Not a lot of activity on the bookshelves from me in 2016, but that’s because I’ve been illustrating titles due in 2017 for amazing publishers including Macmillan/FSG, Hodder, Benchmark, Igloo and Miles Kelly. I can’t upload that work to my folio just yet, but I have just added some older ‘new’ work if you fancy taking a peek. I promise I haven’t hung up my pencil case and joined the circus…
It’s not like 2016 has been a quiet year, last week was the launch of the Rising Stars Reading Planet series from Hodder. My title is ‘The Big Show’ and was heaps of fun to work on.
And I managed a whole lot of drawings for Inktober. I Instagram-ed like crazy with these, my sketchbook was getting papped every day (well, at least 26 times during October). I tried with Facebook and Twitter … I really tried. Seriously, I did but unless I fork out the coin, my illustrations just seem to get filed in the basement.
I even managed to sort out my Etsy store (to some degree)…
The Bad Bit
I had an agreement in place with a fabulous printer and got my website shop in good order. Then I got an email with the very sad news that the printer was closing down with pretty much immediate effect. Beep. And now I’m getting emails asking about the Christmas products I had for sale. Double beep.
I’m working on finding a new supplier but in the meantime I’ve had to move products over to my Society6 store (which is still pretty cool because I can sell clocks, unicorn t-shirts and leggings too). I’ll keep you all updated on the Christmas ornaments, but for now please enjoy these mugs. Back soon with some news!
Have you ever compared two things and wondered why one looks amazing and worth every penny while the other looks, well, average? I have. I do it all the time. For example:
Two coats in a shop (because you know how much I love my analogies).
Coat A is £10.56. It has minimal styling and is made of a non-textured synthetic fibre. It’s a bog standard sludgy brown colour and has average looking buttons and slit pockets with no visible tailoring.
Coat B is £50.56. It has modern styling and it’s made from soft wool. It’s an unusual bright cerise-red colour with big shiny over-sized buttons and the pockets have flaps and zips. The tailoring is immaculate.
Coat B has had a lot more time, research and imagination spent on it. Better materials have been used. Essentially, it’s a different kind of coat.
Coat A took about 20 seconds to draw…
Now, imagine Coat A is clip art and Coat B is bespoke illustration. It’s that simple. Add bells and whistles or your output will look like it belongs on a CD called 10,000 Royalty Free Images For Your Web and Online Projects for Personal Use Only that comes free with a computer magazine. Nothing wrong with that if that’s what you were aiming for but if you were aiming somewhere else, it’s more than just mildly disappointing. So, are you ready for my super important advice… *insert trumpetty music here*
You have to invest time into what you’re doing because when you don’t, it shows. It really shows.
That’s it. For a large scale illustration, put the hours in. There will still be occasions where an art director will ask for 15 re-draws and you’ll want to re-evaluate your career choices but it happens. I personally don’t know of anyone who gets it right first time, every time. I’m not saying they don’t exist, just that you don’t need to worry about them because you probably won’t meet one unless you pay for the privilege.
You cannot build a portfolio in a day. If you asked some of my students from the Portfolio Crash course I ran last Autumn, they’ll tell you how difficult it was to get 12 pieces together in 3 months. Very hard work. And you may be just developing your folio with personal work but I’m making the assumption that you want to bag a paid commission at some point. The people who commission you will never think ‘Aww, she must have been pushed for time on this piece of development work. I bet she’d draw proper hands if she’d been getting paid to do it…’ Instead, they make the logical assumption that you can’t draw hands.
But what about those small scale illustrations, you know, the little vignettes and warm up sketches that you see on illustrators pages, walls and timelines every now and again – how are they done in 20 minutes or so, I hear you all ask.
Self moderation, common sense, a strong critical eye and a little bit fairy dust. There are things I still can’t put my finger on and those are the bits where you need good instincts and fantastic powers of research. If you draw a character with dead-eye, you have to be prepared to figure out why and how to fix it. If you can’t draw hands, find a solution.
You can tell the difference between something drawn in a paint program and a graphics program. Or, if you’re one of those lesser-spotted traditional artists, something drawn with a blunt crayon or with a dip-pen and ink – you have to consider every choice you make carefully to build a professional portfolio.
Seven Ways to Make Your Illustration More Exciting
Don’t skimp on detail Textiles, foliage, furnishings all have detail – draw that detail. Use marks, textures and/or shadow.
Don’t use a mono-line Vary your line widths or your work could look flat and a bit vanilla.
Avoid dead-eye Focus your characters gaze and use eyebrows/facial expressions to your advantage or forever use dot eyes. Easy.
Vary poses No one wants to see a dead-eye clown, from the front and with his hands by his side. Be imaginative.
Consider colour Relationships should be well thought out – consider fashion choices, interior design, setting etc.
Anatomical detail Thumb on wrong side of hand, anyone? Three joints in one arm? One huge foot? Make sure your basic anatomy is right.
Good subject knowledge Research – you have the world at your fingertips in the form of many web browsers. Use them and never just guess. Guessing is bad.
Some illustrators do use a mono-line, some might use flat colour too but usually it’s part of a very distinctive style that has been researched and built upon. If this is the way you want to go, find those illustrators and examine their work in detail until you understand why it works for them. Don’t copy, just pick it apart until you instinctively understand it.
We all make mistakes, sometimes big, sometimes small and sometimes because an AD has a different idea for a project than what you initially hand over. Personally, I’ve had work published where I’d love to request it back and tidy bits up or change colours or re-design characters but I have a feeling that it will always be that way. That’s my own progression taking place, never being 100% happy is what keeps you pushing on and striving to improve.
Whatever stage you’re at, keep going and keep learning.
(This post is not aimed at clip art makers, it’s aimed at beginner/self taught children’s illustrators. I have to point that out because I’m not looking to offend anyone. I could go into detail about clip art but I really don’t want to get that kind of discussion going. To put it in context, a clip art creator needs to yield a high output of work to make money. Bespoke illustration needs time and therefore needs to be well paid for anyone to sustain it as a career.)
My Nan told me once that wishing Happy New Year after the 1st of January was bad luck, so I won’t do it but you know what I’m saying, right?
Another busy year full of exciting projects, then me and Mr. M got married (check the name change to Lee-Mackie) but I did manage to take a couple of weeks off over Christmas for the first time in four years. Yay. I needed it. Writing and illustrating for children is fun but there’s a bit more to it than that. Sometimes you have to go on autopilot to get through the workload. That’s when you know it’s time to down tools for a bit. The real problem pops up when you can’t because your deadline is three days away and you have 16 roughs to complete. That is not a good place to be.
Most illustrators and creative types will know what I mean—authors would call it writers block. Some of us deal with it by developing chronic procrastination until the day before our deadline and then weep as we slog through the night to get it done. Missing a deadline is bad. Baaaad. So you keep going until the end is in sight. You wrangle with FTP upload systems and have to keep uploading the same three files that refuse to go quietly. Your eyes are bloodshot. You’ve eaten all the biscuits. You’re swearing uncontrollably and wondering if the client is going to send in the dogs. Suddenly, it happens. They all upload *PING*. You laugh and smile at your screen like it’s just presented you with an Oscar.
Then you get an automated email response from your (very lovely and knows not of how much you’ve procrastinated to this point) client that says something along the lines of:
I’m away until next week. I’ll be in touch when I get back. Laters.
Then you weep again.
And this is just for the roughs.
I’m reliving this so you understand why I needed that break. I’m now back at my desk (I was still here a bit—playing scrabble, sharpening my pencils and doing Buzzfeed quizzes) and happily working away. I have three and a half new stories written, I’m working with Macmillan (US) and Hodder on pretty spiffy projects and really looking forward to the year ahead. After putting on a successful ‘Portfolio Crash’ course near the end of last year I’m thinking of developing a couple more to run over summer. Everything is rosy.
So while I’m in positive go-gettem’ mode, my work manifesto for this year looks something like this:
Make an amazing social media plan
Edit my manuscripts and dummies alongside other projects instead of waiting for a clear block
Less procrastination and biscuit eating
Sharpen more pencils with my electronic sharpener (because it’s fun)
I hope you all manage to take some time to sharpen your pencils and do other things whenever you can, whatever you do. I even managed to fit a snowboarding lesson and Star Wars in before any spoilers. Let the world be your oyster. Even if it’s only for a day.
I’ve been lucky enough to work on some amazing books so far this year (all to be in a bookshop near you very soon). I’ve been illustrating my little socks off for some fantastic authors as well as working on some new ideas myself. I’ve also been bringing my penmanship up to speed and working on developing some local classes and workshops. I’ll post details/locations very soon. I love this quote—it always turns out to be right. Creative types who tend to be drawn by covers (strange or conventional) can never be reminded enough, myself included, usually with actual books, funnily enough.
Sometimes, I wish I had one of those people who write profound little quotes—like the ones that pop-up on my Facebook news feed—sat on my shoulder. Then I could respond to every situation with a positive thought for the day. But I don’t. So I often end up sounding really passive-aggressive or overly interested in things that don’t interest me (which can lead to me having to feign interest in the same subject for as many years as I know the person who is actually interested in it…).
This general demeanour has led to lots of unsolicited advice, but here are the best words of wisdom that were ever thrown my way.
“You are not a sausage factory.”
This has stuck with me through thick and thin—offered by an amazing illustrator when I was right at the beginning of my career. You know that bit where the whole world appears to be asking you to work for free (I like to call them freedy). Well, I had a client who was getting a good 4 weeks worth of my time for the equivalent of a piece of fluff and a magic bean. Really. They were also working my fingers to the bone and pretty much wanting me to just bang out generic images, using me as their hands. There was no creativity involved whatsoever. I asked a group of professional illustrators what should I do? A very, VERY fabulous lady said ‘You’re not a sausage factory,’ and I understood everything all at the same time. I think that was the day I learned self-respect as an illustrator. I’ve never worked on a job like that again.
Working my fingers to the bone…(maxinelee.com)
“If you act like you fell out of a Christmas cracker, that’s how people will treat you.”
This is pretty self explanatory and came from something I was reading on a very funny ‘mums’ advice website. If you have no values, morals, expectations then you only have a novelty value. And as we all know, novelty wears off very quickly. Stand up and say what you’re about.
“Ask. The worst that can happen is a big fat ‘no’.”
The most straight forward thing can sometimes be the hardest thing. If you don’t ask, you don’t get. Sometimes, if you do ask, you don’t get. But the most important thing here is, nothing worth having is usually offered on a plate. You really do have to make your own opportunities or you’ll forever be wondering why everyone else is getting ahead and you’re stuck on the couch in your pyjamas watching daytime TV and checking your phone every five minutes. Disclaimer: Even if you become a go-getter overnight, I can’t guarantee that you won’t still check your phone every five minutes…
“You can’t go over it, you can’t go under it, you have to go through it.”
Ten points to everyone who’s sticking their hands up now saying ‘I know that one!’ This is a great mantra for tough times or that middle to end bit of a project or that one double page spread you’re really not looking forward to colouring. This is my favourite all-rounder piece of advice.
And when everything goes wrong:
“What’s for you, won’t go by you.”
This is my mum’s stock phrase for when things go wrong. It’s a bit hokey-pokey but it always makes me feel better. I do find myself now saying this to other people when everything goes belly-up.
“You’ve got more chance of being bitten on the *ahem* bum by a cabbage.”
My dad is responsible for that one.
Thanks for reading, I hope some of these stay with you and help you like they did me. If not, feel free to add your own in the comments.
Just checking in quickly to shout about the fact that I’ve updated my folio with lots of new things. You can get there by clicking the link up there ^ or go to www.portfolio.maxinelee.com if you like typing.
I’ve uploaded lots of art from Big Whoop!, Sorry, Dad!, Pi-Rat!, a picture dictionary I worked on last year for Blue Rabbit and some educational spreads for Learning Focus and Compass Media.
I’ll post again shortly with a nice meaningful post about the fabulous commissions/projects I’m working on right now, just as soon as the heat stops frazzling my brain.