Award-win­ning il­lus­tra­tor Jim Field out­lines how he cap­tures the en­ergy of kids’ sto­ries

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Jim Field out­lines how he cap­tures the en­ergy of chil­dren’s sto­ries


I sort of fell into il­lus­trat­ing chil­dren’s books. I was work­ing as an an­i­ma­tion di­rec­tor and a free­lance il­lus­tra­tor for seven years; I codi­rected with my univer­sity pal Benji Davies un­der the alias Frater. We di­rected com­mer­cials, ti­tle se­quences and mu­sic pro­mos, but work was dry­ing up as it be­came so com­pet­i­tive in the an­i­ma­tion in­dus­try to win a pitch.

Then an op­por­tu­nity came up when some­one re­sponded to one of our pro­mo­tional mailouts. I was asked to il­lus­trate a chil­dren’s book by Peter Bently, a book called Cats Ahoy! pub­lished by Macmil­lan books in 2011. This book ended up win­ning the The Roald Dahl Funny Prize, and changed my ca­reer path as a re­sult.


I look at lots of ref­er­ence when I’m work­ing on a book. In­spi­ra­tion might spring from a trip to a na­tional park, a wildlife doc­u­men­tary, a film, or other il­lus­tra­tors’ and artists’ work. Th­ese things all help in­spire my work. Some­times I’ll find a ref­er­ence photo of a land­scape that in­spires a com­po­si­tion, or it might be the dra­matic

light­ing from a movie that I’ve seen that helps me de­velop light­ing in a com­po­si­tion.

I gather lots of ref­er­ence images from Pin­ter­est that help me cre­ate a mood board for each book I’m work­ing on. I re­fer back to th­ese fre­quently through­out the process, so my head stays in the same place.


I have a 2017 MacBook Pro 15-inch con­nected to an LG 27UD88 mon­i­tor. I also use a Wa­com In­tuos5 Pro tablet. I use Pho­to­shop for all of my fi­nal dig­i­tal art­work and use a lot of Kyle T Web­ster’s bril­liant Pho­to­shop brushes – vary­ing the opac­ity and flow to cre­ate dif­fer­ent tex­tures.

I hop be­tween dig­i­tal art­work­ing at my stand­ing desk and a light­box for the hand­drawn el­e­ments. For the fi­nal art­work, the main char­ac­ters and over­all back­ground lay­out are hand-drawn in pen­cil. I’ve tried to draw di­rectly on the com­puter but it never has the same feel as by hand, it loses the en­ergy and spon­tane­ity.

My goal when art­work­ing is to make my il­lus­tra­tions look as hand-painted as pos­si­ble. I want to avoid them look­ing dig­i­tal so I avoid fil­ters and limit my use of gra­di­ents and ob­vi­ous blend­ing mode ef­fects where pos­si­ble.


When I read a story for the first time, it plays like a movie in my head. Com­ing from an an­i­ma­tion back­ground, I ‘stage’ the story, fol­low­ing the same process as I would for an an­i­mated film.

The Squir­rels Who Squab­bled by Rachel Bright is about two squir­rel char­ac­ters, who are in­tent on hav­ing the last pine cone of the sea­son; each will do any­thing to get it. Cyril, our ‘hero’ char­ac­ter has par­tied his way through the sea­son and has no food left. Bruce the ‘anti hero’ has planned ahead and has a moun­tain of bounty for the win­ter, but still feels he must have the last pine cone.


I al­ways start with a sketch­book and pen­cil. While read­ing the story over and over to my­self, I make lots of char­ac­ter doo­dles and sketch out thumb­nail ideas. Some com­po­si­tions come to me straight away; I know ex­actly how I feel they should be, and they rarely evolve much in terms of com­po­si­tion. Some, how­ever, are very tricky and can take a long time to get right.

Once I’ve built up a col­lec­tion of thumbnails, I’ll then drop the best ones into InDe­sign with the text, so I can get more of an idea of how the book is flow­ing. Once I’m happy, I’ll share this doc­u­ment with the team for feed­back.

Get­ting the thumbnails right at this point is es­sen­tial. They are the back­bone struc­ture of the book. If there are flaws in the vis­ual sto­ry­telling here, then mak­ing it pretty in colour at the fi­nal stage will be a waste of time.

“If there are flaws at the thumb­nail stage, mak­ing it look pretty in colour later will be a waste of time”


Once we’re all happy with the thumbnails, I work them up to roughs, again work­ing in pen­cil and pa­per. I then start in­tro­duc­ing colour in Pho­to­shop. It’s at this stage that I start to get more of a feel of the fin­ished book.

Choos­ing the right colour pal­ette for a book is some­thing I al­ways find quite a chal­lenge. The Squir­rels Who Squab­bled is set in the last days of au­tumn, so I wanted lots of lovely or­anges, reds and browns soaked in sun­shine.

At this point, I also start to think about the light­ing in each spread, sketch­ing in the shad­ows, so I can be con­sis­tent with the di­rec­tion of the sun from scene to scene when it comes to the fi­nal art stage. Th­ese el­e­ments give the il­lus­tra­tion a greater sense of re­al­ism.


This spread in the book (see images 06-08) is a turn­ing point in the story. My art di­rec­tor Grahame Lyus sug­gested we make it a ver­ti­cal spread, to make it work bet­ter with the ac­tion and bet­ter sug­gest the turn of events to come for the char­ac­ters.

I think this stems from my an­i­ma­tion back­ground, but I see a pic­ture book as the best 24 images from a film. Each page must bring the text to life, com­mu­ni­cate the story and I try to bring some­thing else to the story vis­ually. Each book is a new chal­lenge to de­velop my­self fur­ther as an artist.


Sketches of Cyril, the main char­ac­ter in The Squir­rels Who Squab­bled. Jim Field wanted him to have ap­peal as the com­i­cal un­der­dog. set­tled on this design for the char­ac­ter of Cyril. 03

He then added colour over the pen­cil sketch in Pho­to­shop to bring the char­ac­ter to life and pro­vide a taste of how the book will look. 02

Af­ter try­ing out lots of dif­fer­ent sketches, Field 01


01 02

04-05 Once the key char­ac­ter de­signs were re­solved, Field cre­ated thumbnails and then a very rough sto­ry­board of the whole book. Roughs were used to re­fine line work and fi­nalise colour ref­er­ences. Colour proofs were then made for a fi­nal check of the art­work be­fore it be­came a book.

06 06 07 08

Field used a pal­ette knife to smear acrylic white paint on black pa­per to cre­ate a back­ground tex­ture for this en­er­getic wa­ter­fall scene.

Field coloured tight to the lines and re­tained the pen­cil work on faces and de­tails. Here, he added splashes and bub­bles us­ing Kyle T Web­ster’s Splat­ter brush.

The fi­nal art­work with Field’s type and Rachel Bright’s rhyming verse.


Field’s work­ing set up in­cludes a mon­i­tor and Wa­com In­tuos. 10

Field prefers to hand-draw many el­e­ments of his il­lus­tra­tions and uses a light­box. 11

The front cover of The Squir­rels Who Squab­bled, pub­lished in late 2017 by Or­chard Books.





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