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.

Art assessment/mentoring with James Foley

James Foley photo
James Foley

James Foley is visiting today to tell us about how he came to be an illustrator—and the details of the fabulous prize he is donating for the winner in the Most Outstanding Artwork category of the Alphabet Soup Creativity Award. (You can read about the prizes for the Most Outstanding Story and the Most Outstanding Poem categories in earlier posts this week.)

Thanks, James!

I write and illustrate children’s books. I’ve recently released my second picture book, In The Lion, through Walker Books. It’s a little like The Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly but darkly funny and set in a zoo. My first book, The Last Viking, came out last year. it was written by Picture-Book-of-the-Year winner Norman Jorgensen.

In the Lion (cover)"The Last Viking (cover)"


Most illustrators will tell you they’ve been drawing for as long as they can remember. I started my career in primary school, drawing cartoons for the school newspaper. The paper only lasted one issue, probably because my class faked a fire in the school hall using a smoke machine to get our front page story. In year 7, I won third prize in a state-wide ‘Make Your Own Storybook’ Competition. I later worked on a regular comic strip for my high school paper; political cartoons for a Curtin University paper; and a full-page comic for Notre Dame University’s Quasimodo magazine.

But my professional career really began in 2003, when I drew my first covers for Western Australia’s weekly Quokka newspaper. By the time I finished in 2010 I’d drawn nearly 300 full-colour cartoons.

I like working in pen and ink, pencil, charcoal and watercolour. I also use digital tools such as Adobe Photoshop, Corel Painter and a Wacom graphics tablet.

I have a website and you can also visit The Last Viking blog which goes behind-the-scenes of the picture book.


My assessment/mentoring will contain feedback on your illustration, suggestions for drawing activities, advice on books to look at and artists to look up, and general tips for illustrating books. The winner will need to email me a scan of their artwork for appraisal. I will email back my feedback and tips.

I will also provide a signed copy of my latest book In the Lion.

I remember being encouraged at a young age to follow this dream, so hopefully I can do the same here.

We can hardly wait to announce the winners on Friday. While you’re waiting, you can check out the book trailer for In the Lion. It’s really cool.


Visit an illustrator’s studio (WA)

Is it your dream job to be an illustrator one day? James Foley—illustrator of The Last Viking, and author-illustrator of In the Lion—is taking part in an Open Day.

You can check out his Illustrator’s Workspace at The Ward, 590 Newcastle St, Leederville WA, from 2pm until 5pm on 25 November 2012.

In the Lion (cover)

"The Last Viking (cover)"

Here’s what he has to say about the day:

“Come see where I work and what I’m working on next. I’ll have prints from The Last Viking for sale too.

Plus you’ll get to meet all the other amazing artists here: filmmakers, photographers, illustrators, painters, textile workers … it will be awesome.”

You can see a photo of his workspace on The Last Viking website.

IMPORTANT: You must have an adult with you to visit the Open Day. (And keep in mind that the other artists and creators are not all children’s book illustrators. Some of their material may not be G-rated.)