Rob Biddulph, Art Director of the Observer Magazine, describes how he put his training as a graphic designer, and his sense of humour, to use in his debut picture book.
Blown Away didn’t start life as a story about penguins. It originally featured two children who get carried away by a particularly strong gust of wind when out flying their kite. As they fly past the zoo they pick up a polar bear (called Clive) before continuing out over the sea and heading towards the Arctic. They drop Clive off in his natural habitat, do a quick 180° turn around the North Pole (an actual red and white-striped pole, obviously) and drift back home in time for tea. A perfectly nice little tale that I squirreled away in the ‘develop-further’ section of my sketchbook.
Some months later a publisher took a shine to a drawing of a little penguin that I had in my portfolio and asked whether I could come up with a book proposal for him. I had a lightbulb moment and decided to recast the lead roles in my kite story and switch the location to the Antarctic. It made total sense – famously flightless birds starring in an airborne adventure. From that moment on everything fell into place quite quickly and soon afterwards Blown Away was finished.
The spread I’ve chosen to talk about is the scene which sees our heroes arrive on the jungle island having jettisoned the kite.
The most important thing was that this illustration would come as a surprise to the reader. The preceding twelve pages all had a clean, minimalist feel – lots of white space, sparse composition and a colour palette consisting almost entirely of whites and pale blues. So, for maximum impact, I decided that this spread should be the exact opposite. Very bright, very colourful and absolutely packed with detail. I wanted every square inch of the paper to be covered in ink – light greens, dark greens, bright greens, yellows, browns and golds. Colours not seen anywhere in the book up until this point.
So … using a Wacom Cintiq tablet and my set of bespoke digital paintbrushes, I began building up layer upon layer of jungle in Photoshop.
I started with lots of simple, vertical brush marks in various shades of green and brown to represent tree trunks.
Then I added a background colour – turquoise so the trees still stand out – and some shadows to give the scene depth.
Then a few tropical floor plants …
… and some long grasses.
A few more floor plants – different leaf shapes this time for variety and some more grasses.
Then I went back to the top half of the illustration and started to weave some vines through the trees. Again, this helped to create the illusion of depth.
Then I drew some large, dark green jungle leaves and some fronds. Also some hanging fruit for different texture.
Now for some beautiful jungle flowers. While working on this illustration, Henri Rousseau was very much at the forefront of my mind. I’ve always loved his paintings and my yellow and blue flowers in particular are a little nod to him!
At this point I was happy that the scene was set and felt it was almost time to introduce our protagonists. But first, some of their travelling equipment (boat, fishing rod and underpants!). It was fun scattering it about the scene.
Then I added Blue, Flo, Jeff, Wilbur and Clive. I particularly like Clive’s nonplussed expression and Flo hanging by her waist from the vine. The beauty of working digitally and using layers in Photoshop is that you can experiment with the positions of the elements to your heart’s content. It’s a bit like a toy theatre set where you slide the characters in and out of the wings between the flats until they sit exactly where you want them to.
The final touch was to hide a little jungle native among the flora. Can you spot him?
So, there we go. I’m really pleased with the way that it turned out. When I read the book aloud to children at events their eyes always light up when we get to this spread. In fact, somebody usually stands up and walks over to have a closer look – something I take as a good sign. They’re also very pleased with themselves when they spot the monkey 🙂
Blown Away, 978-0-0075-9382-8, HarperCollins Children’s Books, £6.99 pbk