All Posts · Animal tales · Childrens Book Illustrating · Writing and Illustrating


I thought I would show you a little of the daunting white space I get in the home run of an illustration, along with a couple of experimental ideas. I have been on a journey the last two years finding my feet on how to illustrate, paint or pencil, and what to illustrate. Birds seem to make me happy. But I am still trying to find a style I am happy with. Whimsical I love and most forthcoming projects will work round my writing, as I do need to make progress on these stories and bring them alive. However I am thoroughly enjoying a more fine art style and working on a selection of seabirds for galleries. I do these in a mix of wax or oil coloured pencils and finish with the smooth pan pastels mainly on backgrounds.

Pan Pastels are well worth investing in. Not cheap at €45 for a pack of 10 but the pastels are faultless with great smooth coverage, pigment content and blending ability. I invested in four packs, one with more sea tones of aqua, blues and mauves, and another with strong citron yellows and leaf greens, a brown theme and a neutral one. In this Frigate Bird illustration the pan pastels created the perfect overcast sky and they enable very soft blending accross the illustration to unify the colours, like adding a soft yellow to give a warm glow.

Original completed illustration

Once I had completed the main bird, I wanted to experiment a little with being more illustrative, adding more sea elements to the background. I have a lot of books on sailing ships and using coloured pencil on film, then flattening out the image via Photoshop, using a filter to make the colours more ‘block affect”, I could then merge the two elements into one. In photoshop you can cut one image and combine into another with varying levels of opacity. Plus as a bonus, I get two images from one illustration, but with a different feel to them.

Additional background added.

Sometimes as in the Fulmar below, I want a natural background, continuity with the subject, as here, the ocean with reflections, picking up a little yellow to create sunlight on the water. Again the pastels allow a nice soft blurred background for the more detailed foreground subject to stand out. I have looked at producing more detailed backgrounds, but found I am more drawn to a simple closeup with very little to distract.

Original completed
Pan pastel background

I use a debossing technique where after sketching out on film tracing paper, so I can play with positioning, I use a pointed tool, one of quite a few, with differing points, some blunter or ridged, to push through to make indented outlines. I remove the film and continue to work the illustration to a point where I am happy with the level of detail. When using coloured pencils, effectively the indentation marks will stay white and often this technique is used for fur or feathers or whiskers. I go one step further and use this on all my subject to create texture and highlights, later using pastel to fill in the indents to soften the contrast. I like the way the pencils pick out the marks and create secondary marks, and it gives a sense of light to the illustration when photographed too, for prints, the camera picking up on the ridges.

For the Shelducks I used thin decoupage papers torn in strips. I wanted a sort of guided look using gold but still natural looking, like earth, stone or vegetation. A strong image with strong colours was a good contrast. I found on Amazon a Thailand supplier of handmade papers made from mulberry leaves and other natural plants and this has opened up a huge variety of backgrounds, subtle and full of textures.

Another technique I love, is the use of typography or pages torn from second hand books. This Imperial Shag is set in a mix of sea fables tinted with acrylics and pan pastels to reinforce this birds life at sea, amongst the ocean waves.

Natural backgrounds

My other passion is whimsical. Its actually quite technical and time consuming in planning as every element has to have a whimsical connection somehow through pattern, subject or colour association’s. The Gian Pea is a book I am writing about family and loss but has a happy ending. It focuses around three ducks and their travels. Here they are at the circus and I started with an idea of reflection as a theme and the background grew from there.

Once I had completed the main characters and other smaller elements I wanted a background that continued the theme, but didn’t overpower it. Using the tent as a symbolic circus element and adding wording to emphasise the story, was perfect. The tent also framed the subject drawing your eye inwards to the mirror in the centre.

Continuing with the Giant Pea, the next illustration involved a beach scene, but needed some further impact than sea shells and rock pools. Having completed the ducks as the main subject, I wanted a strong secondary subject, in this case an historic car, a Nash Traveller. This was as detailed as the ducks but set above with a little space between. The illustration below can be cut in two quite easily but when combined, because the detail throughout is constant and colouring, the two halves become one and balance.

Two strong elements in one picture.
The two completed prints.

And finally some whimsical illustrations that I might be using in my book, need less detail but strong elements, as here in the yellow daffodils. This is Penquin and Harry out in the Springtime rain before they go on their search with the Giant Pea. There is a lot of white space and the use of a limited pallet of colour too…blues, oranges and yellows.

Backgrounds can be quite tricky and can swamp the main focus of the illustration but can also really add another dimension to. Worth exploring and making your backgrounds more than just an afterthought or to simply fill the page.

Daffodil Ducks.

3 thoughts on “Backgrounds

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.