Posted by: Kathy Temean | May 27, 2017

Illustrator Saturday – Chantelle and Burgen Thorne

Once upon a time, two (married) graphic designers working in advertising (Chantelle) and publishing (Burgen) in South Africa decided to follow their dreams and become illustrators – their shared passion. Then they had an even brighter idea – to collaborate on their artworks  together – and now it’s very difficult to say which illustration belongs to whom! Thanks to the liberating  powers of the internet and email, Chantelle and Burgen left the Big City in 2006 and headed to the green hills of
KwaZulu-Natal, where they now live in blissful country idyll, having a marvellous time creating illustrations that combine traditional media with the glorious flexibility of new technology. When meeting new people, they take turns at answering the question ‘so what do you do for a living?’ because they get a huge kick out of saying ‘we illustrate children’s books’!

Their work is lively and expressive, full of life and movement. A bit like them! Their most recent project spans over 2000 illustrations to date, with an original cast of quirky characters and detailed sets designed and developed by them for Pearson South Africa. Other clients include Macmillan, Heinemann, Hodder, Oxford University Press and Cambridge University Press to name a few.


After reading the artbriefs, we storyboard the book together. In this process we discuss and develop a series of sketches, a visual feel for the story. This involves the character placement and action, reader viewpoint, flow, sequencing, visual hierarchy, layout, environment and settings. We treat it as a theatrical stage.

We then source reference and specific content for accuracy and authenticity.

For each artwork, we expand on the storyboard sketch and draw up the roughs, which we then review together and tweak as necessary. We used to draw roughs with pencil and then re-trace the line-work to ink on paper, scan, touch-up and place. Phew! Now (since last September) we draw directly with desk tablet and stylus, or drawing monitor and stylus, whichever is appropriate. The software we currently use is Photoshop.

Sets and backgrounds are drawn and simultaneously inked up digitally into their relevant pages, referring to the earlier sketches and references. We use specific custom pencil and colour presets. The backgrounds and sets are drawn in grey line, this lets the characters come forward (as they are black line).

Characters are now drawn and inked directly onto the sets or backgrounds, also using the presets. We add a thick outline to the main characters to get them to stand out from the action.

Sets and characters are prepped for rendering. The characters are given subtle form using a bevel and emboss style. We use a custom created texture to create the colour layer and then adjust it using hue/saturation – no boring, static, flat, repetitive, computer fill or pattern. Like a piece of paper that has been scanned, our specially created texture has noise, unpredictability.

Characters are rendered using specific pre-made colour actions. The character actions adjust the main texture for each of the character’s colours: skin, shirt pattern, splatters, eye colour etc.

We also colour the sets using pre-set actions to alter the colour to a Vuma green, red, blue etc.

Masks are applied to characters, set and page formats. When we draw the characters or sets we draw a full figure or set, even if it’s not seen eg the two boys standing in the waves. This is so that we can then move them around to get a better layout or re-use the set with other characters in a new book.

Detail is added last eg movement lines, shadows, highlights, text, transparencies, steam etc.

How long have you been illustrating?

BURGEN: In 1990, after qualifying as a graphic designer, I did a fourth year specializing in illustration and had the opportunity to work on content and cover illustrations for Centaur Publishing (now Shuter and Shooter). These stood me in good stead when I moved back up to Johannesburg and started my business, Crazy Cat Designs, in 1995. So that’s, uhhmmm, 22 years! Holy cow! I didn’t realize it had been that long!

CHANTELLE: I had a great career as a Creative Director in an ad agency in Durban (which was the fulfillment of my college dreams), but when I moved up to Johannesburg in 1999, I felt it was time to pursue another big dream of becoming an illustrator, specifically of children’s books. I put together a portfolio, knocked on some doors and was lucky enough to be offered my first commission in a matter of weeks. I’ve never looked back!

On the collaborative side, we ended up working through the night together to finish some watercolour illustrations for a Religious Education book going to the Sudan back in 2008, and we have slowly done more and more together since then. It’s maybe about 4 years now since we started working on every illustration together and we just found that it works for us. Two heads are better than one, and all that.

Out & About Circus

What and when was the first painting or illustration that you did where someone paid you for your artwork?

CHANTELLE: I did a wedding portrait for a friend of a friend when I first started working. That would early 1990’s I gues

BURGEN: Our GD (graphic design) HOD Brian Andrews was a great help to me when I was studying and he found me my first commission. I did a set of video game covers in second year and, to my (and my parents’) delight, I got paid!

Did either or both of you attend College to study art? If so, where did you go?

BOTH: We went to Durban Technikon and studied Graphic Design. That’s where we met. We sat together from the very first day in first year – how about that?

What do you think influenced your style?

BURGEN: I think we’re only really developing our specific style now that we are in a global arena. The South African publishing industry is quite small compared to others around the world, so we had to be able to handle a variety of different styles to match whatever the publisher required for their specific market.

CHANTELLE: We have been very lucky to be working on a large, far reaching  project (by SA standards) for the past few years – the Vuma books for Pearson SA. The initial brief required a style to be developed that could be imitated and reproduced by other illustrators as the number of books and volume of marketing material is staggering. This long range work has definitely helped us refine a style and a process that we’ve applied to over 2000 illustrations to date!

Deadline and tight timing is another major influencing factor in what style we can apply. I remember a lecturer telling us that ‘graphic design is solving a problem the best way you can in the time available’. So being as creative as we can within the constraints of a tight deadline is a biggie!

What type of jobs did you do right after you graduated?

CHANTELLE: One of our lecturers, Barry van Heerden, was also the Creative Director of a small agency in Durban and he offered me a position as a junior designer. It was a great start for me and I was there for several years.

BURGEN: I had those illustrating jobs I’ve already mentioned back in fourth year and then I worked on a lifestyle magazine called ‘Hello Johannesburg’ for about a year. I started looking for work in the publishing world and enjoyed quite a bit of success doing cover design and illustration, so I stated my own business (Crazy Cat Designs).


What made you move KwaZulu-Natal? What town is near you?

BURGEN: Wow! That’s an expansive question. I could talk for hours on this one! Gimme a minute to think of a nutshell version of the answer…

CHANTELLE: The nearest town to us is Mooi River – mooi means pretty in Afrikaans, so Pretty River. It’s about 14km away.

BURGEN: So the short version goes like this: as a kid, my favourite book was John Seymour’s ‘Self Suffiency’. It was the starting point for a whole lot of wannabe country people leaving the cities and starting their own smallholdings. I must say that the reality is far different to the pretty pictures in the book! For one thing, there’s a lot more MUD involved!

So growing our own veggies, raising a few farm animals, having our horses at home – all that wonderful stuff was something I had a burning passion to try out and live for myself. (cont.)

CHANTELLE: I was born and raised in Kwa-Zulu Natal and said to Burgen when I moved up to Jo’burg in ‘99 that there was no way I would spend more than 5 years in the big smoke! We were there for 7 years, but it was definitely time to up stakes and get out. Our holidays were always out in some rural heaven somewhere and that’s where we really wanted to be. Here in the green hills of the Midlands, we have the most magnificent life: the air is fresh, the views are spectacular, the walks are long and untroubled by traffic. I could go on and on…

BURGEN: Here’s another big part of living our dream – building our own house. We gathered inspiration of what we would build: we loved stone houses in Provence and Tuscany. We had a look at building ‘green’: stone means no painting, solar geysers, wooden window frames. We wanted a property with nothing at all on it – a blank canvas for us to paint in our vision, so that’s what we bought and that’s where we started.

CHANTELLE: We’ve been building for 10years now. My mom-in-law jokes that we are the South African version of ‘Grand Designs’! We started in a caravan and gathered sandstone from our own land to build our house – very, very eco-friendly. Every year we just think of more stuff we want to do and better ways to do it. This is an amazing adventure and even though we are a decade in, we feel like we’re just getting started!

When did you decide you wanted to illustrate for children?

CHANTELLE: I remember LadyBird books and GoldenBooks from my childhood. I used to be transported by the pictures and the details in those early stories and would spend hours ‘in’ the illustrations – actually feeling like I was IN there! I’m sure I never thought about career as a little kiddie, but this was always what I wanted to do – make pictures that children would love the way I loved those early books.

BURGEN: I started collecting children’s books in my second year of studies because I just loved the illustration. The idea grew in my mind until it became something I just HAD to do.

Have you ever illustrated a picture book?

BOTH: Loads!

BURGEN: Up until now we have been mostly involved in educational publishing and this involves lots and lots of readers and picture books at the Grade R to Grade 3 levels. Please excuse us showing off a bit here: we have done illustrations for upwards of 500 books (a conservative figure) and our favourites are the ones where the pictures tell the story.

CHANTELLE: Obviously.

Vuma literacy series

How do you work as a team? Does one of you come up with the idea and start working on it and the other finish the color?

CHANTELLE: This is something we are refining and re-defining as we go along. Often, I will do the initial sketches of the characters and take them through to ink and Burgen will do the background sketches and the finalizing of those. He always says my car wheels look like someone has driven over them several times! So rude.

BURGEN: We work together to plan out the book, what we’re gonna do on each page, which pages will have what backgrounds, where we want to ‘zoom in’ on character interaction etc. Then usually I will set up all the correct sizes and begin work on backgrounds which will then bounce back to Chantelle to sketch in characters. We’ll get together for a review and make whatever changes we think we need to at this stage. Then we’ll finish the inking and colouring together, dividing up who’s doing what depending on what each of us would actually like to do. (cont.)

CHANTELLE: For example, on a recent book, Burgen felt like he wanted to work on the colour and add detail to the landscapes in the background – which was perfect, because I wanted to colour the animals. Sometimes we each take a single character and work our way through the book just focusing on that particular character. This creates a good consistency of face and body shape, as well as making sure that all the special little quirks of that character are maintained (like splatters on their clothes, mismatched shoes, leaves in their hair etc)

BURGEN: This is all quite specific to Vuma. We are experimenting with blurring these roles more for our entries into competitions or on other work where we have a bit of time to play – ‘bouncing’ the idea and initial concept sketches back and forth a lot more as we slowly craft and shape the idea up  and then doing the same with the colour. We are introducing a ‘culling’ phase, where we ditch or simplify overly fiddled bits and also an ‘adding’ phase, where we may take to traditional media to create a watercolour or pastel shape/line/element to scan in and fill out our illustration. Naturally, this process sometimes leads to a little argument.

CHANTELLE: Negotiation.

BURGEN: Compromise.

Did you take classes to learn digital painting?

BOTH: No. The programs are just so cool that you can’t help fooling around with all the technology and finding tools and effects you love to use. The more you play with it, the more you learn. It’s not the basics that you need, it’s the stuff you have to dig around for and gyp just a bit to make it your own – that’s the fun part!

CHANTELLE: Having said all that, we love new tech and new ideas so a course in ‘how to’ on a new program would be a great ‘leg-up’!

You say your illustrations are a mix of traditional and digital. Could you explain how that works? Do you do textures using watercolors and then scan them in? (cont.)

BURGEN: In our earlier process (prior to September 2016), we used a lot of traditional pencil sketches and pen and ink to create characters and sketch pages, but backgrounds and colour were mostly done using a desktop tablet and Photoshop. We try to never use flat digital colour – it’s completely dead to the eye – we use textures and splatters that we create using whatever media appeals and bring those into our work, sometimes in the background, sometimes as a pattern, sometimes even as a focus.

CHANTELLE: I used to be put off using a desktop tablet because of the disconnect that happens between hand/eye and drawing (which I see as a sort of L-shaped warped detour), but last September, we invested in a miraculous little piece of technology that has literally changed our lives! We bought a drawing monitor so that I can draw directly onto/into the computer just as if I were drawing onto paper. So now we use almost no paper (save the planet!) and we save huge wads of time (mostly spent doing super-dull things like scanning, re-tracing pencil work into ink on the light box and other boring stuff).  This means we have gone a bit more digital lately, but in a weird sort of paradox, it allows us to use traditional media (such as a painted line or texture) in a far more creative way.

Has most of your illustrating been for Educational publishers?

BOTH: So far yes.

How did you get your work noticed by Pearson South Africa?

CHANTELLE: That’s kind of hard to say because we’ve been ‘out there’ in the SA publishing arena for a heckuva long time and we have done work for loads of people who have changed jobs or companies over the years, and who have (hopefully) also said nice things about us and our work wherever they have gone. Networking – if I were to sum it up I’d go with networking.


Did you do any book covers while getting started doing freelance illustrating?

BURGEN: Yes. Book cover design and illustration were the backbone of Crazy Cats, the business I started up in ’95.Do you have any desire to write and illustrate your own children’s book?

CHANTELLE: I’m so glad you asked that question (huge grin). Here at home in SA I am actually the published author of 6 books – all readers, all for the education market. Two are picture books for Grade R (‘Clip, Clop, Stop’ and ‘On My Way to School’ – published by Shuter and Shooter), one is a skit on the Survivor reality shows called ‘Survival’ (published by Cambridge University Press as part of their Rainbow Reading series) and takes the form of a comic book for a slightly older reader. The other three are chapter books in an adventure series that have been translated into Zulu, Xhosa and Afrikaans for Shuter and Shooter’s Zebra Reading Series. They are titled ‘Midnight Rescue’, ‘The Raging River’ and ‘Rustlers’.

We have lots of ideas about more books we’d like to write and illustrate. Burgen’s current hobby horse is a series called ‘Stories You Don’t Want Your Children To Hear’!

Would you be open to illustrating a book for an author who wants to self-publish?

BOTH: Absolutely! Some of our best friends are authors and we have done covers or content for several of their self-published works. Paddy Guilbride’s Skuddabuddy series, a cover for Nalini Sooknanan’s Storm and Skye series and several covers for Rob Preston-Whyte’s books on Kindle.

Have you ever tried to illustrate a wordless picture book?

CHANTELLE: Not quite a wordless book, but we’d love to! Any offers?

Some books we’ve illustrated have only a single word or a sentence of five words, but we have yet to tackle a just-pictures book.


Have you done any illustrating for children’s magazines?

CHANTELLE: Sadly, kids’ mags don’t seem to have really taken off in South Africa. I did an illustration for a proposed magazine called the ChatterBox to be launched in the Cape Town area, but it didn’t get much support.


How did you find representation with The Organisation? How long have you been with them?

BURGEN: I set out to find us an agent last year – made a list of all the top agencies in the UK and narrowed it down to about 24 favourites. We selected our best work and submitted our portfolio in February 2016. We had a great response – 5 replies out of 24 emails – but we loved the Organisation’s enthusiastic reply so we said a resounding YES to them! Both Lorraine and the team at The Organisation have been working hard at getting us known in the global market and have given us lots of pointers on what we could do to add to and improve our portfolio and increase our appeal to markets other than education (which is clearly our speciality). Also, thanks to The Org’s urging, we have finally taken the social media plunge and in April this year, we got up and out there! Hello, wide world!

What types of things do you do to find illustration work?

CHANTELLE: The massive Vuma project has kept us very busy for the past three years and so we have been in the luxurious position of not actually having to go looking for work – very, very fabulous! However, all good things must come to an end – Vuma will be winding down within the next year, so it’s time for us to look for new adventures. There are quite a few Illustration competitions that are well supported by the industry, so we are working on a few ‘wow!’ pieces for those. We’re also very optimistic about our social media bringing our work to the notice of ‘the right people’. Let’s not forget our tireless agents, The Organisation, who are busy circulating our work and putting us forward for projects.

BURGEN: Over the years we have built relationships with many people in the SA publishing industry –artwork commissioners, editors, project managers, publishers etc – and we are often approached with new work from all those wonderful contacts. It takes time to build a network but it’s time very well spent!

What is your favorite medium to use?

BURGEN: Digital. If it’s not digital, it must be a huge big canvas, and those fat oil paint sticks. Love those!

CHANTELLE: Watercolour. Ink. They’re favourites because I know them so well – they’re like old friends.\

Has that changed over time?

BOTH: Not really. It’s strange, but no.

Do you have a studio set up in your home?

BOTH: Absolutely! With mattresses for our dogs under our desks. Our canine companions are with us all day, every day. We’re the lucky ones!

BURGEN: We are always reshuffling our studio. We built skylights into the roof (to be energy efficient) but we forgot that the sun shifts position through the year, so we jiggle our desks around to get the screens out of the glare as the seasons roll. We’re also planning to put in some heating this winter, so there’s another change ahead. We quite like it – it shakes things up!

Do you try to spend a specific amount of time working on your craft?

CHANTELLE: Deadlines rule. They come first and foremost and have eaten up most of our time in our working days. BUT with our lovely new technology, we have freed up some precious time to play. ‘Play’ means doing expansive, more creative things – like competitions (which we have never had time to participate in up until now) and developing our style together.

Do you take pictures or do any types of research before you start a project?

BURGEN: Research is my thing! It’s amazing how much we have learned from researching material and pictures for our illustrations. For example, we researched dinosaurs in South Africa for a reader called Karoo Monsters, and what we found out just knocked our socks off! We always take care to research cultures and traditions for artwork that goes into other regions, like Sudan, the Caribbean, Kenya etc. In our own country, we have eleven official languages and very specific styles of traditional dress for different language groups, so we get reference and check facts before starting to draw.

Do you think the Internet has opened doors for you?

BOTH: We could not live where we do and work the way we do without it. The Internet is the key that has opened so many doors for us.

CHANTELLE: I remember spending hours in the car driving around to see clients. Now we work with people from all over the world who I may never even meet!

BURGEN: And we can access pictures and information about every place and culture that we illustrate right from our studio. Desktop travel – no jet lag! It’s great.

Do you use Photoshop or Painter with your illustrations?

BURGEN: We use Photoshop all the time. The other program I’m quite keen to try is Rebelle 2. It’s got some brilliant watercolour effects and really believable brushes.


Do you own or have you used a Graphic Drawing Tablet in your illustrating?

BURGEN: I use a desk tablet and stylus and Chantelle uses a drawing monitor and stylus.

What would you say was your biggest success?

BOTH: Vuma – without a doubt! When we were invited to pitch for this work we were so excited. We fell in love with the characters and went all out to impress with our original pencil sketch of the treehouse and sample characters. We were over the moon when Pearson selected us as the chief illustrators on this series. We created all the main characters, pets, caregivers, teachers, bedrooms, houses, school and overview of the town of Vuma as well as a very comprehensive style guide. We have now illustrated 112 readers for levels 0-8 and are onto level 9. This brings us to a whopping total of 2 160 A3 full colour illustrations in the last 3 years. We are enormously grateful to Pearson SA for this amazing work. We’ve learned so much working on Vuma and it has been (and still is) an incredible experience.

Do you have any career dreams that you want to fulfill?

BOTH: We’d love to go from being successful South African illustrators to successful illustrators globally. That would be BIG for us! Huge, actually.

What are you working on now?

CHANTELLE: You mean other than Vuma? (laughs)

BURGEN: Yes, mainly Vuma Level 9. We do have a few small projects on the go for Macmillan South Africa and for Tom Hardy Publishers in the UK and we are working on our entries for a competition. I won’t say what it is ‘cos if we don’t LOVE the art we create, we won’t enter it.


Do you have any material type tips you can share with us? Example: Paint or paper that you love – the best place to buy – a new product that you’ve tried – A how to tip, etc.

CHANTELLE: My biggie tip is never, ever go with a straight digital background. Always muss it up with uneven-ness. The eye hates uniformity. So scan in paper, paint up a watercolour wash, moosh some pastels around and scan that in. Have a little fun with it!

BURGEN: Technology rocks! Don’t be afraid to lose the pen and paper. Get a screen and try it out – you’ll never look back. You’ll be eco-friendly, save money on materials and save lots and lots of time that would otherwise be wasted (looking for your eraser, redrawing, tracing templates etc). Repetitive tasks (like final production) can be programmed as actions in Photoshop and that also is an excellent time-saver. This is another wonderful thing we learned on the Vuma project – actions. It’s amazing what you can get them to do!

Any words of wisdom on how to become a successful writer or illustrator?

BURGEN: Ask Kathy Temean to please, please interview you!!

CHANTELLE: Work on your portfolio. Look at what’s out there and practice doing styles you like. When you present your work to a potential client (or an agent, if you’re at that stage) make sure that it is only your very best pieces. Cull everything that is mediocre or weak (in your opinion). Be ruthless when you do this. Test your work on others (not your mom!). Listen to constructive criticism and learn from it but don’t take it personally – it’s meant to help not hinder. Realise that the work you did yesterday may be good, but we can always be better – so keep striving, keep practicing, keep learning. Stay curious about your craft and have fun – it’ll show in your work.

Thank you Chantelle and Burgen 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 their work, you can visit:

If you have a minute, please leave a comment for them. I am sure they’d love it and I enjoy reading them, too. Thanks!

Talk tomorrow,



  1. Wonderful inspiring work Chantelle and Burgen!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Oh wow! This is just so wonderful – thank you so much for featuring us, Kathy! We love Illustrator Saturday and feel so priveleged to be listed alongside the other amazing artists who’ve been interviewed.


  3. Well done Burgen & Chantelle …
    We are so proud 2 be associated with url .
    All the best 4 ur Business

    God Bless

    Liked by 1 person

  4. You two are such an inspiration for all the young artists out there! Thank you and well done on living and achieving your dream!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Fantastic Chantelle and Burgen!!!! You are so deserving. It was so entertaining to read!!!! Many good wishes to you for a bright future.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Knowning this wonderful couple and the things they have achieved I am truely blessed to be considered one of their clan. This article brings to life the essence if their being. May they move from success to success with joy and love.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Beautiful artwork! It must be so nice to live and work together so well.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Fantastic Chantelle and Burgen

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Thank you for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

  10. I’ve worked with Chantelle and Burgen on several projects and they always deliver immaculate work, on time and at reasonable cost. They are a pleasure to work with. Tom Hardy of Tom Hardy Publishing

    Liked by 1 person

  11. As a Newbie, I am always exploring online for articles that can benefit me. Thank you

    Liked by 1 person

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