In the Studio with Paddy Donnelly
last updated 24 February 2021
Paddy Donnelly is an Irish illustrator and author whose work spans picture books and fiction titles. Paddy has a fondness for illustrating animals and the sea in his signature textured approach, injecting a touch of humour to his work wherever he can. We caught up with Paddy to discuss the creative process behind his sixth picture book, Here Be Dragons (Frances Lincoln Children’s Books) published this month, which follows the story of a young knight on a quest to slay a dragon…
I create my illustrations in Photoshop on a Wacom Cintiq Pro 24, and like to surround myself with as many inspirational prints and picture books as I can. I work in quite a painterly and textured style, but my background is in graphic design so I’m all digital.
Timelapse of Paddy’s illustration of Bluebeard
Here Be Dragons
Here Be Dragons was a super fun book to work on. Susannah Lloyd’s writing is hilarious and I loved the story as soon as I read it. The humour in the story definitely appealed to me, and I immediately began to get a bunch of different ideas for the illustrations. One of the most interesting aspects of this book is that the main character is telling you one thing, but eagle-eyed kids will be able to spot something entirely different happening behind, under and all around him. The knight is full of advice on how to ﬁnd a dragon, but can’t seem to spot any himself. I love this mis-match between the story and illustrations, but they’re obviously working in harmony too. Kids ﬁnding themselves one step ahead of the characters in a story always appeals to me.
As a kid, I always loved spotting tiny details in picture books, so illustrating a story like this where I got to leave lots of little clues was a dream. I also had a brilliant art director, Zoë Tucker, who had a ton of great ideas and feedback along the way, and really helped to make sure the reveals came at the right points. And a big thanks to Freddie and all the agents at Bright for all their help with this book project!
Like all my projects, I started off with a character study - ﬁnding out exactly who this foolish knight was. The knight is an ‘expert’ on all things dragons, so I toyed with the idea of him being a really old knight who fought dragons back in the day but all his advice has become a little rusty.
We eventually went with a younger knight who thinks he knows all there is to know about dragons, but really he’s just bought himself an oversized suit of armour, a sword, a map and is heading off on his ﬁrst dragon expedition. I thought about having a pointy helmet covering his eyes up and that’s why he couldn’t see the dragon, however that would make it tough to include a lot of fun expressions. So instead, I went for his eyes being closed for most of the illustrations, as he’s off in his own dream world.
We pitched him as having read ‘Dragon Slaying for Dummies’ and now conﬁdently heading off on his ﬁrst quest. This also gave me the idea for the first spread to feature the knight in a ‘Ye Olde Dragon Slaying Shoppe’ which we could stock with lots of bits and bobs like armour, ‘goblin remover’ and magical potions.
Horses Are Impossible
When I saw one of the main characters was a horse, I was dreading it. Horses are one of those things that all illustrators hate to draw, along with cars and bikes. Maybe it’s just modes of transport we don’t like to draw? Anyway, it’s tough to get the proportions of a horse right every time. They come out looking so strange if they’re just slightly off, so I cheated and intentionally gave him ridiculously skinny legs, knobbly knees, two eyes on one side of his head and a giraffe-like neck.
As he’s pretty much being traumatised on every page, having him stylised like this helped me contort him into fun shapes. I matched the horse’s tail and mane with the knight’s curly moustache too, and made sure there were a few grey hairs in there. As we have the Knight’s eyes covered, I thought we should then go fully in the opposite direction with big, expressive eyes and eyebrows and lots of fun poses. He’s my favourite character!
The other main element in this book is of course the dragon. Finding ways of merging him with the mountains and revealing more and more on each page was really fun. Playing with scale is always something I enjoy in my illustrations, so this book was ideal. My initial idea for the dragon was that it would be really hard to spot until much later in the story and gradually we’d reveal more and more of it. This got me thinking about really working it into the landscape, like it had been slumbering there for hundreds of years, now covered in moss, trees and wildlife. Scale is something I really love to play with in my illustrations. By making the dragon reveal quite slow, it would allow kids to go back over the book and spot all the little hints and clues along the way. The page turn was super important for this book too, so we wanted to have lots of instances where you ﬂip the page and something subtle changes to show you the dragon may be stirring. There are tons of animals dotted throughout who all spot theses clues before our main character does.
For the Damsel, who ends up saving the day for everyone, I wanted her to be more of a ‘warrior princess’ and definitely avoiding a traditional damsel character of stories gone by. When we meet her in the book, she’s tied up and dressed in full princess garb and pointy hat, however my idea was that it was the dragon that has put her there to lure in unwitting knights. Once she escapes, she immediately throws the hat aside, ties her long ﬂowing hair out of the way, grabs a bow and arrow and proceeds to take charge of the situation.
Above is the initial sketch and the ﬁnal artwork for the ﬁrst spread in the book - ‘Ye Olde Shoppe For The Gullible and Rich’. A super fun spread to work on! Brainstorming all of the magical things that this shop would stock was just the best. I do all my sketches in Photoshop. I ﬁnd it much easier to just keep everything digital nowadays, tweaking and erasing as I like.
I first thumbnail out the entire book, and then I create roughs like these sketches, sometimes going through a couple of different rounds before we settle on a ﬁnal idea. Once those are approved then I jump into the full colour illustration.
Above is the progression from initial sketch, through in-between artwork and to the final piece for another spread in the book. This is the first clear ‘hint’ of a dragon in the story as it starts to stir. Initially, we thought to have the very right hand side start to get darker and scarier, but once we had mapped out the diﬀerent spreads we kept it light so that the peril could appear at a slower pace.
Usually, I go through and draw character one on all pages, then character two etc. This helps me maintain consistency and my workflow is faster. As a number of spreads are showing the exact same scene, but just changing a few details on the page turn, it was essential to draw these together to match colours, textures and other details.
My Writing Process
Paddy’s first author-illustrated title The Vanishing Lake.
Storytelling is a huge part of life in Ireland, so I was surrounded by myths and legends from a young age and I think that’s had a big influence on me and my work. Rough seas, rugged coastlines, islands and mountains are all things I absolutely love to illustrate.
I’ve been illustrating picture books for a few years, but didn’t really imagine myself writing my own stories. A couple of years ago, I decided to give it a go and I discovered that I absolutely loved the process of creating both the text and illustrations. It’s all a bit of a jumbled mess, like any creative process. It all starts with an idea of course. Usually I begin with something I really want to draw, then try to find an interesting angle or story involving that subject. Then I storyboard out the main plot points, keeping in mind interesting and funny scenes I want to illustrate. Once I’ve got those super rough thumbnails, then I’ll start the writing.
Spread from The Vanishing Lake
It’s a very back and forth process when you’re writing and illustrating, as you can tweak the text when you’ve got an idea for the illustration, and tweak illustrations when you hit upon a great line and juggle pages around, merging them, splitting them. It’s quite different when you receive a finished story from another author. You can perhaps make small suggestions to the text if you think it’d work better moving a line to the next page or something based on the illustration, but in general the story has already been through so many revisions and is pretty final. So you don’t mess with it, and you don’t want to either!
Hopefully this is just the beginning of my work as an author-illustrator. I still feel pretty new to it, but I’m absolutely loving this journey of discovery.
Other books illustrated by Paddy