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!
I like my social media. Facebook is top because Twitter is deathly quiet lately. In the good old days, you could go on, have a conversation with a nice group of people and then get back to work. Now it feels too much like hard work to interact, online conversation is not something I want to put four work-hours a day into, so Facebook wins. Unfortunately, Facebook is where the Grammar Police hang out. If you want to say something you’d better make sure you punctuate properly. Else be prepared for one of your friends to point out your misuse of their, there and they’re.
Imagine settling down in front of Facebook to vent about how a speeding cyclist had almost took your wing-mirror off with their face. You type so fast, it’s like your fingers are flying. You finish and make a cup of tea to celebrate. Sat back down in front of your screen, top lip just about to touch the surface of your perfect cuppa, you see it: a typo so bad you know the Grammar Police will be banging on your virtual door any minute. You panic. You start looking for the edit button, face burning. You’re sweating and panting. Then you hear BING! Usually you’d hope it’s someone liking your post or, dare you dream, sharing it, but not today. Tentatively looking at the screen with one eye closed, you see the comment and it says something like this:
“Surely you mean your because you’re is a contraction of you are. Just giving you a heads up.”
Sometimes it’s followed by a smug little emoji, smiling, nay, laughing at you. Then you have the internal struggle about how to explain your faux pas. Do you ignore, acknowledge with a thumbs-up sticker, block them, write an explanation of exactly what happened and start a grammar-off on your post…The choice is yours. Meanwhile, your tea has gone cold.
Don’t get me wrong, I do have a little giggle at the funny misinterpreted words and phrases I see sometimes; things like chester draws instead of chest of drawers on a selling page (my friend Charmaine likes to point these out). I’ve shared a few snarky where, were and we’re type posts on my wall. I’ve even drawn attention to one or two, especially when it’s been someone who I absolutely know would be mortified by their mistake. I’ve also been on the receiving end. Does it all matter, though? The answer for me is sometimes more than others.
I’d be very worried if I saw a social media post from the Prime Minister that said ‘Where all very thankfull of, you’re support. cheers for Voteing,!’ Surely if they couldn’t communicate well in writing, they’d at least employ an editor…
If I saw a sportsperson write the same thing, I’d be thankful that their trade is to kick a ball or hold a racquet.
If an author wrote it, I’d make my OMG face and cringe in solidarity.
If my son wrote it, I’d arrange a meeting with his teacher and probably leave a comment…
Good grammar is important but so is imagination and expression. It’s all about balance. A good story or anecdote is still good with a misplaced comma. The world knows what you mean if you use the wrong version of your. Never feel so intimidated by grammar that you stop being creative. There are so many resources out there to help you improve that stuff, it’s all technical and something most people can learn. It’s a skill. Imagination is something that can’t be taught. It’s not a skill, it’s a talent.
Being on form with punctuation doesn’t mean you’re a natural writer – it’s just an extra spanner in your toolkit. I’ve read a few self-published books and nine times out of ten, it’s the grammar that lets them down. It’s a problem for a whole host of reasons but is especially important in children’s books. Children are impressionable. If they see incorrect grammar repeatedly, they’ll eventually think it’s right. For the adult market, it completely disrupts the flow of the story and makes reading difficult.
To be more concise, it depends on who is making the mistakes and in what context. For those of us working with publishers, we have a safety net. We have editors. If you’ve never been able to put your finger on the difference between (most) self-published books and traditionally published, I would bet my favourite hat that it’s down to editing and art direction.
Basically it goes like this:
A Writer writes.
An Editor edits the writing.
An Illustrator illustrates.
An Art Director directs the illustrator.
Now that’s not to say that just because you have an editor you can get away with writing as if you’re in an intense text convo with a teenager. That’s like dropping your chip packet on the floor because you know the cleaner will be along in ten minutes. Do everything to the best of your ability, always.
Editing services are available to indie authors. There are shed-loads of freelance professionals out there offering their skills for a fair price so there’s absolutely no need for basic (or complex) grammar issues or bad (self) editing within your work.
For those that are really concerned about getting a ticking-off on their wall from a grammar-obsessed friend, get learning. There are squillions of resources out there and once you’ve got the hang of it, it’s not so hard.
And finally, if you’re the person that feels the need to correct everyone, next time you doodle, post it up so your artistic friends can critique your work as though it’s about to be hung in The Tate. Or take a video of yourself snowboarding so your sporty friends can compare your technique to Jenny Jones’. I’ll get the popcorn ready.
(Disclaimer: If you don’t know the difference between an apostrophe and a comma, you’ll find it extremely difficult to make a career out of writing. Write your story and use it as a springboard to learn more about grammar, punctuation and storytelling.)
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.
Whether you’re just starting out or in a bit of a rut, if your children’s illustration portfolio needs a complete overhaul or creating from scratch, this twelve week workshop is a creative crash course. By the end you will have a new portfolio of work.No excuses or missing deadlines – this is not for wimps.
Before booking your place, you will need to be in possession of:
A scanner (if working with pencils/paper/off-screen)
An internet connection
Basic computer knowledge (or someone to lend a hand when saving/uploading work)
Weekly briefs, crits and amendments as well as support and guidance to help you build a knockout portfolio full of relevant and vibrant work.
Maxine Lee-Mackie is a UK based author/illustrator with children’s books published internationally. Clients include Simon & Schuster, Little Tiger Press (Caterpillar Books), Pow! Kids Books, Orion (Hachette), Childsplay Books. Her debut children’s book ‘Pi-Rat!’ was highly commended by The Cambridgeshire Children’s Book Award.
Any questions, just drop me an email or inbox me on Facebook/Twitter.
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.