• Hannah Moorcroft Jones

How to bring children's illustrations to life

David Millington, illustrator of Stinkabell and the Bogsnufflers shares his top tips for how to create illustrations for a children's book.

1. The first step is to take one!

Creating an illustration, or to be honest starting anything, can be daunting for some. Procrastination can often be hard to overcome, but getting pen to paper (or screen) is the first step.

Begin by thinking through the character. Sketch some ideas, but keep it quick. It’s likely that the first several sketches won’t be to your liking, but stick with it and iterate on your designs and it’ll all start coming together.

Once you have developed your character it’s time to embark on an illustration.

2. Choose your media

This is a personal choice, but for me I find digital illustration a hugely powerful medium as it provides so much flexibility. The following process is created using Procreate on an iPad, but the principles can be applied to other applications, and many of the techniques can be applied to physical media too.

I won’t go into how to use these applications here, but if you are not familiar with them there’s lots of great tutorials out there for you to learn from.

3. Start simple

Start simple. Fill the background layer with a mid tone colour (this can be useful later to play with light and shade later). On a new layer start getting the bare bones and composition of the sketch. Don’t worry about being neat or getting everything right at this stage. Use simple stick man figures and geometric shapes to get down the main forms of the character / scene.

Don’t be afraid of using references at this stage. Use photographs, pose in the mirror, anything to help you create the pose and expression you want to capture.

4. Create your line work

Create a new layer, and using your basic shapes you just created, start tracing over to draw the outline of your character. How much detail you add here is up to you, but remember pose and expression is just as, if not more important as detail so get those references out again!

4. Adding some colour

Time to embrace your inner child with some good old colouring in! Make a new layer to sit underneath your line work and start colouring in your character. Consider creating a reference palette to the side to allow you to quickly select and go between your colours.

5. Set the scene

Time to create a backdrop for your character. On a new layer sitting behind your characters’ colour, start building your background. Don’t worry about line work here, instead I like to use blocks of colour to create a representation of the scene, and then take advantage of the blur tool to soften the background. This hints at there being more detail that there actually is, adds depth in your image, and helps the character pop off the page.

6. Lighting, lighting, lighting!

Now here’s where the magic happens! I truly believe that lighting in a picture is what transforms an illustration. Check out the digital illustrator Aveline Stokart to see what I mean. The way she uses lighting is magnificent, and really brings her work to life.

To incorporate this into your own illustration, first think about your light source. Where’s it coming from? How intense is it? Is it a sunny day or a cloudy one? All these will affect how your character is lit.

Now you have decided where your light is coming from, make a new layer (set the layer to ‘overlay’ and reduce the opacity) and start adding in your shadows. Remember shadows can have both soft and hard edges, so use softer edge brushes on smoother shapes, and harder brushes on sharper edges (e.g. clothing creases)

Now for the highlights - Again add another new layer (set this to ‘add’) and using a white brush this time, start adding highlights to your character. Use a similar technique as you did with shadows, but also think about the material the light is hitting. Is the light being diffused by clothing, or bouncing off a shiny bald head :-)

Lastly, let's add a secondary light source or ‘rim light’. This is quite a nice technique to help your character pop, and it adds intrigue and more life to you illustration

Within the shadow side of your illustration, highlight the edge of your character as if it’s being backlit by a secondary light in the scene. Coloured light is nice to use here too. Artificial interior lights are often more yellow, or you could go with a bluish tinge for a night time scene.

Experiment with this until you’ve found something you like.

7. Pull it all together

You’re almost there! Once you’ve got all you layers working for you take a step back. Take a break, grab a coffee, and come back to it later. It’s amazing what you notice with fresh eyes.

Do your final tweaking, and then save out your illustration as a jpeg. Try experimenting with some photo editing effects; play with your exposure, contrast, saturation levels, and maybe even a vignette. Whatever feels right.

8. And you’re done!

Hopefully you’re now gazing at your latest masterpiece. Remember the important thing is to enjoy it - Experiment, find your own style, and have fun!

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