Science Illustrated: Q&A with Craig Smith

November 27th, 2019

Hoping to hone your sketching abilities? Renowned children's illustrator Craig Smith shares his tips and tells us what it was like bringing our new picture book Windcatcher to life.
Man holding watercolour painting of birds over stormy sea

Craig Smith showing us one of the beautiful paintings from Windcatcher

Book cover with painting of brown bird in grass

Windcatcher: Migration of the Short-tailed Shearwater

Have you discovered the beautiful artwork in our new children’s picture book Windcatcher yet?

Craig Smith’s second collaboration with author Diane Jackson Hill (who we interviewed for this blog last month) is the story of the incredible migration of a short-tailed shearwater called Hope. Craig’s illustrations bring this adventure to life: from the stormy edges of the Southern Ocean where the birds nest every year, to their feeding grounds among whales in the pale summer light of the Arctic Ocean.

We caught up with Craig to talk to him about the experience of illustrating Windcatcher, and ask him for his best illustration tips.


What inspired you to become an artist and illustrator?

I was lucky. I have a very talented older sister, Maire. Visiting her at the South Australian School of Art in Adelaide was inspiring. Through her I met people interested and ambitious about making pictures. Some later became role models – including an excellent drawing lecturer, George Tetlow. George was an enthusiast about picture books, but it was his guidance in life drawing, the building block of representing body language, that changed my life.

I was lucky as well because Australian society in the 1970’s was changing. One consequence was an increased interest in Australian stories – leading to more publishing opportunities, all of which were a chance to develop as an illustrator.

Actual picture-making inspiration came mainly from a group of Europeans – Etienne Delessert, Roland Topor, Heinz Edelman, Friedrich Karl Waechtar and others. They had a familiar style, somewhat whimsical and funny – but dark as well. This was all new to me and similar but completely different from the familiar Disney and other US comic art.


Did illustrating Windcatcher require a different creative approach to your other picture books?

The story of a short-tailed shearwater’s life is epic in scale. The intention is to show a little of the magnificent effort that the birds undertake each year. Certainly Diane’s words bring that huge effort to life. My hope is to portray just a little of the sights, struggles and dangers the birds face. I am familiar with showing exertion and drama through facial expression and body language – in humans! Less so with birds.

I worried a bit that my illustration style is too loose, too light-hearted, too imprecise. But remembering that this is a child’s story book, not a scientific book, guided me through that anxiety!

Thinking about the natural world is deeply important to me. I have only basic scientific knowledge with a lot of curiosity. Our job as author and illustrator is to spark that same curiosity, wonder and imagination in the reader.

Man holding painting of birds flying over sunny blue sky

Craig loves the melding of watery outline and watery paint.

What is your favourite part of the illustration process?

The process of book illustration in essence is in two parts.

The first part is sketchy and freewheeling, though many rough, sketchy drawings may be done before you settle on your preferred ones. These rough greylead drawings are shown to your editor for feedback.

Then the drawings are copied and neatened onto tough art paper. The colouring or rendering stage is much more careful. You have to actively imagine what will happen with certain colour choices. One way of doing this is to paint the image in many layers, adding depth of colour as colour choice becomes clearer.

The last thing that gives real pleasure is the watery outline. Done with a nibbed pen, ink dipped in water, I love the melding of watery outline and watery paint.

Painting of grey bird flying over red and yellow colours

Craig enjoyed representing the abstract concept of the earth’s magnetic field, a navigational aid for the birds.

Were there any challenges to illustrating this book?

Big problems sometimes become little problems. I was a bit worried about what the interior of the fishing trawler would look like. I ended up thinking of it as sort of an old Hilux on the open sea. Simple technology.

Another would be how to represent the Earth’s magnetic field, hinting at it as a navigational aid. A Google search brought up a wealth of colourful, strange diagrammatic treatments of Earth’s geomagnetism. It was interesting to represent this more abstract concept. Another example is representing the wind patterns over the Pacific, the Coriolis effect on the next page. It was nice to use these diagrammatic techniques to represent things not able to be seen.

Illustrations of men in yellow high-viz jackets holding a bird and using computers

In these original paintings, fishermen manage to free Hope from a fishing net.

Do you have any tips for aspiring illustrators?

I’ve got an eclectic little list together of things that were useful to me:

  1. Draw people. Maybe from unusual viewpoints.
  2. Find artwork that you really like, and think about why. Maybe try to copy it, or mimic it. Find some artistic role models, see how they approach a variety of storytelling and artistic choices. Maybe try and imagine how they might think about an illustration problem. That might guide your own thinking.
  3. Get into the habit of looking and seeing what is around you: light, shadow, patterns, textures, reflections, movement…
  4. Get comfortable with research. Learn a bit about what you are drawing. Follow current affairs. Your ideas can be sharper, more up to date, cleverer.
  5. Read the story out loud – as you would to a child. This may guide you to decide which moment to illustrate.
  6. Get into the habit off drawing lightly, sketchily, while you work out how to shape the drawing. You can neaten it up later.
  7. A mirror is an excellent drawing aid. You can try out body positions, facial expressions, surprising points of view. Being guided by the reflection in the mirror, have a go at drawing what you see.
  8. Doing rough drawings on tracing paper is good practise.
  9. Get into the habit of actively imagining your drawing in terms of tone and contrast – light tone, mid-tone and dark tone. Or, thinking of it in terms of light and shadow.
  10. A pleasing relationship of tones is one thing. What colours you choose to support that can be difficult.


Order Windcatcher: Migration of the Short-tailed Shearwater online from our website or find it in your local bookstore.