The Sleepy Ladybird illustrated by Caroline Bailey

The Sleepy Ladybird CoverIllustrating children’s books and taking criticism

I have always been keen to get advice and feedback about my illustrations from other than friends and family . . . who obviously marvel at my creative work. In search of more objective feedback, it is always interesting to quiz professionals in the children’s books industry.

Once, I talked to an agent and showed her the cover of The Sleepy Ladybird. She said that the children looked slightly oriental. This was an interesting comment but I won’t expand on it now. She also said that they looked too ‘cutesy’ for her taste. I love cute and endearing characters, but some people in the industry think it is a no-no and think cute is only for greeting cards.

Curious to hear what the top illustrators had to say, I went to a couple of seminars.  One of them was with Chris Riddell, a superbly talented illustrator who started his career in children’s book illustration when his friend Kathryn Cave asked him to illustrate Something Else, a book about accepting differences and one of my favourites. His ‘doodle books’ as he calls them, were covered with ready to print drawings, no pencil marks or sign of rubber use.  Amazingly, Chris’ pen stroke is always perfect first time round – or is this clever marketing?.  Unfortunately I did not manage to squeeze through the crowd and talk to him on this occasion, so I was determined to make contact at the next seminar.

Charlotte and FreddieThis was even more crowded with eager wannabe-illustrators and wannabe-writers and it was all about Tony Ross, the author/illustrator of The little Princess series as well as Horrid Henry,  for young readers.  Tony claims he produces one book a week, which is truly impressive. Clever marketing again?  After his talk, which included a few sarcastic jokes about fellow colleagues in the industry, whom I won’t name here, and wanting his advice, I managed to approach him to show him my half-done-illustrations of The Sleepy Ladybird. Understandably, I was a bit nervous. When this happens, my French accent can sometime become stronger.  He had a look at the drawings of Charlotte and Freddie and remarked, ‘They look French’. 

 Me: ‘All right, is there anything else you can see?’

 Tony Ross: ‘They look like they have some kind of brain disease and their heads are about to fall off.’

 Pause – 

 Me: ‘Oh really, Thanks.’ 

Caroline BaileyWell, I did ask for ‘la critique’, didn’t I? Although it’s impossible to know if Tony Ross was being sarcastic or giving true comments – probably a mix of both – I took on board there must be some spec of truth in what he was saying.  After all, I am just an insect compared to him. So, I seriously considered reducing all the heads.  But then I changed my mind, deciding the heads were just right.  I did touch up a few drawings but didn’t do anything about the French aspect . . .

. . . apart from removing the baguettes and berets.

As long as I keep my mouth shut, I thought, nobody will notice!

Next on the illustrator Blog is James Anthony Crabb who will be telling you all about the Dinosaur and Dragon Juice Café which is being printed right now, watch out for this one!

Lots of love and until the next time – Christmas I think.

Caro x

The Sleepy Ladybird illustrated by Caroline Bailey

One of the lovely aspects of children’s books for 3 to 5 years old is that they give an opportunity for a shared moment with a parent, elder or guardian. Often with close contact, there is a chance to interact, understand together, comment and exchange ideas, express surprise, laugh, remember etc . . .

In the 70’s I used to flick through books while listening to the recorded story playing on a vinyl.  I remember the exciting magic sound of the bell ringing each time a page had to be turned. This pleasant but somewhat lonesome experience was not dissimilar to today’s digital books or books with narrated stories on a cd-rom.

Despite loving doing traditional illustration on paper, I am not a stranger to multimedia work as I have designed several web and multimedia projects. One of them involved creating a website with a virtual house with various rooms with topical educational games and activities. The target audience is adults with learning disabilities, but the website is also widely used by children and schools. 

sensory roomOne of the favourite ‘rooms’ is the Sensory room, which can be fully customised to create a mood with a choice of settings, animations and music. Characters have been drawn digitally with a computer tablet and digital pen to create what we call ‘vector graphics’ using Flash software; the characters were then slightly animated.

music bandThe most animated characters are located in the music room. You can get musicians from a band to play their instruments or stay still while the rest of the band is playing. When animating the guitarist, I initially just animated the hands and arms playing the guitar.  Note that each animated element has to be drawn separately, on a separate level or layer and animated individually (for instance a hand or an eye would each be an element – think of Mr Potato Head if each plastic piece was animated and then assembled).  Coming back to the guitarist, I realised I needed to give a slight rhythmic movement to the guitar to make it look more natural. The body also had to move slightly or the character would look too stiff.  In the end, very few elements remained still – and this was nevertheless a very basic animation that had to remain minimal for quick web download!

You can have a play with the various music bands here:

And the sensory room



The Sleepy Ladybird illustrated by Caroline Bailey

  Children’s Illustrated Books: Character Design

One of my favourite parts of the creative process is designing characters.  For example, the first thing I had to do for Oliver the Ladybird was . . .  find an image of a real ladybird!  It might seem obvious but, off hand, I wasn’t sure how many legs or dots it had, or whether a dot could be across two wings. 

Despite good feedback, I decided my first drafts were a bit too cartoon-like. So, I went back to the drawing board and created a character that was more insect-like with long thin legs, slim arms with long pointy fingers and a much darker complexion. Pure black would have made it almost impossible to show the tiny facial expressions, so I used a blue dark grey.  The antennas were great to convey the mood of the ladybird so I extended them: droopy antennas if he was sad or sleepy; straight up if attentive or angry.  I added a red bow tie to match his red wings. The round belly went well with his sleepy mood and boisterous persona. Voila! Oliver the Ladybird was born.

The next stage was ‘getting to know him’.  To facilitate this, I drew him from different angles, with different expressions. 

This avoids making mistakes later on, such as, for instance, having too many arms or legs, shorter antennas etc . . .  Once you get busy sketching, painting & outlining, it is easy to miss something, especially clothing details.


The Sleepy Ladybird illustrated by Caroline Bailey

 After illustrating The Sleepy Ladybird, I was very keen to observe a young child reading the book.  Picnic Publishing generously sent me a big pile of free samples. I admired the sleek colourful covers and although I had seen bits of the book through the various production stages, there is nothing like handling the end product: it just looked perfect and like a real book!

Shortly after, I visited my childhood friend in France and she read the story to her three-year-old, Zoé.  Incredibly, she translated it into French in real time.  Zoé listened very attentively, looked at the drawings, pointed at the characters and made a lot of comments.  As soon as the story unfolded, she pointed out with triumph that Oliver the Ladybird had lied! I was shocked. I had been painting these illustrations for months and hadn’t even noticed: Did the ladybird lie? That’s what happens when your nose is too close to the drawing board!  Once the story was over, Zoe immediately asked her mum to tell it again ‘Very quickly’.  Of course, this could have been a trick not to go to bed but Hey! This was still a good sign. I was over the moon.

My friend Henri Renard, the author of The Sleepy Ladybird, told me about a 3-year-old boy named Kieron who particularly loved the drawing of Oliver the Ladybird asleep on Bobby the Labrador’s nose at the end.   Kieron also made his grandmother Sally – who is not unconnected with Picnic’s distributors (!) – read and re-read it.  Sally said what was fascinating was that for the first time ever, her grandson was listening to the story and checking out the pictures. He then insisted it be read again – and re-checked the pictures. Sally is wild about the book because she says children have no vocabulary but do have sophisticated minds, which children’s books do not exploit. 

Meanwhile, her grandson said: ‘Oliver is bad boy.  Bobby is good boy. Bobby and Oliver are friends.  Oliver becomes good boy like me.’ (In a nutshell!)


Note re Market Research:  ‘The Management’ would like me to explain that Picnic only exploits the children and grandchildren of its nicest friends and colleagues . . .


The Sleepy Ladybird illustrated by Caroline Bailey

 Well, it is a little difficult launching into The Sleepy Ladybird after Brian Landers’ posts about warring empires – but maybe this is why Picnic asked me to lead the children’s illustrators: a change of scene is always good for us! I have met a lot of people interested in becoming children’s book illustrators. I am sure it sometimes starts when they flick through the books in the bookshop and decide ‘I could do that!’ or ‘These drawings are not very good, I could do better!’ In reality it’s a little bit more complicated than that . . .

Once you spend some months studying and analysing children’s books you start looking at them in a completely different light. For instance, a drawing that once looked badly drawn – suddenly looks stylised or badly drawn on purpose to appeal to children or amuse their parents. Other drawings that once looked 100% perfect suddenly look commercial or mass-market. Children’s books become a world with its own language and codes of practices, trends and brands. What looks effortless on the shelves of the bookshop becomes a complex commercial product where nothing is left to chance.

First of all, it starts with the story, in the case of The Sleepy Ladybird, Henri Renard’s gentle tale about two children Charlotte and Freddie, Bobby the Labrador and a ladybird called Oliver. Written for five year olds with a sophisticated morality a surprising number of very young children grasped, my part was to illustrate the book.

Immediately after reading it, I started seeing pictures popping in my mind. I had to calm down and first work on my characters to decide what they would look like. For the children, I started with some sketches of Charlotte and chose a brunette with olive skin and hazel eyes and by contrast Freddie became a red head with big green eyes. I love big heads as I find them more expressive and childlike (this is possibly an influence from Cabbage Patch and Blythe dolls). Then the golden Labrador was easy as my neighbour has one in his garden. As for Oliver the ladybird, he went through a couple of redesigns, but ended up as a little grumpy & lovable fellow with stringy limbs and a potbelly.

Now that I had the cast, I needed to capture the images of settings and facial expressions leaping into my mind before they vanished, so I started a storyboard with rough pencil sketches. Then, in order to get a feel for the book and understand how the text and drawings were going to work together, I grabbed a scissors and sticky tape to create a miniature basic mock-up. This was almost like a monochrome mini-book – for these first attempts, the smaller the better. It is a crucial step as it shows the facing pages and the page-turns. These reveal the ‘articulations’ of the book/story.

Then I drew every scene again in a large scale on normal paper. A light box is quite handy to trace previous drawings quickly. (A light box is a wooden box with a frosted glass panel and a light bulb behind. This allows the illustrator to see through normal paper like tracing paper.) One of the challenges is that I was using watercolour paper with such a heavy grain that it was impossible to draw a smooth line with a thin point pen. So I decided to scan my line drawings and print them on the heavy grain paper before painting. This trick worked beautifully and avoided the risk of smudging by outlining after painting. I then painted the illustrations: the way I used watercolour was very much like coloured ink, with plenty of pigments for a very colourful result. The computer came in handy again to do some touch ups, alterations and special effects such as adding a lens flare, transparency, shadows or windy blurred effect and duplicating poppy petals for the end papers. In some cases, I painted the ladybird on a separate drawing from the backdrops. These gave me total flexibility to position the ladybird, rescale it or even duplicate it.

These days, most children books are a mix of traditional art mediums and computer graphics. Researching the work of other illustrators, I was surprised to discover that their work was 100% computer graphics despite looking like a traditional art medium. ‘The Village of Basketeers’ by acclaimed illustrator Nicoletta Ceccoli looks a lot like pastel illustrations but is all computer work.

It becomes increasingly impossible to guess a process from looking at illustrations. Do you agree or can you tell by looking?