The Children's Illustrators' Studio

September 6, 2014
Exciting (Gorilla) Times

I'm not as active as I used to be in the picture book space, given some older audience books that I've been working on more recently (Fantasy YA, see, but I've decided to shift gears a little and start a new picture book dummy, something I haven't done in a long time. It's for a PB story that I've been coming back to on and off for a couple of years and finally think I have found the tweak that makes me happy with it. Finally. :) It's about a little gorilla that gets big. Very big! I'm looking forward to it and may post the odd image from the process (either here or at Should be fun. :)

The featured image was originally inspired by the story, but I never carved out the time to take if further. Done in watercolor, using various real life photo references blended together.

All the best!
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September 3, 2014
Illustrating Characters: Personality Goes a Long Way


No matter what type of illustration you are working on, it will probably include a character. When illustrating characters - animals, children, or adults - one of the most basic and essential elements is conveying their personality. Characters are the heart of great stories, and you are telling stories with your pictures, so being able to portray them as unique and interesting is an important and valuable skill.

When you are putting together your illustration portfolio, it's a good idea to show a variety of different character and personality types. This helps give your portfolio variety and interest, and shows your skill in capturing different moods and emotions through your characters. Designing them so they are unique, and breathing personality into them makes them more interesting and engages the viewer.

There are many ways to breathe personality into your characters - shape of the face, facial features, hairstyle, body shape, clothing, line variety, colour - all of these can contribute to the overall feel of the character. The following are some of the things I've learned on how to achieve uniqueness in your character designs:

Line Quality
If your illustration technique includes line work, varying your line can help accentuate the personality of your character. Your lines can be soft and round, sharp, jagged, thick or thin. Think about what type of character you are illustrating, and experiment with different weights and characteristics of line.

You can also exaggerate certain characteristics to help define your character's personality. Perhaps your character has very large eyes or ears, or a very long neck, or very big hair, etc. Figure out who your character is, and push and pull their various attributes to really reinforce who they are. In your initial sketches experiment with exaggeration - you can always pull back later if it gets too wild, but it's good to see how far you can take things. This is a great way to come up with some really fun sketches, and you may even stumble upon something you hadn't considered initially!

Body Shape
Body shape is another one of the really great ways to capture your character's personality. Is your character hunched over? Do they stand tall and proud? Are they very large and round? Do they have really short legs, or long legs and a wiggly back? The possibilities are endless! You can reveal so much about your character by the way they carry themselves. For fun, go out to a crowded place and watch people as they walk by - pay attention to how they carry themselves as they walk, stand, or sit. Try observing and sketching the variety of body shapes and poses. It's great practice (and a lot of fun!), and you will learn a lot about how to convey a sense of character through the way you draw their body poses. It's also great to use line variation for your poses - quick and sharp strokes for action poses, or round heavy strokes for those slumpy sitting poses. Just stay loose and have fun with it.

Clothing is another good way to reveal your character's personality. Is their clothing loose and baggy, too tight, messy, formal, or do they wear a uniform? A great way to get ideas for your character designs is to look through books on costumes, or a quick google image search for any type of period dress.

Facial Features and Expressions
I often think that the face is one of the best ways to really nail the personality of your characters. The face is usually where your eyes are first drawn to, so if you can capture a character's personality in the face, the rest is just reinforcing that. Character in the face comes from the expressions and the shapes used. Is the head angular or round? Are the eyes small or large? From expression lines to the shape of the nose - there are an infinite number of combinations you can make to capture the uniqueness of your character's face.

I find that one of the best ways to get good at capturing facial expressions is to draw while holding up a small mirror in front of yourself. Make different expressions and practice drawing them. Try to understand the muscles in the face and how they push and pull making different lines and wrinkles. When I'm drawing a face, even though I'm not looking in  a mirror I always make the expression I'm trying to draw. It's just an unconscious habit I've gotten into. "Becoming" the expression somehow makes it easier for me to channel it into my drawings.

The way you approach the colours used for your character also plays an important role. Using bright and vibrant colours may suggest a fun or playful character, while using very pale or soft and subtle colours may suggest a more thoughtful quiet personality. Darks, lights, and combinations in between - colour is a very powerful tool. Try experimenting with different colour schemes to see how it changes the look and feel of your characters.

Now go Draw!
There are some great resources out there for helping you practice drawing characters. One of the books that I used to refer to a lot was "Cartooning the Head and Figure", by Jack Haam. It is jammed packed with helpful illustrations on body types and poses and has a fantastic section on facial features and expressions.

One of the best resources for practicing drawing characters and different personalities is life. Draw people in your sketchbook, and study your own face in the mirror to practice capturing different emotions. The best advice I can give is to draw, draw draw, and then draw some more!
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August 18, 2014
Streamline your Workflow with Manga Studio Story Editor


I think it's fair to say we're all looking for ways to be more productive. We want to make our workflow as streamlined as possible so we can get more done in a day. Well, if you do any comic or graphic novel work and have yet to try out the Story Editor in Manga Studio, you may want to read this mini review - it could help improve your workflow and increase your productivity.

While working on my current graphic novel, I decided to try the Story Editor in Manga Studio EX 4 to see if it could help me save time and make the whole process easier.

One of the main benefits I've found in using the Story Editor is that it’s helped me focus more on working out the flow and pacing of the story and less time managing different files. I can quickly lay out my rough sketch pages, add in dialogue, and move pages or scenes around to fine tune the flow and pacing of the story - all from one application.

The Story Editor - Overview

When creating a new file in Manga Studio, you have the option of creating either a page or a story. Basically, a story is a file that groups all of your individual pages together in one place (think Adobe Bridge but with a lot more functionality). With the Story Editor you can easily write or import all your dialogue, view and edit all your pages, make global changes to dialogue or font styles, and export your pages to individual files or as a PDF (great for creating a book dummy).

Creating a new story

When creating a new story file you are presented with a window where you can set the dimensions of all the pages (you can set your own or choose from a number of templates), margin guides, output resolution, and indicate the number of pages you would like to set up for your story. You are also given the option to add some footer information to all of your pages (title, copyright info, and position of page numbering). All of these settings can easily be changed later if you need to adjust things.

Setting up individual pages in your story

After you create a new story file, you will see a thumbnail grid of blank pages. From here you can double click on any page to open it. Once you have a page open you can work on it as any normal page. At this point, I like to import my thumbnail sketch for the page (this acts as my sketch layer). Once I have all of my pages prepared with the sketch artwork (which I will use as a guide when I do my inking on a new layer), I am ready to add in the dialogue for each page.

Adding and working with dialogue

The Story Editor window is where you can either manually type in all of your dialogue or import it from a separate file. Manually entering dialogue is really easy. All the pages are shown, and you simply pick a page, click in the box under the page number, and start typing your dialogue. Then, your next line of dialogue for that page would be typed in the box underneath that, and so on. What’s really handy here is that you can easily drag the lines of dialogue around to reorder them, or click between lines of dialogue to insert additional dialogue. You can even insert new pages here, and they will created in your story file when you go back to your thumbnail view.

From this Story Editor window you can also apply global font styles which you can apply to all your pages or only certain pages or lines of dialogue. You can also search and replace text (this can come in handy if you need to change a character’s name in your story).

Once you are finished entering all of your dialogue in this window, the story editor will automatically place the dialogue text on all of the individual pages for you. Then, you can go into each individual page and edit or move the text as you need, or even go back into the Story Editor Window to make text changes, and the changes will be automatically applied on the individual pages.

Adding word balloons

Once you have your dialogue placed on your individual pages you can now move it into position and place it in word balloons. Manga Studio has a nice feature where you can auto generate a word balloon for each line of dialogue. This balloon can be the standard ellipse or you can choose from custom word balloons in the materials library. (you can also add your own custom balloons to the materials library). Another useful feature when generating a balloon for your dialogue -  you can indicate that you want the balloon to resize to fit the dialogue - this is handy if you end up adding or removing text as the balloon will automatically resize to fit.

There are quite a few more options and features for the word balloons, but I won't go into detail on them here.

Editing and reordering pages in your story

When viewing all your page thumbnails in the story editor, all you need to do to edit a page is double-click to open it, make your changes, and save it (or you can set it to auto save when you close the page). You can also quickly and easily reorder or move pages, or whole groups of pages. It’s as easy as dragging and dropping them where you want them. Adding or removing a pages is simple as well - just click where you want to insert/remove and choose the insert/delete command. All of your pages will automatically be renumbered to accommodate the new or removed pages. This can come in handy when you are working on your story and want to move certain scenes around or add some new pages within a scene.

Zooming & previewing

In the thumbnail view of all your pages, you can easily zoom in and out. Zoom out so you can preview all of you pages at once, or zoom in a little so you can read the dialogue as you check the pacing of your story.

Page List view

When you click on one of your pages to work on it, you can choose to open a little sidebar window on your screen which will show the thumbnail view all your pages at the same time. This can be handy if you need to refer to some lines of dialogue that are on adjacent pages while you are editing your page.

Panel Ruler Tool

While not part of the story editor, I want to quickly mention the Panel Ruler tool. Once you use this tool you’ll never want to hand draw your panels again! The panel ruler tool allows you to quickly make panel guides for your page, and you can easily set up the thickness of your panel lines and gutters in the preferences screen. All you need to do is create a new Panel Ruler layer from the new layer dialog box. This will create a ruler border that snaps to the margins of your page. Then, all you need to do is use the Panel Ruler Cutter tool to cut out your panels. With this tool you can easily make straight cuts, diagonal cuts, or create custom panel shapes using the object selector tool. After you have your panels cut out how you want them, you simply rasterize the Panel Ruler layer, and you now have an inked line layer based on the ruler lines. If you drag this layer above your artwork layer it will automatically crop any page content that falls outside of the panels (love this!)

Exporting your story or pages

One of the great benefits of using the story editor is that you can very quickly export the whole story. So, in a matter of seconds you can export all pages to one PDF file if you need to create a book dummy for previewing. Or, after you have inked your pages - you can export them all as layered Photoshop files (with panels, text, inks all on separate layers if you want). You can choose to export only one page, or specific pages of your choosing.

Final thoughts

Even if you prefer to work traditionally, there are still many ways you can use the Story Editor to help your process. You could simply use it to import your page sketches, place your dialogue, and fine tune your scenes and pacing before exporting everything to ink your pages traditionally.

If you are reluctant to try out Manga Studio due to the somewhat clunky and confusing UI, I urge you to give it a try. After a bit of time you will get used to the interface, and I believe the benefits of using the Story Editor are well worth the initial learning curve. Plus, Manga Studio comes with a huge (over 400 page) PDF user guide that is quite easy to follow.
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How Manga Studio Convinced Me to Draw Digitally


Drawing Digitally
I still prefer to work on my rough concept and thumbnail sketches traditionally, but for refined sketches and final linework I find myself using Manga Studio more and more frequently. I’ve made numerous attempts to switch to drawing digitally using Photoshop, but for me, the drawing tools in Photoshop just don’t feel as smooth as they do in Manga Studio. Drawing in Manga Studio feels very natural and as close to traditional methods as I’ve experienced. In addition, there are a few very good pen tool options that make the drawing experience that much better. I’m going to talk about some of those options here.

Just a quick note: For the purposes of this overview I’m working with Manga Studio 4, and only talking about the pen and some related tools. The newest version (Manga Studio 5) looks like it has quite a few interface improvements and other new features (Tracy Bishop did a great video overview of Manga Studio 5 on the site in May last year), but for the tools I will be talking about, I do not believe a whole lot has changed.

Okay, here is an overview of some of the features and the drawing tools that really sold me on using Manga Studio:

Pen Tool Options

My first impression when using the pen tool was how nice and smooth it felt. The pen is very responsive and I was impressed with the line quality you can achieve. There are also some very interesting options and settings available for the pen tools:

Stroke-in and Stroke-out

On the pen tool options palette there are check boxes for stroke-in and stroke-out. Turning these on will taper your line at the beginning or end (or both) of your stroke. You can also use these stroke-in and stroke-out options in conjunction with your pen speed.

This tapering of your line is applied in addition to the regular pen size tapering you would get with the reduced pen pressure as you finish or start a stroke, and will ensure your line starts and/or ends in a nice tapered point. The great thing is that you can turn this option on or off, and adjust the amount of tapering for either end of your stroke as needed when drawing.


Another great pen tool option is “Correction”. With this turned on, Manga Studio will smooth out your pen stroke after you draw it. You can set the level of correction, so you can apply a very subtle correction or a lot of correction, depending on what you need. This option can be really useful if you are drawing some large round shapes or arced lines and want them to have a nice smooth feel.

In my experience, I’ve found that the smooth feel of the pen tool, in combination with these two options above can really help you achieve some great looking line work.

The Layers Palette

If you’ve used Photoshop, the layers palette will feel quite familiar. In Manga Studio, you have a bunch of options when adding a new layer, and I want to point out two in particular:

Vector or Raster Layer

One of the really great options you have when adding a new layer is that you can choose whether the layer will be a raster or vector layer. (in the “Layer Type” option)

To have the option of creating your line work in vector is a huge plus - especially if you are working on any large format drawings, if you will need to scale up your artwork, or if you prefer working with vectors as part of your workflow. When drawing on a vector layer, the pen tool behaves almost exactly the same as if you were drawing on a regular raster layer - with the same natural flow, smoothness, and pressure sensitivity. The ability to make your drawing a vector while feeling like you are simply drawing normally is such a nice feature.

Assigning layer output

Another option you have when creating a new layer is the ability to make the layer a sketch or finish layer. What this means is - if you specify the layer as a sketch layer you can exclude this layer when you export your drawing. It’s nice to be able to keep your sketch layer, and not have to worry about deleting it before exporting.

The Eraser

This is not Manga Studio specific, but more in regards to drawing digitally in general -  I’ve found it very nice to be able to continue drawing a pen stroke past the point of where you want it to stop, and then erase the overlap. I find this allows you to carry on drawing a nice fluid stroke without having to worry about slowing down and stopping it, which can sometimes make your line appear a bit more timid than if you just followed through on the stroke.

Also, if you’re drawing on a layer designated as a vector layer, one touch of the eraser tool on the stroke after the intersection will erase the whole overlap right back to the point of intersection. How awesome is that!

Other useful features

Two essential tools Photoshop users will be familiar with - rotate and flip canvas. These are present in Manga Studio as well. These features are very handy for checking your work from a fresh perspective to make sure everything is working (like when they taught us to hold our work up to a mirror in art school - before computers!)

Export Options

I found the export image options to be very extensive. If you prefer to colour your artwork in another application, Manga Studio has a lot of options when you are exporting your images. You can export in a number of different image formats, including .PSD files. It will also allow you to export all your layers, or flatten your artwork if you like. You can also choose to include or exclude sketch layers and text layers.


There are certainly a lot of benefits to drawing digitally. It can be faster, you can resize/reposition parts of your drawing as you work, and you can instantly undo a pen stroke you don’t like. This also has the added benefit of giving you increased line confidence, knowing you can hit undo if a stroke goes bad.

I’ve only used Manga Studio for a little while and I haven’t explored all of it yet, but so far I am very impressed with the natural feel and smoothness of the drawing tools. It feels very close to traditional drawing, and that is what has me the most excited. Manga Studio also has a fairly low price point, so it’s not too large of an investment if you feel like giving it a try.

So far, the only drawback for me in drawing digitally is my impulse to hit ‘undo’ 20 times in a row until I get the exact stroke I want - If I can find a way to stop doing that, I’m sure I’ll be producing drawings faster in no time!
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August 12, 2014
To Database or Not to Database - Organizing Your Contacts


For illustrators, building and maintaining a contact list for your marketing efforts is one of the most important things you can do for your business. Putting in the time and effort to build a highly targeted database of contacts is vital. To get your work seen, and for you to get hired - reaching out regularly to a targeted list of companies with whom you want to work is something you simply must do.

The software you choose for your database depends on personal preference. There are many contact relationship management (CRM) software choices out there - some free, some paid, many that are over complicated, and many with features you would never need to use. For myself, after looking at many of the options I settled on the simplest and most customizable choice - a spreadsheet. It’s simple, sortable, searchable, and exporting the data for labels or emailing is very straightforward.

The great thing about using a spreadsheet is you can customize the fields exactly the way you want. It’s easy to color highlight certain fields so you can get creative with color coding to help you track or remember certain details. You can set up drop down menus to select from pre-determined data. You can also set up additional spreadsheets in the same workbook - one for a list of publishers, and others for submission lists for picture book dummies, or lists for other contacts.

In my workbook, I have separate sheets for Publishers, Agents, and Picture Book submission lists (so I can track who I’ve sent to, who has responded, etc.)

For my main publisher list, here are the fields that I track:
  • Date of last contact (last time you emailed or sent a mailer, letter, etc.)
  • Status (Client, On file, Lead) - for this I built in a drop down menu with these choices built in so I don’t have to retype them when entering a contact
  • Newsletter (here I indicate if I have them on my email newsletter mailing list)
  • Category (Trade, Educational, Magazine) - again I use a drop down menu with these choices - I like to use these categories so I can group and sort contacts into sub lists to target mailings
  • Xmas Card (the last time I sent them a card and if they are on my card list or not)
  • First Name
  • Last Name
  • Title
  • Company
  • Address
  • City
  • State/Province
  • Zip/Postal Code
  • Country
  • Email
  • Website
  • Last Contact (here I keep notes on the last contact I had with this person)
  • Additional notes (here I note and submission guidelines, special considerations, etc.)

The key to maintaining your database is to regularly go through and make sure the information is still current (your database is only as good as the data that is in it). I like to break it into small chunks and try to check 10 or so records each week until I reach the end of the list, then I just start again, repeating the process.

Another really useful thing to do is to save your spreadsheet into an online file sharing service, such as Dropbox - this way you can have access to your contacts from any device are using. Even your phone if you need to check some information while on the go. Or, another option would be to build your spreadsheet in Google Drive - and again you could have it available to you on any device.

I built my spreadsheet using Excel, and I am making my template available here for anyone who would like to use it as a starting point for their own list, or for reference. The template includes my main publisher list template, as well as a second sheet template for a picture book submission list.
--> Download my Excel template
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July 21, 2014
July 8, 2014
Adventures in Self Promotion

For freelance illustrators, self promotion is a necessary part of the business. Potential clients need to know about you and see your work if you want to get hired.
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June 16, 2014
May 15, 2014
What's the Buzz?


Okay, I'm cheating and digging up a seriously old piece from the archives. This is a back cover maze from Spider magazine.
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