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The Tale of the Whale: A Guest Piece by Padmacandra

A Toolkit for Young Illustrators (or what I wish someone had told me when I was a budding scribbler!)

Hello Armadillo readers! I’m very happy to meet you through this medium of words. I was delighted when the Armadillo team asked me to write something about my experience as a debut children’s book illustrator.

My first illustrated book The Tale of the Whale (Scallywag Press) came out last year and was recently shortlisted for the Klaus Flugge Prize 2022 for illustration and design.

When I first started on the children’s book illustration M.A. course at the Cambridge School of Art, my fellow classmates and I could hardly believe we had been accepted onto the course, let alone that we would ever be making art at the level previous graduates seemed to have achieved. “You will be amazed at what you will be producing by the end of this course,” Pam Smy our tutor at the Cambridge School of Art reassured us. And despite our doubts, sure enough, one of the delights of the course I attended between 2016 and 2019 was witnessing fellow graduates finding their unique visual “voices” in unexpected ways.

I’d like to share with you some of the principles I learnt on the course and some of the things I’ve found helpful in my own practice. If you love to draw and want to develop that further, I’d like to think of this as a kind of toolkit. One that I wish I had had early in life!

Principle 1: Keep drawing and learn to look

For a whole term at the Cambridge School of Art we were asked to carry a sketchbook and soft pencil or drawing pen around with us at all times, and spend any spare moment just sketching what we saw. We were advised not to worry too much about what came out on the paper. The most important instruction was to spend at least 90 percent of the time looking at what we were drawing, and a maximum of 10 percent of the time looking at the paper.

What happened as a result of this was extraordinary. People began to find their own unique way of making marks on paper in a way we had never expected when they began. It made me wish that as a young person I had got into the habit of looking and sketching. One person I find very inspiring in this regard is fellow alumni Jenny Bloomfield (illustrator of The Worry Jar, reviewed in this magazine) who pledged to draw every day several years ago. She posts daily on Instagram, and you can plot her incredible progress.

We were also inspired on our course by stories of great illustrators such as Ronald Searle (also an alumni of the Cambridge School of Art) who was averagely good at drawing at the beginning of a long sea voyage in the war, but by sketching consistently throughout the journey, became a brilliant draftsman , but by sketching consistently throughout the journey, became a brilliant draftsman, able to draw anything.

In the end not everybody on the MA course developed a “realistic” way of drawing, but knowing how to look meant the images they did make were authentic and original. Sometimes it is just a matter of getting the “visual information” down quickly: the little details of all the things seen in a shop window, or in an allotment for example. A bit like being a visual journalist – or spy! (This principle of jotting things down and being a “spy” also holds true if you want to be a writer or poet)

Principle 2: Experiment, play, enjoy

Sketchbooks can become a laboratory for playing with colour and different media. On the course we spoke about “mark making” rather than drawing. I have found it really important and fun to play around with materials. We were taught printmaking of many different kinds on our course, but I ended up playing around a lot with wax and ink/watercolour - seeing how they worked to resist each other and what effects that can have. I also love getting hands on with materials, whether that is rubbing oil pastel onto paper, or sticking things onto the paper (collage). Through experiment I found ways of layering wax, crayons and oil pastels and then scratching into them with a scratchboard implement. This is a technique I used in The Tale of the Whale. Many illustrators use digital media nowadays, or a combination of traditional and digital methods (like me). Learning to use and play with traditional materials can work well alongside digital work, and produce work that is more interesting, or that can be translated into a digital method later to produce a similar effect. The illustrator Chris Haughton when interviewed has often talked about his use of collage – both digital and traditional – in his books. Unusually he found himself moving from digital to traditional collage in some of his books, so he could play with and move the shapes around manually. And its important to say that a lot of experimentation can be done with non-expensive art materials.

Principle 3: Originality is already yours

A lot of people who want to learn to draw will go straight to the internet and try to copy a style (anime for example) that is already being done (all over the place). They might also receive praise from fellow pupils or teachers if their work looks realistic. They don’t realise that they already have an original visual “voice” that is completely unique to them and waiting to be discovered. One way of noticing this is to see how your handwriting is completely unique to you. You didn’t have to try to produce this completely unique way of writing – it just happened! (And will keep developing as you keep writing). There is nothing wrong with copying things from the internet, but if you really want to be an illustrator or artist, you need to be an explorer and set off on your own. The way to discover your unique voice is to keep looking at the world around you and get it down, and to experiment. Your work might not look conventionally realistic or tidy. (Look at the work of fabulous Dundee illustrator Cara Rooney). You might find – like me – that in the end you rely more on your inner imagination when you are drawing. But having learned to look at the world will still stand you in good stead.

Principle 4: Let good art influence you

I’ve said that copying a style can sometimes stop you developing your own voice, but I also find it really important to look at other people’s art that I like and look at the art of well-known painters and illustrators of the past and present. It can be fun discovering what you like visually. If you only look at a narrow range of art that might limit your sense of possibility. So, this principle is about just keeping inspired by looking at good art! No need to do anything. Just looking will have its effect and educate your eye! (Although it is permitted to borrow ideas too - Artists are always doing that.)

Principle 5: Hang loose to the inner critic

I almost always have a voice that is saying “this isn’t going very well” “you aren’t good at drawing” etc when I’m making work. It is the one thing that can get in the way of putting pencil to paper. One of the skills an artist must learn is to carry on anyway. Let the voice natter on in the background, without buying into it. You can say “thank you” to that voice which after all is probably trying to protect you, and then carry on regardless. This is a good principle for life as well. Thoughts like that are unhelpful and not even accurate, but they can lead us astray if we believe them. (It’s also good to identify and label such thoughts as they arise as “stories”.)

Principle 6: The Golden Thread – Follow what you love

I give you the end of a golden string; Only wind it into a ball, It will lead you in at Heaven’s gate, Built in Jerusalem’s wall.

I’ve always loved this poem by William Blake, the 19th Century printmaker and poet. This is possibly the most important principle, which is to follow what you love. What inspires you? What brings your heart alive? What sparks you off? As a budding artist or illustrator, draw and research those things that you love, and let them influence you!

Padmacandra is shortlisted for the 2022 Klaus Flugge Prize for her illustrations for The Tale of the Whale, written by Karen Swann and published by Scallywag Press. The Klaus Flugge Prize is awarded to the most promising and exciting newcomer to children’s picture book illustration. The winner will be announced on Thursday 14 September. Find out more about the prize and this year’s shortlist on the website.


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