This creative life No.4 – Calling All Elves

Posted on: December 6, 2014

In which the artist attempts to harness the power of fairytales in her run up to the deadline – the absolute, final, ultimate deadline.

At the moment I am in the last stage of making the pictures for my next picture book, another collaboration with Mem Fox. It will be published in October 2015 by Scholastic, the publishers of our Good Night, Sleep Tight. In my first ‘This creative life’ blog, I wrote that one of my future topics could be “How 32 doesn’t seem a very big number, until you have to draw pictures for that many pages”. Now seems like quite a good time for that.

I know you probably all know what a blank page looks like, and how scary it can be (the angle of the photo doesn't help)

I know you probably all know what a blank page looks like, but just in case (accidental angle adds to the scariness)

When I’m working on the final illustrations for a picture book (this is my seventh, as well as the two books already with Mem, I have done four on my own), I find myself constantly counting. Before I start working on new drawing, I count the finished ones – say there are five. I do a bit of work on the new drawing, then I count the finished drawings again. Perhaps I missed a drawing in the first place, perhaps I finished one and added it to the pile but forgot to update the total. Unsurprisingly there are still only five. I go through this process over and over. Apparently somewhere deep down in my brain, I really, truly believe in picture book elves, drawing away somewhere, perfectly mimicking my style and ideas, watching for their chance to slip new drawings into the pile. You can be sure I leave the room every so often as I know the elves don’t want to be seen as they go about their work.

The pile of drawings I keep counting and recounting

The pile of drawings I keep counting and recounting (for some reason the photo has decided to be upside-down).

I find this stage the hardest part of making a picture book.  I love the parts of the process before this point – going from the text (whether written by me or by Mem Fox) through the process of what it will contain, how it will look, all the way to a rough version. For me, this is probably at least half of the work of the book (a topic for another post methinks), and it’s on my mind all the time, with new ideas leaping in, puzzles to be solved – it delights me, it makes me laugh, I have total confidence that it is all going to turn out brilliantly. Over time, I create very detailed draft versions of each page. At the point I am at now, the final illustrations, it’s a less happy time. The book is again on my mind all the time, but it’s with vexing things like how I can’t get someone’s hand or head to look right, and what on earth is that character standing on. This is the point where the discrepancy is revealed between the perfection I’d love and what my skills are capable of.

Also working against me is the fact that it usually takes a bit of encouragement to get my pens to work.

Also working against me is the fact that it usually takes a bit of encouragement to get my pens to work. I do lots of scribbles like this. As seen here, I usually use three different nib sizes, for triple the frustration.

Above all, it’s the ‘final’ in ‘final illustrations’ that makes it so hard for me to do them. In general, my process is to draw and redraw every page until I get it right. Some pages go through a dozen versions till I feel it they are ‘right enough’. No drawing will ever be perfect, and that’s hard to face, because hey, I was aiming for perfect. Eventually for each drawing, I have to say, THIS is the Final Illustration, the one that will be published in the book, the book which will be sent out into the world. Insert semi-strangled ‘eek’ noise here.

When I hand the artwork over to the publishers (hopefully in the not too distant future), it is the End of Possibility. Don’t call this over-dramatising until you’ve tried it.

You might be thinking that writing about this is not helping me get to the end of my task, and I would never deny having highly developed procrastination skills. But what you probably don’t know is that while sitting typing at my computer, I have my back to my drawing desk – thus creating the perfect opportunity for the elves to do their stuff. I’m off to count the drawings now.


  1. Rhonda , says:

    I used to work as part of an art department where we had two shifts, and often two people would literally be working on the colour separations for the same design (ah… good old hand painted separations). You’d arrive at work in the morning and yes! The elves HAD done some of the work for you! So live in hope 🙂

  2. Beverley , says:

    Elves are like weight-watchers. Filled with good intentions but not always to be trusted……..

  3. Kerri , says:

    Lovely post, thanks for sharing. Look forward to hearing more about this latest book!

  4. Rose , says:

    I feel your pain – I hope that the joy of holding your published book in your hand helps to offset this stage of the process! thanks for your honesty.

    I’ve always wanted to be a children’s book illustrator, but am sitting (hiding out) as a children’s book librarian instead these days.

  5. JoF , says:

    Good luck, Judy. I waited and waited for the thesis writing elves and they eventually turned up – so yours are there – every time you are facing your desk 😉

    • Jack draper , says:

      thanks Judy for the description of your creative process or part of it. I also follow a similar process with my paintings. I need a deadline usually an anual exhibition…then I count and recount and keep aiming for perfection and having to then adjust my responses accordingly
      love your work

  6. Nancy Earth , says:

    Thank you so much for sharing your creative process with us. I know exactly what you are going through but in a different medium and series of processes: pottery making.
    I think the same excitement/frustration/procrastination/and finally FINAL-ness stages work with any creative process but you have demonstrated it so beautifully with your blog/photos. Thanks so much! Now, while you’ve been reading this maybe both yours and my elves have been doing their work. Let’s check!
    Keep up the sterling work!!!



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