Posted in illustrator

Meet the illustrator: Tina Snerling

Tottie and Dot cover

Tina Snerling is an Australian illustrator with a brand new picture book — Tottie and Dot. Today Tina is visiting us to talk about how she starts illustrating a new book project.

When the publisher gives you a picture book text, what’s the very first thing you do?

I start to think about the colour palette, style of drawing, characters and the actual scenes to be illustrated. This can take days, weeks or months, depending of the depth of the book. For Tottie and Dot, the colour palette was very important to the storyline given the intensity of the scenes. They needed to be completely contrasting in every way.

Once you had the story text for Tottie and Dot, how long did it take you to complete all the illustrations?

This is a little difficult to answer as the process is quite long! I usually start developing the characters first, like this:

Tina's sketches for Tottie and Dot


Tina snerling sketches 2

I created around 10 different ideas and ‘girls’ in this case before I came up with the ‘final’ Tottie and Dot! Then once the girls are drawn, I work on different poses and facial expressions I might need. Then comes the fun part of illustrating each page! This took around 6 months full-time illustrating to complete the book ready for printing. Some days I can work 15+ hours illustrating — it depends how creative I am feeling!

Can you draw whatever you like?

I get given an illustration guideline from the author. They usually have a general idea of what image will be illustrated, then I get to the fun part and add my own personality and humour to the illustrations! Working with Tania is amazing, as I get to go crazy with my imagination, and add my own quirky details. In Tottie and Dot I loved the incorporation of the cats — it was so enjoyable creating crazy things for them to do in each scene.

Did Tania (the author) see any of your illustrations before the whole book was finished?

Tania and I work very closely on our books. We are a little bit different to most illustrator/authors where we work as a team. We are in constant daily contact (sometimes until all hours of the night) and bounce ideas off each other.

Do you decide where and how much text goes on each page, or does the publisher decide that?

The text is already set out on each page when I receive the manuscript. This was part of the author’s role and is important especially in picture books as we are usually limited to 32 pages. As the book designer, I do get to decide the font, size and position of the words though!

Did you do the cover first, or last, or somewhere in the middle of all the illustrating?

Our publisher usually likes to see the cover fairly close to the beginning of the book. Once the characters have been decided and the scene is set, the cover then usually comes next! I still tweak a few things later on once the book is coming to an end though! With Tottie and Dot, we actually had another cover:

Alternative Cover for Tottie and Dot

… which we stuck with for some time, but at the final hour I changed it to be the current cover you see today:

Tottie and Dot cover

Tottie and Dot is published by EK Books. You can find out more about the book (and the author and illustrator) on the Tottie and Dot website. This blog post is part of a Blog Blast — for more interviews, giveaways, book reviews and news on Tottie and Dot, check out the participating blogs

Posted in authors, illustrator

Writing and illustrating a junior novel – Gabrielle Wang

Gabrielle WangToday we are thrilled to have Gabrielle Wang visiting Alphabet Soup again — we’ve talked to her before about her Poppy books (in the ‘Our Australian Girl’ series). Her latest ‘Our Australian Girl’ series is about a girl called Pearlie who lives in Darwin in the 1940s.

Our editor Rebecca was enchanted by one of Gabrielle’s books published in 2013 — The Wishbird. And Gabrielle was kind enough to take time away from her writing to talk to Rebecca about writing and illustrating the book.

The Wishbird is woven like a fairytale or folktale. As a child did you have any favourite fairytales, folktales or fables? 

My favourite fairytale was The Little Green Road to Fairyland by the Australian sisters, Annie R Rentoul and Ida Rentoul Outhwaite. They were born in the late 1800s. I loved and still do love Ida Rentoul Outhwaite’s illustrations. As a child I was forever copying them.

The pen-and-ink illustrations in The Wishbird are intricate — how long would it take you to do one of these drawings for the book?    

The Wishbird cover

At first I didn’t know what style to use. But then I saw some Indian folk art and I loved it.

I did many roughs in pencil on layout paper.

When I was happy with a drawing I traced it onto lunchwrap. This is much cheaper than buying tracing paper.


For the final illustration I used water colour paper, a rapidograph, which is a pen with a fine nib, and a lightbox.

The lightbox has a light inside it.


Mine is very old. I had it made when I lived in Taiwan many years ago.

I placed a sheet of water colour paper on top of the traced drawing and used a rapidograph to make the linework.

Because The Wishbird illustrations are so fine I had to look through a sewing magnifying glass.

Some illustrations took longer than others because when I made a mistake, I’d have to start all over again. Probably on an average, from concept to finished product, each one took about a week to complete.

the domed room
© Gabrielle Wang

Was it your own idea to include illustrations in The Wishbird or did the publisher suggest it?

I wanted to include illustrations not only because I like to draw, but also because these were the types of books I used to love reading as a child, especially books like The Magic Faraway Tree.

Do you sing or play an instrument yourself? What led you to write a book where music features so strongly?

I learnt the piano and took piano exams up to Grade 5. I began to love classical music then especially the works of JS Bach. In high school I took classical guitar lessons. I still play the guitar and used to compose my own pieces. When I was living in China, I also learnt the Chinese bamboo flute but I’m not very good at it.

Imagine if all the singers and musicians disappeared, never to be seen again. Music is outlawed. Even birds are killed because they sing. And because birds live in forests then the forests all around are burnt to stumps.

Music is an integral part of human existence. Every culture in the world makes music. Without it, the soul dies. This is at the heart of The Wishbird.

Did you write a plan before you began writing The Wishbird, or did you just start writing and see where it led you?

I hardly ever write plans for my novels. I like my story to grow organically. The only books I have written plans for were the Our Australian Girl books. Because they are historical fiction and in a series of four books I had to know where each story was going and how it fed into the next before I even sat down to write them.

Can you tell us a little about what you are working on now?

I’ve just finished the final edit for Pearlie’s Ghost, which is the fourth and final book in the Pearlie series.


I’m glad to have finished the series because they are hard work. But I’m also sad to leave Pearlie. Now she will have a life of her own out in bookshops and libraries.

I have started a new novel with another author. This is a new experience for me. It’s a very exciting way to write and we’re having lots of fun together. I can’t reveal much about it yet except to say that the working title is The Map of Tiny Coincidences and it will be filled with maps and drawings.

Find out more about Gabrielle Wang and her books at her website and her blog.

And LOOK! LOOK! You can even LISTEN to Gabrielle Wang reading the first two chapters of The Wishbird here

Posted in activities, Events, illustrator

Bob Graham exhibition

A Bird in the Hand - Bob Graham retrospective

If you love picture books and you can get to Canberra — here’s an exhibition you really must see!

Bob Graham is one of our favourite illustrators. You’ll recognise his artwork from picture books like  How to Heal a Broken Wing, Let’s Get a Pup, Max … and heaps more. Now you can see his work in an exhibition, including sketch books, manuscripts, memorabilia and illustrations. Items in the exhibition have been selected from his studio and from the Lu Rees Archives at the  University of Canberra.

Where: Canberra Museum and Gallery, cnr London Circuit & Civic Square, Canberra City

When: From Sat 17 May until Sunday 24 August

Over the next few months, you can meet Bob Graham, take art workshops and sign up for school holiday workshops. Find out more at the Museum and Galleries website

Posted in authors, illustrator

Stephen Axelsen and The Nelly Gang

Stephen AxelsenToday we welcome Stephen Axelsen to the blog. Stephen is here as part of a blog tour to celebrate the launch of his new graphic novel The Nelly Gang — you can read a review of the book hereWe asked him some questions about how he goes about creating a graphic novel.

The Nelly Gang (cover)How is creating a graphic novel different from writing and illustrating a picture book?
The biggest difference is that a graphic novel has a lot more pictures in it than a regular picture book, so they take much, MUCH, longer to illustrate. The writing takes a bit longer too. The Nelly Gang took more than a year to make. Also in graphic novels the story is mostly told in speech balloons. These balloons have to be designed and positioned so that they are nice and clear and don’t interfere with the pictures.

Why did you choose to tell this story as a graphic novel rather than a picture book or otherwise?
The story would not fit into a picture book, unless it was a very, very thick one. (There are up to 25 pictures on some double pages.) The Nelly Gang could have been a novel, I suppose, but I love drawing the old costumes and wagons and things too much just to use words.

How did you go about creating The Nelly Gang?
The story plan was the first thing put down on paper, but the very, very first ideas were pictures in my head; vague images of things I wanted to draw. Then I wrote the first story plan or plot, after which I began the rough drawings. The drawings would suggest new story ideas, and while rewriting the story NEW picture ideas would pop up, so I’d change the story again. The writing and drawing kept changing each other in an endless loop until I nearly went mad (or maybe I did go mad) and it was time to STOP and call the story finished.

What sort of tools do you use?
I used a mixture of ‘traditional’ and ‘digital’ media, which means that I did the drawing outlines with old fashioned pen and ink on paper, then scanned these into my computer where I tidied things up, added the colour then the speech balloons and text.

The Nelly Gang is set in 1860. How did you go about researching for the book?
A lot of my research was done online, but I also travelled to old goldfields, visited Sovereign Hill at Ballarat (which was excellent for picture reference) and even had a paddle steamer ride at Echuca. I had to have a paddle steamer in the story because they are such wonderful things to draw!

Now that The Nelly Gang is out, are you working on something new?
I am working on two big books at once now – a picture book for an American publisher about Joe Dumpty, P.I. (Humpty Dumpty’s brother, who is a Private Investigator.)

AND the sequel to The Nelly Gang, called Nelly and the Dark Circus. As the title suggests it is set mostly in a circus, and Nelly is in it. So is her goat, Queen Victoria, of course. 

Do you have any tips for young graphic novelists?
The best thing to do is look at as many graphic novels as you can find, choose the ones you like best and copy bits of them. Very soon you will start having your own ideas and awaaaay you’ll go!

You can find out more about Stephen Axelsen (and the books he has illustrated and written) when you visit his website. Check out the other stops on his blog tour for more news and information about The Nelly Gang and graphic novels:

Nelly Gang Logo

THE NELLY GANG Blog Tour Schedule

Saturday September 14th  — Launch at The Story Arts Festival, Woodlands of Marburg.  (Launched by Megan Daley)

Monday September 16th — Children’s Books Daily  

Review and Book Launch update + giveaway

Tuesday 17th September —  DeeScribe Writing

Review + five tips on graphic novel making 

Wednesday 18thSeptember — Kids Book Review

Review + giveaway

Thursday 19thSeptember — Sheryl Gwyther’s Blog

Writing and Illustrating Graphic Novels

Friday 20thSeptember — Soup Blog [You’re here!]

Review + interview

Saturday 21st September —  BuzzWords

The Value of History + review

Interview with Stephen Axelsen © 2013 Stephen Axelsen and Rebecca Newman

Posted in illustrator, school holidays

July Cartooning workshop (WA)

 Cartooning Around with James Foley

In the Lion (cover)Join cartoonist James Foley for an introduction to creating your own kooky comic strips. James drew the cartoons in the Quokka for many years. He also illustrated The Last Viking, and wrote and illustrated In The Lion.  While you are at the Arts Centre, you can check out James’s illustrations from In the Lion in the heARTlines exhibition.

When: 1pm – 4pm, Tue 9 July 2013

Where: Mundaring Arts Centre, 7190 Great Eastern Highway, Mundaring WA 6073

Ages: 9 – 13

Cost: $20 (or $15 members of Mundaring Arts Centre)

Bookings essential, places are limited. To book, ring Mundaring Arts Centre on 9295 3991.

To download the full HeARTlines program for 2013, go to the Mundaring Arts Centre website.

Posted in authors, illustrator

Meet James Foley

We are thrilled to welcome James Foley — our featured author-illustrator for May. You might remember our review of The Last Viking, which was the first book that James ever illustrated (written by Norman Jorgensen). Since then, James has also written and illustrated a picture book called In the Lion. Check out a cool book trailer for In the Lion:

Today we are talking to James about what it’s like to be an author and an illustrator.

James Foley photo
James Foley

Can you tell us something about where you live?

There are lots of picture books and comics in the bookshelves, and there are paintings hanging on most of the walls. I have some artwork made by Western Australian illustrators like Samantha Hughes, Karen Blair, Briony Stewart, Campbell Whyte and my favourite, Shaun Tan. And I have some original drawings by Batman comic artist Tim Sale!

Where do you get your ideas and inspiration?

I’m not sure. Sometimes it starts with a character that appears in my sketchbook. Then I try to come up with a story that they might feature in. Sometimes I start with a topic, like robots. Ideas come more easily when I am feeling relaxed — when I go for a walk, or when I am sitting quietly with a cup of tea. That makes me sound like a grandma …

Was it easy to get your first illustration contract? 

I first sent my artwork off to publishers in 2000, when I was 17 years old. I had just finished high school. I didn’t get a contract until 10 years later, in early 2010. I spent the 10 years practising my drawing mostly, and doing a bit of writing in there too. I met Norman Jorgensen in 2009 and we started working on The Last Viking together — from that point things started to move a lot more quickly and I got two illustration contracts in two years. Once you have your first book published, it’s easier to get another one. But sometimes getting that first contract takes a long time.

"The Last Viking (cover)"

Does the story influence your choice of materials for the artwork?

I’ve only published two books so far and I’ve used the same materials for both — pencil outlines and digital colour. I think the setting of the story is a big influence on the materials and textures I use … in The Last Viking I used stone, leather and parchment for borders and backgrounds. I used a lot of crumbly wall textures for In The Lion, because the walls of the lion enclosure took up most of the backgrounds. I’m doing a book about robots at the moment, so it will feature lots of metal and rust textures in it, but I’ll probably still draw things in pencil and put the colours in digitally.
When you write and illustrate your own books, which comes first — the artwork or the story text? 
Good question. The story usually springs from an image that’s in my sketchbook or that’s in my head. Then I might do a bit of sketching of the main characters — not too much, just enough to give me a hint of what they might be like. Then I have to stop drawing and write. The story needs to come first! I’ve learned this the hard way … I’ve been working on a story since April last year, and I didn’t start with the words — I started with rough drawings for every page. The drawings might have looked cool and exciting, but the story was too complicated and wasn’t making enough sense. I had to forget about the drawings I’d done and go back to square one, figuring out who my characters were and what the story was. It’s changed the story completely, but I think it’s much better now.

When you are illustrating a book written by someone else, do you like to discuss the story and illustrations with them?

Yes, definitely. This doesn’t usually happen, but I’ve been lucky. Norman and I were able to work closely on The Last Viking and bounce ideas off each other before we submitted our first draft to Fremantle Press. We’re doing the same thing with the sequel. We’ve caught up three or four times over the last 9 months to talk about our ideas and make a few rough sketches of scenes. We’ve just put a dummy book together that has very scratchy drawings, rough text and the basic layout. Norm sat next to me in my studio and we pieced it together. It works because we have the same sense of humour and the same vision for the story. This wouldn’t work for all authors and illustrators, some of them would probably tear each other’s hair out.

What do you like to do when you are not writing or illustrating?

I like to watch movies, play video games, read books. I like cooking. I like walking the dog. I have a kayak that I like to paddle, which I haven’t done in ages …

Is your writing and/or illustrating influenced by another writer and/or illustrator in particular?

I’m not sure. I have some favourites and I suppose they influence me, whether it’s obvious to me or not — Shaun Tan, Graeme Base, Jan Ormerod, Maurice Sendak. I started writing a story the other day, set it aside, then came back to it and realised it the words were in a Maurice Sendak kind of style (just not as well written, obviously).

Did you have a favourite author or illustrator when you were growing up?

Graeme Base was my favourite. I loved The Eleventh Hour and Animalia, I would read those over and over and pore over the details in the pictures.

Are you working on something at the moment?

Yes, I’m working on a few projects this year — another book I’m writing and illustrating called Brobot; a sequel to The Last Viking that doesn’t have a title yet; and some black-and-white chapter book illustrations for some stories written by Jon Doust and Ken Spillman.

Do you have any advice for young writers and/or artists?

Do it lots, and do it because you love doing it. Don’t listen to anyone who says that it’s not good enough yet. Just keep doing it and loving it. Have fun with it. You’ll get better and better the more you do it and the longer you do it for. Read, read, read — read novels, read comics, read books about history and myths, read the newspaper. And look, look, look — go to art galleries, go to museums, watch movies. Write and draw about the things that interest you. Love doing it.

Find out more about James Foley and his books on his website, at The Last Viking blog and in this post from 2011 when we asked him 3 Quick Questions!
© 1 May 2013 “Meet James Foley” text copyright Rebecca Newman and James Foley.