Ruth-Mary Smith shares the experiences and creative process behind the illustrations in Walls by Tania Ingram.

What do you love about illustrating children’s books?

There are many reasons why I love to illustrate children’s books. I loved the imaginative worlds created by picture books during my childhood and I never lost that love. I enjoy visiting the places I can go in my imagination. The process of bringing stories to life is very creative, sometimes challenging and brings a great sense of satisfaction. It’s fun to spend time in these imaginative worlds!

Do you have a favourite style of drawing or painting in illustrations?

My favourite style of drawing is the style I draw in I suppose! It’s the result of years of drawing and experimenting and repeating the elements I love. I am drawn to whimsical illustrations, and I believe this comes through in my own illustrations. I also have particular colour palettes that I am drawn to and am influenced by mid-century and vintage illustration styles.

Traditionally I use watercolours in my artwork, often followed by coloured pencils. I did go through a stage where almost all my illustration was digital, but I really missed working with paint and pencils and the happy outcome of the real materials.

How has your illustrating style changed throughout your career?

I believe that illustration styles are never completely static. I would like to believe that over time with experience and experimentation that my illustration has improved. I find it difficult to pinpoint in what way this is… but I can see it. I am also excited that my style will continue to develop.

What process do you follow when illustrating a new children’s book? Does this change depending on the story?

My process tends to be very similar between books. I start by sketching out ideas for the characters and thumbnail sketches as ideas for the storyboard. Then it’s time for collaboration with the art director or editor. For the finals, I work traditionally first using watercolours and pencils which I then digitise. To finish off, or bring different elements together, I work digitally in Photoshop or procreate. One of the ways my process changes is how much of the story I do traditionally before I digitise it.

What did you enjoy about illustrating Walls by Tania Ingram, which is releasing in July 2024?

When I first read the story of Walls I was excited at the prospect of bringing this story to life. I thought it was very timely for a book such as Walls to be released and thought that the author Tania Ingram had written the book in such an interesting way. It will be a valuable story for educators and parents to promote discussion around conflict and resolution and the importance of communication. For me I enjoyed the opportunity to be part of this important project. My hope is that this book is a springboard for discussions in homes and classrooms around the issue of conflict, and ways to build bridges of friendship with those who may be different to us.

Was there anything that surprised you or was challenging about this process?

Illustrating Walls did have more challenges that other picture books I had illustrated. Firstly, our team of publisher Rochelle Stephens, author Tania Ingram and I had to decide on the best characters to use to seamlessly bring across the message behind the story.

Secondly, creating all the illustrations with the wall down the centre of the book was a different experience. It meant some limitations in perspective but also made me think carefully about how I would illustrate the wall since it is so central to the story. I decided to make the walls using collage while the rest of the story I illustrated digitally. Firstly, I water coloured the rocks onto watercolour paper and speckled them using a trusty paintbrush! Next, I cut out the rocks and laid them out on my scanner so I could digitise them. Once scanned I then deleted the white background, changing them to a png file. They were then available to manipulate digitally on the iPad to use in the illustrations.

What is it like to collaborate with authors on their books?

Most of my contact is with the editor or art director, however, I do really enjoy getting feedback at the various stages from the author. I get a satisfaction from hearing that the illustrations have enhanced their stories.

You’ve also illustrated the PD McPem's Agency for Mysterious Mysteries series, and the third book will be released in June 2024. What is it like to illustrate a series? Does this change your process?

I feel very blessed to get to work on the PD McPem series. The stories are adorable, Anna Battese has written them so well. My process for the illustrations is very similar although because there is only colour on the front cover, the process is quicker. I start by rough sketching my first ideas. Next, I make tidier sketches to show the editor, the lovely Rowena Beresford. Finally, I complete the sketches in Procreate on my iPad, ready to submit.

Do you have any other projects in the works?

At the moment I am absolutely loving working on a new picture book with Wombat Books, Clara Capybara, written by Aleesah Darlinson. It’s such a sweet story and so very fun to be illustrating a little capybara!

After Clara is finished I will be illustrating my next story with Larrikin House. It’s an important book about living with ADHD. Behind the scenes, I am also working on completing some manuscripts of my own, with the goal to be illustrating my own stories.