This month's Featured Artist is wildlife researcher and picture book creator Howard Gray, whose experience with sea life gives an expert authority to his art, as well as taking him to fascinating locations! See more of his work in the Featured Illustrator Gallery

I’ve enjoyed producing art for as long as I can remember. My family always encouraged it, especially my mum. Growing up, my parents worked abroad, and so my brother, sister and I followed them around the world to some amazing places, such as Brunei, Syria and Oman. It was during this time that I also developed an interest in nature and wildlife.

Me (far right) and my brother on a family jolly in the jungle when we lived in Brunei, where a fascination for animals and wildlife arguably began.

A younger-me painting what looks like Belle and Beast from Disney’s Beauty and the Beast.

While in Syria, I reached an age that proved awkward for local schooling and so I ended up going to a Scottish boarding school (with my brother). I didn’t quite get used to being away from home, but I muddled through. Quite quickly, it became apparent that I could draw, and I involved myself in various school art projects. I won a couple of school prizes and things, but I wasn’t the best artist in the class by any means. Everyone, staff included, assumed I was going to make a career as an artist - and for a long time, so did I…

After much deliberation at the end of school I decided to pursue my other life’s passion – which was science, nature and animals. My dad was a geologist and so science was an important part of family life too. I went to university to study zoology and, by happenstance, befriended another artist on my course (now a mural painter) called Rory McCann. Being zoologists, we both enjoyed drawing and painting animals. We got involved with some university art projects and held a couple of exhibitions together, even selling some artwork! It was the first time I had a taste for life as a professional artist.
Here’s a commission I did for a good friend of mine - of his wife’s dog. This was the sort of wildlife/animal artwork I was doing when I was at university studying zoology.

After my degree I moved to Oman and found volunteer work there on a whale and dolphin research project. It was during this time that I looked back at my artwork and decided to pursue a career in children’s illustration. I always had an interest in stories and animated films, and loved the freedom of children’s book illustration. Also, the idea of my artwork being in a book, as part of a story, was really exciting. I completed a distance learning course in illustration and ended up sending my artwork to a few agents/agencies. Only rejections came back, however, as my role as a whale and dolphin researcher was beginning to flourish. Eventually, I found myself pursuing a PhD on dolphins in the Arabian region - as you do. This was the challenge of a lifetime, on a physical and mental level – not to mention an academic one. There were a number of problems and logistical obstacles to overcome and it was during a period of mild crisis, as most PhD students regularly find themselves in, that I was browsing the children’s books in a book shop - as you do. It was Benji Davies’ The Storm Whale that I noticed and it was then that I decided I was going to give illustration one more go… once the PhD was finished.

My zoologist/artist friend Rory McCann @RoryMcCannArt and I working on a mural project in Oman for a kids swimming pool. This is one of the first times I worked as a children’s artist professionally and one of the first times Rory and I worked on a large mural… we had a lot of fun with this one and Rory went on to make a career of painting murals.
I’m half Dutch, and so have very fond memories of going to a famous fairytale theme park in The Netherlands, ‘The Efteling’. There, they bring known fairytales, like those by the Grimm brothers and Hans Christian Andersen, to life in a beautifully engaging way. The majority of the attractions were designed by a famous Dutch Illustrator, Anton Pieck, who is somewhat of an influence, particularly through the park.

In a ‘fjord’ in the beautiful Musundam Peninsula of Oman, I drove myself close to madness looking for bottlenose dolphins for weeks and months on end, for my PhD research. Here's me trying to film a bow-riding humpback dolphin. I think we got a few nice underwater shots.

One of the bottlenose dolphins I got to know during my time doing fieldwork in Musundam, Oman. This dolphin was the mother of a mother-calf pair that we came across a few times. This was taken during a special moment where the mother (and calf) had taken an interest in us - just following us around. I can also tell you a bit about where this individual sits in the bottlenose family tree... but that’s another story.

When it was, with support and encouragement from my wife and family, I set to work on my portfolio, had my PhD defence, made a website, completed minor PhD amendments, set up social media accounts, joined SCBWI, put my artwork ‘out there’, graduated, went on a much needed holiday, attended a SCBWI conference, and was approached by my agency, Bright, just before Christmas! It was a whirlwind, and it all seemed too good to be true. I was so pleased things had worked out so quickly, but it was swiftly followed by brutal imposter syndrome…. There was a steep learning curve ahead of me.

I’m still climbing it, all the time, but I’m getting into the rhythm of things now and have worked on a few exciting projects during my time with Bright. They have been a nice mixture of fiction and non-fiction too, which has been fun! My first published picture book came off the back of the SCBWI conference I attended in those early days. It was there that I met author Fiona Barker, who was also an attendee, at a writing crit-group! She had a really lovely story about a boy, Danny, who really wanted to own a dog, but circumstances meant he couldn’t have one. Fiona asked if I would be interested in illustrating it for her! We stayed in touch and, to cut a long story short, Fiona found a publisher in Tiny Tree Books. The book was published in 2018. We are currently working on another project with Tiny Tree, Setsuko and the Song of the Sea which will be out early next year! I can’t wait for you to see it!

An illustration from my first published picturebook, Danny and the Dream Dog written by Fiona Barker and published by Tiny Tree Books.

Illustration from Setsuko and the Song of the Sea written by Fiona Barker and Tiny Tree Books – our second project together. We are all very excited to share this one with you early next year!

As for my process, well, I rely a lot on reference material, likely a remnant of the days where my focus was to attempt realistic renderings of animals. I usually start with a rough drawing. It’s sometimes very rough - trying to make random shapes and scribbles as a composition, or character, comes to the fore. I used to work a lot with pencil and sheets of paper, much like using layers in Photoshop, which is what I do now. Lots of drawings on top of drawings refining and adjusting as I go. I work digitally for the most part now. Lately I have also been playing around with Blender to help map out scenes and figure out how characters work in 3D. It’s a fantastic open-source piece of software to play around with if you haven’t heard of it. It does sooo much! The 3D work I do is extremely coarse, ‘low-poly’, stuff but it really helps figure things out in 3D space – which is also handy when you’re against the clock for a project. It also means you can really play around with a composition until you’re happy with it.

Once I’m happy with a drawing, I then paint it digitally in Photoshop with a handful of my favourite brushes. At the end of a painting, I use scanned watercolour washes and other painterly textures to give my artwork a painted feel. I like the result, and I really do enjoy getting the real paint out and splashing it about. I want to do more of that and go out and paint landscapes – I will need to carve out more time for that!

I start my process with a very rough scribbly drawing. Just feeling out a composition and trying to translate what I have in my minds-eye to paper – adjusting as I go.

Block colour the different elements. Thinking about value and ‘local colours’.

Painting the finishing touches and details, adjusting warms and cools and applying painted textures and effects, such as light blooms.


See more of Howard's work in the Featured Illustrator Gallery. His portfolio site is here. Follow Howard on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.


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