Humans have been using pictures to tell stories as early as prehistoric times (think cave wall paintings). Fast forward a few thousand years and enter the Picture Book. These illustration-heavy books have been around since the late 19th century and are another great example of visual storytelling. By definition, Picture Books contain very minimal text and are usually created for children—but what ultimately differentiates them from other children’s books, is that the narrative is there to support the imagery rather than the other way around.
London-based illustrator Tom Clohosy Cole illustrated his first Picture Book straight out of university and hasn’t stopped since. He even writes some of the books himself and enjoys collaborating with friends. Today we’re excited for him to share more on what it takes to create and illustrate a printed Picture Book, what his process looks like, and challenges he faces.
Hi, I’m Tom Clohosy Cole, an Illustrator originally from Brighton, currently living and working in London. I’ve been working as a freelance illustrator for nine years now. I studied at Kingston University, where I jumped between Illustration and Animation on my course, before finally having to make a decision and going with illustration. Alongside my normal illustration work, I often take on animation work for pre-production—so storyboarding, character design, and background art and sometimes (and hopefully more) directing. When I’m not working, I love to get out of London, back to Brighton, and further afield. One day, far in the future, if I can retire, I want to be an oil painter.
How did you get started with Picture Book projects?
My first Picture Book was Space Race, which was a concertina book for Nobrow Press, for people of all ages interested in space. It showed the Russian and American achievements in space exploration throughout the Cold War. I was asked to do the book straight out of Uni, so it was quite a daunting undertaking. It ended up taking me about a year to make, and I did a couple of versions and scrapped them before I made one that worked.
I then made two Picture Books for Templar for kids between 5 - 11. The first, WALL was the story of a family separated by the Berlin Wall. I wrote this one myself, and even though there are only a few lines per page, I found it a real tough challenge doing both the pictures and the words. It’s hard to change the story when you’ve already started drawing the pictures! My friend Charlie Ruscoe and I then made The Red Prince. It’s the story of a young Prince who is kidnapped but finds his way to freedom with the help of the whole kingdom.
Since then, I’ve made four much bigger and longer non-fiction Picture Books with Wide Eyed Editions. Destination: Space, Destination: Planet Earth, All Aboard The Discovery Express & All Aboard The Voyage of Discovery. The Destination books give an educational overview of space and the natural world. The Discovery books take the young readers on journeys through time, learning about famous inventors who pioneered new technologies in the transport and communication industries. For these books, I’ve been working with different authors who have a specialism in these areas.
Picture Books are the longest projects I’ve ever worked on, and sometimes they can feel like a bit of a marathon in contrast to the quick turnaround of editorial work. But looking back, they really have been the most rewarding and enjoyable jobs.
Where do you draw inspiration from for your illustrations?
With a book page, often the brief will be quite open. The direction might be that the page is about ‘Weather’ for example, and has to include all the characters in a scene and then some text boxes around with smaller diagrams. This leaves the subject of the main scene up to me. So then I’ll go online or through my bookshelf and look at all things weather, doing some thumbnails as I go. Something will jump out at me and that will be the direction I go for. I’m usually looking for something I haven’t thought of immediately. Once I’ve settled on the subject it’s just a matter of finding a fun composition that I’ve not used already in that book. I love looking at painters and photographers for composition ideas.
What are some of the challenges you’ve faced illustrating for print?
The main problem I find is that the computer screens are backlit, and paper is not. So printed illustrations can look quite different from what you had intended on the screen. The difference between dark colors on the screen (like dark blue and black) might feel quite clear, but when printed on paper, it’s much harder to see the difference. This has caught me out a few times.
In general, the thing that I always have trouble with is the black ink. Especially on uncoated papers. For black ink to appear rich and dark on uncoated paper it needs to be printed on top of the other colors. If you print black directly on white paper it doesn’t appear as dark as you might have expected. So when sending artwork to the printers, it’s worth checking the Channels to see if your black areas have colors below them. The best thing you can do is to just always check the proofs and adjust the files accordingly.
What does your illustration process typically look like?
I start with a super loose set of sketches in a sketchbook which I do quite quickly, trying to spend no more than 10 - 15 minutes on a few ideas. Then I photograph the sketches on my phone, email them to myself so they can be downloaded on my desktop computer, and I can spend more time making them into neater roughs. For quicker jobs, I often skip this step entirely and go straight to digital roughs. Once the roughs are approved, I block in the colors in Photoshop (the slow bit). I then work on the details, and finally the color balance. It usually looks like a bit of a mess right up until the end.
Tell us about your favorite Picture Book you’ve made so far. Why is it your favorite?
My favorite Picture Book to work on was The Red Prince, which I made with my friend from school, Charlie. Illustration can be quite a solitary profession, and after making two books on my own it was such a welcome change to work with a friend. We would meet up every few weeks, discuss the story, look over the roughs and laugh at badly drawn character sketches. We made hundreds of roughs for that book, and looking over them all I think we really saved only the best of the bunch. Working with Charlie gave me a boost of energy and excitement for the project that I remember fondly.
Any upcoming projects we can look out for in the future?
I’m going to be starting a big new book this year. I’m not allowed to say what it is going to be yet, but I’m really excited about starting it and hopefully I’ll be able to share some progress shots soon, so do keep an eye out for more.