ILLUSTRATION KNOWHOW Interrogating the Text

Our Illustration KnowHow series on character design draws to close this week with Layn Marlow exploring how interrogating the text can shed light on what a character looks like. 

Picture book texts rarely describe visuals, so how do illustrators decide what a character looks like? How far do we go with stylisation? If we’re lucky there might be obvious clue-words, like ‘Bear’… 

Covers and Details from A Dare for a Hare, written by Charlie Farley (Orchard Hachette, 2019) and Bug and Bear, written by Ann Bonwill, (Oxford University Press, 2011), both illustrated by Layn Marlow

…but these can clearly yield different results!

Still, the key usually lies in the text, if we interrogate it carefully. Comparing my different approaches to these two books, suggested some questions we might ask:

Is this a principal or supporting character?
Human, animal, vegetable or mineral, a child reader needs to identify with the main character(s). Ann Bonwill’s eponymous Bear behaves like a child, so she needs to look young and engaging.

Secondary characters play different roles, like Charlie Farley’s Bear, who represents an obstruction to the story’s child-like hare protagonists.

Rough spread from A Dare for a Hare, by Charlie Farley and Layn Marlow (Orchard Books, 2019)

What kind of world do they inhabit?
Setting can influence the media we choose, and hence the character’s rendering.

‘Sunrise… sunset… Creek Moor… Bear Ridge…’ – Farley’s world is rich with natural features, best achieved with watercolour.

Preparatory sketches for A Dare for a Hare, by Charlie Farley & Layn Marlow (Orchard Books, 2019)

Bonwill’s setting is simpler: ‘a log… a cave…’ - suggesting stylisation. The phrase ‘Bear leaned against a tree thinking brown thoughts’ shows the importance of Bear’s inner world, and eventually leads me to use brown kraft board with gouache.

Preparatory sketches and final detail for Bug and Bear, by Ann Bonwill & Layn Marlow (Oxford University Press, 2011)

How do they interact with others?
Farley’s Bear behaves like a real animal in a naturalistic setting, so I needn’t stray far from observational drawing with this one.

Detail from rough for A Dare for a Hare, by Charlie Farley & Layn Marlow (Orchard Books, 2019)

As friends who fall out, Bug and Bear can’t be realistically-proportioned, or we won’t be able to see Bug when they interact!

Sketches showing character development for Bug and Bear, by Ann Bonwill and Layn Marlow (Oxford University Press, 2011)

Neither can they be too sensitively rendered, when Bear tells Bug to ‘go jump in a lake’. As I make Bug more cartoon-like, Bear’s design becomes more stylised too.

What happens to them?
Farley’s Bear roars, chases prey and falls into a river. Objectifying this character as a natural phenomenon means I can depict these dramatic events, without scaring the young reader.

Rough spread for A Dare for a Hare, by Charlie Farley & Layn Marlow (Orchard Books, 2019) 

Bonwill’s text deftly reveals Bear’s emotional journey. Using a simplified body shape allows me to focus on depicting this through gesture and facial expression, hoping ultimately to encourage empathy in the reader.

Details from Bug and Bear, by Ann Bonwill and Layn Marlow (Oxford University Press, 2011)

Even if we know, or are OURSELVES the authors, it’s worth carefully interrogating the texts we illustrate. It can help us respond sensitively, with characters that are true to the story’s intentions. 

Main Image by Layn Marlow

Layn Marlow illustrates picture books and occasionally also writes them. Her books have won various awards, sold more than a million copies worldwide and been translated into 30 different languages. Her latest book, A Dare for a Hare, is the second collaboration with author Charlie Farley for Orchard Books and is published November 2019.


Eleanor Pender is Knowhow Editor. If there's something you'd like to know how to do or know more about, send your suggestions to



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