My January job was another reading card story for Macmillan/MacGraw-Hill. It was the reason I was 'away' for a while. Feedback for the roughs arrived on the 8th + artworks to be submitted on the 18th = very short deadline. I know non-illustrators are sometimes interested in the process of a project, and I've been given kind permission to write about this one. I had never heard of Drakestail - and when I did, I pondered how I was going to depict the characters, most of whom magically disappear into the hero's pockets...hmmm.
These reading cards needed to be done in a certain way. They have to clearly show the 'action', so that the children can see exactly what is going on. Therefore the colours should be bright and fun too. I tend to use a lot of neutrals in my palette and avoid primary colours. In fact when I do a 'for myself' artwork, I like to be downright gloomy. ('Atmospheric' if you're being fancy). But with educational work like this, I bump the colours up and enrich them with layers of paint and soft colour pencil. Little - if any - shading, but also keeping a tight control on how many colours are used - less than it appears, in fact, as I do a lot of mixing from a limited palette. So I draw a happy compromise in doing something I am happy to put in my folio and giving the client what they want. All the cards were painted at their actual size of 11inches by 13 inches, which is roughly A3.

Here is the rough for card one. Drakestail is talking to his friend Fox. He is off to see the King to whom he has lent money. As with any printable artwork, there is a good 'bleed' round the edge of the actual picture, and the figures are kept well within the main frame. I love doing natural scenes like this, and can never resist putting in some kind of fungi and little woodland folk. The art directions wanted French countryside, alas, not something I am familiar with, so Google image search comes in handy. Luckily, a lot of it seemed to be similar to the English landscape , and I popped in some round castle-y things and turrets, not to mention a lavender field. We have those over here too, but not as many. In fact, Snowshill Lavender is just up the road, and very pretty it looks too, in the summer.

Luckily there were no changes to this first card and here it is cropped, as it will appear in real life, although of course the full work has the extra bleed. I had an almost-disastrous accident when painting this. Just at the point where I was really enjoying myself and relaxing for once, I clumsily flipped a plastic palette into the air with my brush hand, splattering the piece with liquid scarlet. Like toast which lands butter side down, the paint went largely on the pristine white clouds. I hollered for tissue paper, (cue Andy running into the studio with handfuls of loo roll, like a medic in 'Casualty') and with much cursing, mopping, scraping and disguising, I miraculously salvaged two days work...tight deadline remember, so no starting again. The darker splodges beneath the squirrel on the righthand tree (not seen in the rough) are where I painted over the worst stained parts.

Here is Drakestail chatting to his friend River. Further up the road is another friend, Beehive. Both of these had to have faces suggested on them. Fox is sat in the duck's waistcoat pocket. This was quite tricky to draw, and I had a headache with the bridge. Hours were spent on Google, looking at pictures of bridges over water, to get an idea of how the perspective goes. I really sweated over that, and it's a miracle that it actually works at all...

There were changes to be made to this one - Beehive had to be sent further up the road, with more trees added. And although I had suggested a face in River, it had to be more obvious. I have to confess, I liked doing River the least - I couldn't avoid making it look cartoonish, and I'm not very happy with how it is depicted. But it did the trick, and there was no time for titivating. Although the style seems simple, the method of layering colours is quite time consuming, and many of the big washes have to be left to dry naturally, or they get watermarks. I've learned the hard way that it saves time just leaving work to dry slowly and evenly, rather than ruin it by taking a hairdryer to it and risking blotches.

I had thought that this third card would be the most difficult composition; there was so much which had to be depicted. In a job like this you are given quite precise instructions as to what to draw and you have to include everything...but in the end it was, I think, the most successful picture. I really enjoyed the challenge, and hens are always good to do. I also managed to flagrantly break the rule about keeping the central characters well inside the picture frame - not sure how I got away with that, but it got passed just as it was with no corrections. I was relieved, as the air of chaos and drama is enhanced by Drakestail being 'thrust' into the corner, the hens flying off the page and Fox leaping out of the pocket to his rescue. If I'd had to make them all sit nicely inside, it would have been a weaker piece and lost its 'oomph'.

And here it is, cropped. By now I was on about day 7 of my ten day painting workspace. Starting to panic...

Here is Drakestail resting in the Throne Room, after his many ordeals at the hands of the nasty King. I did not enjoy doing this one at all. In the past I have avoided depicting humans where possible. While I have a good technique for stylising animals, my faces have always been a weak point. But the directions asked for Drakestail to be 'surrounded' by villagers so there was no escape. But something clicked when I drew the guardsman (above in the hen house) and after much scribbling, I found a way of depicting them which sits nicely within my style. Which just goes to show that there is nothing like making you learn something than having to knuckle down and just do it.

Oooh, there were all kinds of alterations to this one. Excited with my newly found 'human' style, I merrily filled the scene with several villagers (well, the directions were for him to be 'surrounded'...) I also didn't have an instant mental image of how the throne room was going to look and there were several false starts before I settled on this one. Somehow the river had to be fitted in, so I put it in a bowl. This had to be changed, (rather too like a chamber pot) and I was instructed to have it running down the steps. So the cat moved under the throne. I hadn't been told to put a cat in, but I like to get one in wherever possible, and they are good space fillers. Worse, three of the villagers were to be 'executed'. My rough came back with little loops drawn on the intended victims; I had never seen this before. On asking, I found that this meant take them out of the picture - if only Life were as simple. I regretted removing the girl with the bouquet, but in this case the Art Director was king - or queen - and the lucky survivors had to be brought within the picture frame. Again, I wasn't really happy with the way River looks, and of all the cards, this to me feels like the most rushed. But the job was finished with hours to spare before scanning them in and emailing them to the other side of the Atlantic. I was simply thankful that I'd got the job done without any major mishaps. I am learning how to please myself AND the client, so that I enjoy what I do, and they like the results. In this particular job I feel I've learned some major lessons.
The last week has been spent painting new work for my Etsy shop, and the change of going back to a free rein has been quite difficult - in with gentle melancholy and atmosphere...out with jolly and bright. I've already had to tear one up.

I will be putting up two large works up for sale soon. They are framed and mounted, and are a whopping A1 size in their frames, edge to edge. As I'm having a clear out (and with a looming tax bill in mind), they are a snip at
£150.00 each (US $300.00 ). But they would probably need to be picked up in person from Oxfordshire, to avoid large postal costs.


joanna said...

Your illustrations are just so beautiful, G - I am in awe. I LOVE your depiction of River when Drakestail is chatting to him - fantastically quirky! Looking forward to seeing you soon :)

Anonymous said...

I'm a lurker of some months, and I just have to say ...WOW. It is so enlightening to see the works in progress and then the finished art. When will this book be published?
By the way, I enjoy your site very much.

Anonymous said...

This post is fascinating, thanks for taking the time and trouble to explain everything.And the results are charming, children are going to love them.

Anonymous said...

I have been visiting your blog and I enjoy it very much.
I love all your illustrations and I am amazed at how fast you worked in the tight deadline they gave you. Your illustrarions are so beautiful.
I have learned a lot, thanks for sharing.

Anonymous said...

These are truly truly wonderful! Your style is so incredible. . .and I don't say that lightly!

Love the color palette!

The face in the river is just delightful!

roz said...

What a fabulous post. So fun to see this assignment from start to finish and your take on it throughout. Thanks so much for sharing!
Lovely work as usual.

Lisa Oceandreamer Swifka said...

I thoroughly enjoyed being able to see and read about your process. Of course I love everything you do. Deadlines are my worst enemy, even when it's only for a swap or to get to the post on time....I am amazed how you handle these that are days long. (I suppose the paycheck has a lot to do with soldiering on)
Thank you for sharing this.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for sharing some of the process of illustration! These are so beautiful - you should be so proud! I wish I had one one millionth of your talent - so wonderful!!

Anonymous said...

beautiful work!

J C said...

Your work is so colorful! I have to come back and explore more. :)

Anonymous said...

I'm sitting here stunned...I'm not sure what I enjoyed more, looking at the drafts, the finished card or reading your step-by-step guide to how it all came together. I kept scrolling up and down, up and down and I followed every word. These are brilliant and if I lived down the road or over the bridge from Oxfordshire, I'd run right round to your place and buy one of the pieces you have for sale...and I haven't even seen them yet!

natural attrill said...

Hi G, that was really interesting, thanks for sharing the process. You certainly had alot of work to do in a short space of time.
I know that feeling when you drop paint on your artwork, I often do it, when I am happily painting my hand seems to become too relaxed and I often drop my paintbrush onto my artwork. Always manage to save the work somehow though.
I was looking at Drakestail by the river before reading about it, and wondered why the design had changed, I like your original beehive how it was, seems simpler without the extra trees.
The third card is definately my favoutite, I love the colours in this one, and the straw which looks to me like a doilly (as do the clouds in the other two)
The chamber pot made me laugh, it is the position of the bowl isnt it!
I really enjoy working for clients,(most of the time!)as you say you learn alot. I often end up drawing and painting things in ways I would never have imagined myself. Ghost illustrating (with permission of course)is very interesting as you have to really get into the other illustratiors style, colours, ways of mark making etc, I find that really pushes me and makes me look properly.

I look forward to seeing the new work for your shop.

tlchang said...

Gretel - I love what you do with your decorative elements - the backgrounds especially are exceptional. It was fun seeing your process.

Anonymous said...

What fabulous work - I love your style and the luminosity of your painting. You've reminded me why I never made it as an illustrator - it's so stressful keeping to tight deadlines especially when accidents occur and all of your will power is required to prevent you from just tearing it up and starting afresh - thank goodness you've got a good 'nurse' on hand! Thanks so much for sharing how you work.

carrster said...

These are really lovely and learning about the process was very cool! Thank you so much for sharing.

Anonymous said...

Gretel I should have known it was you! I have always loved your style! I must tell you that you have grown as an artist though, and it is great!

Your hero links were fabulous. I now have some of them on my blog!

Look foward to coming and visiting you blog regularly.

Blogs are kind of like a huge yahoo group. . .

Gail said...

Thanks for sharing these with us - it's great to see the roughs and the finished pieces - lovely illustration! - G XX

Soozcat said...

I'd never heard of Drakestail either, but your illustrations have me really intrigued now. (They look beautiful, by the way. And had you not mentioned the disaster with the scarlet, I never would have guessed.)

Sara Garrard said...

I Love your unique colours, i've never seen anyone else use them together, they are specific to you and your style, thats great.

hope 2007 has got off to a great start for you!

Sara x

Anonymous said...

I admire you so much...Your work has such style and color. It almosts pops off the page. I so wish I could take one of those pieces off your hands but tax time has made it tight for me also.

I am waiting for my Pinwheel book. Looks like it should be released shortly.

Take care,

Anonymous said...

Fab illos, Gretel! And well done getting the accidental red splodges out, I hate it when that happens! I love your flowing compositions.

Aaron Paquette said...

I have loved your site for a long time, now, and now that I have been approached about being available for illos, I have become enslaved by your excellent conversations surrounding your process.

Thank you, thank you!

lettuce said...

I love Andrew Lang, but hadn't come across this one. Your illustrations are just perfect, and this is a fascinsating post, thankyou.

The people came out really well, they just fit beautifully. And yes, I like the 3rd picture best, the slapstick chaos is great.

Pea said...

Gretel, it's so interesting to see how you work and your finished illustrations are beautiful. I sympathise with you having to make changes- often it's the thing that you like the best that the art director wants you to get rid of!
Can't wait to see your Etsy shop..I discovered it at the weekend and cannot stop skiving and looking through it all for ages! So much gorgeous stuff to buy. x

Tea said...

Absolutely wonderful! You are so very talented! I just love these.


Cotswoldgent said...

PG yout getting too much of a Fan club!I can only add to the many comments here. Your work is truly wonderful and I really hope to see you up in lights one day, with me telling everyone that I used to blog with you! Will we see some delightful pictures of the snow?

Anonymous said...

Wow your work is amazing,I love the detail in the pictures. Facinating to hear about lenghty creative process.

Anonymous said...

You are extraordinarily talented and I loved seeing this.

Author/illustrator Will Hillenbrand has his art process online as a sort of demo for kids. It's neat:


(I am hopeful that he will speak at my daughter's elementary school next year.)

Really, truly, I love seeing your process here. It's amazing.

Anonymous said...

Hi Gretel, I love your work. I made a coment before. I just wanted to know what kind of colored pencils you use for the line in your illustrations.
Thank you.

Gretel said...

HI Mara, Thank you for dropping in. I use a combination of graphite/lead pencils for outline and shading, mainly the lighter 'H' ones, from 8H down to H, I sometimes use an 'F' of 'HB' for a bit of darkness but rarely anything heavier. I also use a combination of pencils, I have a pretty large collection of different types, (about 200) but the ones I use the most are soft watercolour ones which are lovely and bright and soft to smudge. I have a big box of Derwent pencils, (72 in all) and Carand'ache are also very good. The way I get lots of brightness in colour is to use lots of thin watercolour washes and build up layers of paint and pencil. Hope this helps!

Anonymous said...


Thank you for taking the time answering my question in such detail. It help a lot. I have been using the wrong pencils for the line … prismacolor pencils. They are so waxy and hard and funny enough it never occurred to me to try the watercolor pencils.
I have some Derwent Watercolor, Albrecht Durer by Faber Castell, and I also have a new collection of Carand'ache Neocolor II. These last ones are not pencils, they are soluble painting crayons and I want to give them a try.

Your long illustration process requires so much patience and care. Building up layers takes time, and I can see how hard it could be when you are in a rush to meet a deadline. All your work pays off and your results are stunning. Love your color palette, it’s so special.

Thanks again for your time.