‘How I work’ by children’s author and illustrator, Tom McLaughlin

Published on: 22 July 2015 Author: Tom McLaughlin

Tom McLaughlinIt's hard to say where ideas come from. Some come in the middle of the night, shake you by the ears and slap you awake. Others are more subtle, a feeling from a long ago childhood memory, that you have to wrestle and shape like you're sculpting a piece of pottery; smoothing out the bumps until it feels like you have a story.

Then there are the ones that arrive by accident, from overheard conversations, or something silly that you see. They cling to your brain like bits of Velcro.

The CloudspotterI don't really keep sketch books, the main reason is my talent for losing them. Somewhere strewn across England there are hundreds of sketch books with half written notes that make no sense to anyone but me.

So instead I now keep notes on my phone. So far (slaps hand down on wooden table) I haven't lost one yet. When I have an idea, I usually just write down a sentence or two, maybe write down an illustration idea rather than draw it. I'm quite lucky in that I can visualise things instantly and I don't forget them. Whereas words are harder to grasp, like chasing a dandelion across a field, so I note them down before they fly away again.


I tend to know when I have a good idea, because it doesn't leave me alone, that's when you know you're onto something. Once I have the beginnings of a story, I write a paragraph or two and draw an image, something that sums up the tone and feel of the book. For instance, with The Story Machine it was Elliott, at a typewriter, playing it like a piano, painting pictures with letters. Similarly for The Cloudspotter, it was Franklin with his enormous backpack chasing a cloud across the sky.

The Cloudspotter

Those images were the whole book, the central idea that the story spread from. I don't ever send a complete story, I only ever send a written sketch, an outline. Partly because I don't want my want to pin my colours to the mast too soon, partly I want to see what my editor thinks, partly because I'm not always sure which way to take it. I have in the past written texts like a spider diagram. The narrative shooting off in in lots of different directions so I can explore each one. Or I plot the story on a timeline, with alternatives twists and turns skewing out at various parts of the story. It's nice to write visually like that, sometimes it's easier to see a book from above. But perhaps that's my dyslexic brain at work.

Once I'm happy, I send the idea off to my editor and then stare at my email inbox in a state of angst and despair, nervously clicking the refresh button. If I'm lucky enough to get a positive response, that's when the real fun begins. I rough-out the text with illustration notes and usually a colour character design. I love this stage of the process, having a blank piece of paper on my desk, knowing that this will one day turn into a book is a treat I will never tire of. A blank piece of paper is the greatest thing in the world. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise.

The Cloudspotter

From there, the text gets polished and shaped, between me, the editor and designer we work out the pacing, number of spreads and begin the thumbnails. It's the most important part of the process, suddenly it begins to look like a book. It's rare (or at least for me) that this is right first time. There's usually a bit of back-and-forth between the designer and editor. Occasionally pages are added to the book. Some spreads are redrawn completely, others are combined and condensed.

By now I'm usually itching to get going on the colour. I tend to go from polished thumbnails straight to colour. I hate doing finished roughs. I think it's the way I work, the fact that I illustrate each part of the spread individually, that makes roughs such a bind, or perhaps that I can see what it'll look like in my head - either way, I'm sure I must drive the very patient designers slightly bananas by wanting to dive straight in.

The CloudspotterI use lots of different techniques when I work. Pen and ink, pencil drawing, different pens and chalks to get different textures. Everything is done separately, the backgrounds and each character before bringing them together into Photoshop. Although I use Photoshop all the time, I don't use anything digital to colour. It's all paper textures, paint blobs, ink marks all drawn out on paper. I only use Photoshop to scale, alter hues and move compositions around.

I don't illustrate the book chronologically, I start off with my favourite spread first. It lays down a marker and sets the tone for the rest of the book. And slowly but surely I get to turn my imaginings into illustrations. But it's not finished there, again there will be discussions with editors and designers; last minute changes, tweaks and alterations. But then at the end you have something amazing, you remember the first time the idea landed in your head, the first scribble you made on the pristine white paper and now look, you're holding a book in your hand. It's the best feeling in the world.

The Cloudspotter



Find out more about our Bookstart programme.



Find the next book to read with your child.



Have a look at our favourite books for stimulating imagination in Early Years children.