101 Guide to Picture Books | Nina Rycroft | Skillshare

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101 Guide to Picture Books

teacher avatar Nina Rycroft, Picture Book Illustrator

Watch this class and thousands more

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Taught by industry leaders & working professionals
Topics include illustration, design, photography, and more

Watch this class and thousands more

Get unlimited access to every class
Taught by industry leaders & working professionals
Topics include illustration, design, photography, and more

Lessons in This Class

    • 1.



    • 2.

      Understanding Character


    • 3.

      Understanding Setting


    • 4.

      Understanding Plot


    • 5.

      To Finish


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About This Class

What does an illustrator need to consider before starting work on a picture book?

From thumbnail sketches, character design, storyboarding to the final artwork, Nina uses her picture book titles to visually explain the process that she uses to develop ideas for a story.

Gain an in-depth understanding of character, setting and plot, by seeing the development of published titles from concept to finished art.

Use this class to ...

  • establish a decision-making process that will enhance your visual storytelling.
  • understand character, setting and plot and how these affect your visual storytelling.
  • Learn the art picture books from concept through to final artwork.

This class is for illustrators, budding artists, readers and writers, basically anyone interested in the process of creating a picture book.

With more than a dozen picture books published world-wide my character development series teaches every aspect of character design. Whether you’re thinking about self-publishing, designing a one-off character for a project or illustrating a publication. Work your way up through all of my classes for support, inspiration and to up-skill or refresh your illustration style.

Interested in character design? 

Below is my series of Skillshare classes that walk you through the entire process of how to illustrate a character from start to finish. Use this series to either brush-up on a particular skill or work your way through, for a comprehensive guide.

Nina's Skillshare Character Design Series

    1. Face Facts: Beginners Guide to Drawing a Self Portrait
    2. Face Shapes: Draw a Series of Character Using Simple Shapes 
    3. 101 Guide to Drawing Eyes
    4. Emoji Me: The art of Facial Expression
    5. How to Draw the Head From Every Angle: Part One
    6. How to Draw the Head From Every Angle: Part Two
    7. How to Draw the Head From Every Angle: Part Three
    8. Draw a Circus of Characters: Exploring Body Shape and Proportion
    9. Draw a Circus of Movement: Simple Techniques to Bring Characters to Life
    10. Draw a Circus of Line & Gesture: Design a Picture Book Character From Start to Finish
    11. Watercolor Magic: One Character Five Ways
    12. Illustration Masterclass: Exploring Technique and Style
    13. Learn to Use Procreate: Design and Illustrate a Bear Character
    14. • NEW • Animal Character Design for Picture Book Illustrators: Techniques and tips for designing characters with a narrative


Meet Your Teacher

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Nina Rycroft

Picture Book Illustrator


Please link up, subscribe and follow me on: Facebook I Instagram I Pinterest I Website

Hi! I'm Nina Rycroft, a picture book illustrator. I worked as a graphic designer in Sydney and London before turning my hand to illustration, with my first picture book Little Platypus received a CBCA (Children's Book Council of Australia) Notable Book Award in 2000. Since then, I've had more than a dozen picture books published worldwide, winning some awards along the way. 

If you're interested in learning how and design and develop character, illustration techniques and picture book illustration, then please follow me...or even better...try one of my classes :)

My dozen or so Skillshare... See full profile

Level: All Levels

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1. Introduction: Welcome to my 101 guide to illustrating picture books. Creating beautiful illustrations is one thing. But imagine if you were to underpin your artistry with really considered decisions about character, about setting plot, and designing the page. Imagine what that would bring to your illustrations and at the end of the day, imagine how much better that visual story will be. My name is Nina Rycroft. I'm a children's book illustrator and I've been illustrating picture books since my first publication, Little Platypus, back in 2000. Since then I've had more than a dozen picture books published worldwide. In this class, I'm going to take what I and a lot of illustrators do intuitively. I'm going to give you an in-depth understanding of my thought process, of everything that I think about when I'm considering decisions on character, setting plot, and even designing the layout of the page. So this class is not just for illustrators and artists. It's for anybody interested in picture book illustration, whether you're an author, a publisher, a librarian, a teacher, a student. I think this class offers really good insight into the creation of picture books. I'm going to use things like thumbnail, sketches, my drafts, story boarding, my character maps, and my final artwork. I'm going to use those to show you exactly what I mean about the things that I need to consider, the things that happened intuitively, I'm going to try and show you with samples, what I think about before I actually start work on illustrating a picture book. This class does not require any drawing. I think a pencil and a piece of paper would really help. Because what I would like to do in this class is to get you thinking about the reasons behind a certain character and the reasons behind the choices of a certain type of setting, or visual storytelling. This class is more about thinking rather than doing. Without saying anything more, I look forward to seeing you in my next lesson. 2. Understanding Character: In this lesson I'm going to talk to you about character. Characters are the actors and they provide the action. When you come up with characters for a story, it's a really good idea to understand who the intended reader is going to be. Are the characters appropriate for that reader, for that age group? This is an illustration from my animal alphabet picture book Ballroom Bonanza. You can see that the wolves are inspired by Jack Sparrow. No two-year-old would even know who Jack Sparrow is, but a five to seven year old, they would know, and the illustrations are also a lot more detailed and sophisticated than I would do for a younger reader, and you can also see there's a hunt and find element on each page for each letter, which the older reader tends to enjoy. A successful character is one that a reader can relate to, this is an illustration from Now I'm Bigger and the book is designed for zero to three years of age. It's also perfect for maybe an older brother or sister experiencing a new baby in the house. In the top left you can see that I've got animal characters from a story called No More Kisses. I've got animal characters, but the characters are doing childlike things like crawling through tunnels, climbing up monkey bars, and that things, so that the reader can also relate to the action to what the characters are doing. When you're designing a set of characters for a story, really make sure that you can tell them apart from each other, so you can see with these three characters, Baby, Becky, and Me, and see I've made them quite different in shape, size, and color and you can see these characters go throughout the story so it's very important to have distinguishing characteristics. I'm now going to work through the storyboard for a picture book that I illustrated called Boom Bah, written by Phil Cummings. Ting. Shh, listen what's that sound? Here I've got a small sound so I decided to have a small character, which is the mouse. You can also say the mice on the kitchen bench top, ones narrating and the other ones passing a spoon down to the cat. Tang. Shh, listen, gathered around. Now that we've got a lot of things going on in this illustration. As far as the characters go, we've got a larger sound, so a larger animal representing that sound. A bell, a tin, a lid, a cup, ting, tong warming up. Here I've got the animals having gathered equipment from the kitchen so you can see I've got a mouse beckoning everyone outside as well. None of these characters were ever mentioned in the text, so it's really down to the illustrator to come up with the idea of what the animals would look like. You can see visually how I've used the animals to thread the story together, the animals pick up and use the objects and walk the reader through the story. A box, a bowl, a spoon, a stick, tap, tap, clickety-click. You can see the box, the bowl, a spoon, a stick doesn't say goat, but I decided to have the goat hold all of those items and make sound from it. You can also say that these characters are quite familiar to a younger reader, the reader can actually relate to those animals. Also keep in mind that you are illustrating a book for a new reader and so make it easy for them, and so what I've tried to do with this picture book in particular is move my characters across the page, very much like the text so moving from left to right. Now, when it comes to designing a character, that's a really good idea to do character maps for all the individual characters. Character maps are used to keep your characters consistent throughout the entire story, and there's a lot of work that goes into creating picture book illustrations. It can take between three months, a couple years to illustrate a book, so the character maps keep you on track, it also gives you a good idea of what the characters look like facing front on, and side on, and it makes it a lot easier to draw the character from lots of different angles when you understand what they do look like front and side on. Once you have your character map and the framework of the character's brain you can start bringing in gesture and movement and understanding how those characters walk through the book. I look forward to seeing you in my next class, where I'll be taking you through and talking about setting. 3. Understanding Setting: Welcome back. In this lesson, I'm going to be talking to you about setting. I'm now going to show you three straight scenes that I've illustrated for three different picture books. This first illustration was taken from a picture book titled Pooka by Carol Chataway. Now Pooka is discovered on the doorstep by a boy and his family, and throughout the book, grand dad warns the boy by repeatedly saying, "Don't go getting attached". But it was too late for that. The boy becomes very close to Pooka and experiences terrible loss when the family eventually find Pooka's rightful owner. Because this book is a gentle story of friendship, love, and loss, I decided to illustrate the story using gentle quiet imagery. In this straight scene, I've family walking Pooka in search for any lost dog notices in the shop windows. I've used watercolor and I've made sure that color palette was quite subtle as well, as I wanted to reflect the tenderness of the story in the illustrations. My second straight scene is from a picture book titled Good Dog Hank. This is a story about a dog who obeys all the rules by interpreting them in his own way. The joke being that Hank is being naughty while, at the same time, obeying all the rules. Here, you can see that Hank has done the right thing by saving the young girl's teddy bear. However in doing so, he's also created an enormous traffic jam. I've used the same watercolor technique to illustrate this story. However, the humor in this book asked for a more dynamic layout. Rather than the static straight scene that we've seen in the previous illustration, I've used round rolling shapes, brighter colors and there's a higher energy with the rows of cars, the crowds of people and much more dramatic facial and body language. My third straight scene is also a story written by Jackie French. It's called dinosaurs Love Cheese. Instead of a dog, we have a dinosaur who behaves very much like a dog. The boy sitting in the back of the VW is the only character in this story who sees the dinosaur. The dinosaur is not an imaginary friend because much to mom's dismay, the dinosaur actually takes and eats all the cheese from the kitchen. In this scene, the mother is on a shopping expedition with the boy ready to drive to the shops and buy more cheese with the dinosaur well-hidden on the roof of the car. The illustration technique in this book is quite different from the other two books as I've used acrylic paint and colored pencil over the top and the style and the color palette is also much more bold. The text for the spread is zebras are fond of flowers, so I really wanted to illustrate a zebra crossing that everybody was familiar with. Now we move from outside to inside. Here, Julia Child's kitchen is my inspiration for the kitchen scene in Dinosaurs Love Cheese. The text, "Monkeys grabbed bananas" required me to add a few more cheeky characters, but you can get a sense of the playfulness and humor that I've tried to bring to these illustrations. The next two illustrations from Grasshopper's Dance will demonstrate just how the illustrations are essential to setting the tone and the mood of a book. Both illustrations I finished using watercolor and lead pencil, however, each illustration has a very different feel to it. This illustration is set during the day as the story moves through the seasons from winter to spring. So the bright colors, celebration, confetti, petals, high energy, and a much more dynamic composition. In contrast, I have this illustration depicting the dog in the fog of the wintertime chill. This illustration is set at night under a full moon, so already it sets a more somber tone to that of the previous image. I've used a cool color palette to depict the cold and the still and the characters are resting on a round hill which also echoes the shape of the full moon. You can see the bird ship is sailing through the fog on the horizon. Now, you can see just how illustrations really do set the tone and the mood of a book. As an illustrator, you can influence this by considering the location, whether or not the illustrations are set inside or outside, day or night, seasons, choice of color palette, composition, and illustration style and technique. I look forward to seeing you in my next lesson where I will be talking about plot. 4. Understanding Plot: In this lesson, I'm going to talk to you about plot. Illustrations help provide actual plot and concept information and I'll now show you what I mean by that. These three illustrations here are my first storyboards for a picture book called Possums Big surprise. You can see I've got a wombat on page 89 and it's little ears twitching and then the possum have dashes through the book and doesn't quite realize that what's scaring him is actually his friends. Storyboarding is a really good way to write your story using pictures. It's a really convenient way to jolt down your ideas quickly and easily and change them up so if you make mistakes or you want to redo something at this stage, it doesn't take very long to redo. The last thing I want to be doing is getting to the final artwork stage and having to redo a finished artwork. Also really convenient with storyboarding is that you can actually see the whole story and to be able to see visually what's happening on the entire story really affects the way you approach your illustrations. When you're illustrating a certain page, to know what's happening before and what's happening after, I always find that really important because you can add in detail, understand well what that character is about to do and what's just happened so it's really good to actually get a framework of the entire story. I do storyboarding for all of my books and It's also a good way to just work your way through, send it off to the publisher and see how you're tracking. This is the final artwork for double-page spread in Possum's Big Surprise. They're rising up from the ground appears two great big fugitive fluffed covered ears. Now you can see that I've changed the ears from the one that is, to very long ears and the shadow of the ears are actually making almost like teeth, crocodile mouth action. That's where the little possum is actually getting frightened by the shadow not realizing that the ears are actually the bilby ears and the bilby is just hidden behind a rock, gathering and wrapping a gift for little possum's big surprise. You can see how much information is happening on this page. I've also got the ants gathering little petals for confetti, which you'll see later on in the story. The whole book is about this possum dashing from one frame to another off in a flash and a tumble of gray, flossy the possum was up and away. She skipped over ants nest, pebble and stick. Flossy the possum was quicker than quick. When all of a sudden and then you go to the next page. Put down your ideas in a storyboard for this particular book was really important because there's a lot of information and a lot of story that comes through visually. I had to be really clear on what I was illustrating before I even attempted the final artwork. I'm going to talk a little bit about character interaction and how character interaction can really support the plot with this particular illustration, this is from Once a Creepy Crocodile. In the top left corner, I've got the crocodile not looking very happy at all and the snake is wrapped himself tightly around the crocodiles snout, almost taking over from what the crocodile was trying to do to the brolga. You can see visually exactly what's going on. Characters can support the plot and also add sub stores so there's lots of stuff going on. There are many layers to a picture book story so here I've got all my Australian animals celebrating, they're having cups of tea, tea bags are flying everywhere and you can see that the brolga is looking up at the crocodile. Can see also the flower from the snake is mysteriously bursting out of the crocodiles mouth. He's licking his lips and it looks like the boo boo ale on the right there is the only one who's noticed the crocodile is eating the snake. The yams at that crocodile snap and he's obviously eaten the snake. The brolga's none the wiser and all the animals are slightly there. It looks like the ales know what's going on, they're quite scared of what's just happened. But a lot of the other animals haven't even noticed. There's lots of story going on behind the scenes. After this lesson, you can see just how important the illustrations are in helping to provide actual plot and concept information. If you want to dive in deep with storyboarding, please follow me and my skill share classes as I'll be developing a series on storyboarding, once I complete my character development series. 5. To Finish: Thank you for taking part in my one on one guide to illustrating picture books. I hope you walk away having a better understanding on character setting, plot, and designing the page, and more importantly, I hope you're inspired to take your illustrations further. Thank you for taking my class and I look forward to seeing you next time. Please follow me if you are interested in children's book illustration, character development, storyboarding, illustration techniques, I'll be working my way slowly through the whole process of how to create images for a picture book. I look forward to seeing you. Please stay in touch and please post any work that has been triggered or inspired by this class. Thank you.