Posted by: Kathy Temean | May 23, 2020

Illustrator Saturday – Petra Brown


Petra Brown has been a children’s book illustrator since 2006 when her first picture book If Big Can… I Can written by Beth Shoshan and published by Meadowside, was shortlisted for the Booktrust Early Years Awards for Best Emerging Illustrator. Since then she has produced illustrations for a range of publishers around the world. She is also the author and illustrator of the children’s book When the Wind Blew.

Her lucky break came in 2006 with her first picture book ‘If Big Can… I Can.’ written by Beth Shoshan and published by Meadowside. It was shortlisted for the Booktrust Early Years Awards. Petra lives in North Wales, UK. She is represented by Plum Pudding Illustration Agency

Petra process working on a picture book.

First up – deciding how the main characters will look. The publisher will want to see and approve. There may be a little ‘to and fro’ between us until we are both agreed. Here are some sketches I did of characters for my book ‘When the Wind Blew’… they do look a little different from the finished bears, but the main feel has been decided:

Starting a new project is always exciting but also very scary! Sometimes I’ll make lots of little thumbnail sketches to get a feel of the whole book, sadly I don’t have any to show you… I usually throw these away. Basically they are just scribbles that only I can understand. Then I work on the computer on top of the PDF layouts that the designer sends me. Designing the layout in Photoshop makes it really easy. I can move the text about as I like and fiddle with the design until I’m happy.

Here’s an example from ‘When the Wind Blew’. The first design was not really working and so I came up with the second, which we agreed worked better.

Now the design has been agreed I can move on to the proper artwork. On this project I worked solely on the computer. First with a detailed drawing, as you can see I left a lot of the picture blank because I didn’t need lines in the landscape.

This drawing stays on a separate layer set to ‘multiply’ over the colour work.

Next up, my favourite part… colour!

I started with the furthest distance:

Then the waterfall:

The bears:

And lastly the rainbows:

I’ve made all look very simple here, but in reality, it isn’t quite as straightforward as this. It takes a long time, fiddling with PS brushes and colours and tones, using lots of different Photoshop layers, with added textures, getting the layers muddled up! And lots and lots of trial and error. I don’t stop until I’m happy that the whole thing works, and sometimes that can take several days.

Interview with Petra Brown

Do you sell greeting cards or prints of your art that people can buy?

Yes. You can visit Redbubble. Click here to visit.

Artwork available in my online store

When did you decide you wanted to illustrate children’s books?

When I was little I always loved to draw and I really enjoyed looking at the pictures in books. The first book I actually chose to read for myself was ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’ and there was something about Tenniel’s illustrations that really intrigued me. I tried to copy them over and over. I guess the idea of my illustrating books was born from this.

How did you connect with Plum Pudding Illustration Agency.

In 2005 I had almost given up hope of ever being published. Sick of sending off portfolios and collecting rejection letters, I took courage and joined the internet, (ah, the days of dial-up!). I made myself a website showcasing my art and I sent out an introduction/invitation to view my work in the form of an email to absolutely every children’s book publisher on the planet… hundreds! I say hundreds, I’m not sure how many, but it was a very long list. Out of all those emails sent, I received back just two interested publishers, one was Gomer, a welsh publisher and the other was Meadowside. At that time Meadowside’s art director was the wonderful Mark Mills, who went on to found his agency ‘Plum Pudding’ and I’m really proud to say that I was among the first plums in that fabulous punnet!


Illustration from ‘If You Can, We Can’

How many picture books have you illustrated?

I just added them up and had a shock – fifty two!

I assume with all the books you have illustrated you work full time as a freelance illustrator?

I do and I really hope that I’m lucky enough to continue until I drop.

Were you surprised when IF BIG CAN …I CAN was shortlisted for The Book Trust Early ears Award for Best Emerging Illustrator?

Very surprised! It was a really big thing for me. I was still in shock over being given two books to illustrate both by acclaimed authors, in close succession: ‘Granny Sarah and the Last Red Kite’, written by Malachy Doyle published by Pont books (Gomer) 15 June 2006 and ‘If Big Can… I can’, written by Beth Shoshan,  published by Meadowside Children’s Books 29 June 2006.

Illustration from ‘If Big Can, I Can’

I noticed you illustrated a few more picture books published by Meadowside, like If You Can, You Can written by Beth Shoshan in 2012. How many books are in this series?

There is one other – ‘Wherever You Go, I Go’, also written by Beth Shoshan but published by Parragon 2015.

Illustration from ‘Wherever You Go, I Go’

Was Shh!! DON’T WAKE THE BABY! published in 2019 the first book you wrote and illustrated?

‘Shh! Don’t Wake The Baby’ was in-house written at Cat’s Pyjamas (Fernleigh Books) who have now, sadly finished. I guess they must have sold it on. I have no knowledge of the publishing history after Fernleigh as, sadly, I don’t receive royalties on that title.

Endpapers from Shh!! Don’t Wake The Baby!

Was your Grandma Loves You! published in 2013, your first illustrated book with Sleeping Bear Press?

Yes. And since then we’ve worked together on a total of thirteen. I wish I could continue making books with them forever! They’ve been such a wonderful group of people to work with.

Illustration from ‘Grandma Loves You!’

Is that how SBP thought to get you to illustrate the board books Grandma’s Nursery Rhymes – Itsy Bitsy Spider and Old MacDonald in 2015?

I think it probably was.


illustration from Grandma’s Nursery Rhymes, Itsy Bitsy Spider

Do you think they will add more board books to that series?

I’m not sure. I’d love to do more though, they were such fun to do.

Was your agent responsible for getting you the contract to illustrate I Will Keep You Safe and Sound at Cartwheel Books in 2013?

Yes. Apart from my work with welsh publishers, Plum Pudding has got me all my gigs.


Illustration from ‘I Will Keep You Safe and Sound’
Illustration from ‘I Will Keep You Safe and Sound’

What was it like working on the Maple Ridge Series

I was thrilled when Simon and Schuster took me on to illustrate the Maple Ridge series. But, for various reasons, I didn’t have a great deal of time in which to work. There were six books in the set, all written by Grace Gilmore aimed at 5-9 year olds. Each book had around 60 spreads and each spread required one, two, often three black and white line illustrations. Plus the six colour covers, front and reverse. All I can say is- it was a difficult time for me!

It looks like you wrote and illustrated WHEN THE WIND BLEW. Was this the first book you wrote and illustrated?

Yes. I was so pleased! It’s always been my deepest wish to actually write and illustrate a book. Thank you, Sleeping Bear Press! I’ve recently signed a contract with them to work on another book that I’ve written, and I’m so excited for that!

What do you think is your biggest success?

My biggest success has to be getting published for the first time back in 2006. My next, getting my own writing published in ‘When the Wind Blew’ published by Sleeping Bear Press in 2017. And my most successful book saleswise is ‘Grandma Loves You!’ written by Helen Foster James and published by Sleeping Bear Press, back in 2013.


Illustrations from ‘When the Wind Blew’

Do you have a studio in your house?

I work in a corner of the living room. In the picture you can see a little desk-easel leaning against the wall, this replaces the graphic tablet when I’m drawing on paper. As I only colour on the computer, I don’t need a lot of space. There’s a printer/scanner by the PC and a little set of drawers for bits and bobs.

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

Like most artists I don’t have a lot of free cash for gizmos so when I invest in my work I have to consider the price. I would dearly love a Cintiq, but I manage quite well with the second-hand Wacom Intuos 4 graphic tablet that I won in an Ebay bidding war seven years back. I’ve had two new pens since then but it still works just fine. Although it’s not compatible with the latest version of Photoshop, but then, the 2015 PS version is just fine too.

What are your preferred methods of working and have they changed over time?

All my work up until the end of 2013 was done conventionally, Derwent pencils, watercolour paints on thick watercolour paper. But after that date everything I did was made solely in Photoshop. But on my latest project I’m working slightly differently. I’m drawing in detail onto paper, scanning that image, keeping it on a separate layer set to ‘multiply’ and working the colour underneath, with a few tweaks on a top layer.

Piece from my latest project

Do you have any material type tips you can share with us?

I always use Derwent studio pencils when Drawing conventionally. I start off with a ‘French Grey 70’ to work out the rough shape, and then work over the top with the darker ‘Chocolate 66’. Just lately I’ve been working on Daler – Rowney Smooth-Heavyweight paper, it has just enough tooth for happy pencil-work, but smooth enough to scan cleanly. Once I’ve finished the sketch I scan it into the computer and work the colour up in Photoshop. I absolutely love making Photoshop brushes, and often I spend hours fiddling about making the perfect brush for the finish that I want.

Drawing made with Derwent studio pencil

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

Most days I start work after lunch and work through until 7pm. Some days are just lost to other passions… exploring the welsh countryside, gardening, working on my photographs or just slouching on the couch. Other days I’m working first thing til last, to meet a deadline. When I’m without a project I still keep working, either writing or making art for my online store.

Artwork available in my online store

Did you take any photographs while exploring Wales?

Yes, here is one of my photographs from an explore in Mid-Wales.

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

It really depends on what the book is about. When I did the ‘Maple Ridge’ series of books written by Grace Gilmore and published by Simon and Schuster,  I had to do quite a bit of research to find out about life back in 1892 Illinois. There are six books in the series and each one has an awful lot of illustrations in, so there was a lot of research to be done!

But when it comes to a book like ‘A Horse Named Jack’ written by Linda Vander Heyden and published by Sleeping Bear Press, there really wasn’t much research to do. It was more about getting inspiration for the children and, of course, Jack the horse. If I need a reference photograph for something I’m struggling to visualize, I usually go to the Getty Images website, but I never copy a photograph, the reference is merely a rough guide. A little trick I’ve worked out for myself is, when there is a scene where the perspective is tricky I often use SketchUp and its 3D Warehouse.  You can angle the camera around to get the angle you want. This really helps me to visualize the scene and get the perspective right in the illustration. A good example of this was the illustration of the rats in the boat looking up at the massive ship in the last of Nick Croydon’s ‘Hyde Park Squirrels’ books. I have to admit, I’m not very good at drawing man-made objects, I’m much more at home drawing landscapes, people and animals. When it comes to vehicles, buildings and interior shots I start to panic, and this is when SketchUp is invaluable! So a huge thanks to them and all the people that upload their 3D models!

Illustration from Nick Croydon’s ‘Coming Home’, the last in the ‘Hyde Park’ series.

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

Oh, so many! There are hundreds of classical children’s titles that I would absolutely LOVE to illustrate! Classical, I guess because when I was little they were the books that I was reading and they still swirl inside my head and color the way I see the world. A few examples: Wind in the Willows, The Hobbit, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass.  And then there are the old fairy tales where giants stomp around causing havoc, wizards and witches cast spells and talking cats wear boots… what a rich canvas for an illustrator. I love writing too, especially for the 7- 12 years age range. So my dream is to have several ‘Chapter Books’ published and be taken seriously as a genuine children’s book author. That’s something I’m working on at the moment. Wish me luck!

What are you working on now?

I’m currently working on a picture book written by the ‘Loves You’ series author, Helen Foster James, to be published by Sleeping Bear Press. No rabbits, this time it’s Eurasian red squirrels. Although this is an American book, I’ve based all the characters on European wild animals, because I really wanted to do red squirrels… I do think they are such lovely colourful little creatures with tufty ears, great fun to draw and paint. I have to admit though, I’ve only ever seen red squirrels once. Whilst on holiday in Normandy, France, I was thrilled to see about six of them performing gymnastics on a tree outside the gîte where we were staying. There are supposed to be red squirrels on Anglesey in The Newborough Forest, not too many miles from where I live. They were introduced by the Anglesey Red Squirrel Project. But greys are the local squirrels around my area. I really enjoyed working on the ‘Hyde Park Squirrels’ series written by Nick Croydon. They were red squirrels too.

Illustration from my current project

Illustration from ‘The Hyde Park Squirrels’ series

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

I think, to be a success in anything you have to have a solid belief in your own talent and abilities. You should never compare yourself to anyone else because it’s about being original and working from your heart. If you are honest with yourself and really believe that you can do it, then you owe it to yourself to try everything you can to succeed. Don’t let rejections mess with your mind. Keep on trying. Be daring! Represent yourself as professionally as you are able and never share work that you are not proud of. Be amazing!

Thank you Petra for sharing your talent and expertise with us. Please let us know about your future books and successes. I would love to share them with everyone.

To see more of Petra’s work, you can visit her at:

Website: www.petrab.co.uk

Twitter: https://twitter.com/mydododied?lang=en

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/petra.illustration/?hl=en

If you have a minute, please leave a comment for Peta. I am sure she’d love to hear from you and I enjoy reading them, too. 

Talk tomorrow,

Kathy


Responses

  1. Hi Petra, I appreciate the hopeful nature of your illustrations. I’m drawn in by the gentle eyes in all of your creatures. Thanks for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. We lived in the UK for four years and your illustrations took me back, Petra! Thanks for sharing. (I think we saw red squirrels once on an island off the coast–I’d have to look back at a map to remember where though!)

    Like

  3. Beautiful illustrations, Peta! Oh, be still my heart! 🙂 I can only hope to have you illustrate one of my books someday.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oops! Just saw my typo! (Petra, not Peta!)

      Like

  4. Every one of Petra’s illustrations is perfectly charming. I could look at this beautiful post all day long. Thanks so much for this post.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Dear Petra,
    You usher us into an endearing world, and you do it with a mischievous sense of humor. What a perfect combination! Your loving heart shines through.

    Like

  6. I love the tones and emotions in your illustrations, Petra. There is so much magic and imagination! Wonderful! Best wishes! Thanks for sharing. 🙂

    Like


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