Posted by: Kathy Temean | September 5, 2020

Illustrator Saturday – Howard Gray

When I was younger I was always content with a few sheets of paper and whatever else I could lay my hands upon to make my mark. I loved to draw, and colour-in, and I even made my own picture books! I was also really captivated by animals and nature, a fascination probably fuelled by living in some interesting parts of the world, as work took my parents from place to place. Throughout secondary school I continued to do art and it never really crossed my mind that I would do anything else with myself. However, after much deliberation in my final year of school, I thought a career in science might actually be my calling. So off I went to do a BSc in Zoology to study animals! I did keep the art going though, by doing various pieces of wildlife artwork and displaying them at a couple of exhibitions… I even sold a few!

After my degree I returned to the idea of a career as an artist. I was particularly interested in becoming a children’s illustrator, so I completed a short distance-learning course in children’s illustration at the London Art College. It was early days and I sent my portfolio to a few prospective agents. Needless to say, I was rejected. So I shelved that idea for another few years and went off to pursue a PhD in Arabian bottlenose dolphin genetics (as you do). This research took me to Oman where I worked with a team studying the amazing diversity of marine life in the Arabian region. To name but a few, humpback whales, sperm whales, dolphins (of various shapes and sizes) and of course sea turtles! It took me six years to complete this research on a part-time basis, doing bits of environmental consultancy work as well as the occasional graphic design and illustration project to keep baked beans in the cupboard, all the while keeping one eye on the children’s book industry.

Having finished my PhD, I’m now pursuing my career as an illustrator and am delighted to be represented by Bright! My artistic method has evolved and matured considerably over the years but I invariably start by putting pencil to paper. I then scan my drawings into the computer where I manipulate them and paint them digitally in Adobe Photoshop or Illustrator. I also love to play around with textures and often incorporate watercolour washes I make myself or use textures from my personal photo library. These days I live in the picturesque city of Durham in the north-east of England, where I enjoy eating cake and going for walks along the beach at Tynemouth to keep the sea and nature nearby.

Here is Howard discussing his process:

When designing a composition, I start out, almost randomly, throwing down some shapes and lines. I usually have something in my mind’s eye, in this case, swimming penguins, and I try to feel it out on paper (or on the computer).

If I like the direction things are going, I add a new layer and reduce the opacity of the layer below and start refining the drawing. I used to work like this with sheets of papers on top of one another, but this is obviously easy to do digitally in photoshop. I can go through many layers doing this until I’m happy(ish).

Once I start to feel confident about the composition, I begin to refine the drawing further.
At this point I’m happy enough with the drawing to move on to colour. You’ll notice it’s still quite rough.

I start painting by blocking-in colour and sometimes already begin applying textures. These are usually watercolour washes I have made and scanned in. I play a lot with the ‘levels’ and ‘blending options’ for textured layers to achieve the look I’m after. For the most part, I’m thinking about local colours and composition values at this stage… I’m not too worried about what light is doing.

I use adjustment layers so much in photoshop. It’s a really good ‘non-destructive’ way of working. It does mean I sometimes get into a spaghetti mess when I get asked to move things around though (as the shading layer for several characters might be on the same layer… and then I’ll have a few adjustment layers -eek!) – but, for me, it’s a good way of playing around with light and shadow in an organic way. Here, I have two adjustment layers for shadow, one for light and then another for the caustics on the animals as the light passes through the water overhead.

As the piece nears completion, I do an ‘overpaint’ where I re-do some of the linework from the original drawing and add details.

The last thing to add is further textures, which I generate myself using watercolours and gouache, some lighting layers for effect (like the beams of light to add depth) and background and foreground textures and details too, to look like plankton and bubbles.

Close-up below

Interview with Howard Gray

How long have you been illustrating?

It’s been a bit of a jittery ramp-up, and I’ve been drawing pictures and producing artwork for as long as I can remember, but safe to say I have been working professionally as a children’s illustrator since early 2017ish.

What and when was the first piece of art you created for money?

A teacher paid me once to do some cartoons to accompany a ‘Childline’ handout at school. I seem to remember he offered £5 per drawing, which my 12-year-old-self happily accepted. Childline is a UK phone service kids can call if they want to talk through any problems they are going through. After that, I didn’t really sell any artwork until I was at university. But that’s not to say I didn’t jump at certain opportunities to produce artwork ‘free of charge’ elsewhere.

Thank you for sharing your journey to illustrating children’s books in your bio. It sounds like you were drawing while getting a BS in Zoology. What school did you attend? Did they have any art classes you could take while there?

I studied Zoology at the University of Durham in the UK, graduating in 2006. Durham is a beautiful city and I was fortunate to return for further study a few years later. In terms of art, there were almost certainly extracurricular clubs and classes I could have attended, but any artwork I produced for myself was just done to unwind and relax in my own small space.

How did the opportunity to exhibit your art happen during this time?

Through a good friend of mine, Rory McCann @RoryMcCannArt (now mural artist). We were on the same zoology course and had similar interests in wildlife and art. He had more experience as an artist; he had exhibited, he had sold artwork and he knew a bit about how to price artwork (something I still struggle with). Rory and I were in the same college (Durham is an old university, and one of the few in the UK that has a ‘collegiate system’) and he had befriended a fine-art dealer who hosted various art exhibitions at our college. Someone suggested Rory and I did a joint art exhibition of our wildlife artwork. So we did!

Was the illustration course at the London Art College and online course?

Not exactly, but I suppose it was/is a precursor to that sort of thing. We communicated and sent artwork/content/feedback through post rather than through e mails and online tutorial videos. They called it ‘distance learning’.

Do you think taking that course helped you evolve as a children’s book illustrator?

I suppose it cemented the idea of children’s illustration as a legitimate career path in my mind – not just a hobby. It introduced me to various technical elements to illustrating books (like what a ‘bleed’ is and picture book ‘anatomy’). I should say, at the time, nothing about the course was ‘digital’ so it was all ‘traditional’, painterly, pencilly, collagey things. Nowadays I spend most of my waking hours producing artwork at the computer. I enjoyed the course all the same, however.

It is easy to see the affect of your marine life studies in your art? Do you feel that helped you develop your style?

Hmmm. Good question. It may well have. Nature has always been a big inspiration, and although I do paint a variety of things for work, I do gravitate towards painting wildlife when I produce art for myself.

Was researching marine life the first thing you did when starting your career?

It was. But that wasn’t necessarily the long-term plan. It just sort of happened as one thing led to another. The first thing I did when I finished my BS at Durham was help a (now) friend with their PhD fieldwork in Oman; she was studying spinner dolphin behaviour. Naturally I got into whales and dolphins and went on to pursue my own PhD on bottlenose and common dolphins in the region.

I noticed you did a mural for a swimming pool. When did you do that and will you do more?

I did a mural for a kids swimming pool in Oman just before starting my PhD. My friend Rory McCann came out to help me and he went on to make a living of painting murals – you can see his work online @RoryMcCannArt – he works a lot in schools.

Aside from the mural in my daughter’s bedroom, I haven’t painted one since then … although I did do a few small ones here and there in my teens (I did one in a kindergarten for expats in Damascus once… wonder if that’s still there).

What made you decide to try to illustrate children’s books after being rejected the first time?

I was applying for PhD funding and sending my artwork to agents at about the same time. I got rejections back from the agents, and became engrossed in my PhD studies. The idea of children’s illustration was shelved and it turned into a bit of a ‘dream career’ and ‘unfinished business’ (although I continued to produce artwork when I had a bit of time). My world had come to be all about whales and dolphins, very much a dream career in itself!! But it was on a blue day, when things weren’t working out in the lab, that I was in a bookshop thumbing through the beautiful illustrations in ‘The Storm Whale’ by Benji Davies. If you know it, being a marine mammologist and having been involved in a few live stranding rescue attempts in Oman I was naturally drawn to the book. The book, in its career-path juxtaposed entirety, gave me the kick and inspiration to give the illustration career another serious shot, once the PhD was complete, of course.

How did you connect with the Bright Agency and how long have you been with them?

I completed my PhD in 2016 and uploaded a new portfolio of work onto various social media accounts and a website. Bright reached out to me towards the end of 2016 having seen my artwork online. Naturally, I was absolutely blown away. Looking back at what I was producing then I can’t fully understand why Bright were interested, but they must have seen some potential in me. I was tasked with producing a couple of pieces to a brief for them before they took me on. I suppose this was to check I could work to a timeframe, and possibly that it was actually me producing the work. All the paperwork was signed in time for Christmas!

Was Danny and the Dream Dog by Fiona Baker your first illustrated children’s book?

Technically no, as I had illustrated or collaborated on a few, somewhat obscure, books before Danny was published. That said, I started working on Danny before those came out, so also technically yes. Depends on how you look at the timeframe. Danny was the first mainstream traditionally published picture book I worked on.

How did the opportunity come your way?

Fiona and I met at a writing crit-group at the British Isles SCBWI conference in 2016. I had appended some illustrations to my story entry and so she noticed I was an illustrator too. She looked at my portfolio, which was on display during the conference, and approached me to illustrate her story – which was Danny and the Dream Dog! She was trying to find a publisher and was determined to self-publish if she couldn’t find one. To cut a long story short, she found one in Tiny Tree and the rest is history. We are all excitedly working on a second book together which will be out early next year!

How much time did Matthew James Publishing give you to do the illustrations?

Fortunately for me (perhaps frustratingly for Fiona) I was given lots of time to pour over this as I found my feet at Bright. I think it was nearly a year – with perhaps a slight rush to finalise things towards the end. But timeframes for other projects have been all over the place.

I have SING SOME MORE! by Deborah Diesen sitting on my desk. In fact that’s how I discovered you. Is Sleeping Bear Press the first time working with a US publisher?

Ah – so glad you have a copy of Sing Some More! No, funnily enough. Although I’m UK based, the majority of my work, through Bright, has come from the US. Looking forward to seeing it featured on October 1st on Writing and Illustrating.

Did your agent Lucie at Bright Agency get that contract for you?

In reality, things at Bright are more organic than that. When you join, they welcome you to the ‘family’, and I think that’s accurate. My experience with Bright is that you can be under the wing of any (or several) of their lovely agents at any one time. So, provided you’re open to various types of work, you can have a net cast wide. Lucie is my official, public, point of contact through the Bright website, but the reality behind the scenes is more ‘all-for-one and one-for-all’. For ‘Sing Some More’ I was under the wing of James Burns.

Do you ever visit the United States? Maybe attend an SCBWI conference?

Unfortunately I haven’t been to the US since a family holiday to New York, quite some time ago now. I have friends out there I would love to visit! I have only attended a SCBWI conference in the UK, but attending a SCBWI conference in the US is an interesting idea! Perhaps I could combine everything into an awesome trip someday.

Have you done any illustrations for other books?

Yes, I have worked on a few fiction and non-fiction projects. Some of which are still waiting in the wings for you to see!

Have you done any illustrating for children’s Magazines or any other magazines? If so, who?

I did a cover for one once, but unfortunately that fell through as they went in a different direction.

Do you have a studio in your house?

If by studio you mean a computer with a graphics tablet, then yes. It’s an ‘office’ space I share with my wife, but that doesn’t stop me getting the paints out and sloshing them around a bit from time to time. I find it therapeutic. I would love to go outside and paint some more, but with a young family and another little one on the way, it’s hard to find or justify the time.

Have you ever tried illustrating a wordless picture book?

Not as an official project, but I would love to. I have some ideas which originate as wordless picturebooks. I was just looking at my copy of ‘Footpath Flowers’ by Jon Arno Lawson and Syndey Smith and its beautifully done. I think wordless picturebooks have the potential to be incredibly powerful. Putting a word, or words, to a moment or an emotion can fall short … things are sometimes better left unsaid and opened up to reader interpretation.

Do you work full time as an illustrator?

Pretty much, yes. Occasionally I get a bit of environmental consultancy work through (report writing mostly). I might be called upon to help out with some whale and dolphin fieldwork again someday, but it’s been a while – mostly with having a young family! Fingers crossed I get an opportunity to be at sea again over the next year or so…. I do miss being at sea.

Is working with a self-published author to illustrate their book something you would consider?

Good question! I must confess self-publishing isn’t something I know a whole lot about. Unless it was a project I was personally very interested in (whether for a good cause or an interesting subject) I think I probably wouldn’t at this time.

What do you think is your biggest success so far?

So far? I think I would probably have to say working on ‘Sing Some More!’

What is your favorite medium to use?

Nowadays, I really do love the versatility of painting digitally.

Has that changed over time?

Definitely, I still love gouache and watercolours but for a long time I was really into chalk pastels.

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

I own and use an Intuos 4 Wacom tablet… I’ve had it for a very long time… I’d be lost without it. I would love to save up for a cintiq one day.

What materials and/or tools do you use to create your work?

I work digitally for the most part. I try to keep an eye out for digital tools that will be interesting to try. Lately I have been playing around with blender, a 3D modelling/sculpting/anything piece of open source software. It does everything, and it can really help map out a composition in 3D space if you’re against the clock on a project. I use a lot of painterly watercolour washes and textures in my work too, so I generate those and scan them. I like to draw pencil to paper sometimes too, although I draw a lot directly into the computer these days.

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

Nothing specific, but I do look into courses and online videos that interest me when I can. I don’t think an artist would ever consider themselves ‘fully baked’. I have learned an enormous amount as an artist in the years since starting this career and there’s so much more I want to learn and improve on.

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

Always! But I am ever conscious of copyright infringement if the photos aren’t mine.

Do you think the Internet has opened doors for you?

Definitely! Bright found me through social media, so I guess that says it all. It’s obviously a great resource for artists too, like access to tools, reference material and support from colleagues (like SCBWI) and other organisations.

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

Absolutely! I would love to author-illustrate something of my own…. Watch this space, I guess.

What are you working on now?

I’m currently painting for a nonfiction project that features prehistoric predators – it’s written by Melissa Stewart and will be published by Peachtree next year! I just can’t wait to get this one out there. It has been so much fun to do so far. Also, Fiona Barker and I have been working on our next project with Tiny Tree, ‘Setsuko and the Song of the Sea’, also out next year! This one has been a labour of love and we can’t wait for you all to see 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.

At the moment, I am enjoying playing with blender. There’s so much it can do – and it’s free! Go and have a play and check out some of the many online tutorials.

Any words of wisdom for new illustrators?

Look to, and admire, other artists for inspiration, but don’t let their successes distract you from what you’re trying to do. Being an artist is a personal journey, so try not to compare your work with anyone other than yourself. I’m forever falling into that trap and putting myself down – but it’s not productive – just don’t do it! My short experience has shown me there is no substitute for hard graft. It’s a competitive field, and one needs to be disciplined with their time to get work done for deadlines while being resilient to distractions. Speaking of distractions, engagement with social media as an artist, even if social media isn’t personally your thing, is a good idea. Even if you only post now and again, it’s good to have that online presence. I think it’s also a good idea to keep your personal and artist posts separate, if you can, but don’t be afraid to bring some of who you are into the mix – people do like to know a bit about you.  Read picture books (or whatever it is you are working on) for fun. Stay engaged with what’s new and be inspired by what others are doing. Lastly, keep an open mind about the methods you’re using; keep experimenting with different media and tools and if you find yourself in a rut, look to online courses and tutorials to try to improve on something you’ve always thought needs work (in my case, that’s basically everything).

Thank you, Howard for answering the interview questions and sharing your expertise with us. Please let me know your future successes so I can share it with everyone.

To see more of Howard’s work, you can visit him at:






Talk tomorrow,



  1. what a talented artist, and i love his process and the whimsy in his work


  2. Fascinating article! As I dabble in watercoloring, I love to hear how others turned their hobby into something more. Thank you!


  3. This is all stunning! Such talent and hard work. Howard, I think you have an incredibly successful career mapped out for yourself and Kathy, thanks for always sharing such talented people!


  4. Such cute illustrations. Love the llama!


  5. I love all the colors and the movement and expressions! Great work! Best wishes and much success. Congrats on the newest little one!


  6. Howard, these pics are aMAZing! Loving ALL of them, but I’ve got a thing for penguins and snow, too, so that polar bear hug is ❤ ❤ ❤


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