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  • Writer's pictureMichelle Carlos

The Art of Practice

Updated: May 5, 2021

If you want to improve your illustration style, practice, practice, practice.

a girl with a watermelon tree on her head
Jitna grows a watermelon | Watercolor | 2020


To prepare us for this Make Art That Sells school year's Illustrating for Children's Books course, our genius teacher, artists' agent and illustrator, Lilla Rogers, gave us a series of prompts for five weeks leading up to the first day of the class. As excited as I was, I jumped right in. This would be a good practice and will start my engine running and creative juices flowing.

Photo courtesy of Make Art That Sells

The first assignment was to create a character based on a photograph of an actual person, a child really. It's a picture of MATS Manager, Jitna Bhagani.

The first thing in my mind was, what is this expression? I know it. I understand it. I make this face. I think I have a picture with this facial expression, too. But how to draw it?

You already know that my weakness is drawing people and so this is my first challenge. Draw this in my style for a picturebook. Lilla gave us hints about the story behind the photograph for inspiration. Jitna was on a train on her way to Mombasa, Kenya. Oh, I would love to be on such a train! Good start.


I know I had to work on drawing people and so I did my sketches. Never mind the facial expression on the photo, I'll do all kinds of faces and poses first. Once I get to know my character, I might be able to decipher the look on her face.

My first Jitna drawing was older, according to my best friend, who is a wonderful person and illustrator as well as brilliant creative director. I always run to him for drawing tips and tricks. "Draw a bean," he said. He meant for the torso of a younger child. Picturebooks are targetted to 5-7 year old children and to convert that into cartoon years, about 3 head sizes. The child will look "toddlerish," according to our other brilliant ICB mentor, art director and author, Zoë Tucker. Big head, tiny body with rounded shoulders, big eyes and small mouth. I like dot eyes a lot! It makes my character more naive, in my opinion.

Finally, that expressive face of baby Jitna on the train. What's going on there? What was she thinking about? What is she looking at? I even asked my best friend to do his own version. We both scratched our heads. I worked on the unicorn.

A Skeptical Girl

After a substatial amount of staring in space with my head jumping from one idea to another, I realized that this is a face of a child who is half-amused. Her gaze is steady, as though she was listening intently to a fantastical story told by one of her train companions but she didn't believe any of it. Eureka! Jitna is a skeptical girl.

A girl on her knees on the floor surrounded by her toys
Jitna | Acrylic gouache | 2020

That became my character's story. "Believe, Jitna!" is going to be the title. It's about a girl who is too cynical for her age that she finds tall tales of giants, fairies and magical adventurelands ridiculous despite donning a beloved talking, singing, dancing and piano playing iconic cartoon mouse on her tee.

Immediately ideas of scenes came flooding in and at the top of the list is the one with a unicorn. Although we were asked to create just a character I got carried away and made a scene anyway. Why not? After all Unicorns are the mascots of fairyland. That's it! A unicorn visits Jitna in her room—the unicorn being her parent dressed up in an inflatable costume of a candy zebra striped unicorn. Jitna is suspicious.

A girl with a unicorn infalatable in her room
Jitna and the Unicorn | Acrylic goauche | 2020

The Palette

For this exercise, I wanted to utilize colors I seldom use: pastels and neutrals. Also I wanted to work with the acrylic gouache I have recently acquired to understand the medium and how I could integrate the medium in my workflow. Sounds technical, but these are things to consider when working on big projects. The good thing about acrylic gouache paints is that they are matte, have a fine texture that can produce a watercolor effect, suitable for layering, permanent and I have an entire box of delicious colors, especially neutrals that I need not mix anymore, which saves a lot of time. The trouble is, the paints dry very quickly and so a systematic planning of which color to use first and how much is needed for the application is necessary. You don't want to waste precious paint that came directly and only from Japan.

See the world outside

The second prompt was to look out our window and draw what we see. The purpose is to make us work on creating an environment, which is crucial for picturebooks. I have done this exercise already with my "Village Guardians" piece, a giant black cat watching over the village because I saw this cat on the horizon while I was having breakfast. I live in Sandton, Johannesberg on the 11th floor with a 180 degree view of northwestern part of the city. We are treated with gorgeous African sunsets here.

Our view of Lake Garda

So the picture I created for the Day 2 prompt instead was a view from our inn at Lake Garda, Italy during our holiday there in 2012. And no, there isn't a giant crocodile across the lake but I'm reminded of my Granny who always warned us not to go to the river near their house because there resided a crocodile and it fed on kids. I have never seen that river but I love that lake.

As for the style, I'm doing the same style and technique with my book cover design from last year's ICB story, "The Girl Who Said 'No'". I was advised to make more pieces in that style for my portfolio and this idea is an opportunity. Besides a definitive style only emerges after a thousand pieces, not ten.

Giant Croc | Acrylic gouache | 2020

My imagination went wild again and created another scene about little Jitna, who is pondering about strange clouds. This time she is the one looking outside the window, which is one of my favorite past times, really: searching for animals and patterns in cloud formations. I saw that elephant cloud while on an uneventful 14-hour train ride to Kota Bahru, Malaysia. I was grateful for clouds and cows along the way. Meanwhile, Jitna doubts the possibilities that these fluffy things offer. I, on the other hand, explored the story further and her poses.

Strange Clouds | Watercolor | 2020


At this point, and now on the third week, I was on a roll. I worked on a scene every other day. For the third exercise, we were asked to use the window scene and try changing the relative proportions of the character and the objects around her.

My goal for this picture was to draw foliage. Jitna doesn't believe in fairies and so I gave her wings.

To wrap up my Jitna story, and to add more into exercise no. 3, I planted a watermelon onto my girl's head! Again I remembered my grandparents consistently warning me not to eat seeds or a tree will grow inside my belly. So I have developed fear from seeds such as those from tamarinds or grapes and of course, watermelons and yet I wondered why the dried ones were a favorite munching snack back home. Oh, the silly things our elders tell us to make us behave!


Speaking of home, I decided to make another painting because I have a lot of free time in my hands with too many ideas in my head. I had to extract them and bring them out to the world. The 4th exercise is about creating distance through atmospheric perspective, which I have already achieved on my Day 2 picture of the giant crocodile. It didn't stop me from making another picture, though not quite part of Jitna's story anymore. The scene is actually a memory of my childhood combined with my hot air balloon ride over Bavaria, Germany. The mountain is an extinct (we hope) volcano, Mount Arayat, nearby my hometown in the Philippines. There used to be a railway line that ran through my village from the capital to the north and my older brother and I would always wait for the trains. One day the trains just stopped—literally stopped right in the middle of the road going into our village on my 6th birthday! None of my friends could come to my party because the road was blocked. You had to hop onto the train to get to the other side! Over time the tracks disappeared, people started building their homes along the railroad and since then no trains passed by anymore. The idea also came from a picturebook story I wrote in one sitting one fine early morning of clarity.

From the intial rough sketch, I made a collage from my hot-air balloon ride pictures (except for the train) to help me visualize the scene and check proportions. Stan Smith taught me that.

One more time

These are the pieces I have created so far for our children’s books illustration prep exercises. It’s always nice to see them altogether to see a continuity in style, color and of course, characters. To be honest, though I really enjoyed this exercise and had to restrain myself from making more for fear of running out of creative juices, I realized I still need to work on so many things in terms of character design, overall design and color palette. It can be frustrating at times to know that I don't have a style of my own but I cannot let that defeat me now because by making more art, my own style or artistic voice will eventually emerge. I am not yet where I want to be.

Meanwhile, I have another scene in my head that wanted to sit on paper but somehow it did not go as I imagined. The more I looked at it, the more I was hating it. No amount of tweaking can salvage it. What went wrong? I thought I was improving. By then I knew I overworked myself. It looked like a bowl of salad gone bad. I asked my BFF's opinion again and just confirmed my feeling towards it. It's chaotic and there's no composition.

Salad Bowl | Watercolor | 2020
Alice | Watercolor | 2020

I took a break from the painting and just did character sketches while recharging, which means researching. For the nth time, I looked at the works of artists that I really admire like, Isabelle Arsenault, Carson Ellis, Kay Nielsen, Aitch, Gustav Klimt, Harry Clarke, Hokusai, and others—you know, just get a little bit from each of them and combine to make into your own. Which artists do you go to when looking for inspiration?

I also signed up for a three-week self-paced course in Domestika about illustrating children's books taught by illustrator Adolfo Serra wherein we were to illustrate a scene from Alice in Wonderland and another one, Pictures of Youth from the University of York to supplement my education. I will write about these course perhaps on another day. These gave me time to just free my brain from the pressure of finishing a picture until I was ready to move on. Normally I do not repeat nor redo a similar concept but I was determined this time to improve my skills.

Practice puts brains in your muscles. - Sam Snead

In my research, I discovered more artists that embody the style that I want to achieve with a couple just for inspiration in fantastical quirkiness. Along came Zhe Titi, Eri Iwasaki, Sue Fenlon, Shaun Tan and Tomoko Nagai as well as miniature doll house maker, Hanabira. I reviewed my artists, old and new, once again and discovered common denominators among them: magical, whimsical, decorative, tender and dreamy—all adjectives that I want to describe my own work. I tried once more to create the scene and I'm glad I did. See the difference? Same concept; different look.

By the Pond | Watercolor | 2020

Practice + Patience

Really, I am learning everyday—skills, techniques, style and my own personality. I'm learning to identify which tools and techniques work best for me, which color palette appeals to me, which subject matter sparks my creativity and which areas still need improvement. In order to repair, you need to know first what's wrong, right? Lilla indeed tricks us into doing our best work.

What brings me joy in making art is thinking of stories and concocting ideas of scenes and then putting them on paper. Goethe said, 'what you always dreamed of, begin working on it.' I didn't dream of becoming an artist, I've always been one. It’s just a matter of getting better at it. What I really dreamt of was writing a book and have it published but I didn't realize right away that I could illustrate it, too. Last Monday I began my sophomore year in MATS ICB. This course has encouraged me to pursue that.

Though I am not quite in that place where I can say, this is my kind of art, I’m determined to get there with practice and patience (with myself). Care to see me grow?

What you always dreamed of, begin working on it. - Johann Wolfgang von Goethe


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