Process Post: The Fire Thief

I don’t often enter contests, but this past summer I opted to enter one with the Society for Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators. It was a new contest, called the Narrative Art Award. Disclaimer: I didn’t win.

Well. I didn’t win the contest. I did, however, work hard and quickly enough to pull off three brand new illustrations for my portfolio, each of which stretched my skills as an illustrator and storyteller.

I almost gave up before I even started. The theme was “Mystery” in celebration of Sherlock Holmes’s anniversary in 2017. I sketched and worked and wondered my way through several different ideas, none of which seemed good enough, clever enough, smart enough, or pull-off-able enough.

I finally decided to forget the whole detective theme and simply showcase three characters (a must) going through the beginning/middle/end of their story (a must) with a hint of mystery: where did the dragon’s fire go?

Now for the process photos. In the past year, I’ve become much better at the sketch/grayscale and value study/then paint process. While it seems like that might slow me down, it actually speeds me up, because I don’t lose time trying to pick colours. Once I have my values, I can pick a colour scheme and just work. The guess work is gone. I love this approach.

Here is the selection of main colours I used as my colour scheme. I use to help me out.

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Take a look:

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This was the original plan, after several tweaks. I wondered, though, if a different arrangement would work better, so I redrew this.
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I angled the view of the hedgehog, and made the fire more prominent. I used the body of the dragon and each head as markers to form a triangle. Triangular compositions are my favourite.
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Then, I tweaked a bit more. The marshmallow grew in size. I added the value study. The firelight pushed me to play with dark tones that I usually shy away from.
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Midway through painting, as I colour-blocked and worked on matching the colour tones to the values.
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The final art. I love how the bird sticks off the page, along with the dragon’s head. The tones and textures in here are my favourite part of any illustration I have done to date.

Here are all three illustrations, in order.

The Fire Thief - 1The Fire Thief - 2The Fire Thief - 3


Let It Snow!

The weather outside is getting a tad frightful, but art can be so delightful! This sweet guy is stuffed in tight and ready for some Canadian winter fun!

I created the bones for this piece 2 years ago, and brought it to life for this Thursday’s shop opening. At 8×10, this print will remind you all winter why the snow isn’t so bad.

Here’s a peek at my process, while we’re on the topic of Let It Snow:

Check back tomorrow, because I am posting more sneak-peeks!


Process Post: Adventure Awaits

This piece started as a traditional acrylic painting for my not-yet-born baby’s room. My wife had put together the most perfect room, and I wanted to make a unique painting for the baby. I waited until she had done all of the things in the room that she wanted, and then took my cues from there. The result was a culmination of my ongoing development in art. The book opens – nay! EXPLODES out and these kids are off on their adventure. It features lines from my favourite books and stories.

This was a commission for my own home – but I also take commissions for other people! Check out my pricing guide and other pieces on my Facebook page.

Upon completing it, I really wanted to continue working on it digitally. I thought this might make the perfect addition to my illustration portfolio.

{Psst! Do you like this kind of thing? Then consider signing up for my quartlery newsletter! It’s free, and comes in February, May, August and November!)

The following photos are progress shots, so that you can see some of my process. I started with the sketch, and then worked out the greyscale and began working on the colour. After lots of back and forth with myself and my critique partner, I decided to rework the sail and the water. I felt that the sail, particularly, would give more of the story if it wasn’t just a solid piece of fabric, but rather something from Gramma’s linen closet. The water I opted for went through many phases, though I didn’t snap shots of them along the way (oops!). Screen Shot 2016-07-26 at 7.40.46 PM.png

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Now, we’re ready to go. The digital sketch is complete.

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The greyscale came together over a few solid hours of painting, then standing back and looking, then fussing, then repeating. I was really focused on creating some stark contrasts and zeroing in the focus on the kids.Screen Shot 2016-07-28 at 7.09.01 PM.png

Adding colour:

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This boat was a major pain. I couldn’t settle on a look or colour!

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I sent this to my partner at one point, feeling pretty excited. Then I thought … geeze. It’s just not right. My partner cleared it up when she said, “You’re right, it’s not … I think the tones are too close in the face and the background.” Bingo! This, folks, is why you need a skilled and honest critique partner if you want to make real progress.

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I changed the colour of the boat, added this little iguana dragon guy to the head of it, and worked away for hours on the shirt, hair and hat. I toned down the background, changed the colour and faded it out around the shoulders, as to have a greater contrast of the face against the sky.

At this point, I thought: DONE! I was very excited about the vintage sheets.

Then I looked closer. Problem areas: the waves. They just weren’t doing it for me. The boat was too prevalent. Should I increase details? Should I change colours again? Should I add waves in the back and amp up the props by adding flying fish and other stuff?

After a long discussion with my critique partner, I made the decision to try some different waves. Through that process I found myself noticing the need for waves in the background and a higher contrast to increase the energy of the piece.

In general lately, my focus is on increasing energy. Sometimes it is through a slight shift in the eyes, or the body language. Sometimes it’s through tension built with things like waves.

This is the end result, and I am VERY excited about it:

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I also made a process video of the acrylic painting. If you haven’t seen it, check it out here!

Book Review: If I Had a Gryphon


If I Had a Gryphon, the gorgeous (Canadian!!!) book written by Vikki VanSickle and illustrated by Cale Atkinson is downright awesome.

The pictures are masterfully created with a touch of sweet innocence, allowing them to keep you moving from page to page, but always wanting to go back for another round.

I was drawn to the book, at first, because of the illustration on the cover. I also was drawn to the little bit of special that was added to the title text. I’m always partial to a book that is created as a whole package, rather than having the text just placed in as an after thought (okay, that’s not really fair – but there is something delicious about an artfully created title font that is more than what I could create by clicking “add text” in Photoshop).

Vikki Vansickle’s first picture book is stunning (she also write novels). I know I keep using these fancy, and probably overused adjectives, but I can’t stop. It seriously is so great. I’m in love with this book. Through flowing rhyme that keeps the pages turning, the main character seeks out a better pet than her hamster – and each page or two contains a possibility, from Gryphon to Hippogriff to Kelpies and Mermaids. There are some creatures in here that I’ve never even heard of (like Kelpies, and also … what is a Kirin?!). This has sent me on mad Googling journeys: we’re always learning – and you have to give respect to a book that makes you want to both keep reading in rhyme and also find out more about something in the text.

Cale Atkinson’s work is rich, layered and boasts a gentle yet energetic vibe that is very easy to look at for repeated readings. If you have a little kid who will over love a book, then this is the book you need. His art, including and beyond this book, is just drool-worthy. You can find him here – he has more books coming out!

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Kingsley loves this book. He regularly pulls it off the shelf and kisses the hamster. He also enjoys anticipating the ball in one of the illustrations (ball is one of his favourite words).

I would highly recommend that you pick up this book today. It’s loaded with art that is down to earth, and somehow polished in a rough and textured way. The words will flow off your tongue, and it may just be the perfect introduction to mythological creatures for the very young reader. Boys and girls alike will love this story.

You can see a preview here: If I Had a Gryphon!

The Story of a New Baby



Not only am I going to be Daddy again (!!!), I put a full month’s work (that’s drawing, studies, colour renders and so on, every single night and nap time) into a book just for Kingsley.

We knew that adding to the family would be an amazing thing … but we are still a bit unsure as to how to help Kingsley (18 months now, 2 years old when Baby G2 arrives) transition.

The solution came in the form of his favourite activity – story time. I brainstormed ideas with my awesome wife and then wrote the story, and set to work illustrating. It is 100% Kingsley, with his favourite actions and activities, and some key moments to help us talk to him to start introducing the idea of a baby brother or sister coming into our world.


I spent about a month secretly working on the project, and ordered it in a large (12×12) format from It was a bit pricey, but in the end, it was worth it. (This post is not sponsored – we used Blurb to make our wedding albums and loved the quality.)


Kingsley pointed out lots of things in the book (like the “puppoo” – that’s “puppy” to those of you who speak regular English), and he mimicked some of the actions (like waving his hand in front of his nose when I read that the baby was stinky, or blowing kisses when the book’s character blew kisses).


I thought I would share some of my favourite illustrations here. I will be posting about some of my process work soon. (If you click the images, you can view them individually!)


Some Process Work

I’ve talked before about my process, and it seems to continually change. That’s the most important part of my work. It changes. Just like me, my mind, my thoughts, the way I speak, the way I approach and interact with people and myself – it changes.

I am focusing more and more on reference photos, and using my sketchbook to explore and play.

I wanted to do some studies around my son, Kingsley. I felt that his strong, strange personality would be the perfect type of energy to try and capture in some basic pencil sketches, so I have been following him around for a week, sketching his gestures in very quick, messy sketches (live) and taking a zillion pictures of him.

I knew that I wanted to stylize him, too. I wanted to apply a picture book character “look” that might fit in with the approach I have been honing over the past year. I decided to start by actually drawing him from this photo, in a realistic way:


I drew him as close to this as I could in a short time frame (I gave myself about 10 minutes, and my focus was on pulling out major characteristics in his looks). Then, I played around with a character version of him. I moved the eyes around a lot, and replaced them about seven times with various approaches. I went back in my sketchbook to refer to some other sketches I had done a week ago that used an eye style I liked.

The results of the primary study:


Then, I sketched a number of poses. I used photographs in order to get the gestures correct, and played with eye shape, sizing, space and location, as well as line work in the mouth, nose and eyebrows in order to specify his expressions. I am so pleased with the general full layout that I put together. It was so much fun to create in this way, and using references, and filtering his general features through a realistic drawing first, really helped.


If you are a teacher, or if you have a creative kid, then try having them do something like this, too. Take some photos, and give them just enough time to sketch them down quickly before moving on. The “just enough time” for me tended to be the length of time that was provided before my iPhone went dark, though truth be told there were certain cases where I needed to zoom and move around the screen, so really, it was likely much longer than the minute or two provided by the phone.


Expanding Your Creative Vocabulary

Recently, I experienced a Creative Meltdown. It wasn’t a big temper tantrum or anything visible – it was all in my head, and on my Facebook Chat with my illustration partner, but it was a real thing. This happens at various points in creative journeys, and if you are a creative parent, then you should be ready to recognize it. If you are a writer or an illustrator, then you will probably know exactly what I’m talking about.

After my Creative Meltdown, I decided to take some pressure off of myself.

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A sketch that was fun to do – but isn’t quite the structure that I want for a picture book. It just doesn’t work for what works for me.

You see, I’d been working away on a book – the manuscript had been completed, and the dummy (storyboard) had been completed. I had the flow of the story worked out, the subtext working away nicely in my plan for the illustrations, and all that was left to do before being able to submit it was to create a few completed pieces of artwork.

That’s where the trouble started. I have been pushing and growing in a big way over the past year, and it seems like the rapid growth has slowed a little. I was having trouble coming up with the look that I wanted to tell this story in just the right way. I was thinking so big that I had clouded my vision.

Well, that’s the short version of what happened.

Fast-forward beyond the intense moments of my meltdown and you’ll find me building a Pinterest Board for an illustration study. That means, I’m going to find some illustrations that I love, that I feel resonate with my heart and soul, that I feel belong in the kind of picture books that I want to make, and I am going to … copy them.

Yep. I’m copying them.

Some copies from illustrations I love.

To relieve some pressure and reorient myself as an artist, it was time to do some copying.


  • allows me to not worry about creating something original
  • fast-forwards the design process (since it’s just for my own education, this is okay)
  • gives me an opportunity to pay attention to things that interest me, like how the lines are drawn, minor details that appear in certain artist’s works over and over again, and how the shapes are created, expressions are expressed, and how architecture has been designed
  • gives me a quick feeling of success, since the copies only take a short period of time (until I begin detailing them, once I feel I’ve captured the energy of the original artist)

Sometimes, feeling successful is more important than being successful. It’s about momentum.

You regularly hear that “the masters” copied each other. That’s how they learned. That’s how I am relearning my craft, improving and refining my skill set.

What I am doing is adding to my drawing vocabulary. I’m fattening up the skill sets that I currently have and picking up on little nuances, incorporating what works for me and leaving out what doesn’t. In the end, I won’t be able to draw like my favourite artists, because I am still going to have my own approaches, and the vocabularies of multiple masters.


Parents & Teachers: try it out with your kids. Have them study specific illustrators by copying exactly what they see, and keep a sketchbook around just for this. It will advance their drawing vocabularies in more ways than we can list.

Illustrators: DO THIS. Even if you’re freaking amazing, do it. It’s a great way to take the pressure off of yourself and to improve as a creator. While you’re copying, it’ll free up some room in the thinking space of your brain, and you’ll have loads of ideas when you’re done. (Probably.)

Writers: Read books. Read a million books. It’s basically the same concept.

Musicians: Play every kind of music. Same concept.



SPECIAL THANKS TO JAMI BUTLER, my critique partner, who helped me through the Creative Meltdown and gave me the term DRAWING VOCABULARY as she looked over my sketches.