Finding the right illustration tone for a project can be a vexing process, Paul Morton tells how he uncovered his stylistic approach for Bug Belly

Picture book creators need great ideas, strong characters, pacy plots, and satisfying endings. If we’re lucky enough to achieve these, we usually can't wait to launch into the artwork to visualise our dream. But if the resulting pictures fall short of expectations it’s catastrophically frustrating. Over a period of a year to 18 months I found myself in this situation with my frog story Bug Belly.

I admired other illustrators’ work ... Benji Davies (the style), Quentin Blake (spontaneity), Jonny Duddle (characterisation and humour), but my own illustrations just didn’t feel suitable. It was soul destroying and left me totally frozen, unable to start any serious new piece, preferring instead to doodle or fritter time on social media.

My first remedy was to leave sketchbooks open around the house, corner of the breakfast bar for example. When passing I would maybe stand and do 10 mins ‘work’, knowing it wasn’t ‘real’ and so didn’t matter if it wasn’t much good.

I took myself well out of my comfort zone. Experimented with different media, watercolours, stretched paper, coloured pencils, inks, collage.

And I did lots and lots of drawing. Often in the first fresh marks on a page I began to detect a satisfying spark of life, something that was lost in any laboured reworking. I read about this time and again from other illustrators.

It took a seismic shift in my perception to accept that one of my quick, fresh first drawings had merit. I knew ‘I could do better’ to perfect that character or improve that pose, but any attempt to do so sucked the energy from the illustration.

Yes I know  the thought was late coming to me!

Looking back I now acknowledge that this period of frustrating limbo wasn’t wasted time at all but rather a crucial, valuable stage in the long term creative process.

The muse enables and inspires your work. It could be mountain biking, your favourite coffee shop, or on a beach.

Motivation is what drives a project, possibly a fat fee, more often a deadline.

Mojo is what I eventually found with Bug Belly. My current ‘style’ for want of a better word. My voice. It might only endure for this current series of books, but who knows, I’m hoping to develop further as I learn and journey on.


Paul Morton is co-organiser of the SCBWI Picture-Book Retreat, and active member of the Illustration Committee. His debut picture book Bug Belly – Babysitter Trouble is released by Five Quills in April 2020.


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