destroying near completed artwork is a thing of the past, and not just because tearing a monitor in two is as difficult as it sounds.
Digital art software allows me to re-edit and redo my work to my hearts content. If I don’t like a particular colour I simply move a slider bar and change it. If  there’s part of a picture that needs better placement I simply “cut” it out and reposition it. Fantastic!

Sometimes, however, being able to adjust things to an infinite degree gives me a new problem; knowing when to stop.
Occasionally I get caught in a vicious circle of chopping and changing things so much that I end up wondering whether what I’m doing looks any good anymore.

Here’s a case in point.

Recently, after doing art for other people for years, I wrote two stories of my own and did a couple of illustrations for each (just as a taster for any commissioning editors*). Everything was going swimmingly until I started on a particular picture of a Grandma
“Not much problem there”, I’m sure you’re thinking.

This is the first picture I did. I wasn’t commissioned to do it, I did it for my own portfolio, but it gave me the idea for my entire first story.

I went away and wrote the story, then took another look at the picture.
On the whole I was pretty happy with it, but thought the angle could be a bit more interesting.

So I did this.

A different angle this time, and I replaced the grandchild with the family dog; but I started worrying that the whole thing looked more like a big title page, a picture at the beginning of a book before the story starts properly.

So I did this.

I went back to the original image, brightened Grandma’s colours and put her at a tilt to give the whole thing a bit more movement and quirkiness. Then I decided the family dog just didn’t work. In the story Grandma has a grandson, so I completely redrew him to make him look more “boyish”. I also added much more scarf, and gave the picture a subtle “painted” look by overlaying a photo of some actual, real-life brushstrokes I’d done.

Then I looked at it again. “Oh God!”, I thought.
The whole thing looked too “stiff”. The overlayed brushstrokes made it look too muddy, and I thought the boy looked terrible.
I liked the look of Grandma sitting in her chair, but changes needed to be done.

This is where I’m up to at the moment.

I think Grandma and her chair look much better; more rounded and friendly. I prefer the little boy too. I think he looks good with no movement at all, just a look of complete resignation. Maybe he’s a little too serious, and perhaps his nose needs changing, but on the whole I think it’s better…for now at least.

Of course, I didn’t just do the obvious changes you can see between each picture, there were dozens of little changes too. Walls were first patterned and then made plain, balls of wool were stacked and then removed completely, eyes were made bigger then smaller, mouths were moved this way and that, and budgies were perched all over the place.
I think, for some of my pictures at least, I’ve got a form of illustrating  OCD.

If another artist had this problem I’d tell them to stop doing the picture immediately, and move onto something else. They should forget about it for a while and try not to turn it into some sort of ongoing project that eats up days and days of their time. Then, when they go back to it, they should be able to look at  it with clearer eyes and see exactly where changes should be made. Otherwise they might end up resenting it, and if there’s one thing that shows in a painting it’s whether the artist enjoyed doing it or not.

Then, this hypothetical “other artist” would be well within their right to turn to me and say,
“Andy, you should bloody well practice what you preach”

*Note: In my humble opinion, commissioning book editors are amongst the most attractive, humourous, and intelligent people on the planet (just in case there are any reading)


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Captain Phineas T Furball

I am the proud owner of two vicious pets.
Drew (eight) and Brook (six).

They are strange to me, and I am constantly learning new things about their behaviour, but up to this point there are three things of which I’m certain:

1. Drew likes Pirates. He has a massive, wheeled toolbox full of Lego Pirate stuff.

2. Brook likes hamsters. She has a pet hamster called “Satsuki” (I know, it sounds like a cross between a little orange and a motorbike, but what can you do?), which she generally hugs, man-handles and sings to.
In turn the hamster keeps Brook awake at night by gnawing the bars of it’s cage, wreaking a sort of “Hamster Revenge” for the constant squeezing it gets.

3. The pair should be kept separate, at least from the point when blows are first exchanged.

With this in mind I’ve drawn a picture, which might stop them arguing for five minutes.

I can't think of a Pirate/Hamster pun. All suggestions greatly appreciated.

This is Captain Phineas T Furball, notorious Pirate hamster.
It’s a sad story really. He longs for a swashbuckling, devil-may-care life upon the ocean waves, but he can’t stop himself from chewing his own boat to bits.

* I do this sort of thing for a job….unbelievable isn’t it!

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Finding an Illustrator for your book. Step One: Don’t!

A number of times each year I get an email that usually starts with these words;

These emails are hugely flattering, because the writer likes my work enough to think that I’m the right person to bring their story to life. Who wouldn’t be pleased by that?
However, even if their story is fantastic and something that I’d usually love to illustrate, most of the time I have to turn them down. This isn’t because I’m rushed off my feet and unable to find the time but because choosing me as their artist could be a costly mistake.

So, for the sake of this blog let’s say you’re a first time writer who has asked me to illustrate your story, and are now wondering why on earth I’ve said, “Sorry, but no”.

Firstly, if you haven’t done so already, put your manuscript somewhere you’ll forget about it, and get on with your life for a week or two. Then go back to it and take a look with fresh eyes; You might find mistakes or clunky passages, which weren’t obvious when you were originally writing it.

Next, it’s important that you  get a good idea in your own mind of how your finished book will look. What format will it be? How many pages? Is it more suited to a 48 page epic or a 12 page board book for pre-school kids?
A standard picture book is 32 pages in length, but not all of these can be devoted to story and/or artwork. Some are required to be end pages, a copyright page, and a title page. Will your story fill that amount, or have you written too much? Think about how the text will flow from page to page, and what pictures might compliment it. Importantly, does it need further editing? (The answer to that is probably “Yes”, by the way. If you’re unwilling to allow an editor to edit your story then it’s doubtful it’ll get published).

Have you decided what Publishing Houses you’re going to approach? If you’ve written a children’s book and are going to send it off for consideration into the big, wide world then at the very least you should make sure you’ve sent it to people who might be interested in it. Different publishers often specialise in different types of books, so make sure you don’t send your story about flying monkeys to someone who only prints historical stories.
You should also be aware of the problems of sending publishers an unsolicited manuscript. Not every publisher accepts stories sent out of the blue, and might only work with authors, or a literary agent, with whom they already have a working relationship.
If you send your story to one such publisher it would simply end up languishing  in the limbo of the dreaded slush pile, no matter how good it is.

Perhaps you might consider trying to get a literary agent yourself. They will take a percentage of your profits, but they will do all the leg work of sending the manuscript to the right people, and might have contacts in the publishing industry that would otherwise be unavailable to you.

Next, get your coat on, go to your local bookshop and see how everyone else is doing it. See what other writers are up to. Get an idea in your head of what your book might look like when it’s published, and while you’re at it take a look at who is producing the sort of books that yours might fit in with.
You could do worse off than buy yourself  a copy of The Children’s Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook.
It’s full of useful information for those trying to break into the world of children’s books. It has articles, contacts, the addresses of Publishing Houses and whether they accept story manuscripts, and lots more advice. It will help you to be better equipped to get your story noticed.

If you’re still positive that you want me to illustrate your book before you send it off then let’s talk about payment.
I don’t want to wait until the book has been picked up by a publisher before I get paid; I prefer to be paid when all the work has been delivered to you. Sometimes the payment might be split into chunks; one on delivery of the roughs and the other on delivery of the finals. I mean, I do have bills to pay.
Then, of course, there’s the subjects of contracts and royalties…

Importantly can I point out that even though you like my art, a commissioning editor interested in your story might hate it. They might think the style is completely unsuitable, want major changes throughout, or worst of all want a completely new illustrator to do the work. If this happens then you will find yourself with a bookload of artwork that nobody wants, and thousands of pounds out of pocket.

So if you’re a first time writer who is thinking about approaching an illustrator (whether it’s me or someone else) to illustrate your book, my advice is “Don’t!”.
If you’re still adamant that you want some sort of artwork to go with your story then you might consider paying for a double page spread, or perhaps a few character deigns to show the editor what you have in mind; but please, no more than that.
Anything else at this early stage would be a waste of cash.

Instead, you’d be much better off  making sure your manuscript is as perfect as it can be before sending it off.
Then, wait…

If you’re lucky enough to get a call back from an excited commissioning editor who is desperate to put your book on the shelves, then you can suggest an illustrator to them.
Who knows, they may think you’ve made a great choice, and tell you that fame and fortune await.

In which case my answer is “Yes”. I’d be delighted to illustrate it for you.

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An Englishman’s home…

Being a children’s book illustrator means I spend most of my professional life in a tiny darkened room.
I doubt this is the norm.
Most other illustrators I know work in light, airy spaces but I prefer the gloom because I produce all of my work digitally. The days when I used to paint with a paintbrush are long gone; the PC and the Wacom are Kings in my house.

I think my desire for darkness is a throwback to my time as a graphic designer in the computer games industry. Lots of light equals lots of reflections you see, and reflections bouncing off a monitor screen are really annoying. They distort colour and make it difficult to see just what you’re doing. As far as I’m concerned, the only light you see should be the light coming from the screen itself. (that might seem a bit extreme, but it’s how I like to work)
I’ve even got to the stage where, if I need to do any sketching with a real pencil and paper, I’ll huddle closer to my monitor and work in the light it casts on my desk.

You’d think that by now my skin would be translucent and my eyes would be the size of dinner plates, but not so because apart from being an illustrator I also work a few days each week for Historic Scotland.
I work for Historic Scotland in a castle. A big, old, stony, battle-scarred, drowning in its own history, castle…which as you’d expect happens to be outdoors…in the sunlight*

As jobs go, working in a castle is a pretty good one, (not many people can claim to work in an office that was once besieged by Robert the Bruce.) but one of the most rewarding things about it is the interaction I have with the public.

Now I’m well aware that interacting with “Joe public” is some people’s idea of hell, but every year we get 30,000 visitors passing through the gatehouse, and up to now they have proved to be a more varied selection of humanity than I’ve ever met.

In the past few months I’ve met people from all over the world, some of them speaking in languages I’ve never heard spoken before. I’ve met scientists, writers, geologists and artists. I’ve met people who have travelled half way across the world to see the castle because in the dim and distant past it was their ancestral home. I’ve met South Korean choral singers who, unannounced and unexpected, began singing beautifully from the battlements. They weren’t singing for anyone in particular, there were hardly any visitors at the site. They just sang for the joy of it and it was fantastic.

Best of all though, for me at least, were the group of people I met a few weeks ago; Americans, five or six men and a single woman. All of them were exploring the site except for one guy in aviator shades who just “hung around”, so I began talking to him.
He explained that they’d come over from Houston, Texas, the day before and were just enjoying a day trip up from Glasgow (we’re about three hours away from there). I asked him how long they were on vacation in Scotland for.
” Just until tomorrow,” said the man, “and then we’re flying to Kazakhstan”.
“Oh, right” said I, a little puzzled.
“Yeah, then we leave there after a day, have another stop over in Glasgow, and then it’s back home to Texas.”

A four day vacation that includes two nights in Kazakhstan and two nights in Glasgow is peculiar by anyone’s standards, so I asked quite innocently what on earth he was going there for.
“To pick up some astronauts” he replied matter-of-factly, “some guys from the space station”.

It turned out that the party of Americans were employees of NASA. They were going to Kazakhstan because some American astronauts were due to leave earth orbit the following day and were going to land in Russia.
When he said that they were “…flying to Kazakhstan” he actually meant he would be doing the flying, because he was a NASA research Pilot and they had brought their own jet over from the States.
I guess that explains the shades and the fact he seemed a little tired; he was jet lagged in the truest sense of the phrase.

I don’t know about you, but I’m a bit of a science geek and that sort of thing turns me into a gibbering fool.
His colleagues then joined us, and I was surrounded by people who play an active part in the American Space Agency!
I began firing questions at them, asked them their opinions about the drastic cuts in Government funding that NASA is experiencing, told them how fantastic it was to meet them all, what an “honour” it was.
One of them, whose name I didn’t catch, patted his jacket pockets and said that he would have given me a NASA pen but didn’t have one on him.
Then, it suddenly struck me that these guys mightn’t be from NASA at all. They could just be playing an elaborate trick on some gullible English guy. I mean, it did seem a pretty far-fetched story.
Then, the guy in the shades pulled out his wallet, opened it and handed me this:

If I was any more of a Geek I would frame this!

His name is Terry Pappas, and he is the nearest thing to a spaceman that I will ever meet in my life.

So,  if you too ever feel the need to get out and experience a regular stream of astounding people doing amazing things that might just change the planet, all from the comfort of your own back yard, keep scanning the employment section.
You might find a job in a castle.

*sunlight = rain, actually. This is Scotland


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Bird Brains

At the front of our house is the sea and at the back of our house is a wood, which means we get a whole “Bird Spotters Guide” variety of birds visiting our garden.

The cleverest by far are the blackbirds and the robins who flap right up to the kitchen window to attract our attention, demanding to be fed. A few of them even eat from our hands, but it takes a great deal of patience waiting for them to pluck up the courage to do so.
The stupidest are the acid green coloured siskins, who flap right into the window and end up in a heap on the ground… or beneath a heap under the lawn.
One of these beautiful little birds met a particularly sorry fate in our back garden that I daren’t write about here; email me if you want the whole gruesome story.

The bully boys are the gulls, who scare all the other birds away and devour everything in seconds. One of them is better equipped than most to do this because he appears to have three beaks. We have named him “Three Beaks”. Original, I know.
Let me explain. He has the normal sort of beak just like you’d expect, but directly beneath his lower beak (bill?) is another one. It’s the same colour and length as the two above it, but it curves downward like a hook. It looks like it would be good for opening tins of beans. He is a bizarre looking thing.

The most “dangerous” bird that visits the garden is the sparrowhawk.
One minute you might be watching a little chaffinch or goldfinch warbling merrily on a twig when suddenly, in an explosion of feathers and throttled “tweets”, it will disappear completely because the sparrowhawk has dropped by for lunch. This happens in the blink of an eye. One minute they’re there and the next they’re not, and all the other birds fall ominously quiet.

The scariest bird (at least in our house) is the Barn Owl. Not because it’s dangerous, but because of the God awful sound it makes. Imagine being outside at night when everything is quiet and still when suddenly a noise fills the air that’s across between a screeching, hissing cat and nails down a blackboard. Click here.
See what I mean!

There’s a supporting cast of others who wait in the wings (no pun intended) and flit about inside the bushes or up in the tree tops; Wrens, Dunnocks, GreenfinchesTreecreepers; but there is one who watches all these goings on with a certain aloofness. He is the Bullfinch, and he’s a cut above the rest.
I’ve drawn this picture of him. Unbelievably it’s 100% accurate.

“What-ho Jeeves!”


Like some portly little toff in a tight-fitting waistcoat he “observes” the hoi palloi from high in the trees beyond the garden but never comes down to join then. We have feeders full of all sorts of bird food, seeds, meal worms, dried fruit, nuts, but none have enticed him yet.
It’s like he’s been invited to the wrong type of party and he’s really cheesed off. He’s expecting hors d’oeuvres but he’s getting sausages on sticks.

It’s probably a good thing though. If we finally did find something he’d like to eat he’d no doubt gorge himself, and get even fatter. Then he’d be no use to anyone, except a passing sparrowhawk


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