Illustrating Amazing Tales

I love the Amazing Tales artwork, and I hear that other people do too. Getting the artwork right was a big part of the process of creating the book. This post describes the process we went through to do that, and shows how it evolved over time.

Step zero: Find an illustrator

Iris and I had worked together before she was an illustrator. And I knew that since going her own way to pursue a freelance career with Irisistible Design she’d done the illustrations for the wonderful book ‘The Mooncandy Rebellion‘. So before going to the trouble of checking portfolios, assembling shortlists and the like I asked Iris if she’d be interested. And she was. Which I think was probably one of the most important moments in the history of Amazing Tales.

Step one: The brief

You can read the first brief for Amazing Tales here , along with Iris’ initial response. With the brief agreed we discussed where to start. We knew the first thing we created would be a defining image for the project and that made the choice harder. Initially we thought about doing the cover, but after reading some of the actual play reports I had on the first version of the website Iris suggested she illustrate one of those, and we chose Fairy Rose and the Spider Witch.

Step two

The first step in drawing the deep dark woods was me sending a selection of images to Iris showing the kind of images I had in mind. Later on we started using Pinterest for this which helped the process. But to start with it was just me mailing a zip file full of images. And since I changed the file names and don’t have the copyright, I’m afraid I can’t share them… Suffice to say there was a mix of photography of actual woods, artwork of magical and fantastic forests, cosplay and costume photography, book illustrations and a selection of fairy pictures which I think were mostly drawn from Deviant Art.

That led to this as the first concept sketch

how we did it concept

To which my response was “Wow. There will be a more considered response later. But it’s always great when projects start becoming real :-)”.

This would be a recurring theme. Iris would send artwork, I would love it, and force myself to take 24 hours to get my critical faculties working before sending more feedback.

“And here’s the more considered response…

The general style I think is great. I particularly love the path up to the castle and the castle itself. A great degree of cartoonyness and fantastic elements in there. I can really see that sort of feel coming back in all the settings and giving the art for the whole book a distinctive tone. I’ve just finished writing a background section on ‘Adventures in the Stars’ and I can see this style being loads of fun there.

The squirrel I think is spot on for a talking animal. Not too anthropomorphasised, but definitely communicating clearly with the fairy. The elfbankjes are a nice touch too (no idea what they’re called in English).

The fairy figure is the one I think we need to work on a little. To my eyes she looks great, but I think for our target audience of five year old boys and girls she’s a little sombre. Making her a little more sparkly, turning up the light around her wand and so on would be great. The wand is also a little hard to see, it gets lost a bit against the mountain shading. Incidentally – since you’re working partly in oils I have no idea how easy or hard editing is – would be great to understand to help with the feedback process.

I also think her expression here is a bit too downbeat. Clearly she’s getting important news and being sent into danger, so a big grin wouldn’t be appropriate – but I think a little more heroism needs to shine through in her here.

If we’re thinking about an image like this as a full page illustration for the deep dark wood then I think we’d need more wood in it. Framing the picture with leaves and branches and then adding in some bugs, butterflies and the like within them. I think then you’d get a contrast between the scary castle in the scary mountains, and the ancient but wonderful forest.

For adding more details, I think a lot of it is about hinting at things. So a cave in the mountains with a hint of something in it. Spiderwebs too big to have been made by any normal spider. The suggestion that there might be a troll on or under that bridge. A wolf, or something like a wolf howling at the moon. “

And a few emails later

“When I think about the forest I think about it being very dense and tangled at the bottom of the page. Twisted roots, beetles and moss. You could have snakes and worms down there, mice, leaf-litter, all that kind of thing. Some mysterious looking holes with red eyes peering out. As you get higher you’d get steadily lighter imagery with wildflowers, coloured leaves – autumn always strikes me as the most magical time for forests – butterflies, perching birds – maybe a roosting owl – and some indications of where fairies live. I guess we need to remember that fairies aren’t big, so these trees are going to seem huge, or maybe we just need to be really close to them.

One thing that would be cool would be adding a tree or two in the distance on the road to the castle. But rather than being the deep, rich, friendly, and awesome trees of the wood these are spiky, gnarled and bare trees. The kind of trees people get hung from. The kind of trees that come alive at night and do away with travellers.

As I said before, lots of hints and indications of things that are story worthy should be wrapped into the image. A sinister looking shack with a low fire burning. Spider webs too big for normal spiders. Clouds of bats around the mountain. Will o the wisp lights. A ramshackle stone circle.

Although there’s nothing supernatural in this image, I like the progression of dark to light in it, and the way the shadows come back in around the top. Creates a great dramatic image.

Which led to

how we did it outline

So, there was another email of total enthusiasm, followed by this…

“OK, proper feedback.

I think we’re on exactly the right lines with the density of the image. I love how full it feels. I think the twisted trees are great, and I keep noticing little extra bits, which is exactly the way it should be.


I still love the castle. I really like the big moon behind it. On the colour version the moon looks a little smaller, I think a big moon is what we want. (and a note here, I like the way you’ve done the stars, let’s remember that for when we do Space). It might be overkill, but I wonder what it would look like with a touch of aurora borealis going on in the background as well, and maybe a shooting star, like you’d wish on.

The windy staircase up to the castle is great, as are the various bridges and things in the mountains behind. I think that when we come to colour them in the mountains at the back should definitely be snowcapped. And maybe a tiny silhouette of a flying dragon.

Looking forward to seeing the extra touches – the insect village, the people down by the boats etc. I think the waterfall, stream and bridge are a good element in there. I’m guessing the little boat I can see paddling about at the bottom would be made of a leaf or something like that.

Given that the image is so dense I think we should keep the colour as crisp as possible. The first piece you sent me did that, so I imagine that’ll be easy enough.

The lights around the fairy village are lovely. We should have a couple of fairies flitting around it like moths.

In terms of general composition, the thing I can’t quite see is how exactly Fairy Rose and the squirrel are going to fit in. I’m guessing you have a clearer sense of that than me though. Maybe worth sharing a very indicative sketch (a few ovals showing where they’d go would be plenty) before you go too much further.

Overall, I’m loving where this is going, and looking at and feeding back on this is now the funnest part of my day :-)”

The next steps in this process were these

Looking at my email I think there might have been a skype call around this stage. Either way, what happened next was that it all came together.

how we did it final

And that was it. Before we were done we’d already started on more fairies, talking animals and Adventures in Space. But it was the creation of this image that set the tone for the whole project.

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