Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Cartoonist Mark pens new book - feature in local news

A wonderful feature in the local newspaper today that explains my love of drawing cartoons whilst sat eating ciabatta and drinking coffee.

Books are available in the Nantwich Bookshop and at Amazon.

A Frog Named Bob on Amazon
My Hairy, Scary Best Friend on Amazon

Friday, 24 October 2014

A bit about my story so far and a look to the future of my cartoons

I recently spoke with a local reporter about my journey as an artist, cartoonist and author over the last 12 months or so.
I shed a little light on to how the children's storybooks came about and where I'm planning on taking my Cartoon and Character Workshops in the coming months.

Read the article here:

Monday, 8 September 2014

Struggling with "wonky" perspective

As an artist I enjoy the process of trying different styles and combining them to create a finished piece of work. My first two books used a similar line style but the colouring was quite different.
Most of the colour in A frog named Bob was what I would call "flat colour". The colour in My hairy, scary best friend was a mixture of flat colour and water colour.
I enjoyed mixing it up like this.

I still consider myself to be on something of a journey with regard to illustrative styles though there are certain key "signature" pen strokes that persist throughout.

I have a problem with "broken" perspective.
There's something in me that hates to draw something and call it finished that isn't structurally sound.
I picked up a book earlier called The crocodile who didn't like water. It's a wonderfully illustrated picture book by the extremely talented Gemma Merino. Gemma's line style for the book was colourful and gritty. A few illustrations feature bath time and the depiction of the bath has what I would call "wonky" perspective. It looks fantastic but I have his real problem with drawing like that.

Recently I conducted a few pencil tests whereby I tried to draw a few of my characters in a much looser style. I didn't want to be too constrained by the physics of where stuff should sit and how it should look.
It just didn't look right and I binned it. Or rather I didn't think it looked right. An agent or publisher - or more importantly a young reader - might have loved it!

I need to get over this and move on. I guess I also need to consider my style in more detail and stop trying to fix what isn't necessarily broken.

Friday, 15 August 2014

My new book - My Hairy, Scary Best Friend

I am so thrilled by this. My second children's picture book My hairy, scary best friend is now available to buy on Amazon.
I've worked really hard with this book to use a different style. I'm not necessarily out of my "comfort zone" but it's a style that uses a little more detail and texture than I'm used to.
I think the results are really good and I'm totally jazzed by how the two main characters came out.

It's a story of a young girl called Martha. She's something of a tom-boy in that she is fascinated by monsters and dinosaurs.
One night as she sleeps a magical light show fills her bedroom, centering on her sketchbook. A sketchbook full of her creative monster scribbles.
The next morning she is in for a big surprise as right there in her room is... :)

I wanted to tell a simple story about a young girl whose best friend is a monster!
The monster terrifies everyone he comes in to contact with. As you'd expect. But there's a twist in the tale and soon those terrified people start to realise something.
There's an underlying theme here dealing with prejudice but that is by no means my primary objective with the story. It's just a story about a kid with a monster buddy experiencing what you would expect a kid with a monster to experience!

This was great fun to write, plan, illustrate and put together. Hugely rewarding.

Click here to see My Hairy, Scary Best Friend at Amazon.

Wednesday, 6 August 2014

Inking styles

As a character artist I divide my heroes and inspirations a few ways.
From a structural perspective I adore the work of Disney. Especially the grand masters such as Fred Moore and Milt Kahl. Those guys I have studied in some detail but of course any of the "nine old men's" work is worthy of closer inspection. I just love the way that their characters have a solidity to them. A real sense of weight and presence.

Moving on to the actual presentation of such characters I look more to the work of some renowned cartoonists.
In particular Bill Watterson ( and the Belgian artist Janry. (

Both those artists have a wonderful style to their inking. A kind of thick and very dark ink stroke that tapers beautifully. The thicker lines help to depict strength. Watterson uses these strokes in environmental elements such as trees and rocks. His Spaceman Spiff adventures often show Calvin as Spiff confronting an enormous space monster. The monster is generally quite jelly-like and the lines that depict it are varied and perfect for adding interest to the finished illustration.

I strive for this same impact in my work. I want the lines in the drawing to be interesting. For me a line with little or no variation if size or weight is pretty dull.
I also like the line to look like ink. I cannot deal with the vector style often found in contemporary picture books. It's far too clean and round and just a bit dull.

In my own work I opt for the Round Tip Pen in Painter X3. I modify it to have a slightly firmer grain.
I find that this gives me something like the same ink style as the artists that I mentioned above.

Colour is still a bit of a mystery to me. I love to colour my art but I've tried so many different styles over the last few months and not settled.
Flat colour is for me a little dull. Much better to see some texture. Watercolour is great for this. But so is a thicker oil with pastel or chalk.
Watterson uses a fairly flat colour style for his characters and reserves the watercolour for the environment. This is neat but not such an easy thing to pull off.

I'm enjoying the process of establishing a consistent style.

Tuesday, 5 August 2014

Character design using Procreate

Writing and illustrating books for young children is really too much fun. With modern tools I am able to reflect my thoughts and ideas pretty much anywhere and have them at an advanced stage before returning to my desk at home.

As a digital artist I look to ease of use as a key factor when deciding which hardware/software combination to use. Savage Interactive's Procreate is my first choice for sketching. It's an iPad app and the perfect mobile digital artist's companion.

I routinely take myself out of the "work space" and sit amongst people. Cafes, bars, restaurants, parks... that sort of thing. I take the iPad and sketch out my thoughts and ideas. More often than not some of the everyday characters that I encounter lend an interesting idiosyncrasy to a developing character. It might be a way of talking or a style of walking. It may be their clothes or the way they eat! Anything. Real life is pretty unbeatable inspiration when it comes to fleshing out a new character.

So when I'm thinking up new stories and characters being able to rough out my ideas "on the fly" is pretty valuable.
I wanted to share my thoughts on the process that I use in creating character designs on the fly.

A new story that is coming along very nicely involves a cuddly monster. I'll make use of the concept sketches that I created for him to illustrate my process.

Create the Procreate document

Tap the + at the top right corner of the screen.
I always use the preset document size of 2048 x 2048. In the past it had a limited number of 7 layers but since the last update we've seen this rise to 20. More than enough.


By default you get a layer to work with as soon as the document is created.
When you want to create more layers you tap the +. Providing you've not reached your limit a new layer will appear above the "current" layer.
To reorder your layers tap and hold the layer you want to move. It will "lift" and you can then move it in to the new position. Very useful.

Selecting a pencil

I always kick things off with a simple unmodified HB pencil from the Brushes palette. I like this "brush" as it works very well at the resolution I've chosen for my document. It offers a really nice amount of texture and line variation which I find perfect for roughing out my ideas.

Colour selection

I also choose a simple blue colour shade to draw with initially. Although the entire piece will be nothing more than a "rough" I always start with a base layer that is simply a scribble of the character. Above that I will add some detail with a darker pencil.
I use a fairly dull tone. This is really a personal preference. You could use bright pink if that's what floats your boat!

Brush size and opacity

The HB pencil is a fairly narrow brush when applied to such a large document resolution so setting it's size to maximum is no problem. The top slider down the right margin in Procreate controls brush width.
Beneath that is the opacity layer. Again I choose maximum for this. I like the tone of a full pencil. A personal preference.

Sketching a basic character frame

When I first dream up a character I have a number of things in mind - scale, re-drawability, character, detail and the ability to have him in any pose.
Scale is pretty vital. If I'd created a 60ft monster then it would hog the entire page and every other human character would be drawn with minute detail. I created this monster to be 3 x a 10 year old child in height. With those proportions I still get to draw with some detail for every character on the page.
I've always loved the classic Disney style approach to constructing characters. Artists such as Preston Blair and Don Bluth have adopted this approach and have their style of working in print for us all to benefit from. Both are also of course former Disney employees.

Identifying direction
I start by drawing a very feint line for the direction of the character. In the case of this monster you may not be able to see it but there is a slim arced line bending from the floor in his feet up through his torso and out through the centre of his eye.
The angle of the action is "leaning" forward. It's also slightly stooped.

Constructing the body shape
I use circles to define the basic shape of the character. A circle for the head and a proportionate circle for the torso / belly. A further couple of circles highlight the position of the hands. Finally I cement the feet with a couple of ellipse.

For more information on the construction of a cartoon body look to the work of the Disney artist Fred Moore. There are examples of Moore's work everywhere but I particularly like this one:

From there I essentially flesh out the character shape paying particular attention to the facial expression.
I use deliberately big eyes since this affords a huge amount of expression and emotion.
For now I'm not concerned with textures or fine details.

Onion skinning #1

With the lower frame sketched out I concentrate on the more detailed layer above. First I drop the opacity of the lower frame. With the layer selected I tap the magic wand and select Opacity. I can then drag my finger across the screen from right to left to reduce the layer's opacity.

Onion skinning #2

With the base layer set to around 30% I can still see enough of it to act as a guide for the "detail" layer. A process often refered to as onion skinning in animation circles.

The top layer

I continue to use an HB pencil for the upper most layer and set its colour to a mid grey. Approximately 80,80,80 in RGB terms. Using this pencil I continue to draw with a good deal of fluidity. I try to avoid overly curvy images but for chubby characters it's obviously not so easy.
The concept of curves vs straights isn't new. Check out any of Don Bluth's animation tutorials for more information on this. It's a key principle of crafting effective and visually interesting characters and something that I have long tried to adhere to.

Adding some detail

Without affecting the width of the pencil brush I add some finer details. In this case slightly more whispy hair and some small spots on the non-furry parts of the monster. To achieve this I'm simply pressing a lot lighter on to the iPad's screen with the stylus. (Wacom's Intuos Creative Stylus)

Completed drawing

So ultimately I end up with a pencil drawing of my character. I remove the base layer and have something that I can either leave alone or work with to add further interest.

Duplicating a layer

A pretty cheap method for intensifying the lines of the drawing is to duplicate the layer. In the layer stack simply swipe right to left across the layer to reveal a few options. Tapping Duplicate will copy the layer and paste it above the current layer.

Adding weight

I quite like this approach. It doesn't so much double the line thickness more it just adds weight. This won't work with every brush but it certainly works well with the pencils.

Adding colour

Cartoons need colour. To apply the colour I'm once again adopting the onion skin approach. I create a new layer that sits beneath the original lined layer that I just completed. 

Colour selection

Procreate's colour selection is simple yet powerful. Tapping the colour wheel icon brings up the spectrum. I try not to use full bright colours too much so most of my tones occupy the upper central area of the circle.
The palette functionality in Procreate is superb. Simply select your colour from the wheel and tap a vacant slot in the palette below to store it. You can store multiple palettes. Access them by swiping your finger from right to left across the colour circle. Then swipe the other way to bring the colour selection wheel back.
I always predefine my base colours first and then modify as I go for such things as shade and highlights. Perhaps it's my background in palettised game sprite creation that does this to me but I'm very fond of the approach.

Shading and highlighting

Selecting relative colours in Procreate is simple. I usually block out a large area with a flat colour using something like the Gesinski Ink brush. (Available from the Pens tab on the Brush palette)
I use a fairly broad brush width to achieve this. I also don't much care about going over the pencil lines. Far better for me to confidently paint in to the shape and worry about cleaning up afterwards.
If you hold your finger or stylus down for a second (you can configure this in the settings) you will automatically replace the current colour with the colour immediately beneath your finger / stylus in the painting. From there you can edit the colour using the colour selector. I slide in to the light for highlights and further in to the darkness for shade. I also avoid using "black" and "white". Far better for the light and dark shades to be obviously of the same colour at this stage. Depending on the look that I'm after I may use a slightly more "impressionist" approach with warm and cool shades. But not right now.


When applying light and shade I'm generally fairly liberal with the shade but quite selective with the light.
It depends very much on the character, obviously! For the hairy monster I follow the lines of his fur with each stroke and offer some highlights where his body is at its chubbiest.

Cleaning up and the final image

Where the paint has quite obviously overlapped the pencil lines and looks messy I take the eraser brush and zoom in. Zooming in is a simple case of pinching your fingers in and out on the screen. Zooming down to the pixel is perfectly possible and a really powerful feature of Procreate.
I like to set the eraser brush width to be quite narrow and I generally use it in Studio Pen mode. (You can tap the eraser icon and select any brush to have as your eraser)
Working my way around the image I erase untidy edges and occasionally deliberately cut in quite a bit. That is, I wipe some of the colour from inside the lines. It gives quite an interesting effect.

So there you go.
I hope you find this approach pretty useful. All in all I can create this type of drawing in around half an hour. Perfect for sitting in a cafe drinking coffee and eating a sandwich whilst on a lunch break!

You can find me on the Procreate forum.

Friday, 1 August 2014

Quentin Blake

I have tremendous respect and admiration for several illustrators, but none more so than Quentin Blake (below).

My childhood in the 1970s and early 1980s was set against a backdrop painted by Blake. Largely of course through the writings of Roald Dahl.

In my pursuit for my own signature style I am looking to the works of author / illustrators in the same field. Blake is an obvious starting point since he is possibly one of the most well known children's illustrators. Certainly in the UK.

What I love about Blake's work is its energy. Its simplicity and juvenile style do well to disguise a real skill in crafting the perfect scene to visualise a piece of text.

His skill in adding character, expression and attitude with such few lines is remarkable. I love his choice of pen. Indeed his work is purely interesting because his lines are not clean and crisp. Unlike many illustrators who opt for clean, digital lines Blake masterfully creates texture and variation with a single sweep of the pen. The end result is an optimum amount of detail. Not too much and not too little.
A fair amount of Blake's work is available without colour. For me this is equally as effective. I love colour. Love it a lot. But simple line drawings where each stroke has such "character" also works.

I imagine that many people who assume they can draw look at children's illustration buoyed by what they see in Quentin Blake's work and then fall flat. Why? Because it's really not that easy. In order to draw the way he does you have to understand pose and composition. You have to understand the character and essentially exaggerate every feature for the maximum effect.

This is where I've learned most from Blake. It's not just that I want to draw a character. I want the character to be "real". I want the character to be alive.
Blake achieves this through the energy that he applies to each stroke but also by the way that he poses his characters. Rarely are characters simply standing rigid in any scenario. Even if the text describes it I imagine Blake would inject some energy somewhere. Not necessarily in the character stood firm but elsewhere. Your eye will be drawn in to the subject via a source of energy somewhere.
He really is a masterful illustrator.

In his own writing, notably Mr Magnolia (above), he continues to explore the maximum that you can stretch a character. A pose is a pose is a pose. But in Blake's hands a pose has energy. His ink work has energy.
Mr Magnolia is a wonderful book and a simple story.
Therein lies another lesson to be learned. Don't over-complicate the text. Certainly for a younger audience. Keep the story simple, the message clear and allow your illustrations to do the rest.

I love the way Roald Dahl created fascinating characters. Yes they were absurd, grotesque and often downright evil. But they were intriguing and you really wanted to "see" them. An illustrator's dream in every respect.
Quentin Blake worked his magic on each of Dahl's 17 children's books.

There are of course many other illustrator's of children's fiction that deserve a mention but it is Blake that I turn to for the most professional guidance.

Wednesday, 23 July 2014

From concept to publication - creating a children's picture book with digital tools

I recently completed my first children's picture book and wanted to share an overview of the process involved in taking the story from an initial idea to publication.
I double as an author and an illustrator. The book was created 100% digitally.

I use mobile tools and the internet to enable me to reflect my thoughts and inspiration "on the go". I haven't used a sketchbook for months. There's really no need anymore. Far easier to walk around with an iPad and stylus for capturing story notes and character ideas.

The process goes something like this...

Story development 
Writebox (Chrome on PC Desktop)
iA Writer (iPad / iPhone / Mac)

I like to have all bases covered so that an idea can be scribbled down no matter where I am.
Both the above apps sync with Dropbox which is of course vital to remaining consistent.
The writing process for a 32 page picture book can take me anywhere from 1 to 3 days. Any longer than that and I tend to think I'm getting something very wrong or the idea simply stinks!

Facebook / review
Yep, I reach out to a small group of friends on social media to gather some feedback for my early drafts.
I enjoy this and it is often extremely rewarding. Generally those that read my early work have young children so they are well positioned to offer some relevant comments.
There is of course a fine balance to be struck in taking on the advice and criticism and retaining my own "voice" in my writing.

Art - concept and early development
I generally have my best ideas when I'm completely switched off.
This can be last thing at night, first thing as I wake, watching TV or sat having lunch in a café. In each case I am equipped with my iPad Air and Wacom stylus.
I use Wacom's Intuos Creative Stylus on the go and Savage Interactive's superb Procreate app.
(I know I've mentioned all of this before but it's worth repeating as a key part of the creative process)

The process of sketching out character ideas and determining colour requirements is more than ably met by these two. It's vital for me to be able to work as fast as I think. Launching heavy weight programs on a PC can severly impede this but the iPad Air just motors along comfortably. An incredible toolset for the "on the go" artist.

Art production
Once I have my character's defined and loosly sketched out I identify the images that need to be produced to illustrate the story. At this stage I don't change the story. I'm happy with the text and it's now all about the art.
By this point I also have a firm idea for the style in mind. e.g. clean pen lines and solid colour or perhaps 2B pencil with pastel colour. I occasionally like to employ watercolour and ink or pencil over the top.
The sketches are uploaded from Procreate to Dropbox (Dropbox is central to all of my work. An incredibly powerful solution) and simultaneously stored on my Mac's AirPort storage in a PSD format.
I work with layers in Procreate and these are exportable to Photoshop's native PSD format.

From there I launch Painter X3 on the Mac and fire up the Wacom Cintiq. This really is an incredible tool and one of the finest investments I ever made as an artist. The combination of Wacom and Corel's Painter for production use has to be the ultimate in digital raster-based art.

I launch the images from Dropbox and save them out to Painter's native RIFF format.
From here it's a case of sketching out the final line art for each image.
I like to use the "Real 2B Pencil" here from the Painter X3 brush palette. It's beautifully expressive and a real pleasure to watch as you sweep your stylus across the screen.

I guess this is the stage that really starts to feel like "work".
To this point I've had fun with concepts and rough drafts. I'm now working with what will ultimately be production quality work.

Once I'm happy with the art work (my last book contained 30 colour images and took about a week to complete) I mock up the book using some hand crafted HTML (I knew all those years of web development would pay off!) that essentially allows me to provide a handy reference when I'm sharing the ideas with my friends. I also use this when I'm constructing the book as a reference for layout. Once I'm using InDesign I really don't want to be thinking about what goes where. It's assembly line grunt work.

Book construction
I self publish through Amazon's CreateSpace service. For this I upload 2 separate PDF files. The first is the book itself and the second represents the cover artwork.
Constructing double page spreads to meet CreateSpace's publishing requirements can be tricky so I use Adobe's InDesign to do all of this leg work for me.

InDesign allows me to construct a book and work on each page at a time.
CreateSpace demands that I leave the first and last page blank. All other pages include information such as Copyright, credits, acknowledgments and of course the story itself.
InDesign presents the pages to me as double page spreads.

I save the illustrations out from Painter in TIFF format. These are naturally large files - typically 20cm x 20cm at 300dpi.
I generally work with a page colour set to white and leave the bottom "canvas" layer intact with its white background. In other words I don't bother too much with transparency.

Assembling the book can take some time but InDesign is a dream when it comes to layout. Images and text objects snap in to position and can be centered with ease.
I create my first text object in the font style that I will use throughout the book and then Copy and Paste it on to every page. This is just a quick way for me to ensure some consistency in my type settings.

Once I'm happy with the layout and content I can use Cmd + W to preview the book with InDesign.
After some fine tuning (which can sometimes mean a trip back to Painter if I'm not happy) I finally have a production file that I save out in InDesign's native format .INDD. As you can imagine this can be HUGE!

I export from InDesign in PDF format and upload in to CreateSpace.
CreateSpace imports the file and parses the content for page layout. Once you submit the book for review (which can take up to 24 hours) you can complete all the other information. If your book meets CreateSpace's printing requirements you're good to progress and upload a cover.
I use InDesign again to create the book's cover and export to PDF.
There are some strict requirements here as well that take in to account a set margin, the width of your book and the number of pages therein (this determines the width of your book's spine). CreateSpace has a handy tool available for working this out for you.

The completion of this process is hugely rewarding and I was thrilled to be able to share a link to the book on Amazon with my friends.

This is very much an overview of the process.
When I get more time I will describe each step in more detail.

I hope it was useful reading for you.

You can see my first book A Frog named Bob at Amazon.

Monday, 21 July 2014

A Frog named Bob - my first rhyming picture book for children

I am so thrilled to have completed my first picture book.

A Frog named Bob is the first in a series of books that I have planned about the adventures of a bunch of animal friends. Bob is a frog who doesn't understand what noise he should make. Essentially he doesn't know how a frog should say "hello" :)
The story follows his hopping between his farm animal friends to ask them how they say "hello" in the hope that it will help him understand.

A preview of the book is available here as a PDF.
The story is aimed at pre-school age children and is designed to be read aloud. I think it works in a group environment or as a simple bed time story.

I had two goals in writing this story.
First, to engage the child and second to use full colour cartoons.

To engage the child I used a "what's over the page" dynamic.
The reader has the chance to ask the child "what sound does a --- make?" and as the page is turned the child can respond.

I deliberately selected common animal sounds and illustrated each sound to be as ridiculous as possible :) Huge fun.

I published the story through Amazon's CreateSpace service. I cannot speak highly enough of this service. It really is so simple and easy to use. After the details were locked and the book commited for publishing I had an issue with some text in the description.
There's a number for member support. I called it and spoke with two guys. The problem was resolved in minutes and the level of support superb.

I'm so excited to be crafting these stories and getting them to market in a very short space of time.

Monday, 7 July 2014

Working on my first children's picture book

No updates for a little while which can only mean one of two things. I've either given up posting to a blog or I'm busy. I'm happy to say that I'm busy.
For as long as I can remember I wanted to be a full time author and illustrator of magical stories for children. Finally after far too long I've found the time, inspiration and discipline to sit down and make this happen.

My first project is a picture book. A fairly standard 26pp affair in which my lead character goes on a voyage of discovery to solve a simple problem. I'll avoid the details just now whilst I complete the book suffice to say it's full of interesting characters and funny situations.

I've deliberately tried to craft something that is of course fun for young children. I wanted something that children can not only enjoy having read to them but also participate in.
The illustrations that I have so far are cartoon-like and quite traditional in their execution. I use plenty of colour but sit the characters on a fairly clean / white background with some incidental features to help explain the scene.

I thought it might be interesting to share how I work when it comes to the art.

I'm a real nerd for sitting in a café and just sketching away. I'll draw anything from the people sat around me to the meal on my table or simply the first random thought that enters my head. I find café culture captivating and absorbing as well as romantic, of course. I'm pretty sure I was born 100 years too late.

Whilst I'm out and about I use an iPad Air with the Procreate app and Wacom's Intuos Creative Stylus.
The combination is beautiful.
I use a blank canvas at 2048 x 2048 and an HB Pencil modified to have its maximum brush size 3 or 4 times as big as the default size.
You can see the beautiful variation in the line as the pressure sensitivity of the stylus works with the app (below).

I set the colour to a mid gray. Probably around 64,64,64 in RGB terms. I then adjust the brush size slider to just below maximum and set the opacity to 100%.

Then it's all about just freely sketching out some ideas. I'm not trying to produce anything of production quality here. I just want to capture my thoughts and transfer them to Corel Painter on the Mac to complete the image.
To do this I use Procreate's export functionality to copy the image to Dropbox.

Procreate lets you upload the file in PSD if you want to preserve the layers for use on the desktop. This is useful for sure but I generally just upload as JPG since I'm only going to use the sketch for reference.

Then back at base it's time to fire up the Mac, Painter X3 and the Wacom Cintiq.
I know I'm showing off here but I use the 22HD Touch from Wacom and it's just gorgeous. Everything about it is quality. The drawing experience, the painting, the responsiveness. It's all stunning.
I create a 20x20cm image in Painter and import the sketch from Dropbox to use as my base layer. I use the "Real 2B Pencil" in the Painter brushes palette to add some details and generally refine the sketch.

Then it's down to a combination of pens and pastels to add the lines and detail.
I start off working with quite broad strokes and then enjoy adding the smaller details.

It's a process that I really do love and for me combines my two great passions - drinking and watching the world go by & relaxing with some music whilst I draw and paint.

I'm about 50% done on the book just now. The words are complete, the layout is defined and most sketches are done. Exciting times.