Time to draw unicorns

Published on: 28 February 2017 Author: Sarah McIntyre

The immensely talented and down right wonderful illustrator Sarah McIntyre, who's work includes Vern and Lettuce and The Legend of Kevin, became our fifteenth Writer in Residence back in 2017. In this blog Sarah spoke about what working as an illustrator involves, but more importantly showed us how to draw unicorns!

Sarah McIntyre


The word 'illustration' can be problematic. It assumes there's a story made of words first, and the pictures come later, to complement it. But that's not always how stories work. And people who make pictures are authors, too, since their pictures tell a story.

Faun with umbrella

Image: Pauline Baynes

Sometimes a story will start with a drawing in a notebook or even a picture in someone's head. For example, C S Lewis had a recurring vision of 'a Faun carrying an umbrella and parcels in a snowy wood', which sparked off the Narnia books, and was later interpreted by the illustrator Pauline Baynes.

Writer-illustrator Philip Reeve often talks about Mortal Engines in very visual terms, playing as a film in his head. He was thinking of this painting by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Tower of Babel, when he came up with the idea for his book, but a tower on wheels.

Tower of Babel

Image: Pieter Bruegel the Elder

I'll often make sketches of a character, and knowing how that character looks and moves will determine what the character does in the story. When I was coming up with the story for There's a Shark in the Bath, I drew this picture first, and it set the madcap tone for the whole book.

There's a Shark in the Bath

So let's spark some new stories!

Let's talk unicorns

To give you a starting point in deciding what to draw, I'm going to set the main character and teach you how to draw a basic version of it. Let's make it a unicorn, give it glasses, and call it... Dumpling!

At the end of the project, we'll have a collection of stories about this character.

How to draw Dumpling the Unicorn

I don't just want to see ordinary pretty pictures of a unicorn with flowers and rainbows. Your picture needs to spark a story, and you have to give the writer lots of visual clues, interesting and unusual unexplained details they can use to inspire their story. And there needs to be some DRAMA, your unicorn is in some sort of peril, or caught up in a situation that makes the viewer think, HEY WAIT, WHAT IS GOING ON HERE?

This can be anything from danger (hanging off a ledge on Mt Everest, battling in a fighter jet) to embarrassment (suddenly appearing in front of the class in only polka-dot knickers, farting in a lift).

The people who win the competition will be thinking of several things:

  • WHERE is your unicorn? Is it deep-sea diving? At a chip shop? On Mars?
  • What's it standing on? Concrete? Lava? Moon craters? Broken crockery? Or is it falling from some great height?
  • How big is your unicorn? Is it tiny enough to live in a matchbox? The size of a pony? Or enormous like Godzilla? How can you show that in the picture?
  • Mood? Different colours can influence the mood of your picture. A yellow background might make it look cheerful and sunny - or possibly toxic. A spotch of red or hot pink can make something stand out so we notice it.

Dumpling the Unicorn

  • Is your unicorn wearing anything? It might be wearing anything from basic bows or a horse blanket to a full Marie Antoinette costume or a sparkly disco suit. Its mane and tail might be styled. Or not.
  • Who else? Are there other characters in the picture? A group of elves in a forest will suggest a very different setting to, say, a group of school children on a football pitch, workers on a construction site, or a Jurassic lake full of dinosaurs.
  • Expression? Does your unicorn look angry? Embarrassed? Worried? Over-caffeinated? Strangely chilled out, considering the dire circumstances?

Dumpling the Unicorn

I'd love to see whole classes get involved, but anyone can feel free to jump in!

Download a fun drawing pack

I've created a downloadable pack you can print out, with pages you can stick to the wall to help inspire your kids as they draw. This is especially useful for teachers!

It includes:

  • How to draw Dumpling the Unicorn
  • How to make the pictures extra exciting
  • Quotes from authors whose stories have been inspired by pictures

Download the pack here

So, get drawing...

Meet our latest Writer in Residence

Every six months, BookTrust appoints a new Writer in Residence to write blogs, run competitions and give us their own unique perspective on the world of children's books. Our current Writer in Residence is Rashmi Sirdeshpande.

Find out more