Behind the Book | Izzy Burton
last updated 24 July 2020
Izzy Burton’s debut picture book The Wonder Tree is full of her gorgeous illustrations, showcasing her amazing use of colour, composition and light. Already an award-winning and BAFTA-nominated animator and director, Izzy takes us behind the scenes of her process of illustrating a picture book, demonstrating just how she created such a magical world. Written by Teresa Heapy and published by Egmont, The Wonder Tree is out now.
What was your creative process for illustrating The Wonder Tree ?
I always start by designing the characters; in The Wonder Tree our main characters are the mother and baby owl. I opted for a more angular shape for the mother owl to contrast nicely with the roundness of the baby owl. I also designed the rest of the animals for the book at this stage and have realised since how good it is to pin down your ‘cast’ of characters before you begin any sketching.
After that I start sketching tiny thumbnails for every spread, so I can see how my ideas flow from page to page, and make sure that I’m using different layouts for vignettes and full pages as the book progresses. It’s nice to contrast composition from spread to spread, differing from intimate, sweet, close-up compositions of the owls, to wide, epic shots of the forest.
Next I’ll take those thumbnails and create the roughs. My roughs for picture books always vary in level of sketchiness and for The Wonder Tree I kept the roughs quite loose. The reason for keeping the roughs loose was that the style I wanted to paint the book in itself was a very energetic, loose style. I worried that if my roughs were too neat and perfect that it would restrict the scribbliness, and energy I wanted the final artwork to emit and it would become wooden and flat. I love to make sure I use as many different ‘camera angles’ as I can (forever an animator ahah!), so that each composition can feel fresh and new.
After the roughs are completed, I make a colour script. Colour is really important to me for telling a story and coming from an animation background, a colourscript is a vital thing in helping show progression and resolution in a story. Obviously with a picture book there’s considerably less ‘frames’ than in animation to play around with, but it’s still important to use colour and light to tell that story.
With The Wonder Tree, the time of day was going to progress in the book from early evening to night, and I really wanted the book to be vibrant and push the colours of the sunset and twilight to the extreme. There are moments in the story when the mother owl talks about the past, and these were going to be monochrome, but I ended up going for a sepia tone so that these scenes had warmth and contrasted nicely with the increasingly darker spreads as the time of day progressed.
Then it’s just a case of painting everything up. It’s really important for me to get the first spread I do right, so that I can have it open as a sounding board for the rest of the spreads to keep them on style as I draw them. I work between different books and animation projects, drawing in so many different styles day to day so it’s key to make sure that a book is cohesive.
Colour variations for the cover
Where do you do your best creative work?
At the moments, we’re still in lockdown and I’m working from home. Normally I would be in a hired desk space in a studio with lots of other creatives around me - it’s what I’ve always known from my in-house animation days. I work better in an environment where I ‘go to work’ and physically walk somewhere else that isn’t my flat, and then have a definitive end of day, as well as other people to interact with throughout the day. But as a freelancer, having flexibility in setting my own time, when I go to work and when I stop, has really helped me with my creativity - some days you just don’t feel like drawing, or you can’t do anything right, and it’s nice to just be able to take those days off and know I can approach my work better at another time. Hopefully I’ll be back in a studio space soon - I’m on a waiting list for a really cool Brighton space that’s opening more permanent desk spaces for creatives.
Spread from The Wonder Tree
Were you artistic as a child? Where did the creativity all begin?
100%! I have this folder of artwork my Mum saved at my family home and it’s full of stories I was writing and illustrating from aged 5 onwards, and some other earlier drawings from when I was 3 and 4. I was always making something or doing something creative, and more often than not it was focused on storytelling. I think it was heavily influenced by the fact my Mum would read chapter books to me every night before bed. I couldn’t read enough, and I think that’s why I loved to write and draw myself.
Though I loved to draw and write I don’t think I ever saw it as a career. I wanted to be a Zoologist until I was about 16, it was only when I was choosing university courses and looking like I was going down a more computer/maths route that my Mum pointed out my love for animating, drawing and storytelling, and I chose to do Animation.
In retrospect looking back at my childhood now that I work on stories for a living, it feels like what I was always meant to be doing and that I was made to do nothing else!
Izzy as a child, and now // Izzy during her recent appearance of CBBC’s Blue Peter
What one piece of advice would you give to an aspiring artist?
My advice is always: passion and hard work - those are the two things you need to become an artist, and perhaps a little luck from time to time.
Art is a skill you can learn, and practice every day to get better at, so hard work is key. But you need that passion to not only be willing to spend time improving and pushing yourself forward, but also for your work to sing. Passion in what you do is always so visible in art, you can tell if you’re enjoying it, and it’s always shows which projects I enjoy because the passion for the work seeps through. And whilst passion and hard work are so important, I’ve found that I’ve been in the right places at the right times a few times in life, to grab those opportunities. BUT make sure you’re going to events, networking, sharing your work online, all those things that make those ‘right place, right time’ moments a little more likely to happen!
Spread from The Wonder Tree
Can you tell us what to expect next from you?
This first year of freelance has been incredibly busy for me, which has been the loveliest thing. I’ve got several more picture books coming out over the next year, some book covers and I’ve just started work on four fiction books in a series, with lots of 2-tone interior illustrations, which is really fun. I’ve also been working on some artwork with Netflix Animation in LA for an unannounced kid’s TV show. Whilst I love working on the art side of things, I’ve also tried my hand at writing a middle grade novel and my lovely Bright agents are currently sending that out to publishers to see if we can get any interest, so fingers crossed for that because that really would be a dream come true!
Upcoming books illustrated by Izzy Burton
Why is being part of an agency important to you?
Going freelance was a daunting experience but being part of an agency erased a lot of that doubt and worry. It’s so great to know I have people in my corner getting my work out there and in front of the right people. It’s a godsend to be able to sit back and not worry about contracts, self-promotion, and schedules. Being a part of Bright, I not only have someone to call when things get overwhelming and I need help shifting work around, but I also have people who genuinely love and celebrate my work, and are so happy to hear my ideas and help me flourish in this industry. What more could you want!?
You can see more of Izzy’s work in her portfolio.