A Virtual Cup of Tea with Tania McCartney, Australia Illustrated – the creation of a picture book

taniamccartneyA Virtual Cup of Tea with Tania McCartney, author and illustrator of Australia Illustrated. Tania McCartney has been writing picture book for many years, however this is the first book she has written AND illustrated.

Intrigued by how this came about? Fancy a sneak peek at how a picture book comes together? Me too…

Australia Illustrated is my very first self-illustrated book and it was truly the most roller coaster experience I’ve ever had. It was created over 12 months, using over 1000 separate watercolour images, mono-printed backgrounds, digital art, patterns and filters—not to mention an enormous dose of happy and an almost equally large dose of angst.

Much of the angst was over how my work would be received. I’m known as an author not an illustrator, and it may be perceived that my segue into illustration was all-of-a-sudden and new. It wasn’t. I was a prolific illustrator in my childhood, teens and twenties—in fact, my great dream was to become a graphic designer even more than an author—and I was poised to study GD in my teens when life suddenly got in the way.

As it does sometimes.

But then, suddenly, you hit 40 and you starting nudging your MidLife Crisis and you’re overcome with this desperate need to uncover your earliest dreams. So I did. And I quickly rediscovered long lost skills and passion via my 52-Week Illustration Challenge group on Facebook. In fact, the group was absolutely instrumental in leading me to Australia Illustrated.

Fast forward just shy of three years, and my first illustrated work is about to be released (28 November in the UK)—a long-held dream come true.

As they do sometimes. With hard work and tenacity.

The rest of the angst was over how I would create this book. Unlike most picture books, Australia Illustrated was an organic process. I had an outline, sure, but little specific content. I wanted the pages to ‘unfold’ as I went along, creating whatever called to me at the time. Thankfully my amazing publisher—Anouska Jones at EK Books—trusted me with this process!

It was not only a fortunate thing to be able to create in a stream-of-consciousness… it was an enormous relief because despite having a very close association with picture books for over thirty years—writing, editing, studying, laying out and designing them—I really had no idea how to actually create this work.

I ended up creating the cover first—which really is a rather backwards way to do things. For me, though, it really helped set the ‘feel’ and look of the book. I also had no clear idea of the style—all I knew was how the characters would be drawn. The rest just unfolded naturally.

While creating Australia Illustrated, I was also training in digital art (using Photoshop and Adobe Illustrator). So along the way, digital additions formed the overall look of the book.

Most of the book is visual—the text is scant, and deliberately so. To create any one page, I would begin by researching my chosen topic, settling on several inclusions.

For example, for the Sport page, I researched the top Australian sports and made a list. I then began drawing kids for each of these sports, starting with a pencil sketch, lining it in ink, then adding watercolour before finishing in Photoshop. I could have spent more time on watercolour but it would have literally doubled the time to create this book.

Australia Illustrated - Tania McCartney

Each kid was then laid out on a digital page, text was added and the background colour was played with. As with many pages, I tried different colours—not only to enhance the imagery, but to tie in with the opposite spread on the double-page spread, and to form a consistent line-up of page colours through the book.

Originally, this page was green, but yellow worked much better when it came to making the kids ‘pop’. The addition of digital papercut-style elements added beautifully to the page design, and reflected one of the recurring visuals in the book.

Australia Illustrated - Tania McCartney

Australia Illustrated - Tania McCartney


The final, with its white heading and text, looks fresher, and you’ll notice I removed the golfer’s Tiger Woods tail and replaced it with a Greg Norman shark fin. This is a book about Australia, after all!

Australia Illustrated - Tania McCartney

Although most followed this same process, pretty much each page in the book had its own unique journey. Some pages underwent a lot of changes and alterations; many unfolded first go.

Some pages were created with 100 per cent digital illustrations, like the Melbourne Icons page.

Australia Illustrated - Tania McCartney

What better way to represent the iconic sites of Melbourne than with barista-style art? Melbourne is a world capital for coffee, after all.

Creating this coffee art was heaps of fun but so much work. I digitally altered photos of each site until they were in deep contrast. I then traced them in Adobe Illustrator and applied a specialised effect called ‘sprinkles’. I had to spend time manipulating this effect and its colour to ensure it looked like chocolate powder. I also manually added individual dots to look like the powder had strayed a little.

The tablecloth is a pattern, the cups, saucers, spoon, sugar cubes, coffee marks, pencil and teddy were all digitally drawn by me, and the napkin is a photograph. I also created my own fonts for this book, so the last item to be added was the typography.

For the embossed look of the text on the saucers, I used the same text—one coloured light grey, the other coloured dark grey. Then I overlaid one on the other and moved the top one slightly to make it look like it was casting a shadow.

All these tiny little things are what make up a book—and can sometimes take days to create. You’ll also notice the shadows around objects to give a feeling of depth when looking down from above.

It’s not until a book is printed and in hand that you can look back and think ‘how on earth did I get through this?!’ Australia Illustrated was a monumental amount of work in terms of hours (and butt spread!) but it taught me 1000 years’ worth of patience, artistic skill and nous.

It was also deeply satisfying to realise a long-held dream and to enjoy every (well, almost every) moment of its creation. It takes dedication and patience and time to create the most happy-making projects. And happy-making projects make us… well—happy. And of course, champing at the bit for the next one.

As they so often do.

Learn more about Tania’s work at www.taniamccartney.com or follow her on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter @taniamccartney

You can read My Book Corner’s review of Australia Illustrated here.

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