Shane McGowan has been drawing ever since he can remember. When he was a kid he loved to draw cars, robots and planes, and he still does. At school he created his own comic strips and now he makes picture books and illustrations for people all around the world. He lived in London for a very long time and travelled to lots of far-off interesting places, but now he resides back in his home-town of Melbourne with his partner and Ginger cat called TC. Shane loves to read, run around the park, play tennis, sing in a choir and eat Gluten Free cake. He also loves to watch old episodes of Bewitched which he considers the definite high point in the history of television.
Here is Shane discussing his process:
This image was part of an early learning picture book commissioned by a not for profit publisher called Room to Read. It told the very simple story of a squirrel managing to be faster than it’s predator, a mean ol’ cat. The book was to be distributed in South Asia and I had the choice of setting the scene in a city or in the country. I started by googling some reference of cats and squirrels in full flight which I used in the sketching phase. Often I will sketch in pencil and scan them in later, but in this instance I sketched directly on to the screen using my Wacom pen and tablet.
The text was very simple so I had lots of room to play with. This is the right hand page of one of the spreads. Originally I envisaged the cat having very Tabby like markings as you see here. I wanted a sense of danger in this image so I decided the picture plane should be tilted downwards to give the impression the cat is in control and the squirrel is running for it’s life.
Once I was happy with the sketch I got to work on the background. Sometimes I like to know what’s sitting behind the characters before I start to draw them, it just makes it easier to model the characters’ features and shading.
The sketch layer is at about 5% opacity while I’m working on the figures. If I have an earlier version of a character from another spread I will always keep that at hand to check on features, tone and colour. You can see that once I had begun painting the cat with a selection of pastel brushes I realised he would have to be a dark bold colour to make him stand out and to show some menace. So he went from being a tabby cat to a black cat.
Once I’m happy with the way the figures are looking I’ll flatten the layers-in this instance the cat’s head- so that I can make a copy of it. Then I can change the Hue/Saturation or Contrast of it and create different highlights.
This is the final image. By the end I had played around with the Lightness, Contrast and Hue of the background because it needed to be pumped up a little. I also adjusted the colour balance a little to give it a more blue tint and darkened the bushes behind the squirrel so that he jumped out of the frame.
Above and Below: a few book covers.
How long have you been illustrating?
I started drawing when I was 3. I loved to draw cars and would fill sketch books with
them. Then in my early teens I drew comic strips which were heavily influenced by Peanuts
and Wizard of Id. I used to send them into a Sunday Newspaper and an inspiring children’s
editor who worked there would print them. I still know him today as a matter of fact and
we have collaborated on projects. After I left college I worked for many years in the
editorial and design field. But I’ve been illustrating kids books for about 10 years.
Where do you live? Have you always lived there?
I was born and now live in Melbourne, Australia, a city I love and am very attached to.
Though I lived and worked for almost 20 years in London.
What was the first thing you painted where someone paid you for your work
I was paid 1 whole dollar for my first comic strip when I was 13. At the time my Dad
framed the cheque for me. But my first commission after college was a book cover for
Penguin Australia. The novel was called Child’s Play and the author was David Malouf.
Did you go to school for art? Where and why did you pick that school?
I studied at a place called Phillip Institute here in Melbourne. In Australia way back
in the 80’s therewas no such thing as an illustration course so I picked the college
that had the most interesting haircuts. Not sure that worked out too well.
What did you study there?
I studied Graphics but used illustration in every single assignment.
Do you feel College helped develop your style?
Of course it must have done. I immersed myself in old European Illustration and Images
annuals at the time and absorbed as much inspiration there. College broadened my
outlook and introduced me to the history of art as well as illustration.
Did art school help you get work when you graduated?
No not particularly. They were gearing us for a career in advertising which wasn’t for me
at all. I lugged my folio around to countless agencies and design studios but got nowhere
fast. Then one day I arrived at Penguin’s doorstep hoping for a full time job as a designer.
That wasn’t to be but there was a lovely art director who saw some potential in my drawings
and gave me my first book cover. Suddenly I had a freelance career.
What type of work did you do after you got out of school?
For the first few years my commissions consisted of contemporary fiction book covers, and editorial pieces for finance magazines and newspapers. I moved to London after about 3 years which expanded the scope of my work a lot.
Have you seen your work change since you left school?
Yes, over time my work has changed organically. In the years I was juggling multiple
editorial commissions, I needed a style that was quick and printed well on both
newsprint and high quality magazine paper. Gouache, and ink were the mediums I
favoured in those days because I could lay down colours swiftly with a minimum of
fuss. I also used scraperboard because it printed beautifully and gave a faux woodcut
look which was quite popular at the time. I eased into childrens books around the time
I started working digitally. I had more time to fuss over images when there wasn’t such
a pressing timeframe for each job and my style adapted. I experimented a little with
Illustrator but found Photoshop more to my liking because it felt more like drawing,
more fluid. These days there are so many wonderful brushes and filters to muck around
with and I try to take advantage of them , but in the end a nifty filter will never save
a bad piece of drawing.
When did you decide you wanted to illustrate for children?
I’d written and illustrated a few picture books in the 90’s when my editorial career was at it’s peak. They really were dreadful and I had no idea what I was doing. They were never published thankfully. You have to start somewhere I guess.
What was your first book you illustrated?
It wasn’t until my daughter arrived and I was reading so many books to her that I
started to take notice of structure and narrative and pace. The first published
picture book was one I both wrote and illustrated. It was called Evie’s Mad Hair
Day and was inspired by her.
How did you get that contract?
I sent a dummy of the book to the wonderful designer Mike Jolley at Templar Publishing
in the UK. I was very lucky and he rang me a few days later and offered me a contract.
This was in 2003, I can’t imagine that kind of thing happening now, well not to me anyway.
How many picture books have you illustrated?
I’ve illustrated about 16 picture books so far and many more educational books, I
lose count of those.
How did you get to do the Stella books?
MacMillan came to me about the Stella books. There were 6 sets of books in the series
they were proposing. Each set of books had a different writer and illustrator and
protagonist. Originally they asked me to illustrate two of the sets but I felt that
in the time frame allotted I couldn’t do both characters justice so I only took Stella on.
Do you expect there may be more Stella books in the future?
There are no plans as far as I know for more Stella books.
Was 10 Spooky Bats your first book with Scholastic? How did that come about?
Yes that was the first picture book for them. I had worked on a few educational books for
Scholastic in the US and then one day the Australian office rang me to ask if I’d be
interested in this book. Spooky Bats is part of a series of books based on 10 green bottles.
Do you have any desire to write and illustrate your own book?
The first three books I had published were all written as well as illustrated by myself.
But since then I’ve illustrated other peoples’ text. I have a number of dummies for
picture books up my sleeve so hopefully one of them will be snapped up at some point.
What do you think is your biggest success?
Well I wish I could say a million selling book but alas that kind of success eludes me.
I think my biggest success is the fact I’m still illustrating after all these years.
It’s a tough business and needs determination, perseverance and a very thick skin.
Have you ever tried to do a wordless picture book?
No I haven’t as yet but the idea definitely appeals.
I see you are represented by the Organisation UK. How did you connect with them and when was that?
I’m represented by The Organisation in the UK and T2 in the US. I’ve known Lorraine for
over twenty years. We’ve always got on well and she represented me in the early 90’s
when I was living in London and doing editorial and design work. We parted company for
awhile and I moved back to Oz, but when my focus turned more to kids books I gave her
a call to touch base. I floated the idea of The Org representing me again and she
agreed which was great. She’s very enthusiastic and encouraging.
Do you illustrate full time?
Yes I do illustrate full time.
Do you have a favorite medium you use?
When I started out I had a number of mediums I worked in, primarily gouache, scraperboard or coloured pencil. But these days I’m 100% digital.
Do you take research pictures before you start a project?
Not usually. Unless the project specifically calls for it. I will usually google reference material if it’s a building or car or some such thing. But after the sketching phase I try not to look at the reference again as it tends to influence the way I draw the image.
Have you worked with any educational publishers? If yes, is there any difference working with them?
I’ve worked with a lot of educational publishers. That side of things is a different beast to trade picture books. The deadlines and brief are always much tighter. Generally you have less freedom and the design is already worked out by the time you get commissioned. Nevertheless you can usually still have fun with them.
Do you use Photoshop with any of your work?
Yes I’ve primarily used Photoshop for about 15 years now. I sketch with pencil and paper or with my graphics tablet then Photoshop for the finals. I like to use Kyle T. Webster’s pastel and pencil brushes and mix it up with different filters.
Do you have and use a graphic tablet?
I use a Wacom Intuos tablet that I’ve had for years. It’s like my right hand.
Has any of your work appeared in magazines?
My work has appeared in magazines in UK, Australia and the US for many years. Everyone from The New York Times, The Guardian and The Wall St Journal to early learning publications like Child and Nursery World. These days I work in the editorial field less and less, though I still enjoy it a lot.
Do you studio a studio in your house?
Yes my studio is at the back of our house.
Is there anything in your studio you couldn’t live without?
My Wacom Tablet.
Do you follow any type of routine to attain your career goals?
I have never had a routine of any sort except the fact I work every day. I have a presence on social media- Instagram and Facebook. I enter competitions sporadically.
Any exciting projects on the horizon?
I’m excited about some Christmas stamps I designed for Australia Post which will be
released in a few months. Every year AusPost release a special edition Christmas Island stamp illustrated by a different artist. Christmas Island is off the North West coast of Australia and was discovered on Christmas Day in 1643, hence it’s name. There are a myriad of beautiful sea birds and crabs who inhabit the island and lots of rainforest so it was a fun job to do.
Do you think the Internet has opened any doors for you?
Absolutely. It’s impossible to operate as an illustrator these days and not have a web
presence. I’ve had many jobs and enquiries from people seeing my website.
What are your career goals?
To keep working and improving with every book or commission.
What are you working on now?
I’m always working on book ideas. I design images for tee shirts. I have a few
educational books on the go. And some branding for a local business.
Are there any painting tips (materials, paper, etc.) you can share that work
well for you? Technique tips?
If you work in Photoshop then Kyle T Webster’s digital brushes will change the way you
work. I’ve never encounter digital brushes that mimic traditional media so well, they
really are amazing.
Any words of wisdom you can share with the illustrators who are trying to
develop their career?
Be humble but think big. Always draw. Be passionate about your work. And draw what
you want, not what youthink the industry wants.
Thank you Shane for sharing your talent, process, journey, and expertise with us. Please make sure you keep in touch and share your future successes with us. To see more of Shane’s work, you can visit him at website at: http://www.shanemcgworld.com
If you have a minute, please leave a comment for Shane. I am sure she’d love it and I enjoy reading them, too. Thanks!