Today, Judy Watson, the charming illustrator of 19 books including the Ernie & Maud series is visiting Kids’ Book Capers to talk about her creative journey.

Have you always enjoyed illustrating?

Oh yes! Just try to stop me! My Grandma worked that out when I was about 3. She gave me coloured chalks and sent me out to draw on the paling fences in the back yard. Then, embarrassingly, but strangely pleasing too, she called all her neighbours over and made them admire my scribbles.

How did you become an illustrator?

Well, first there was Grandma and the chalks. (Thanks Grandma.) Then there was a lovely art teacher named Cecily Osborn at my school. (Thanks Mrs Osborn!) A little later on there was a lot of painting and drawing and a bit of living the artistic life in London.

Then I came home to Australia and met some publishers and got to know some other illustrators and writers in Melbourne and found my way around the publishing scene.  And eventually, a publisher phoned me to ask me to illustrate a little reader called Yucky Poo! I was earning money doing freelance graphic design work at the same time, so it didn’t matter that it took a little while for each illustration job to come along.

Where does your inspiration come from?

When I’m illustrating somebody’s story, the inspiration comes mostly from the text. As I read a manuscript for the first time, images pop into my head, sometimes in a vague way, and sometimes complete with the medium and other details.

As for the characters, well, if it’s a Frances Watts text, it’s pretty clear to me what the characters look like, because she describes them so well. Not just their appearance, but their personalities and little quirks too. And the rest of the inspiration comes from my childhood, my two children and the world around me!

What inspired you most about illustrating this book?

Well, a real villain in Baxter!! How exciting! And all those disguises. What brilliant fun to put a false moustache on top of the superhero costume. A double secret identity!

Who is your favourite character and why?

That’s a tough one! I’m very fond of HouseCat Woman, because she says so little and yet her presence is there all the time, listening, raising an eyebrow, even stretching if she’s feeling very energetic. And she can fire up most wonderfully if required. Fabulous claws!

But on the other hand there’s the irrepressible Desmond, and the almost irrepressible, yet deep-thinking Maud. No wonder Desmond loves Maud. They are both so positive about life.

How did you decide what the main character would look like?

Well, despite what I said earlier about finding Frances Watts’ characters easy to draw, the first time I drew Ernie, I got him wrong. He was too ‘super’ looking. Not at all the person he is supposed to be. I foolishly gave him extravagant curly hair and a self-assured super pose with head held high. What was I thinking?!

Frances tactfully reminded me what Ernie was all about, and soon we hit on the brown-haired, kind-hearted, slightly self-conscious little fellow that he is today.  Ernie isn’t an athlete. His feet turn inwards a little on the cover of the first book. He is very brave, but a little shy, so he carries his chin lower than Superman. And sometimes, he hides his eyes behind that floppy bit of hair at the front.

Can you tell us about the illustrating process for this book?

In this case I already knew the characters from the previous three books. That made it easy, right? Well, sort of. But I did need to get to know them again. The first drawings of Ernie and Maud weren’t right at all!

So first I did some scribbles, to practice. Then I got straight into putting down pencil sketches for the actual illustrations required. If the pose was tricky, I either did an internet search for helpful reference images (‘enthusiastic sheep in cape and leotard, jumping over gate’) or made a note of it and took photos of my husband and sons doing the required action. (That was funny, I can tell you!)

The pencil roughs were scanned and emailed to the author and editors who gave me feedback. I then made any changes required and inked the illustrations. The inked pictures were scanned and tone added on the computer, and the finished work was emailed through to the publisher for comment. Finally, after any necessary alterations were made, the artwork was emailed to the publisher again, and forwarded on to the typesetter.

What was your favourite part of the illustration process?

The colouring in! Oh well, you know what I mean. The ‘greying’ in.

When all the tricky bits are over – getting the hands to be on the ends of the arms and the thumbs on the right side and so forth – then I can sit and listen to a talking book as I colour in the pictures and watch them take on a little bit of three dimensionality.

And adding the shadows. I love shadows. Did you notice? ( I did, Judy. They are great. I’m an author so to me, shadows seem really hard to do well.)

What was the hardest part of the illustration process?

Getting the idea in my head to appear on the paper the way it does in my head! In a few of the pictures I never quite managed it, even at the end. This tricky part is usually at the pencil rough stage.

Oh, and there’s a little thing called ‘character continuity’. What a pain that can be!

Did you get to collaborate with the author or did you work fairly independently?

The Ernie and Maud books are definitely a collaboration, although Frances was so busy this time around, that she didn’t have time to say much more than ‘bravo!’ or ‘A little more to the left!’

Our wonderful editors Chren and Tegan were able to help with more detailed feedback. ‘A little more to the right and up a bit!’

Can you tell us about the medium you used to illustrate this book?

I used a dip pen (with a nib) and Noodlers Ink to do the drawings. And then I scanned them and added the grey tone on my computer in PhotoShop. It’s lucky that I can use PhotoShop because sometimes I accidentally do get the thumb on the wrong side of the hand or forget to draw somebody’s ears or something.

Happily I can draw the ears or the new hand on a separate bit of paper, scan it and alter the original picture on the computer. I use such tiny stitches that you can hardly see the scars. Have you spotted any?

How long did it take to illustrate?

About 4 months

Any tips for people who would like to become children’s book illustrators?

Practise drawing lots of people, especially hands. That way you’ll probably get the thumbs on the right side and be able to draw anything you like! Practise drawing backgrounds too. It’s really good to be able to draw a bathroom, or a toaster, or the inside of a cupboard, the underside of your bed, or the top of a dog kennel looking down from the tree house.

Take a little sketchbook and pencil with you in your pocket, and you’ll be all set to draw at a moment’s notice.

Note: I often forget my little sketchbook, and that is one of the reasons my house is full of little bits of paper with doodles on them, and also the reason I have so much trouble drawing the top of a dog kennel.

Thanks, Judy, I really enjoyed your honesty and insights into your creative process.

This afternoon, we’re reviewing Heroes of the Year here at Kids’ Book Capers.


Published by

Dee White

Dee White lives with her husband and two sons in a small rural country town which has more kangaroos than people. She has worked as an advertising copywriter and journalist and has had numerous career changes because until recently, writing wasn’t considered to be a proper job. Letters to Leonardo, her first novel with Walker Books Australia, was published in 2009 to great critical acclaim.