Tuesday, 31 January 2017

New Year Reflections on 2016

Well it has been three years since I actively started blogging and as it is January it is a time for reflection upon what I got up to in the last year.  In general I have blogged less this year, probably due to returning to the world of work after an extended maternity leave, but I have still endeavoured to become a picture book Author and Illustrator, which is what my blogging aims to document.

So this year I started my Instagram account after hearing that it is how a lot of illustrators get spotted by agents.  I like it as a platform and it brings my work to a new audience judging from the likes and follows.  I treat it as a sketchbook showcase and show different work from what I show on my Facebook page and Twitter.  I’ve have not been approached by any agents yet though.

Speaking of agents, after going to the brilliant SCBWI Workshop; Getting Your Picture Book onto the Page with Elizabeth O Dulemba, I chatted with Sheila Averbuch about how she found Writer’s Digest Webinars (the live ones with access to editors and agents) very valuable in her path to publishing.  So I decided to try one and bought How to Write a Picture Book That Sells complete with a critique from a US agent .  While I found the webinar itself to be just okay (useful content but delivered by reading from slides) I was more interested in getting a professional critique on my current ‘best’ manuscript.  For the money I paid, I was initially disappointed with the four lines of feedback that I received.  The first two lines were positive and then I read these comments;

“I wish there was more of a story, though.  The picture book market is so competitive 
that I wonder if this story has enough in it to make it stand out from the rest.”

I couldn’t believe it, especially as I had just added more conflict to my latest draft, in truth I felt a bit despondent and stopped writing for a little while.  A few months later there was an opportunity to have a 121 session with Skylark a UK literary agency, organised by SCBWI BI NE.  So I got that manuscript out and read it again, I still thought it was good until I analysed it using Alayne Kay Christian’s Art of Arc self-study exercises .  The agent was right there wasn’t actually any story there at all.  It was a bittersweet moment of realisation that I need to revise that manuscript more before I can send it out for submission again.

So I didn’t submit this Picture Book manuscript to Skylark as it obviously wasn’t ready and because they are mainly Young Adult and Middle Grade agents.  Instead I decided to submit an old comic script that I had recently re-drafted.  And I was very surprised to get great feedback from Joanna Moult. Find out what she said here in Em Lynas’s write up of the event.  So I now feel encouraged to continue working on the both the comic a bit more and the picture book.

This year I have increased my volunteering duties for SCBWI, not only did I hang the SCBWI Illustrator Showcase in Seven Stories again, I am also now co-Network Organiser for the North East alongside Marie-Claire Imam-Guitierrez.  You can read an interview with me about the role in SCBWI's Words and Pictures, online magazine.  So far I have learnt a lot from watching Marie-Claire organise the wonderful Creating Believable Characters Event and I will be organising an Illustration event in the next few months.

The SCBWI BI Illustration Showcase at Seven Stories

My artwork output has diversified this year and now includes Caricatures and Comics!  Both as a result of doing Inkotber. I’ve done three Inktobers now and for Inktober2016 I wanted to do something a bit bigger to grow my audience.  I thought I’d draw and ink a page of my comic manuscript everyday but realised how ambitious that would be in the timescale of a month.  Instead I adapted Kate Bush’s song Under Ice into a 16 page, one panel per page, minicomic.  I am a massive fan of Kate Bush and was lucky enough to go to a concert of hers during her 2014 residency at the Eventim Apollo.  Under Ice is a song from a suite called the Ninth Wave on her 1985 album Hounds of Love.  It is a very visual suite of songs that I interpret as being about a woman falling overboard a ship and slipping in and out of consciousness before she is finally rescued.  Each song is either a dream or an account of what is happening.  As you can see from my  drawings, I imagine the song to be about Kate skating on a frozen river when it cracks and she falls in the water and dies, the ending sequence is her seeing herself under the ice and emerging as a spirit.

So did this grow my audience?  Yes it did!  And if you follow this blog you will find out when my next post is live, and I will tell you how.

Sunday, 23 October 2016

Tips For Doing Caricature Gigs

I have recently added Caricaturing to my repertoire as an artist, I have had two gigs so far and I'd like to share with you what I have learnt from doing them.

First of all I am not doing the really exaggerated, highly rendered kind of caricature drawing like Jason Seiler for example. My ‘caricatures’ are black ink line drawings of the people who sit in front of me, drawn as a representational portrait or portraying them as popular person or character of their choosing.  

I did not plan to start caricaturing, I did it on a whim, I decided to run a caricature stall at the school-where-I-work-at’s Summer Fair, just for fun to see if I could actually do it and to raise some money in the process.  As it was the first time I have ever done anything like this I was very nervous at whether I would get recognisable likenesses, be fast enough and be good enough.  I think what gave me the confidence to try is the legacy of taking part in Inktober where you aim to make an ink drawing every day in the month of October, as a result I haven’t stopped near-daily drawing since taking part for the first time three years ago.  

So at the school’s Summer Fair I set up a stall which consisted of an easel displaying some sample caricatures that I had made earlier and a banner saying ‘caricatures’ and the price of a drawing.  I had an easel to draw at, a chair for me and a chair for the sitter.  I made sure I had plenty of paper, pens and at the last minute I grabbed a pencil with a rubber on.  For requests of whom to be drawn as I used an iPad to Google for images. 

School Fair Caricature Setup

When the first guests arrived I asked if anyone wanted a drawing and immediately someone took me up on the offer.  After that there was a crowd around me from every angle and an unorganised queue formed.  I drew in pencil lines first then inked over them with Posca markers.  I drew nine portraits in an hour and a half.  The thin pen I favoured ran out towards the end and I had to switch to my thicker one.  The rubber on my pencil wore down and for the last couple of drawings I asked the sitter to rub the pencil out when they got home.  

Birtley Library Caricature Setup
I learnt some great lessons from doing this which helped me in my second gig at my first ever Library event as part of Geek Con 3 at Birtley Library.  I kept a similar physical setup but also displayed some prints for sale (See below for the Bellatrix Lestrange portrait I made especially to sell at the event).  I felt more confident this time and decided to ditch the pencil and drew straight away in pen, this time my favourite Pentel Pocket Brush pen, this, of course, helped me create more time to make more drawings.  To avoid a chaotic queue and any disappointment at not getting a drawing, I had a time slot sheet which I managed to keep to.  So my second caricature gig was even more successful than the first and I am making arrangements for my third gig next month.  See some of the caricatures below:

Bellatrix Lestrange

A photo posted by Claire O'Brien (@claireobrienart) on

A photo posted by Claire O'Brien (@claireobrienart) on

A photo posted by Claire O'Brien (@claireobrienart) on

Things to work on for next time are;

  • better packaging for the customer to take their drawing away in without it getting crumpled
  • have more prints for sale
  • improve at drawing hands, they are such an important part of portraits

Just as caricaturing was a new experience for me, I am about to try something else new!  For my third Inktober I have decided to draw a mini comic (of Kate Bush’s Under Ice song).  As well as drawing a comic for the first time (well apart from this page below my son and I made) I will be doing it as live-ish online as a Facebook event. So please click ‘Going’ if you like to watch my progress, I’ll also have giveaways and art drops to announce, thank you.

Thursday, 18 August 2016

What I Learnt From Workshops With David Almond and Chris Riddell

Last month I attended two workshops by two people who are amazing at what they do; David Almond and Chris Riddell and I want to share with you what I learned from them about the craft of writing and drawing.  

David Almond is one of the most unique children’s book authors around, whose work is difficult to categorise, it is very personal and whimsical, magical realism is probably the closest genre he could be labelled as.  Skellig is probably his most famous book. He is local to the North East, so he writes about some familiar-to-me places and I had the pleasure of meeting him a few times when I worked as a Fundraising Assistant for Seven Stories back in the early 2000s, he was and still is a Patron for them and he captures their early days so well in this Guardian article for their tenth birthday. 

Chris Riddell is an Illustrator, Author, political Cartoonist and he is the current Children’s Laureate in the UK. He has illustrated novels by Neil Gaiman and Paul Stewart as well as his own novels and picture books.  He is a compulsive, prolific and accomplished drawer which he demonstrates on Instagram and Tumblr. As part of his laureate work he champions drawing as an activity for everyone!

At the Wild Writing workshop at The Live Theatre on Newcastle’s Quayside, David Almond shared his thoughts on writing, his philosophy and his techniques and got the group to do some of their own writing.  From that description you may think ‘oh so it was just another writing workshop then?’ but no this is David Almond we’re talking about, his highly individual books come out of his highly individual approach. As I commented to a friend afterwards; he rewrites the books on how to write; he does not plot and plan, he revises as he goes along and when writing longhand, he doesn’t even write in a neat line!

David Almond with one of his A3 notebooks

He started the session appropriately with childhood and and talked about how wonderful learning to write at primary school is; how we start by listening to the teacher sound a letter out, her showing us how write it, then copying her marks and sounding the sound back to her.  He said that for his writing he draws on his own childhood in Felling, and suggests we often deny the extraordinariness of our own lives.  He talked about imagination, that it is us, it is the history of storytelling.  He illustrated it in a great way, he asked us to hold our heads in our hands then bring them in front of us to see how small in size our heads are, he then asked us to compare that size with size of our imagination.  He talked about how writing is about the exploration of possibility and that you often don’t know what you want to write until you discover it by the act of writing itself.  He wrote Skellig without planning!  

David Almond’s process is to initially write longhand in A3 notebooks from Newcastle’s Details. He accepts imperfection, embraces it even, his longhand notebooks are fantastic to behold, he writes anywhere on the page, not always on horizontal lines, obliterating the white space. Then when he takes to the computer he creates a title page with the title in a big, bold font as that gives the work a sense of importance.  Then he gets typing, he writes short chapters and uses huge line spacing to trick himself that he has written loads and when he prints the manuscript out for more revision he bull dog clips the pages together so it looks like an object, like a real manuscript.

I have seen Chris Riddell before at the Hartlepool Festival of Illustration and though I’d heard some of his stories then I still very much enjoyed this Ink and Drink session at Seven Stories.  There was a good atmosphere in the crowd where we sat at tables drawing together while Chris talked and drew with an overhead camera projecting his drawings behind him.

I got to take this Chris Riddell drawing home!

He is very funny and had the room in stitches with laughter.  He started with the beginnings of his career,  how he was taught by Raymond Briggs (The Snowman, Fungus The Bogeyman, etc)  at Brighton and how Briggs filled him (and every other student as it turns out) with hope with his stock refrain of ‘Marvellous’.  Chris found talking about Raymond Briggs quite poignant as he had just decorated a Snow Dog for Seven Stories. He then gave us a great exercise to generate a drawing with a story, the three Ws exercise; drawing something then write the Who? Where? What? of it. When we all had finished, he shared our drawings on the screen.  There were differing levels of art on display and I expected that he was about to do the standard drawing critique on proportion, perspective, anatomy etc but instead he read our three Ws out and made us laugh at our own stories without mocking the quality or skills on show.  In fact it was a demonstration of how picture books work; there was a picture juxtaposed with words read out loud by a reader culminating in generating a response. Great stuff!

Chris Riddell talking about my drawing projected on the screen behind him

So as a writer I learnt that it is okay to have a non-conventional approach to writing and to value and use my imagination.  As an illustrator I learnt a new little exercise to generate stories to go with my sketches that can elevate them from just a sketch.  As a teacher (though I am not currently teaching) I learnt about how wonderful it is to be in a workshop with someone who is at the top of their game, oozing their craft and being fluently articulate about it. From Chris Riddell, in particular I learnt a new approach to talking about other people's drawings. To witness the speed and quality of his own drawings on the screen was so inspiring, in fact it prompted me to run a caricature stall for the first time (which I look forward to sharing my experience of in a future blogspost).  Have you attended any inspiring workshops by these two or other people? Please leave a comment, I'd love to hear.

Thursday, 30 June 2016

Creating A Children’s Picture Book Illustration Portfolio - Part 4 - Drawing Children

How do you draw children?  When creating a children’s picture book illustration portfolio, you need to have work that features children.  In a picture book, whether human, animal or robot, the main character is nearly always a child, this is something that I forgot to say in my blog post about format and content.  I have recently added these two new pieces to my portfolio and as you can see I have found it a challenge to make my characters look young, in fact it is difficult to work out what age they actually even are.    So, in this post, I aim to find out how to draw children.  
Red Meets The Wolf by Claire O'Brien

Bringing Home The Loot by Claire O'Brien

What Do The ‘How To’ Books Say About Drawing Children?
First port of call has to be some of the many ‘how to illustrate children’s picture books’ that are out there, to see what they advise about drawing children.



The consensus seems to be to observe children and draw them from life.  Uri Shulevitz says in his seminal Writing with Pictures: How to Write and Illustrate Children's Books
“It is best to draw from direct observation of nature - figures, landscapes, animals, plants, inanimate objects - as much as possible.  In this way you have clear references against which to compare and correct your drawings.  Artists who draw exclusively from imagination run the risk of drifting into vagueness.” (Shulevitz 1997, p136) 

As always, this is good advice as it basically boils down to ‘learn how to draw by drawing’. Below are some of my observational drawings, this is something I do as much as I can.  From our observational drawings of children what do we learn about how make our own children character designs that we use in our picture books look more childlike? 

My own observational drawings

Scale - Proportion Charts
After observation, the first thing that strikes me about children is their size, they look small next to adults and everyday objects.  So let’s look at children’s proportional anatomy first.  I’m not keen on the proportion charts in ‘how to draw for children’s picture books’ they are not objective enough for me.  I find there are better proportion charts in regular ‘how to draw’ books though most just show the adult male, some do have charts for the adult female and a few show comparisons between the genders and ages.

In my opinion, the most useful human anatomy proportion charts for Children’s Picture Book Illustrators are by Andrew Loomis.  We have to remember that proportion charts establish rules for an ‘ideal’ figure and are measured out using a unit that is relative to the size of the figure's head. Loomis' ideal is an adult of eight heads high, in reality the adult is probably seven and a half heads high.  The demarkation of where the eight head units fall on the body, line up with body landmarks such as the nipples, the navel, the elbows, etc and that helps us learn the proportions of the ideal figure. 

Loomis' adult male and female 'ideals' from Figure Drawing For All It's Worth

Beware when using some proportion charts, for example, while How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way is a great ‘how to draw’ book its eight head ideal proportion chart is a bit illogical to actually use, it has extra arbitrary proportion lines added at the neck and feet.

Also a lot of proportion charts state that women are seven and a half heads high to show that they are often shorter than men.  Again I prefer Loomis' method of an eight headed high female ideal.  Using seven and half heads makes it difficult to memorise where the subsequent head unit demarkations fall. I think the solution to drawing women shorter than men is to make their heads slightly smaller, as shown below, the red line shows the measurement of the women's head.  I might be wrong in doing this, what do you think?

Comparative Proportions
Okay so now that we are familiar with adult proportions how do they compare with children’s proportions? If we were to increase a child’s height to an adult’s we see instantly they have differently proportioned anatomy as the picture below shows.

As Loomis shows us below children's heads are smaller than adults' but they are larger in proportion to their own bodies. Children are not eight heads high, the numbers of head units vary at different ages starting with just 4 at one years old, 5 at three years old, 6 at five years old and 7 at ten years old. Arms and legs are relatively very short between one and three years old and he neck doesn't start showing until five when the shoulders start to widen. 

As well as covering whole body anatomy in Figure Drawing For All It's Worth Loomis goes into great detail about drawing babies, small children, school age children and teenagers' heads and hands in Drawing The Head And Hands.


From Further Reading
As well as Loomis' proportion charts there are some great written tips about drawing children;

In William Rimmer’s very unusual Art Anatomy book he gives this formula for drawing children:

  • Large head
  • Rounded cheeks
  • Short neck
  • High, narrow shoulders
  • Rounded abdomen
  • Narrow pelvis
  • Limbs large in proportion to small hands and feet

And in Barbara Bradley’s brilliant book Drawing People she says;
  • Babies' heads are very square both from the front and in profile.
  • Babies have a wider space between the eyes than adults.
  • Babies' cheeks reach down to the chin and sometimes farther.
  • Most babies have a lot of fat, it's pretty much gone by the time they are seven.
  • The curve under babies' chins is convex.
  • Missing teeth happen at around seven years old.
  • Babies have fat hands and feet.


My Own Observations
Here are my own observations I have made while drawing children from life, they have:

  • Large foreheads
  • Big eyes, wide apart
  • Transparent eyebrows
  • Upper lips that are more prominent than the lower
  • No lines or wrinkles on the face
  • No or a short neck
  • Chubbiness
  • Short arms
  • Big nappied-bottoms

So hopefully I have given you some useful things to think about and apply when drawing children for a children's picture book illustration portfolio, do let me know in the comments and also if you have anything to add.  I have certainly found this research useful and have made the following couple of watercolours as a result:

A two year old by Claire O'Brien

An eight year old by Claire O'Brien

Further Reading/Viewing

  • Check out Stan Prokopenko's Videos they are an essential guide to drawing human anatomy and proportion, and drawing in general.
  • This TEDx talk The Myth Of Average made me think of the 'ideal'. Just as the 'ideal' doesn't exist neither does average.  We all have a 'Jagged Size Profile' and this is something to bear in mind when drawing in individuality into our characters.
  • And finally, below, is a great real-life example of an Art Director, Lauren Rille, giving feedback on illustrator Robert Neubecker's initial illustrations on how to make the portrayed children more childlike in Sarah WeeksSophie Peterman Tells The Truth.

Lauren Rille's Feedback to Robert Neubecker on his initial Character Designs

Lauren Rille's Feedback to Robert Neubecker on this Spread

Monday, 9 May 2016

SCBWI Workshop Report - Getting Your Picture Book onto the Page With Elizabeth Dulemba

Last weekend I escaped my duties as a Mother and took a train up to Edinburgh to join the South East Scotland SCBWI Network for a Picture Book Workshop with the wonderful Elizabeth O Dulemba.

Sketching at the station
Elizabeth is an amazing writer, illustrator and teacher from the US, who we are lucky to have access to here in the UK (and the North especially!) as she has recently moved to Edinburgh to further her studies. Watch her inspiring TEDx talk about how she sold or gave away nearly everything she owned to pursue her dreams. 

The Workshop

It was a really useful and productive workshop, with a mixture of exemplar picture books, story analysis, folding paper, lots of folding paper, writing, pitching and drawing.  There was a lot of information crammed in and I was surprised to find that by the end, I’d roughly storyboarded the manuscript that I took along.  It was a pleasure and enlightening to see the collection of professionals’ storyboards that Elizabeth showed.  I now want to check out the gorgeous work of Ruth Sanderson whom I was previously unfamiliar with, click on that link, you won’t be sorry that you did.  Elizabeth brought along some of her own picture book dummies (mock ups) which were exquisite.  Sadly we ran out of time at the end to make our own dummies but Elizabeth has a pdf resource on her website to help.

Folding a zine

My Storyboard
So what I will take away from the workshop is a way to look at my texts to define the essence of them, then break them down into four key structure parts, and from there into a further eight parts and then finally seeing them as a whole of 14 spreads/32 pages to eventually taking them to dummy for reading out loud and page turning in the real world.

Sociable SCBWIs

It was a fun-packed, educational time and as SCBWI’s are a sociable lot I joined them for a post-workshop drink to talk even more about children’s book writing and illustrating and despairing at how long it takes to succeed.  It was lovely to hear about Sheila Averbuch’s journey and her signing with her agent.  Sheila highly recommended doing Writer’s Digest courses with access to editors and agents so I’m strongly considering trying an appropriate one to me, if I do, I’m sure to report back.

Wednesday, 13 April 2016


I haven't posted on this blog for ages!  No excuses, I've just got to get back into it.

In the meantime I've signed up for an Instagram account, I've heard it's a great way to view art.  I'm posting work in progress and sketches that I don't always post to Facebook or Twitter and also stuff I'm interested in such as Boardgames, Minecraft, the Maker movement, LEGO and books that I am reading.  So if any of that interests you give me a follow.

Saturday, 31 October 2015

October / Inktober 2015

October is my favourite month of the year as it is my birthday month and because of Halloween, I just love spooky things.  I’ve been working on some portfolio pieces and this one is appropriate for the season; a witch taking a night flight as a swarm of bats spirals by.

Night Flight by Claire O'Brien
Night Flight by Claire O'Brien, 2015, gouache on paper

I took part in #Inktober again this year.  Just to recap, Inktober is a drawing challenge to make one ink drawing a day for the entire month of October.  Inktober was started in 2009 by an artist called Jake Parker, who set himself the challenge to improve his inking skills and develop positive drawing habits.  I am pleased to say that I made a drawing every day except for the last.  

Doing Inktober was as fun as last year, I even took some requests this year for subjects to draw which added to the challenge. Inktober really motivated me to draw every day and the quality of drawings ranged from throwaway sketches to not bad, I even sold some prints and have been commissioned to draw in my ink style.

You can see all of my Inktober drawings on my Facebook page but here are are some of my highlights:

"Playing in the Garden" by Claire O'Brien

"The Gentleman" by Claire O'Brien

"I Found a Fox" by Claire O'Brien

"Kate Bush - Before The Dawn" by Claire O'Brien
"Halloween" by Claire O'Brien

There was also lovely a meet up of some sociable SCBWIs, Top, 2016 Carnegie long-listed, YA author Teri Terry was in town for writing research so a gang of us had dinner and viewed the SCBWI Illustration Showcase exhibition at Seven Stories.

Geoff Lynas, Maureen Lynas and Janet Foxley outside of Seven Stories

Teri Terry, Geoff Lynas, and Maureen Lynas

"Maureen and Teri" by Claire O'Brien

Up month is Tara Lazar's PiBoIdMo - Picture Book Idea Month a where you come up with an idea for a picture book every day of November.