A self-published children’s picture book about a frog

Wow, it’s two years since I self-published my first picture book for children about a frog named Bob. The book was indeed titled A Frog Named Bob.

A Frog Named Bob

A Frog Named Bob

I remember vividly sitting in my local cafe (and second home) and coming up with the idea of drawing a series of pictures about a frog who had no idea what sound he should make. His name was Bob and he’d be the most miserable frog that ever lived.

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Sat sketching in the cafe

All that Bob wanted was to be able to make his own sound. The birds chirped, the owl twit-wooed, the bear growled, the mice squeaked, the cows mooed, so on and so forth. But Bob, well he had no clue what sound he should make. So he set forth to discover.

 

When I came up with the idea I knew that the words in the story would need to present me with an opportunity to create some fun and colourful cartoons.

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I looked around at popular children’s picture books and found that rhyming was a key feature.
Julia Donaldson’s Gruffalo was obviously riding high in the charts for children’s picture books so I pored over it and took some notes.
Sure enough the rhyming was cool and great to read aloud.

I made the decision right there to create a rhyming picture book that would be colourful and fun. I’d also aim it at very young readers who enjoy a fun story before bed.

At the time I was using an iPad with the wonderful Procreate app installed. I also had a Wacom Intuos Stylus so creating cool concept sketches whilst enjoying a coffee in town was pretty straight forward.

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With a bit of research into writing for children I found that 32 pages and around 600 – 700 words was the ideal for a picture book. So I set to work.

At home I have a Wacom Cintiq 22HD Touch running with an iMac. A dream combo and coupled with Corel’s Painter X3 I was able to transfer sketches produced in Procreate to the iMac to create something a little more polished.

Before long I had a manuscript and a bunch of rough sketches.
A week or so later (and several nights of little sleep) I had a complete portfolio of artwork for the book.

I self-published using Amazon’s Createspace service. Within a week or two of placing the order I had a box of brand new picture books that I could distribute around the local book stores.

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Proudly holding my first two picture books

I’ve had several reviews about A Frog Named Bob that have all thus far been very positive. From reluctant young talkers finding their voice to hyperactive children settling down for a good giggle right before bed.

The success of A Frog Named Bob encouraged me to continue writing, drawing and self-publishing. Something that I’ve been doing ever since.

You can see my list of books on my dedicated page – my picture books for children.

Thinking about a graphic novel

I always wanted to write something that I could illustrate as a graphic novel. But I don’t really know too much about comic books or graphic novels.

So I took a look around at some of the classics in the genre.
I confess I started with what appears to be one of the finest bits of work I ever saw – From Hell
. I just love the line art. It’s simple but powerful and at times beautifully complex. But it’s also a style that is completely accessible. By that I mean that it has an innocence and amateurishness to it that I find hugely appealing.

From Hell

From Hell

The entire book is a hugely accomplished piece of work in every sense, but it is of course the story itself that hits hard. I find it massively inspiring as an artist and writer to read a story that is so visceral and captured perfectly with the artwork.

I’ve got a number of story ideas that don’t fit my usual style of writing or presentation. One of them features a droid that is 90% human and the rest is synthetic. I never gave the droid a name but I’ve always known that I want him to be a combat droid. But a combat droid with a big difference – he’s terrified of combat. In fact he runs a mile and has the most gentle heart.

After years of conflict the droids have finally won over and humans are forced into hiding. The droids have gained strength and are pretty bloody horrible. But my droid doesn’t want to be a part of it.

As his story unfolds we learn more about why he is so unique and his journey sees him as something of a peacemaker. But not without some serious conflict both literally and psychologically. This is a droid with a conscience. A sentient semi-human with intelligence and great spirit.

This graphic was created to try and capture the mood of the story in the opening pages. It was created using Corel Painter’s Velocity Sketcher from the Liquid Ink collection.

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Combining traditional books with digital content

By far the most challenging aspect of being a ‘creative’ is trying to convince others that your creativity is worth purchasing. For me this amounts to writing and art.

I’ve never been overly bothered about selling art. It’s something that I do that I enjoy enormously and feel privileged and honoured when somebody requests a print.
With my writing I’m always looking to the market.

Currently I write and self-publish via Amazon’s CreateSpace. I’ve used Lulu but was less comfortable with it. The book’s quality was fine but I found the process irritating.

The books that I create are children’s books with a few (picture books) aimed at 0 – 4 years and a couple aimed at 5+ in the form of early chapter books.

I’ve always found it a challenge promoting my work without coming over as a one track broken record. Truth be told I’m not very good at it and not at all interested in the process. A large part of me wants to simply enjoy writing and then push my work to an established market. The process right now is of course very different in that I write without a market and once complete have to go in search of it.

A publisher would solve this, but attracting a publisher is painful. I’ll not give up on it but if my stress levels are already high then the process of obtaining a publisher is pretty much going to have me blow a fuse.

The perfect scenario would be to establish something of a pipeline from initial idea to marketplace such that the entire process is enjoyable.

So how do you develop a market? How do you break into an established market?

Yes, these are the questions we all want answering. These are indeed the questions that nobody has clear answers to so they write books on the subject in order to become an authority. The best we can hope for is some insider knowledge, an educated heads up on the painful process of becoming recognised and earning money from our creativity.

Social media helps us enormously. It’s free to talk amongst your acquaintances and free to have them share your news.

But social media is crowded with people and noise and distraction. What on earth would make my creativity stand out against the plethora of cat videos and political infographics?

Social media intrigues me greatly. There is generally a shift in activity on Facebook depending on the season, current affairs, sporting events and the sense of national unity. But something that seems to be commonplace now is the consumption of visuals. Words work to a point but there’s nothing quite like a strong photograph or video to capture somebody’s interest.

Videos inparticular are powerful. Concise and relevant videos are incredibly powerful and are soon being shared amongst millions of unacquainted people.

So how is this relevant to somebody trying to sell their writing?

I took a step back and analysed social media a short while ago. It occurred to me that the way in which we consume information has changed enormously in the last 10 years. The way in which we communicate with our acquaintances and the way in which we discover and respond to news is entirely different to the methods used just 10 or 15 years ago.

Every activity is now encouraged to be a social affair.

Gaming has more of a multiplayer / social aspect to it now than it’s ever had. Web based social media platforms have become far more visual. Epitomised by the popularity of Pinterest and Tumblr but also reflected in the changes made to the two kings of the genre; Twitter and Facebook. Only last year Twitter allowed the posting of visual material without eating up any of your 140 character post limit.

But reading has changed very little by comparison. We view stories in much the same way as we have for centuries. Significantly, I suppose, we now read ‘on the go’ via Kindle and similar services but ultimately it’s the same process of turning the page and consuming the written word.

Long may that last!

But I’m looking at how to make a dent into a marketplace. How to create a marketplace that I can push my hard work into. It strikes me that there’s scope for how a writer presents their story and consequently there’s room for changing how we consume stories.

Enhanced digital presentation of stories is the obvious route. Furthermore it’s probably going to work best in the children’s market. Some form of interaction where the child is met with a sense of play as they read would no doubt be a winner. Of course there’s an enormous market focused on this but it’s an exciting concept and something that must present gaps to the creative minded writer / illustrator.

Taking a story in traditional format and continuing it online is something that I’ve often been intrigued by but there’s just one thing that prevents me from exploring it, and that’s the fact that I’d be selling a potentially incomplete item.

It’d be an assumption that the reader has consistent access to the internet. How might that affect somebody who wants to take their paperback on holiday and lie on a beach?
None the less that seems to be the exception rather than the rule. The idea of placing QR codes throughout a book still intrigues me. QR codes that link to an image or an animation. Maybe even a video. The possibilities appear limitless and I’m already thinking back to the Choose your own Adventures of my youth. The QR codes could lead to a randomiser which guides the reader along a different path in the story. Complex but achievable. The challenge would of course be in making sure it wasn’t an utterly messy experience.
It’d be something that may help my work to stand out from the crowd and possibly give me an edge in a competitive market.

This post, as I’m sure you’ve ascertained, is something of a brain dump. All feedback is welcomed.

 

 

Illustrating a character for a children’s story using Corel Painter

I love Corel Painter. The version that I use is Corel Painter X3 on iMac.

One of my on-going projects just now is a story about a young boy and his dog lost in a magical realm. It’s an adventure story for children aged 6 – 9 years. I’ve been writing it for a little while and have tried numerous art styles to bring it to life with pictures.

I’m currently angling toward using Painter for all of the artwork. Here’s a snapshot of my process.

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Rough outline sketch using a Soft 6B Pencil on a textured canvas

I always start with a good sized canvas. This sketch was started on a canvas 5″x7″x300dpi.

To start with I’m using a Soft 6B Pencil to pick out the form and the composition. In the story the kid and his dog are stepping across a lava pool using tiny stepping stones. The dog, as always, is pretty fearless. But the kid is extremely cautious.
So I have two things that I need to show; trepidation and bubbling lava.

The pencil is a wonderful way of quickly laying down some form. I particularly love using it against a heavy canvas. You can see the texture that it presents, below. For me this is pretty vital. I really like to enjoy every aspect of the sketching and producing these marks on the canvas is extremely appealing.

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Detail of 6B pencil on textured canvas

For the outline I use the Flat Color pen set to black. This is a common theme in my work. I just love the variation in its stroke. With little pressure – a barely visible hairline. With more pressure – a wonderfully satisfying thickness.

Something that I never do is pause for any length of time before starting the inking process. I like to dive right in. It’s far easier to adjust an image once the marks are down. I do find that if I stare at the canvas for too long I can become quite precious about the lines that I make.

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Applying an ink outlined with the Flat Color pen

I build the composition around the pencil sketch and add a little texture with the ink. Notably around the hair and some of the clothing. I also like to add the darker areas with a thicker ink stroke. It’s important not to overdo it and this stage takes a fair bit of zooming out and looking at the image from a distance to gauge the balance of the strokes.

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Detail of the Flat Color pen’s varied line strength

You can see just how much more interesting the lines are when you zoom in a little. That variation in the line strength adds some interest to the final image and helps to prevent it looking like a vectored / computer generated piece.
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For the colour I work on the lowest layer with a Fine Tip Water brush from the Digital Watercolor collection.

I deliberately set the Diffusion level to 0. This provides a satisfying fringe to each stroke that I think works quite well. Any setting above 0 would produce a level of Diffusion that I think takes something away from the final piece.

As with the ink work I’m not overly precious about the colouring. I certainly don’t worry about being tight to the black ink lines. For me it’s more interesting an image where there are areas left blank.
That said I am conscious that the best effects would be to have the lighter areas on one side of the image.

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Detail of ink and colour applied with the Fine Tip Water brush (Digital Watercolor)

As with the 6B pencil, the texture that the heavy canvas provides for the digital watercolour is very satisfying.

You can see from the detail above that the canvas clearly shows through. I have the Grain setting on the brush set to around 70-80%.

To help get a feel for how the image may appear in a book I mocked up a paperback presentation in Photoshop and placed the image in amongst some text.

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Mock up of the final image in a paperback presentation

The layers were merged and set to Luminosity in the layer blending drop down.

And that’s pretty much it!
You can see a short video of me producing this work on YouTube via the link below.

 

 

Presenting my illustrations in a mock paperback format

I draw so much that I sometimes find it hard to maintain a particular style. So many different styles resonate with me and I often enjoy turning my hand to them to see how they work.

As an illustrator in search of an agent I’m always looking at different ways to present my work. So I crafted a paperback spread using Photoshop and applied some of my more recent drawings.

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Paperback spread created with Photoshop (click to view / download)

The drawings I wanted to present are from a collection I’ve been working on that involve a young boy and his dog in a fantasy realm. Here’s an example. It’s a linear style that I enjoy using when creating some interesting textures, such as wood or a gravelly floor.

barter for the bird

Here’s another one. This drawing was created using Mischief. It’s a much looser style and perhaps a bit more fun.

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I took a couple of images using each style and placed them onto the paper background.

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Line art on a paperback background

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Loose cartoon style on a paperback background

I honestly like both styles. Which to present?
Or both, even!

To create the desired effect I used Multiply from the layer blends in Photoshop. It renders neatly against the paper backdrop.

The type is Georgia.

Writing and illustrating a picture book – playing with a visual concept in Corel Painter

For a little while I have had this idea for a picture book aimed at 5 – 7 year olds. Key stage 1 here in the UK.
It is the story of a lonely lunar repair droid called Floyd.

This morning I fired up Corel Painter and placed a few sketches down to try and establish a visual style.
The story is written and spans 32 pages in my rough layout. Pretty much the only thing that I have in my mind for the layout is that I want a clean typeset against a largely white background. I also want to present the art in a kind of pseudo comic format.

The picture book will be 8″ x 8″. The art will be 4″ x 4″ and in the main placed centrally within the page.

So I created a Painter document: 4″ x 4″ x 300dpi and started sketching.

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Artist’s canvas

The paper that I used is an artist’s canvas. I like the grain that it provides. I also set the colour of the paper to a very light beige. Floyd is sketched here using a soft 6B pencil. I just want to establish his form as a silhouette and place him such that I can represent the moon’s landscape. In something of a homage to Bill Watterson I’ve opted for the monument valley style of alien world.

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On a second layer I wanted to ink the shapes with a simple flat color pen. The variation in the line works beautifully and captures something of a comic book feel. I don’t particularly want to add too much detail as I’ll let the paint add texture and interest to the finished piece.
I work fairly quickly to avoid the temptation of precision. Something I’m not a huge fan of.

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Using a wet oily impasto brush I apply some colour. The brush is set to have a high grain such that the canvas shows through a fair bit. I also opt for a fairly large brush. I like the texture that it provides. You can see some of that impasto effect around Floyd’s head. I rather like it but am conscious not to over-do it.

To help smooth out some of the strokes I use an oily blender from the Blenders palette. It  helps to bring out some of that wonderfully textured canvas.

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I gave some consideration to the book’s palette here. I do love that purple through to yellow graduation. I think it suggests something ‘other worldly’ and helps to make the piece look visually intriguing.

Floyd needs to stand out. I’d played around with him being made of copper and all the rich colours that come with that. But ultimately there was just a little too much clash with my preferred backdrop. So I picked some of the better colours and stuck with them.
I like that he is bright against a fairly subdued backdrop. This will be particularly useful on some of the more distant images. i.e. where Floyd appears quite small and in the distance.

Blocking in the foreground and distant vista with a relatively thick and opaque paint helped to emphasise the canvas texture that I’d laid down for the sky.

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Using a blank layer to create a textured sun

For the bright sun I use a simple smudge blender against a new layer that sits above the main colour layer. This just presented the grainy circle without the use of colour! A neat trick.
The stars were added with the round tipped pen set to white. Simple stuff.

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The detail above shows how the brushes can be used against the artist’s canvas to create an interesting texture. I do think that art needs to look a little ‘imperfect’ and textured to be of interest to a younger reader.
To that end I deliberately didn’t want to be precise with the ink. Far better, I think, to have the squiggly lines rather than precise comic book lines.

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And finally…
Here is my layout concept for the book sans page numbering.
It’s clean and readable yet retains some of that wonderful comic styling.

My workflow for this book will see me use Corel Painter to create the art. I’ll save the source files in native .rif format and then export to Photoshop to enhance the colours. The files will then be further exported to .tif and assembled into a book using InDesign.

From there it’s a PDF to send for print.

A fun day at Weston Primary School, Crewe

I was thrilled to take my Cartoon Academy along to Weston Primary School in Crewe today.
The children had written a story between them. That’s 257 children contributing to a fantastic story about a hero, magic soup and a mystical farmyard.

I worked with selected groups of children throughout the day to turn their words into pictures. It really was such a fantastic experience. So many of the children had their own wonderful ideas and we had so much fun bringing their ideas to life with cartoons.
I’m not sure there is such a fine sight as a room full of creative young minds drawing and contributing their ideas.

I will now take their drawings, scan them into the Mac and assemble a book that they will ultimately be able to hold in their hands.

Magical.

Three teen fiction topics that need more attention

I’ve been watching a number of teen movies lately. They are, to my taste, average despite the underlying story being quite intriguing. My understanding is that they are all adaptations of novels.

I’ve nothing against vampires and werewolves et al, but I do wonder whether or not the entire vampire / werewolf scene has been milked dry.

I love everyday life being a bit different. I love that theme in any story, and that is of course the crux of many of these tales. Somebody has a normal life until something far from normal happens or befriends them. Or, as popularised by stories such as The Hunger Games, life is ordinary but set in a grim, dystopian world of constant struggle.

For a long time films have been as important to me as books. Good film adaptations such as Stephanie Meyer’s Hunger Games trilogy, are compelling. Not least because they are well acted and well produced. Jennifer Lawrence cannot, for me, put a foot wrong. But I’m becoming disillusioned by the glossing of the movie scene. I’m tempted to call it over-production but I really don’t know enough about film production to offer that kind of a criticism.

I do feel that films / stories in the mainstream could be a lot grittier and dispense with the Hollywood gloss.
Kes, for example, has no gloss. It’s an old story and very much of its time, but it’s also a very real tale of a young boy in a working class setting. I do class the book as a teen book and I remember with some fondness reading it in school.
Lad: A Yorkshire Story offers similar vibes and is superbly acted.
I also remember reading Orwell’s 1984 in school. There were some parallels between the two stories for me that centred around oppression but of course in almost every respect they were quite different. I think these stories are wonderful for young adults to read. There are many more.

Some concepts could be really well handled by some good young acting talent in today’s films. To that end there are some intriguing concepts that I think need exploring a little further. Here are just a few.

  • Stories that scare but are not necessarily horror and don’t necessarily involve monsters
  • Stories that centre on the real life struggle with poverty and prejudice
  • Stories that involve serious adult issues such as domestic violence and alcoholism

I’m not suggesting that story time should be transformed into a lesson in morals and standards. I just think that there is an appetite for this level of grit in teen fiction that borrows directly from real life.

I am by no means an oracle when it comes to teen and young adult fiction so I would be keen to hear from anybody who can pick out stories that focus on the things I’ve listed.