Layers upon layers

Impenetrable scribbles

Often when I’m editing several images at once, I’ll line them all up in the same file to straighten and size and tidy them.

impenetrable scribbles

It creates a rather horrific kind of scribble, but sometimes I find them charming.

stacked and therefore illegible silhouettes
Not a spoiler because you can’t tell what’s going on

I like the hints of stories, the occasional figure emerging from the shadows, arms extended from a storm cloud. The gorgeous textures that emerge.

Illegible stack of scribbly lines

Perfectly normal words combined into a sense of threatening incantations.

Illegible scribbles with bits of words emerging at edges

A few of these effects are working their way into other projects — and into some stationery for patrons.

Art Process: Wilderlore Maps

Here is a look behind the scenes at how I drew the maps for Amanda Foody‘s first two Wilderlore books (for Simon & Schuster): The Accidental Apprentice and The Weeping Tide.

Stay tuned for interviews with author Amanda Foody (now up!), art director (Karyn Lee) and editor (Kate Prosswimmer)!

First, as usual, is to read the book and work out what should go into the world. The publisher and author provided me with sketches showing roughly where everything was located, and ideas for elements — this sped up the process, as sometimes I get to spend a while playing with alternative geographies (also fun). But reading the book lets me find ways to fit the elements together, and make the drawings suit the story, and find more Beasts with which to ornament the pages.

(Drawing two maps at once simplified some decisions, too, as they needed to match and belong to the same style.)

You can see that at one point I was thinking about a double-page map (top left, below), but in fact this was to be a single-page map. The edges of maps are very important to consider! Both so that the world can be pleasingly spaced inside them, and because while borders take real estate, they’re also a lot of fun to play in.

We thought about having no borders (since the world hasn’t been completely mapped). But in the end we all liked the idea of beasts in the corners so much that we put borders around them anyway. Design tensions!

Tiny thumbnail sketches of book elements

So many Beasts!

These sketches are on accordion-folded strips of drawing paper. You can see here I was starting to think about how to fill all the space between the islands in the Sea.

There was a lot of Sea to draw — and a lot of Woods! These maps are of places that are only partially explored in the world of the books. So I had to fill them with enough detail to keep them interesting (the Beasts helped with this!) while also giving the sense that there were many adventures yet to be had.

Tiny thumbnail sketches of book elements

My older sister asked if I could just draw a whole lot of trees/waves etc once, and use them to fill in backgrounds. I certainly could, and possibly one day I will on a project that suits it. But I love making everything a little bit different, a miniature world on the page, and being able to work elements around each other, or hint at topographies with the arrangements of trees.

Here are the sketches Amanda Foody made for me, for reference (she said I could show you, and noted that they were drawn just as guidelines for me!). I dropped them into a page template in Photoshop and stretched and nudged them into place until everything fit.

Author's map sketches in page templates

I had to think hard about placing things around Woods because there’s a LOT of information that would usually be centred on a map (towns, kingdoms, etc), but which here needs to be pushed right to the side, so the Woods can take pride of place. But I also wanted to draw the little towns!

I printed those rough layouts and used them as a guide for a large pencil sketch. That sketch would go for adjustments and approval, and then I would use it as a guide for inking.

Here is what the pencils look like close up. Something I wanted to play with here was using the trees’ shadows to hint at the rise and fall of the land.

Pencil sketch of trees and bats

I sent the sketches through for discussion. You can see some of the notes made on them here — adjusting locations and labels, identifying watercourses, etc.

I have two big geographic rules when I’m drawing maps: everything is connected, and (unless there’s extreme provocation to the contrary) water flows downhill. Sometimes I can add in connections and watercourses, but often they might turn out to be important in later books, or affect the broader shape of the world. And sometimes (as in other maps) I have to leave room for elements that will later appear or disappear.

Something else that’s fun with maps is that they do involve a little bit of writing. There’s the figurative sense, in which I am influencing and reflecting and talking with the story. But there are, quite literally, labels to write. And some of those labels I get to make up, or at least suggest — as here, with the “partial and incomplete” and “tentative and ongoing” labels.

And then I have to draw the banners around them (banners are fun — I filled the whole February calendar with them).

The next step, after having the pencils approved, and discussing the ideal corner animals, is to panic. I almost always freeze up — maps are big and complicated to draw (and therefore to get wrong), and I’ve almost always suggested something in pencil that will be very difficult to draw specifically in ink.

The trick, almost always, is to do a sampler page, trying out whirlpools, for example, or different ways of drawing streams, or how to hint at a snake skeleton.

Some elements I already am comfortable drawing (trees, for example), and other elements here have shown up in other projects and samplers (the January 2022 calendar was a tree-and-building sampler, and for February 2021 I was already trying out some of these waves and fish, which owe a great debt to the style of Pauline Baynes‘ illustrations of fish, and medieval drawings). But there’s almost always some twist on how it needs to be incorporated.

Page of test ink drawings of map elements, waves, streams, trenches, etc

I went with the fully-inked watercourses here, to make them stand out in a trackless forest. It also linked the two maps, with the under-sea ‘rivers’ in the Weeping Tide map.

Below, you can see the pencils showing through the drawing paper as I work on a lightbox.

Inking of stream on map in progress — visible pen nib

You can see that best here around the lake:

Close up of ink drawing of stinky lake

I didn’t want the waves to look mechanical, but I did need them to be roughly similar-sized. If they vary all over the map when they’re not meant to, it can be distracting. I ‘d already tried this process out on the February 2021 calendar, so again I drew up a pattern of stripes about the right distance apart. I put that under the paper, and used it as a guide, adjusting a little bit where necessary to work around fixed elements.

Map of Sea on drawing board with guidelines for waves behind it

I don’t always hand-letter directly onto the map. Often I put it on a separate page. This is because (a) I make mistakes and (b) I have to separate them onto their own layer in Photoshop, for proofreading (and replacement in translations, etc).

This time I did, though — the map looked bare in patches if I left those elements out, and the idea behind the maps was that they might be maps made in a sketchbook by a traveller, so some infelicitous lettering would be consistent with that.

Photo of inked maps side-by-side on drawing board

And there are the two maps, before I scanned them in, tidied them up, separated the letering and sent them away!

Stay tuned for those interviews…

Edit: The interview with Amanda Foody is now up!

The maps aren’t in the first editions, as I came on board as the series expanded — I understand they will be in newer editions of The Accidental Apprentice (from 1 February) and second edition/hardcover reprints of The Weeping Tide (when they come out — the first edition is out now, though!).

Cover Image of The Accidental Apprentice
Cover art: Petur Antonsson

A boy who accidentally bonds with a magical Beast must set off on an adventure in the mysterious Woods in this “wholesome, delightful” (Kirkus Reviews, starred review), and cheeky middle grade fantasy debut—perfect for fans of Nevermoor and How to Train Your Dragon.

Cover image of The Weeping Tide
Cover art: Petur Antonsson

Barclay and his friends must save an island city from the Legendary Beast of the Sea in this exciting second book in the Wilderlore series, perfect for fans of Nevermoor and How to Train Your Dragon.

Observation Journal: Questions for project reviews

Project reviews have been a useful aspect of the observation journal. These aren’t productivity/time-management types of reviews. They are about going back over the patterns in my own work, picking up threads I want to follow in the future, recording the epiphanies I always have and quickly forget. (See also previous project review posts for how they’ve evolved.)

I had by now done enough of these reviews that I knew the questions which worked best for me. Yours may vary, but here is the tidied-up version of mine. I’ve printed them out and keep them at the back of my notebook.

Questions for project review:

  • The common questions:
    • Things that worked / things I was happy with
    • Things I disliked / could do better
    • Difficulties
    • Things to try in future / ideas I had while doing the project
    • Why did I choose this? What alternatives didn’t I pursue?
    • What did I leave out / evade / avoid?
    • Tendencies I noticed / things I resisted
  • The occasional questions:
    • How did I get it started/finished
    • What was the process I followed
    • Specific lessons I learned
    • How did people respond?
    • If I did this exact project again, what would I do differently?
    • If I never do a project like this again, which aspects would I try to find/use in other projects?
    • Could I have streamlined a difficult/unlikeable part, or found someone else to do it?

Here are three examples:

The first is a review of the August 2020 Wildflower calendar art.

It was useful to record the process because I do these calendar pages so often, and yet I’m always startled by how long certain aspects (getting started, colour flats) take me. It also let me identify a couple of techniques that I wanted to learn.

The next was for a tiny story I had written for a few patrons, “Shadowmill”.

It was good, here, to work out why this story caught my interest (promise, episodic, aesthetic), and what appealed and didn’t about a less-usual way of working: the unpredictability of it, and the potential of the elongated shape.

The next page was a review of the drawings I did in the window at Avid Reader to promote Flyaway.

Drawing on a window was a new technique for me. Much of this, therefore, was to record some very practical (and often, in retrospect, obvious) lessons about cleaning glass first, etc.

A couple of the big ones:

  • Keeping plans flexible and drawing freehand was a very good idea when I’m familiar with the style/subject matter but not the exact space I could use or the materials— I was less stressed and able to change things on the fly.
  • Drawing is physical and large drawings more so.
  • Make sure someone else is getting photos.
  • When drawing (especially drawing large) in public:
    • have someone delegated to update social media as you go, because people got really into it; and
    • have a sign telling people who is drawing and why.

You can see previous project-review posts under the category project review.

Note: If you’d like to support art and writing and posts like this about it, I have a Patreon account ( and patrons there get behind-the-scenes process and sneak-peeks, starting from US$1, or you could buy me a (virtual) coffee at (and I get through quite a bit of coffee).And/or check out prints and products available at Redbubble and Spoonflower.

December 2021 Calendar — the mail

Note: Want to support the arts? This calendar is made possible by patrons, who get it a little bit early, along with other sneak-peeks and behind-the-scenes art (patron levels start at very low amounts!): It is also supported by those very kind people who throw a few dollars towards it via the tip jar:  

For this December’s calendar, it’s all about getting the mail through. And while the art is not Christmas-themed, there are 25 animals, so you could use the colouring version as an Advent calendar.

25 is a lot of animals, and I was tired. After I’d committed to the idea, I realised I could only think of about 5 plausibly fairy-tale adjacent creatures (it was late!). So now my notebook contains a list of animals made as I remembered their existence (eventually more than 25).

List and first ideas

I decided to stick with flowers instead of stars, since I’d drawn starry animals last December (A Crowded Sky).

Then I shifted to Procreate for the rough sketch (to keep in practice with the program, and it does remove one scanning session). You can just see, below, that I put rough scribbles down (and numbered them!) before drawing the animals. I wanted to keep a plausibly-deniable fairy-tale quality to the animals, so I sketched most of them loosely from memory, then consulted a bit of reference to correct the more obvious errors and angles.

At this stage I was still considering big flowers — not as big as around September’s chairs, but still quite large and cheerful.

But I’d been doing a lot of standard five-petal flowers lately, and wanted to mix that up a bit — and possibly add some shading again. You can see me playing with both ideas here.

I printed out the digital sketch and used it as a guide for inking the animals.

The chewed-biscuit looking edge at the bottom is the ledge of my drawing board which I’ve had for a couple decades now.

Once they were done, I started at the top left corner and began to fill in the flowers. I drew these freehand, although I did occasionally refer to the sketch.

To keep a reasonable mixture of flowers, I alternated 2 flame-shaped trios (and long sprigs of leaves) with one five-petal flower (with stray leaves). This helped distribute shapes and colours (although I wouldn’t have minded having added another yellow flower between the snake and the cat).

I was eyeballing the distance between elements, and occasionally the spacing drifted — for example, I was working looser at the top left of the full page, where I started. In the image below, near the sheep’s front foot, that sprig of leaves brushes one of the flowers near it. On some projects I would later bump those elements around individually on the computer, but I don’t mind the rustic crowding here — it does look more hand-drawn.

And I really like this dense, all-over pattern — especially after the very open chickens of November.

I scanned those lines, cleaned them up in Photoshop and Inkscape, then added colours and texture in Photoshop. Anyway, here are the underlays, without the lines.

And here (for personal use) are the printable versions — two pre-coloured and one to colour in yourself. If you like them and/or like supporting the arts, you can contribute to the calendar (and get it and other behind-the-scenes things early) at (starts at US$1/month!) or by buying me a coffee or two through Ko-Fi Both are greatly appreciated!

Fairy tales and silhouettes: An interview with Juliet Marillier

Photo of Juliet Marillier by Mike Beltametti Photography

Juliet Marillier is the award-winning author of many wonderful historical fantasies, and also of Mother Thorn and other tales of courage and kindness. It was the first project I’ve illustrated for her, although I’ve admired Juliet and her work for a very long time, and I’m delighted that she agreed to this reciprocal interview!

I’ve written about the illustration process in previous posts: cover process and internal illustrations. The book is available from Serenity Press:

The sketches in this post are from my first read-through of Mother Thorn — quite a few of them ended up as silhouettes in the book (see the end of this post)


The four full-page story illustrations

KJ: There are four stories in Mother Thorn. What was the idea behind each (as you took and turned the fairy tale at its base, or approached the shape of a fairy tale with new material)?

JM: I knew I didn’t want to do a straight re-telling of fairy tales. I love the stories I chose, but in their best-known forms they don’t work well for today’s readership. In keeping with my belief that traditional stories change a little every time they are re-told, I set myself a writer’s challenge with each story.

The Witching Well (based on a Scottish border ballad, The Well of the World’s End) is related to the frog prince idea. I don’t care for tales in which a young woman (princess or not) ends up marrying a virtual stranger because of a magical twist. In The Witching Well the frog is a toad, the girl is an over-burdened soul with a mother severely affected by past trauma, and there is no prince – but there is still magic. I was happy with the way these characters came alive.

The Princess and the Pea is one of the least believable fairy tales – another ‘’marriage sight unseen’’ story.  In my version, Pea Soup, the central couple are real individuals who try to solve their own problems and keep agency over their decisions. This ended up as a comedy of manners. It was such fun to write!

Final title header for Pea Soup (for the special edition — the yellow was printed in bronze)

I love The Tinder Box. Who could resist a dog with eyes as big as mill-wheels! [KJ: We all say this, but then someone has to actually draw what’s descrived!] But in the best-known version greed and violence are rewarded, and a princess ends up married to a stranger who wins her hand through stolen magic. My story, Copper, Silver, Gold, is based on what might have happened if the soldier at the centre of the tale had been female. It’s set in a real historical time and place, and it still has the dogs.

The title story is not based on an existing fairy tale, but on the folkloric idea that a lone hawthorn tree is a place where the divide between human world and Otherworld is quite thin. I wanted to write a story about second chances, and how true love may not mean what you think it does. Also, it’s about how important it is, when asking uncanny folk for a favour, to get your words exactly right.

Trying to work out dog’s eye-sizes

KJ: You frequently write through and with fairy tales, with a beautiful sense of their tone and structure. How do you judge the shape of a fairy tale? Is it the same as a short story?

JM: Some fairy tales have an epic shape, more like a novel than a short story, but they’re told quite simply – characters often don’t even get names, just roles like the mother, the soldier, the fisherman. They are more types than individuals. A lot is left to the imagination of the reader/listener – appropriate for oral storytelling. A short story conveys a wealth of meaning in a limited word count – therefore every word is carefully chosen, perhaps with use of allusion, metaphor and so on. A good short story will surprise the reader. There will be a turning point or revelation that makes the reader think. A fairy tale is usually more straightforward. I think a blend of the two is possible! 

Working out styles of dress for Pea Soup

KJ: The stories were full of beautiful imagery — dogs and doorknockers and wistful hybrid creatures. To what extent do you find the effect of a fairy tale depends on its imagery, compared to (for example) themes or situations?

JM: Fairy tale imagery is powerful. Details we remember from childhood storytelling – a harp, a rose, a mirror, a spindle – may resonate quite deeply for us in later life. Then there’s the way the imagery can conjure the idea of the uncanny or magical existing alongside the world we know. The hybrid creatures are part of that – both familiar and curiously unfamiliar at the same time. I think the imagery adds an additional layer of magic to the story – your illustrations for my stories so beautifully echo that.

Creatures for The Witching Well (a whole family of hedgehog-rabbits got into the book!)

KJ: There are some lovely dogs loping through these tales. Should there be more dogs in fairy tales? Which fairy tales do you think would benefit most from having dogs added to them (and why)?

JM: Since fairy tales grow and change constantly over the years, why not add more dogs if desired? Mind you, the presence of a dog might change the course and outcome of the story. If Hansel and Gretel had been accompanied by a dog when they went into the forest, its warning growl would have kept them away from the witch’s house. A dog would have disrupted The Princess and the Pea completely. ‘’What, sleep up there? Impossible. Muffin always shares my bed and she has very short legs.’’ I’d like to see a dog in Sleeping Beauty. It would snuggle up happily with its beloved human for a hundred years, only to be grumpily woken when the prince kisses her. I can imagine various ways the story might unfold from that point!

(these did make it into the silhouettes!)

KJ: Are there some fairy tales you have found particularly difficult to play with, for original stories, or which you want to use but for which you haven’t found the right story yet?

JM: Some fairy tales are powerful but too dark for me  – The Juniper Tree is one such story. I think writers of very dark fantasy, verging on horror, are better at handling that kind of material. I’d love to draw on some Welsh stories. Many of those have characters from Arthurian legend, but are fairy tale stories in character. I did once plan an Arthurian book (I’m a big fan of Mary Stewart) but at that time the publishers felt there were too many of them around. With The Green Knight movie coming out this year, I think I’ve left my run too late!

KJ: Are there particular challenges to writing in the fairy-tale mode? And would you give any advice to writers learning to sustain that effect?

JM: It can be challenging to maintain a fairy-tale vibe for the story while keeping it real enough to engage today’s readers. You need to balance dynamic storytelling with the fact that the Otherworld moves at its own pace, which can be gradual. That’s where the little touches are helpful, allusions to something uncanny or magical, details that don’t quite belong in one world or the other. One telling image can be more effective than a paragraph of description. I’d suggest writers prepare by reading lots of fairy tales and mythology. I’ve devoured such material since I was very small. Seek out older versions of tales.

Working out the balance of real and fairy tale for Copper, Silver, Gold

KJ: Should all books have foil on the cover?

JM: This question made me laugh! In my story Pea Soup, Bella comments that Fred’s family must be quite grand, because even their kitchen has books with gold on the covers. My answer: Only the special ones. Some of those may be cook books, who knows? 

Cooking in Pea Soup


JM: You posted recently about the process of illustrating Mother Thorn, and I was reminded of those lovely pencil sketches that were not used in the final book [KJ: I’ve put them through this post]. You’ve illustrated books for many writers. What happens when your vision for illustrations – in style and/or content – doesn’t mesh with what the writer or publisher wants?  How do you go about solving that problem?  (or how would you, if it happened?)

KJ: It doesn’t arise too often, because often the style is the first element discussed, although very occasionally when people just can’t agree we’ll negotiate a graceful exit (and ideally that will be in the contract, too!). But sometimes writer, publisher and I all agree on a style and then I discover that the subject matter of the book doesn’t fit it quite so organically.

My usual style — in pen and ink (as for Angela Slatter’s Bitterwood Bible and Tallow-Wife fairy-tale collections) as well as silhouette (as for you) — is an attempt to combine the lyrical and the conversational. It suits fairy-tale fantasy perfectly, but it is not a natural fit for very modern realism, grotesque horror, and hard science fiction. I tell people outright, now, that I don’t do straight lines.

However, I also enjoy the challenge of this — pushing my style into a more noir-ish direction for a contemporary fantasy (for e.g. a set of headers for Holly Black’s Curseworkers), or being willing to take ongoing pushes from an art director or editor to get an appropriately unsettling effect (Jonathan Strahan was very patient with me on this a few years back for a few stories in Eclipse Online, which is sadly no longer online). But I also enjoy finding ways to provide an alternative interpretation to stories, either to pull the story back into my territory, or to set up a resonance between the art and the story that lets the reader find a middle ground.

Baths are always tricky to draw. I finally bought a dolls-house bathtub for ease of reference.

JM: You’ve won awards for both illustration and writing. Notably, you wrote and illustrated a recent novella, Flyaway, which combines fairy-tale elements with an Australian setting. What was your process for that – text and illustrations growing together organically (on the page or in your mind) or in sequence?

KJ: The writing for Flyaway grew out of a series of very strong images, which mostly didn’t end up in the final art! Sketching lets me trap movements, aesthetics, elements I want to try and rework in words — and it was a good way to think through the work of some other very image-driven authors to work out how they did it (particularly Joan Lindsay, who described her Picnic at Hanging Rock as being more like a painting than a novel). I also sketched motifs that belonged to the sort of story I wanted to create. I didn’t use all of them, but their existence kept me on track. (If anyone wants to see a lot more information about this process, I wrote an article for Illustrating Flyaway — Kathleen Jennings on creating art and prose together).

Australian Gothic tropes and motifs

To make the silhouette illustrations for the chapters and the cover, I went in a less-usual direction. Rather than concentrating on movement, which I usually do, I wanted to create a series of ornaments that would show where the story belonged and how to read it — as an Australian Gothic fairy tale. To create the illustrations, I went back over the written novella and my sketched notes and found elements that would work as a series of ornaments: square motifs and individual birds. Then I cut those out, sketching them again loosely onto the back of black paper and refining them as I cut them out.

I really like the two very different treatments the designers gave to the cover — I asked them more about that here: Flyaway cover comparison.

JM: Is illustrating your own writing different from illustrating someone else’s? In what ways?

KJ: It can be very different! When I illustrate someone else’s work, the sketching and illustrating is a way of reading and thinking through that story, of talking with the author, of responding to the book, changing it, being changed by it, playing in the world — the closest I can get to the old wish to actually get inside a book or through a wardrobe.

When I illustrate my own work, almost all of that thinking and ornamenting and varying has already been done in the prose. Also, I can be painterly in prose in a way I’m not when I draw — I use lines and silhouettes in my illustrations, but I love thick colour and the play of light, and that’s easiest for me in words.

Illustrating my own work is simplest if I start with the illustrations and add words. This is quite a good way to work up the aesthetic and big moments of a story — the risk, however, is that the prose gets away from me and doesn’t need the illustrations anymore. A recent story — “Gisla and the Three Favours” in Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet #43 — started as a series of drawings I did in Iceland (you can see one of them here). “The Wonderful Stag, or The Courtship of Red Elsie”, which was illustrated in the end by John Jude Palencar, began as an illustration I did for an Inktober prompt.

A silhouette of a man in medieval garments offering a gold ring to a stag with rings on its antlers.

JM: What fairy tale would you especially love to illustrate for a publication, and why?

KJ: For an absolutely classic take on a traditional telling… I would have to say at the moment it’s Mr Fox — Lady Mary so brave, and the recurring warnings, and the challenge supported by gory evidence!. I have an old affection for Little Red Riding Hood both in its fairy-tale versions and in longer reworkings (Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend is one of my favourite novels, and it riffs heavily on many fairy tales, but especially Little Red Riding Hood), and also for The Goose Girl — unfairness, rhymes, comeuppances! And Toads and Diamonds… Really, I suppose, any fairy-tale heavy on the things I like to draw: gowns, foxes, birds, bones…

But I really like to illustrate variations, subtle readjustments, resettings, and so forth — it would be delightful to illustrated a reworking of The Little Mermaid as a tale of foxes and gowns, for example, or Little Red Riding Hood with strong nautical-fantastic echoes (the “Gisla” illustrations started as a landscape-changed Cinderella). I play with this a lot in my observation journal posts, e.g. changing fairy-tales by adjusting what story the in-world ornaments are from or even just shifting a viewpoint.

Chasing the energy of movement and poses for The Witching Well

JM: The silhouette style of illustration seems perfectly suited to fairy tales. Why do you think that is?

KJ: There are several reasons (at least). Silhouettes have a long association with fairy tales and tale-telling, as well as with various folk traditions. Arthur Rackham’s illustrations and Lotte Reiniger’s animations and shadow puppets, for a start, and many cultures have cut-paper traditions. So the use of cut-paper silhouettes automatically invokes that history.

Silhouettes can also be ominous — shadowy, sometimes open to interpretation, hard-edged for all their beauty. Fairy-tales are very closely related to Gothic stories, so silhouettes can capture that feeling, as well.

Then, too, silhouettes can be very ornamental. They tell the reader that this is a story worth reading as a beautiful object, which I think is useful for fairy tales, which aren’t always, e.g., psychologically-innovative character studies (not that they can’t be!).

Finally, as you said, fairy tales can be stories of types, of roles, of motifs — an author retelling a fairy tale or working in that mode can refine the story through detailed realism, of course, but often the underlying narrative engine runs on those aspects. Silhouette illustrations create a similar effect: they provide poses, movement, types, roles, shadows for the story to fill, and for the reader or listener to add their own details to, while still allowing the story to exist in that story-otherworld.

Cutting out the main illustration for Pea Soup — more in the internal illustration process post

If you want to read more about the art process for Mother Thorn, see these posts:

Mother Thorn is available from Serenity Press:

The Final Hen

Process Post: Mother Thorn internal illustrations

The new computer is up and running, I am back from hiding out writing, and FINALLY I can put up this post about the (Ditmar nominated!) internal illustrations for Juliet Marillier‘s enchanting collection Mother Thorn. I’ve already written about the process post for the cover here: Mother Thorn Process Post. Edit: and now I’ve put up an interview with Juliet, with even more sketches: An Interview with Juliet Marillier.

(Do let me know if you have questions or would like more detail on part of the process.)

The book is available from Serenity Press:

First: the fate of the second cover illustration. This became the title page:

(It’s not the first time cover elements have switched — the final cover art for The River Bank started life as the endpapers.)

The illustrations began in the usual way: I read the manuscript and sketch through the stories, looking for key scenes and for moments and motifs I particularly want to draw.

Edit: There are close-ups of these sketches on the interview post: An Interview with Juliet Marillier.

Then I put together a few ideas for different ways we could approach the art: silhouettes vs line and watercolour, and different ways of filling the page, e.g. vignettes sitting in the middle of a page, or designs with a strong border.

We decided on vignettes that pretty much fill the whole page, and wreaths for the titles, with incidental images, all in silhouette.

With that direction, I could put together the thumbnails for each story. You should be able to click on these images to see slightly larger versions.

For each I designed three wreaths: one simple and interwoven, two more grown or thematic. We went with the simple wreath.

The I suggested a couple of moments from each story that would work for the main illustration, and Juliet chose one of each. For all of them we went with the larger, more flowing ornamental illustration (#3 for “Copper, Silver, Gold”; #1 for “The Witching Well”, #1 for “Pea Soup” and #3 for “Mother Thorn). For Mother Thorn, however, I also ended up doing #2 as a more incidental image.

There are a few things to consider at this stage: approaches that will work across all stories (for continuity), design, ornament, spoilers, themes, and Juliet’s and my wishlists of things we want to see illustrated!

Once the types of images were agreed, I needed to do more detailed pencil sketches. These would guide the silhouette, but they also let the publisher make sure there’s enough room for text.

At this point, I drew up some guidelines on the computer. I layered the sketches over them and printed these off. I used those as the basis for the next, detailed, drawing.

Here are the pencils for all four of the main illustrations, for comparison. I mirrored them for transfer to the silhouette, but also because mirroring helps a lot with checking balance. For more on designing silhouettes like this to hold together as one piece, see Art and Editing: Three Points and On Silhouettes and Further Points of Connection.

I transferred the final pencils onto the back of black paper (80gsm, I think) with white graphite paper and started cutting with a fine craft knife.

“Pea Soup”

I keep the printout hinged over the art until I’m finished, and just fold it back to expose the area I’m working on. This helps stop the paper catching on my hand and keeps it clean.

“Mother Thorn”

I followed the same process for the incidental elements.

The big, interlinked illustrations are fascinating and gratifying (see also: Silhouettes and Further Points of Connection). But it is SO much fun to just go wild with tiny elements like this, which the publisher can drop in as appropriate.

Once the art was done, I scanned it in and cleaned it up (I run it through Inkscape, a vector program, to give a nice solid black). Here’s The Witching Well title wreath in place in the book:

For the special edition, however, we were going to be able to use metallic ink — a heavy dull bronze, which I think looks magical. This meant I could go through the art and pick out elements to be printed in that second colour.

Some of these I had to select by hand (e.g. the stars). In other places, I filled in gaps that already existed (e.g. the plaster in the walls). I got myself into difficulties reducing all of this to appropriate files for the publisher, so the wonderful Shayna Kite rescued me.

Here is the “Pea Soup” illustration as printed in the special edition.

Here are the plain black and white silhouettes as they appear in the matte editions — alongside wreaths, incidental creatures, branch-dividers, and so on.

And here’s a little of what’s left over.

Edit: For more about this book and the cover art process, see Mother Thorn — cover art and An Interview with Juliet Marillier.

Very soon, I will put up an interview with Juliet Marillier! In the meantime, the book is available from Serenity Press:

Note: If you’d like to support art and writing and posts like this about it, I have a Patreon account ( and patrons there get behind-the-scenes process and sneak-peeks, starting from US$1, or you could buy me a (virtual) coffee at (and I get through quite a bit of coffee).And/or check out prints and products available at Redbubble and Spoonflower.

Some trees to be lost in

While I get used to the new computer and on top of the… everything caused by needing a new computer, here are some tiny test drawings. I was trying out different approaches to trees and rivers for a map project. I love these sampler pages — one day I’d like to draw a big reference piece of my favourite approaches.

For more on:

November 2021 Calendar — Chickens

Note: This calendar is supported by patrons, who get it a little bit early, along with alternative colourways, and other sneak-peeks and behind-the-scenes art:, and also by those very kind people who throw a few dollars towards it via the tip jar:

For November — some chooks/chickens/hens/poultry who have strayed into fairy tales.

Here are my first sketches playing with the motifs for this design.

I wanted to try doing the pencil sketches directly onto the iPad, to see if it would be easier to adjust/move elements. The jury is still out on that, although with practice I can see it would be useful. It was great for at least thinking about some of the colour distribution in advance. I do have a plan for a repeating pattern, which will require bumping around some spacings, but I’ve been away writing so will put the final together later.

Then I printed those lines out for a guide, and inked them the usual way (dip pen).

Then I scanned, cleaned, and coloured them on the computer. Here are some of the colour flats, without lines and texture. I really like this clear clean blue, and might tinker with the textures to brighten the pattern.

So here (for personal use) are the printable versions — one pre-coloured and one to colour in yourself. If you like them and/or like supporting the arts, you can contribute to the calendar (and get it and other behind-the-scenes things early) at (starts at US$1/month!) or by buying me a coffee or two through Ko-Fi

Map process: Amira and Hamza

Photo pinched from Samira Ahmed. Cover illustrated by Kim Ekdahl and designed by Karina Granda

Very soon I will be posting an interview with Samira Ahmed herself, author of (among other things!) Amira & Hamza: The War to Save the Worlds, and with Karina Granda, the wonderful art director. But first: the process behind this slightly unusual map.

You see, this was not a map of a small part of a world, or even just of one world. The adventures of Amira and Hamza take them not only from Chicago to the Himalayas, but then through many, many interconnected tiny worlds (tilisms), joined to each other by somewhat-metaphysical, but physically navigable, coils. And I had to fit this all on the usual double-page space allowed for a more traditional map.

I started by sketching through the book, drawing notes to myself of descriptions, geographies, references, creatures, beings, and dumpsters, and noting key descriptions, and testing out how to create certain effects (e.g. buildings of gold) when the final drawing would be in black lines.

But as I drew, I puzzled about the shape of the world — whether to draw the tilisms floating in space (but then what about Chicago?), or as a chart? Or a board game?

It was interesting to have to think about the purpose of a map like this. Not for traditional navigation, to be sure, but to create a physical representation of something that shouldn’t be possible, and to give a sense not only of the place(s) in which a story happens, and the beings you might meet along the way, but also the feeling of it: busy and ornate, full of life and wonder and danger and good advice. (Some previous thoughts on maps.)

However, as the book begins with a visit to an astronomy exhibition, and involves some significant lunar events, I started digging into beautiful old charts of the stars and planets (here are a few sketches), and that’s where I found the answer.

Down at the bottom is the tiniest drawing of a figure as a game piece — that was for one of the board-game approaches.

I suggested using an astrolabe as the base for the map’s design: the slightly offset rings could represent the different worlds, with clear boundaries between them, and plenty of room for decoration and the potential for movement. And the curving, vine-like overlays of an astrolabe would be a perfect guide for the coils connecting the worlds. (Also, I enjoy industrial fabulism.)

Here’s just one of the examples:

Mamluk-era astrolabe, 1282, Photo: Mustafa-trit20 CC CC BY-SA 4.0

So I sketched the layout accordingly, taking a rectangular slice of a hypothetical astrolabe. This created the rather rare situation of making it pretty clear where on the page just about everything needed to go. I did not have to consider, for example, the likely paths of watercourses, or the change in types of trees over an area, or puzzle out the relative distances alluded to in the novel.

And it was a lot of fun dealing with miniature geographies — both those requiring plausibly-deniable accuracy and those heavily invented (but still guided by existing imagery). I’ve written before about the appeal of miniature groves, and that fascination fed into the map, too.

Once this concept had been approved by all concerned (art director, author, editor), I then drew an arrangement of circles on the computer to use as guidelines.

I make no secret that I don’t do straight lines or accurate geometries in my art. But I’ll sometimes rule lines up to function as a template around which I can work. These usually are softened and obscured by layers of sketches and changes, and I don’t mind if my own drawings are inaccurate, but at least the suggestion of a nod in the direction of plausibility lingers.

Using those lines and the sketch as a a base, I then developed the more detailed pencils for the map. You can just see the greyed-out circle guidelines.

I hand-lettered the place names in my own loopy writing on a separate piece of paper. But this quick placement of lettering makes sure that I (a) allow enough room for the words and (b) don’t put important details in places that will be hidden by labels. (I drew the lettering and scrolls separately so that the publisher can easily move them around / edit text / translate it.)

The grey band down the centre of the page above is to stop me putting important details where they could vanish into the spine.

Then I scan the pencil sketch in again, darken it, print it out, put it under nice drawing paper (Canson illustration 250) on the light box, and start inking.

I used a dip pen and Winsor & Newton black ink.

Once I can trick myself into starting, I love this stage: turning those aspirational little pencil scribbles into final ink drawings, with shadows and movement and personality.

Playing with hatching and texture.

Filling the space between the stars.

Drawing the tiniest dumpsters.

Then I scan and clean the linework, layer in the text, and send it to Karina:

I will post the interviews soon. In the meantime, Amira & Hamza: The War to Save the Worlds has been published and is available through all good bookstores!

A few older map posts:

Note: If you’d like to support art and writing and posts like this about it, I have a Patreon account ( and patrons there get behind-the-scenes process and sneak-peeks, starting from US$1, or you could buy me a (virtual) coffee at (and I get through quite a bit of coffee).And/or check out prints and products available at Redbubble and Spoonflower.

Mother Thorn Process Post

The art for Juliet Marillier‘s enchanting collection Mother Thorn has been shortlisted for a Ditmar! This post is about the cover art process, but I will show more of the internals in a future post (now up: Mother Thorn — internal illustrations and An Interview with Juliet Marillier).

The book is available from Serenity Press:

I’d known of Juliet, and loved her historical fantasies and her enchanting fairy-tale novels, for a long time before I met her at the very first Aurealis Awards I attended (when they were still hosted in Brisbane). We were both at the back of the room being quiet, because I was very shy and she’d just got off a long flight. She’s a delightful author and person, and so I was utterly delighted to have this (first!) opportunity I had to work with her on a project.

The first step was, as usual, to read through Juliet’s manuscript and sketch possible images for the four stories — moments, poses, incidental creatures. This serves as reference for the cover and internal sketches.

Based on those thinking-sketches, I proposed a few cover treatments. We were always talking in terms of silhouettes, but I included some alternative line-and-wash options. At this point we hadn’t definitely decided on what the internals would look like, so it was possible that a drawn cover might be more suitable.

After discussions with Juliet and Serenity, we were pretty sure we were going with either A or D — or maybe both, for different editions. Or possibly one for a title page.

We were hoping to use foil on the cover, in some way (in the end, it’s on the special edition hardback). I’ve posted before about working through different ways to play with the foil for this cover: 20 Ways With Gold Foil.

Double spread from observation journal. On the left, five things seen/heard/done and a picture of a painting leaning up against a fence. On the right, a list of 20 ways with foil treatments, with accompanying drawings of a silhouette dog.
I’ve typed up the list over on the previous post: 20 Ways With Gold Foil

I then cut out a test silhouette so that we could compare approaches to colour (this design also turned into printable stationery for patrons).

I also did some test treatments with the sketch for cover D (this silhouette ended up as a title page).

Here are some more test patches, to see how I wanted to approach certain leaves.

At about this point, I refined Sketch A into these almost-final pencils, ready to be approved and adjusted.

Then I flipped the design, traced it down with white graphite paper, and started cutting it out.

Bonus process shots of cover B, including silhouette lettering.

Next came the really fiddly bit. I scanned in the art, then selected the main colour areas. I had to make sure they overlapped, and put them on separate layers (top left). Then I vectorised each layer (in Inkscape) for a clean strong edge, and stacked the layers again in Photoshop (top right).

This made it easy to select each layer, adjust the colour, and then add shading, texture and detail digitally without interfering with the other areas.

Here is a comparison of the raw scanned silhouette (left) and the colour version (right). The yellow box at the bottom right appears on every layer, and let me quickly line the layers up. I deleted them later.

In the end, we used yellow on the coloured cover, instead of foil, and printed the whole silhouette in foil for the special edition.

More on the internal illustrations soon (Edit: now posted — internal illustrations), but in the meantime, the book is available from Serenity Press:

Edit: For more about this book and the internal illustrations, see Mother Thorn — internal illustrations and An Interview with Juliet Marillier.

Note: If you’d like to support art and writing and posts like this about it, I have a Patreon account ( and patrons there get behind-the-scenes process and sneak-peeks, starting from US$1, or you could buy me a (virtual) coffee at (and I get through quite a bit of coffee).And/or check out prints and products available at Redbubble and Spoonflower.