Posted by: Kathy Temean | July 8, 2017

Illustartor Saturday – Tina MacNaughton

Tina MacNaughton worked as a freelance illustrator for over 14 years and in that time illustrated more than 20 picture books, board books and early reader novels. Her books have been published in 37 different countries and so its great to hear from readers from far flung places. In addition she has created work for magazines, educational and greeting card publications.

Here’s Tina talking about her career:

After art college at John Moore’s University in Liverpool the internet was a far off dream and freelancing seemed like a total mystery. Combined with the pressure of earning a living, I fell into graphic design for a few years, working on products for children. This in the long run proved a useful training ground for a wannabe illustrator. In between utterly deathly boring changes to packaging designs I secretly scribbled in my notebook. I would amuse myself with my imagination let loose, my world started to unfold with images of pigeons, gorillas and daft fairies. It was either that or find myself snoring on the keyboard. As my passion for my alternative world developed, I formed a cunning plan to escape drudgery and vowing to never commuting on that hellish road the M25 ever again!

Then I plunged myself into creating a new portfolio of illustrations and research. After I had started contacting potential clients, it was a case of sit wait for that phone to ring. Then one day the call came from Little Tiger Press. I had met them at the London Book Fair, after a series of very happy accidents and a chance meeting on a tube train. Then began the process of convincing them I was worth a punt. So, after one small woodland’s worth of paper later, I had produced enough illustrations to convince them to give me a contract for one book deal.

That first picture book was ‘One Snowy Night’, written by M Christina Butler, about a Little Hedgehog. It is still in print and has spawned a 10 book series and counting. It also kick started my freelance illustration career and further commissions so I am very thankful to that little prickly fellow.

After over 15 years freelancing and working in soft pastels it sometimes feel like I know what I am doing, nevertheless I am still learning. Pastel is a wonderfully easy yet very difficult medium and has so many options and potentials that one can never truly say they know it all. I am still learning new tricks and effects. Its greatest asset is that you can plan colour ways very very easily. You just line them up next to you and off you go. No endless mixing and remixing and waiting for paint to dry until you are sure of the finished colour. You can mix colours direct onto the paper.

For a slightly impatient person like me pastel is fantastic, as it is immediate, can be sketchy and a delightful combination between drawing and painting. Pastel can be super fast……sometimes, if the image is large and simple. Pastel is best done on the big side. Unfortunately for an illustrator ‘big’ is a problem. The postal service will only take packages so big, after which it gets so expensive I might as well not bother doing the work. So I do have to do my work smaller than I would like. Pastel is also fabulous for doing fur or snow where other mediums might struggle to achieve the same effect. Its softness make an image super soft and fuzzy.

Though this is also a massive disadvantage too, it smudges and will stay smudge-able forever, unless I fix it with fixative spray. This has a side affect of slightly darkening the image, so one must use lightly. I have to inform anyone handling my work to not touch the surface and issue out dire warnings. I have to put a layer of glassine paper over it to protect it despite fixing it. But still I have had work ruined by other idiotic people. So it has to be handled with great care. I feel its advantages vastly outweigh the downside so I remain a committed pastelist.

Here is Tina explaining her process:

The photo below is an example of preliminary colour experiments/samples. They are mini versions of the finished thing. So its a good time to try out how I want the image to look and make sure the colour balance works not just in one image but across the whole book. I also try out elements like flowers or insects. I also make notes on which pastel colour I used as its easy to forget. If it goes wrong at this stage you just try again and they are tiny.  No more than 4-5 inches wide. They are very rough too, I do not worry about getting anything perfect. Characters look like blobs. What is more important is the colour balance. It would be frustrating to experiment on the finished article only for it to go wrong and then start again. Wasting time and materials when deadlines are looming is far too stressful. Planning a picture is key to getting it right first time.

1) First I take the original pencil drawing and trace it onto pastel paper using a light box. Though I have stuck paper to windows and used the power of the sun when I did not have a lightbox. Once traced I use a putty rubber to soften down the line so it is more faint. I do not want strong pencil lines showing through.

2) Then using pastel pencils I roughly sketch in the the shape and colour of the tree. This acts as a useful guide where tones of colour go and make sure I get the shape of the tree correct at this stage. I also fill in the background colour with a pale yellow and smudge in with my fingers. The yellow will give a warm glow instead of showing sky or hills. Its simpler and hints at grass or bushes much much further in the distance with out actually showing it. Less is more as they say.

3) Then using 4 shades of green I do the same for the tree canopy and leaves. These are rough sketchy strokes. I am not bothered about detail at the moment. Its all about getting the colour balance and shading right.

4) Then I use pastel pencils to pick out the shape of badger. Getting tightly into all the nooks and crannies. Its and opportunity to refine his shape before I commit to using the soft pastel sticks. Errors can be more easily seen and adjusted at this stage.

5) Using the pastel sticks I follow the pastel pencil guide. There is not point to trying to be precise with pastel stick as it is a bit like drawing with a brick. You can tighten and smudge in with a rubber tipped brush instead. You can see one in the photo. I use my finger in larger area and for the very very last bit of fluffing up fur. Fingers are just best sometimes. Any gaps can filled in with pencil or dots of colour and work in with your rubber brush. The edge of this character is not hard but fuzzy, just like fur. A little bit of chaos is sometimes good.

6) Now working from the top left I fill in the tree canopy and smudge in as I go. The reason I do this is I need easy access to the characters without the fear of smudging with my hand. So being right handed I start on the left. If you are left handed you might want to do it from right to left. You can also use a piece of glassine paper to rest you hand on too.

Below you can see some of the pastel election I have used for the tree and grass, plus a piece of glassine paper.

7) The I fill in the tree trunk and the rest of the canopy. Working left to right I colour in the mice then rabbit and finally hedgehog. I cut in round the outside of each character with green pencil too so there are no unsightly gaps between the character and background grass. I also use a large flat wedge shape rubber brush to work into the tree canopy to create loose leafy marks. This is done quickly and loosely.

8) Once the characters are coloured then it is safe to colour in the rest of grass without fear of smudging. I draw in with vertical strokes or in the same direction as grass would be.

9) I use most of my fingers to smudge in. I follow the direction of the stroked to get the movement of the grass. To do it horizontally would remove the shape or structure that I had drawn in. Fingers are excellent for pushing in colour over a large area. I have also picked out other elements that need a bit more precision like some flowers and the bee. Otherwise everything runs the risk of becoming a total mess.

10) Once all the colour is laid down I work in the grass in the distance using pastel pencil as it is quite fine. Any heavy thick lines would bring it forward too much and ruin the concept of the further away the smaller and indistinct it should be. Then I work forward gradually making the lines longer and/or heavier. Leaves are dabs of colour and I like to vary to tones and shades. I also have to be careful not to put in too much grass or leaf detail or risk it looking over worked. I want an impression rather slavishly putting in every leaf. If there are areas where it is beginning to be over done it easy to smudge out. The idea is softness and to hold back. Smaller flowers I don’t bother with any real detail just dots of colour. Where they are in the distance I often dab once with my finger and it softens it just enough to push it back into the distance. Detail in the foreground should be crisp. I also finish off the characters with pastel pencils for example hedgehog’s prickles. They are just lines or flicks of the pencil and again just enough to emphasise the fur and any detail. Finally a tiny weeny dot of Guoache paint in the eyes to bring them to life. Paint is only thing accurate and clear enough to do the job of eye highlights.

Finished piece.

Some Book Covers

How long have you been illustrating?

I have been illustrating since I went freelance in 2002 so 15 years and counting.

Why did you choose to attend John Moore’s University in Liverpool to study art?

I liked that they did not have a set house style that I had to ‘fit’ into. The city has a long history of creativity and fantastic music scene and the course had a good balance if what I wanted to do. Plus they seemed to really like me which I have to say really helps.

What type of art did you study there?

I immediately chose to study illustration. The course was split 50/50 graphic design and illustration but there is lots of cross over between the two. Lots and lots drawing and experimenting. They very much encouraged us to find our own voice. Plus they sent us on day trips every week to Wales to paint with the fine artists and textile students.

What was the first thing you did where someone paid you for your artwork?

It was on those Wales trips that I accumulated lots of paintings for the Oil refinery Hamilton Oil (who had invited us to paint there). They held a exhibition at the end of the year and I sold about 6 paintings and had money stuffed into my pockets at the end of the evening. The fine artists were very annoyed as they sold nothing. I felt a bit smug as the only illustrator there. Illustrators though are much more practical breed of artist as I could see that my work was much smaller in size and easy to fit into a home. The fine artist had done vast and very ‘out there’ work which the locals really did not understand. They could recognize what I had painted, not that the fine art work was bad, it was actually excellent. I would have bought it if I could, but I guess I had a feeling for they what wanted which is exactly what an illustrator does.

For my first real commissions, argh I of course rang my parents and sister as happy as a lark. Probably cracked open a bottle of bubbly.

Do you think art school influenced your style?

Yes and no. My style has completely changed since art school, but the principles they taught there are really what stayed with me. Its a way of thinking that is their gift.

When did you decide you wanted to illustrate for children?

It kinda crept up behind me, I knew I loved art though did not realize it was possible to make a living out of it. Like most people I had the impression that artists lived in pigeon infested lofts eating toast while going slightly mad. Reading the books illustrated by Quentin Blake and all the other classics is probably where it began. It was the magic they created that appealed to the eternal child in me. At a career’s evening at school my eyes were opened by an art school lecturer. Lets say I saw the light and there was no turning back after that.

Did you know your first book ONE SNOWY NIGHT would be a 10 book series when you illustrated it?

I had absolutely no idea that ‘One Snowy Night’, would be a ten book series, (now working number 12!). I was just thankful to be given a chance. It was my very very first book and first major commission. To be published at all was a major achievement, to expect anything else was fairyland thinking. I seriously thought maybe after a few years I ‘might’ get a series of 2 or 3 if I was lucky.

Were you illustrating Greeting cards when you decided to try your hand at freelancing?

No I was not illustrating anything at all when I decided to freelance. I was working as a graphic designer. So I took a massive risk. Though I was utterly sick of my job and commuting nearly 2 hours each way to work. So I had a big incentive. I knew I would regret it if I never tired.

What is your record for the amount of picture books illustrated in one year?

Oooh I think three is probably as many as I could cope with. I usually do two and I can plug in some smaller books like board books or a young readers novel. Picture books are intense and suck up huge amounts of prep work. Plus everyone wants their books ready for the same book shows. All publishers are locked into that book show schedule and therefore so are we illustrators. Which means two book offers quite often means they want the same deadline which means doing two books at the same time. That would seriously compromise quality and my sanity. So i try not to do that and delay one of them if I can, but that does not always work out.

Do you ever feel like you messed up and agreed to take on too many projects?

Yes definitely juggling too much alongside family life is a recipe for disaster. I have always managed to somehow get away with it but I do not enjoy the experience. Keeping your client updated and talking to them all the time helps. Never ever go silent on them, if I am going to be late I let them know as soon as possible.

Do you have an agent? If so who, how long have you been with them and how did you connect?

I did have an agent until recently but I am going to have to change as they were specialising too much in educational work. I was also getting no work from them so no longer a good fit. So I am soon going to be on the hunt for a new agent. My old agent I contacted by letter and then visited at the London book fair. I did have a second agent (whom I met at my publishers party) for a while but I did not like their attitude of not fighting for fair fee for fair work. Agents are supposed to fighting for us. I do not want to fight my agent or be the one to be the hard nosed bulldog, that is their job. So I gave them the boot.

How many books have you illustrated for Little Tiger Press?

I honestly don’t know how many books I have done for Little Tiger Press. It must be in the order of 20-25.

Have you illustrated any books for a publisher in the United States?

Yes I did one for I think it was Penguin and another which I can’t remember It was rather a long time ago now.

14) I noticed that you have illustrated a number of books written by Christina Butler. Did she ask the publisher for you? How did that happen?

It has always been the publisher that has paired me with Christina Butler. We are now so established as a pairing that of course we can discuss that with our publisher. We also regularly chat between ourselves too so we know what the other is working on.

Have you started to add digital art to your portfolio?

I have historically worked digitally, both photoshop and illustrator. I did some character design that was wholly digitally created which was then optioned by a tv production company with the potential to be made into an animation. Its is already an iPad app, the brand is called Mimi and Bibi. As a designer I had to be very proficient with design programmes so I can easily switch to it if I wanted to. My work when I first went freelance originally had digital work, but I changed to traditional. Its much harder for other artists to copy traditional work and also you can hang it on a wall. Digital work can only ever be a print.

Do you do art exhibits to help people see your work?

I have not done any exhibitions since college. I would not know where to begin plus I just don’t have the time to organise it.

Have you illustrated any book covers?

Yes, pretty much every book I have ever illustrated which must in the order of 30 plus book covers. Book covers alone with no internal work as yet not on their own. Its usually accompanied with the internals too.

Would you like to write and illustrate a children’s picture book?

Yes I would love to write a children’s book and have started to do just that. As yet nothing has been published but hopefully in time that will come.

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

I would never consider illustrating for a self published author. There are too many reason not to do it to list it here. Its risky, takes up too much of my time for too little money. Upshot illustrators are too expensive and the legal stuff urrghh it would be a real headache.

Have you ever tried to illustrate a wordless picture book?

Hmmm a wordless picture book, never done one but hey there is always a first time for everything.

Have you worked with any educational publishers?

Yes but not recently. Shrinking budgets usually make it totally uneconomical as my work is too time consuming for high volume, high speed low value budgets. Would not rule it out as I need to develop a quicker simpler style to full fill their needs.

How did you get the illustrating jobs for children’s magazines?

I got magazine work through my agent, its really that simple.

Do you still illustrate greeting cards?

Not done a greeting card for a while but I am open to anything that is offered.

Do you have studio in your house?

One of our bedrooms is my studio.

Do you try and spend a certain amount of hours every day working on your art?

Yes I try to stick to working normal hours as much as possible. Though I am currently part time because of childcare. Occasionally I work weekends to catch up. With busy family life that is not always doable.

What is your favorite medium to use?

The medium I use most is soft pastel and pastel pencils on pastel paper. Easy to plan colour as they are already premixed but I need to have hundreds of colours.

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

The research I mainly do is using the internet, books, magazines and any pictures I may have taken myself. I have books on animals and plants among others as its sometimes it is necessary to look things up. Actually making a visit to a zoo or farm or going out into the country side to sit and draw or paint takes up too much time when deadlines are looming. Ideally that is what you would do if you had the luxury of time and a project with a vast budget.

Do you think the Internet has opened doors for you?

The internet is a brilliant tool for research whether its looking up what an exotic animal to finding out more about a publisher etc. Its great to making connections, people finding you and allow fans to follow your work, sending digital files etc. So as much as it makes it easier for illustrators it also makes it harder. It is easier now than ever for hobbyists to try their hand at an art career but it can muddy the waters. A commissioning editor might have to wade through infinitely more submissions or websites, there is an element of white noise effect. Not only that commissioning editors now have access to illustrators in places that were historically inaccessible before. That reduces fees because of global competition. A person living in a low cost are can afford to accept low fees. If you live in a high cost place like Britain or America etc, it is getting progressively harder to maintain an income that one can live off. In a way its made competition extremely fierce.

Do you use Photoshop with your illustrations?

I don’t really use Photoshop much apart from cleaning up scans and retouching if the client has asked me to scan the work.

Do you own or have you ever tried a graphic Drawing Tablet?

I have only tried a tablet briefly when I visited a client. I don’t own one as at the moment I have no need. Though maybe if the need arises I might get one.

Do you think your style has changed over the years? Have your material changed?

Yes my style has changed, but not so much recently as it has reached a kind of maturity. Though one should never stand still. I always like to try new things and it is important to move with the times.

What do you consider is your biggest success?

My biggest success has to be the Little Hedgehog series of books. I am currently working on book number 12 so if it keeps selling they will keep on asking for more. Though ultimately it will come to an end but hopefully not for a long time.

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

I would love to write and illustrate my own stories. If they turned into big hits then that really would be a dream come true, but you can never predict that you can only do your best and enjoy the ride.

What are you working on now?

I am currently working on a Little Hedgehog book number 12, specifically a scene where Hedgehog and friends are chasing after some ducklings through a wood.

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

The pastels I use are Unison soft pastels which beautiful earthy and real colours, Sennelier which also have a gorgeous range along with some more zany colours, even metallics, Daler Rowney are also excellent. Pencils I use are Stabilo, Derwent, Faber Castel and Daler Rowney, they all have a different take on colours so worth getting all of them. Paper I use Canson pastel paper. Its also worth investing rubber tipped brushes to do the tiny weeny smudging your finger simply can’t do. A good fixative spray to prevent smudging. Glacine paper overlaid to the protect the finished art from smudging. Worth trying out papers and card that have a very fine sand finish or ground as they hold more pigment. You also buy it and pots to paint on paper yourself. You can also tint it yourself too. Jump on the internet as it is really the best way to find the best prices.

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

Any hopeful illustrator I would advise going to art college first. A good sound training though not essential. Think about what kind of illustrator you want to be. Always be true to your personality, trying to be something you are not will always fall flat. Try to be unique and individual so that your style is easily recognisable. Avoid too many styles and your portfolio jumping from one style to another too much as any client or agent will get confused or doubtful what they will get. Be persistent and do something productive every day. Create a website, FB page, print promotional material that you can post and an editor/art director can keep etc. Research agents/publishers and find out which one would fit you best. Never take on work your are doubtful you will be able to finish, try and delay the deadline if possible. Be professional, helpful and flexible. Think about the fee and if it really is a fair one, work out how long it will take versus the fee. Ask around to see what others think. Do Not Sell Yourself Cheap!! Read all your contracts carefully and beware of contracts that steal your copyright. Do not sell you copyright unless for a vast sum.

Finally freelancing you must have a tight reign on your money. It is feast or famine most of the time so having debts is fatal. You may have to top your income with part time work unless you are lucky enough to have a spouse that can support you or supportive family. I was lucky enough to have savings (from full time work) and a room I could rent out to top up my income. You may have to consider that after college freelance may have to wait till you can afford it. Some are lucky to hit the ground running but life has a way of taking you on detours. You can do it at anytime of life.

Thank you Tina 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 Tina’s work, you can visit her at her website:

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

Talk tomorrow,



  1. Very inspirational post. Lovely illustrations! I’m going to look up the little hedgehog series for my nephew. I studied illustration at university, but had a bad experience with tutors who hated my work in the final year, so it put me off. I’ve recently been toying with the idea of selling some of my art, but I’ve yet to take the plunge! It’s good to know people out there are successful in the industry!


  2. Love your sweet characters! Thank you for sharing. ❤


  3. Tina, your animals are SO adorable! The ducklings, the penguins, ALL of them 🙂 Thanks for sharing, ladies! 😀


  4. I LOVE your work, Tina! Stunning and beautiful, but also heart-warming and touching. Thanks so much for sharing!


  5. Reblogged this on Tina Macnaughton Illustration.


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