Dust – how I drew the vultures

I thought as there appears to be a good deal of interest in this book I could offer a little more information about the process I went though for this illustration. Click on the images below to see a larger image.

Colin invited several illustrators to donate an illustration for a book he’d written, I was honoured to be one of them. He asked each of us to choose one sentence from his manuscript that we would like to illustrate. I was immediately drawn to the line No one here now, just the big birds waiting in our tree. For me this illustration was about representing and triggering an emotional response. This is what really stood out. I didn’t know it at the time, but looking back now, I understand why this image was so important to me. I reacted emotionally to this story with this strong urge to put feeling into my image.

The idea of a gnarled old tree was the first image I thought of, then the mother and child, and set to work on that. The birds were lurking in the back of my mind. I walked around outside taking photos and sketches of lovely big trees. I had some wonderful trees to gaze at as we had rainforest on our property in Deervale. I experimented with collagé in Adobe Photoshop with papers, photos and textures.

I drew the mother and child repeatedly, mainly from my imagination rather than using any reference here. When it came time to create the birds, I was trying to portray a feeling of menace, and struggled with this. My images are usually upbeat and perky. I showed the work in progress to Colin to get a second opinion, and in his special way, he pointed out something that was bothering me already about the birds. He jokingly offered they looked like really scary budgerigars! Oh dear, that wasn’t going to work. I had spent so much time experimenting with the layers and textures in Photoshop, I lost something in the process with my illustration. So I took a deep breath and decided to start again. I left it for a while.

Often I have an image immediately in my head. Other times I worry that it has to be absolutely perfect, and it takes longer. However, if I let it go for a spell, all of a sudden an image magically appears and it’s just right. I get all excited and can’t wait to do it. This is exactly what happened with my vultures. I did some research online to make sure I was familiar with their anatomy, but I don’t like to be too perfect there as it seizes up my imagination a little. I can get bogged down in the detail of that and lose the spontaneity of the image. This is why I admire Quentin Blake, after years of illustration, he draws with his blackline pens or ink and brush, and makes no corrections to the illustrations, thus keeping the original impression from his mind to the paper.

I began with charcoal on a big piece of paper. I wanted to make a mess, having it all scratchy and messy to emphasise the mood of a vulture. It took this one sketch and that was it, I knew it was exactly what I wanted to do. I got the good paper out and lightly pencil sketched my birds into position. I then thought about the brown background colour I wanted. A dirty, dry, and dusty brown. My inks weren’t right. Out of curiosity I played around with watered down coffee. This was the brown I was looking for! My artwork now smells like something I’d brew for my morning breakfast. Next some black ink wash along the bottom to add to the sombre mood. All the while I was conscious of keeping it loose. I have a tendency to be very neat, and didn’t want to do this here as it wasn’t going to suit the messiness of the vultures nature.

The vultures were drawn last, and I used black ink, charcoal and white pastel for the highlights. I was very happy with my vultures and took the artwork off to Colin. He named them Barry and Wayne, and in his wonderfully scary imagination had formulated a story of them in a conversation about who they’d eaten that day, trying to outdo each other ‘Oh that’s nothing, I ate the postman this morning’. One amusing ‘Colin’ comment has always stuck in my head, Dee, only you could make vultures look cute 🙂 My response; But I was trying to make them look scary!

I hope you enjoyed this little story (and forgive the unedited), offering a little more insight into how I created this illustration for a very special book Dust. Thankyou everyone who has sent messages of support xxx


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1 Comment

  1. Hi Dee,

    I just wanted to let you know that your illustration in Dust is amazing! I think you have done a perfect job in complementing the text. I have chosen to do my essay for uni on this picture book and I have analysed your artwork. Well done and do not quit your day job :-).


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