Writing is definitely easier!


Writing is definitely easier than illustrating.  No doubt about it!   I don’t struggle with words the way I struggle with pencil and watercolour brushes.   Even after all these many years of writing and illustrating books for children I am still intimidated by a blank piece of watercolour paper and terrified of making that first fateful pencil mark.  

As I work on the finished illustrations for A BED FOR LITTLE CUB I keep telling myself two things: 1) if I make a mistake I can always start over (this never really seems to work to give me courage to plunge in and just start drawing) and 2) it’s only a 12″ x 12″ piece of paper that you have to make magic happen on!

12″ x 12″ can seem like a huge wall mural when you have to make every single stroke of the pencil or brush count.  There is no room for error.   And there’s plenty of room for mistakes.  sigh…

Another trick I keep telling myself is:  “Oh, just start drawing, have fun with it, it’s only a sketch.”   This little mind trick is what I try when I’m actually working on a finished illustration.  Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.   There’s always that wretched little creature on my shoulder, whispering in my ear, Doubt.  

I do gain comfort from one of my most favorite illustrator’s words, Margot Tomes: “Drawing isn’t at all easy or fun for me—it’s very difficult.”

MY feeling exactly!   I love to draw, but there is something very intimidating about doing a drawing, making an illustration that is going to be published for all the world to see and make note of any missteps you make.   

I have to get these seventeen illustrations finished and I feel like I’m slogging away through a tub of molasses and not making very much progress!   I know what I want to draw and I wish I could draw faster and paint faster.  But, it feels like an interminable painstaking process.  

It’s not illustrator’s block (or is it).  It’s simple avoidance.  I force myself to sit at the drawing board in the studio willing “magic” to happen and not letting myself get out of my chair until it does.  

It’s now 5:00 o’clock in the morning.  Magic was very slow in coming tonight.   I find myself mumbling to myself “After all, tomorrow’s another day.”

Work in the studio is coming along nicely!


I am excited about the work that I am accomplishing in the studio as I work on the finished layouts and finished artwork for A BED FOR LITTLE CUB!   I’m not doing any writing at the moment because I have to get 17 finished illustrations done by the end of August.  Then back to writing (and still drawing).

Here is the almost final revised layout for the first page of the story (page 5):Finished Page 5

I am very pleased with this sketch.  I have to decide if the second mouse should be perched on top of Old Bear’s chair or quietly sitting on the edge of the hearth behind his chair.   The duck decoys work beautifully in this picture and I’m so glad that idea came to me before I did the final drawing and painting of this illustration.

Here is the almost original layout (the stacks of books were added later):


It is easy to see how the composition has greatly improved since this very early sketch/layout.

Duck decoys!


It’s a lawn mowing day here in the mountains.  The sound of lawn mowers surround Henwoodie as everyone seems to be out mowing their lawns.  I mowed ours a couple days ago.   Other than the sound of the mowers, birds are chirping and the air hangs heavy over the trees.  The sun is trying to come out, but it’s one of those uncertain end-of-summer days.

I worked in the studio until 7 am.   I am making progress with the finished illustrations for A BED FOR LITTLE CUB.   Ideas come at the oddest moments.   Around 3 am the idea came to me to put old, rustic duck decoys and carved ducks on the mantle of the fireplace in the two illustrations that feature the stone fireplace as the central background element.   The ducks will add a touch of specific quirkiness to the lives of Old Bear and Little Cub (they certainly are NOT duck hunters!).  I like the shape of the duck decoys and the earthy colours that I can show in the pictures.

I threw caution to the wind and went ahead and started painted the entire tree that shows Little Cub sleeping on a bowed lower branch.   The picture will be cropped to fit the 10″x10″ trim size of the book (and most likely reduced a bit).   This picture will be used on the half title page.  My thought is that it makes a nice lead-in to the idea that Little Cub wants his own bed to sleep in.

Here’s the painting as it is progressing:

Tree underpainting 2

This jpg shows the first layers of underpainting.  


Making Progress…


I’m slowly making progress with getting the finished layouts and illustrations done for A BED FOR LITTLE CUB.   The pressure is on to have these pictures finished by 25 August!   It’s at this stage in doing the finished art that I always wish I was somewhere else, doing something else entirely, and just not having to worry about getting the artwork finished!   You would think that the easiest thing to do would be to JUST DO IT AND GET IT DONE!   

Here’s the layout I did last night.  The layouts are always rough and the “magic” happens when I transfer the layout onto the  watercolour paper and start painting.

Shed 2

After getting the “idea” down on paper in a sketch/layout I then can more easily make the decisions as to what needs to be changed, eliminated, or added.  Right now two of the background trees look like horns grown out of the roof of the work shed.  I think they’ll have to be deleted in the finished art.

And, of course, as I work on the finished pictures the text of the story often changes.   When I see that the illustrations more clearly (and usually more strongly) conveys what I’m trying to do to move the story along I see where words can be cut altogether.  In other instances, I see where I may need to add a line in order to make the shift to another scene (from indoors to outdoors, for example) more logical.   

For me the words and pictures work “hand-in-glove”.   They cannot be separated.

Tonight I’ll plunge in and will do the finished painting of this layout.  If it comes out good I’ll post a photo here.

LITTLE CUB: Creating the Artwork


If you’d like to see and hear how I go about creating the artwork for the Old Bear and Little Cub series I posted a video on youtube titled: LITTLE CUB: Creating the Artwork.  I don’t know how to embed the url here in this blog (something I’ll have to figure out).  But if you’d like to see my work method go to youtube and take a look!



The current book project on the drawing board is A BED FOR LITTLE CUB.   This is the third book in the Old Bear and Little Cub series (OLD BEAR AND HIS CUB; LITTLE CUB).   The writing is finished.  Right now I’m working on the finished illustrations (17) for the book.

Here is a sneak peek at a couple layouts for the book:


New Page 5

This is the first illustration in the story.


Page 4-5            Old Bear and Little Cub sat by the fire.

Fireplace            “Time for bed, Little Cub,” said Old Bear.

The layouts are my guides to doing each finished picture in the book.  I often make changes as I work on the finished art.  Sometimes it’s a simple addition of an interesting detail.  Other times it’s taking something out that simply isn’t necessary.

Here is the original sketch/layout for the first illustration in the story:


This sketch was done quickly in order to capture the moment in the story that I wanted to illustrate.   Notice how the fireplace was simplified and the objects better arranged on the mantle. I decided to use a traditional Orkney straw-backed chair (have a miniature chair model that I had bought in 1978 during that first visit to the islands).

Page 7

This is the sketch for Page 7 in the book.  Again, this was an early sketch before I changed the fireplace, Old Bear’s chair, and added books.  All these details will be done in the finished artwork.  No need to make them here.  I know what the changes are and that’s all that matters.

Here is the text that goes with this picture:

Page 6-7            “Tell me a story, please,” said Little Cub.

Fireplace            “Just one story,” said Old Bear. “In bed.”

                           “Two stories,” said Little Cub.

                           “One story,” said Old Bear.

                           “One and one-half stories,” said Little Cub.

                           “ONE story, “ said Old Bear.

                           “Hmphf!” said Little Cub.  

For the Old Bear and Little Cub books the format is straightforward: text is always on the lefthand page and the illustration is always on the righthand page.   I have never liked it when text is superimposed into or on top of an illustration.   I like to keep the two as separate as possible.  

You will notice how in the manuscript I always note the page numbers and give a one or two word description as to what is the key element to be shown in the illustration.  It’s how I keep track of interior and exterior scenes, etc.  

As the relationship between Old Bear and Little Cub grows I wanted the pictures to show a cozy home life, security, and the caring, loving nature of Old Bear (underneath his gruff exterior).  Old Bear firmly believes in routine and structure in his life and in the life of Little Cub.

The illustrations for this book will be finished by the end of August.  The book will be published in the Fall 2015.


My Daily Routine


It’s three o’clock in the afternoon and I’m slowly waking up after a long shower and am now having my first cup of coffee.  The sun is valiantly trying to break through the clouds.   Henwoodie is quiet and waiting for me to wake up.  

I had posted that I am living the life that I always imagined I would live.  That life includes working in the studio all night (until six o’clock in the morning) and sleeping late.  I’ve never been a morning person.  I am most productive after three o’clock in the afternoon.

At the moment I’m working night and day to finish a pressing book deadline.  The writing is finished. The editing is finished.  And the layouts are done.   Being both a writer and illustrator means that I bide my time between writing and illustrating.   I should point out that writing comes much more easily to me than illustrating.   I am a writer who illustrates rather than an illustrator that writes.

For some strange reason I don’t have the fear of making mistakes with words, even when I do make mistakes.  And lots of them.   It’s facing a blank piece of paper knowing that I have to try to create magic with pencil and gouache that is terrifying.   I’m definitely the white knuckle type of illustrator.

Once an illustration is finished, then the book.   I can only see all the mistakes I made.  Small things that I should have changed, would love to change.   It mystifies my friends and family that once a book is finished I really don’t have any more interest in it.  I seldom look at the published printed book.   For me, it’s the creative problem solving process of writing, designing, and illustrating a book that fascinates me.   When I’m writing or illustrating I really do “live” the moment in time in the story.

Interestingly enough, what I do love to read and reread over and over are my research notes when I’m working on a more ambitious writing project.

In 1978 I first ventured to Scotland for eight weeks and fell in love with the landscape, the people, and the prehistoric sites.   From 1978-98 I kept going back in order to visit, think about, and do research on ancient sites in northern Scotland, the Orkney and Shetland Islands, and the Outer Hebrides.   These twenty years of research shaped and brought into focus the foundation of nearly all my writing.   My focus is on the origin of folk beliefs associated with ancient sites.

Since 1980 I have been writing, taking notes, creating characters, and an entire mythical world in which my books are more often than not take place.   The title of this epic heroic saga/mythology is: THE LAY OF MOEL EYRIS: The Saga of the Bear’s Son.   

There are five books in the opus: The Secret Book of Moolstery; The Secret of the Mool Dykes; The Secret of Morag’s Too’er; The Secret of the Myvyrian Map; The Secret of the Dragon Eggs.

The world of Moel Eyris is a richly layered, complex narrative.   Nearly every picture book that I write and illustrate are ‘folk tales’ from this larger, more ambitious work.

I have posted videos on youtube where I read one of the more lively and interesting ‘background’ stories as to how one of the principal characters came to be in Moel Eyris.   

As this blog progresses I will most likely post thoughts and ideas as to how the narrative is coming along.  I have drawn detailed maps of the archipelago and know its history better than I do American history.   The lives of the islanders fascinate me.   Being an illustrator means that I think in picture scenarios and often write in “scenes” (very much like a screenplay).   I know the islands’ story from beginning to end.  I have written Time Lines, Word Lists, Chronology, Overview, and detailed descriptions of each island, each farm, village, inhabitant, etc.   it’s now just a matter of telling the story in an interesting way and let the reader discovery for himself (or herself) the magical and mysterious world of maols, skeely-wifes, trows, Mole Island bears, the Yule Bear, the Faärlanders, broken men, standing stones, mool dykes, dwarves and, of course, ghosts.

My goal is to finish the first book by the end of this year.   Hopefully by then I will have pretty much wrapped up the last of the outstanding picture book contracts and can concentrate of LOME.

Now, back to my daily routine.   Once I’m awake I read and reply to a vast number of emails: queries from readers, queries from my editors or art directors, and newsy emails from friends.  I read The New Yorker, Publisher’s Weekly, Scientific American, National Geographic magazine, and other periodicals while drinking my coffee.   I’ll do a bit browsing on the internet looking up words or islands that I have made note of and want to read more about.  

Around 4 o’clock the pups and I will take a long walk in the meadow and woods.  If the river isn’t swollen from all the rain we’ve been having, we’ll hike down to the river for a swim.

I head up to the studio to start working in earnest around 5 o’clock  in the afternoon.   Dinner is at 8 o’clock.  Coffee is at 9 o’clock and then I settle in for a long night of uninterrupted drawing and painting.   I take another coffee break around 4 o’clock in the morning, eat a bagel, then back to work until around 6 o’clock in the morning.   The pups stay up with me and go out every two hours or so.

I sleep in short blocks of time in the morning hours between 6 am and noon.   The pups let me know when they have to go out.  Like a zombie, I pull on my bathrobe and head downstairs to let them out.   I’m one of those people that doesn’t really wake up even when I’m walking and talking to the pups.   Fortunately, I can go right back to sleep and not really wake up until around one or two in the afternoon.  

And that’s when my typical day begins.  

I always say that nothing is going to happen before noon that won’t happen after noon.

It’s now time for the pups’ afternoon hike.   

Why words? Why writing?


Each writer comes to be a writer via as many routes as they can imagine.  Or write about.   For me I write to live.  I live to write.   It’s no great stretch of the imagination to say, or write, that writing literally saved my life when I was a young boy.   There are very few ‘free’ things in this world, but for the most part words really are free.  All you have to do is speak them or write and nowadays you can often read words (like this blog) for FREE!   

My favorite saying is: Writers are readers.  Readers often become writers.   I have always been an avid reader and loved the worlds that words, mere words, took me to.   As a young boy life was rough.  Rough as in dirt poor poverty rough.   Books and stories were my escape from the harsh reality of life.   My favorite books to read as a boy were any stories that centered on animals.  Particularly, dogs.  I loved dog books and could not get enough of them:  BIG RED, LAD, A DOG; OLD YELLER, LASSIE COME HOME, THE DOG IN MY LIFE, and so on.   I have always loved dogs and to this day still do.   In fact, we have eight dogs in our life!  Note:  We are very involved with shelter dog rescue.

Writing and dogs were my “comfort food” you might say.   They drew me like a moth to a candle flame.  I could not NOT read.  And I could not NOT love dogs.   It’s that simple.

I love books (like most writers do).  I love the look of them, the shape of them, the feel of them, and, of course, the smell of them.   I can get lost in a good book for hours, days.   There have been many nights when I have lain in our huge carved wooden bed reading all night long, not able to leave the story.

I suppose I began writing my own story and stories when I was around twelve years old.   I kept a journal and recorded the mundane details of my daily existence.   But I yearned for more.  A more exciting life to write about.   Naturally, the easiest thing to do was to begin to embroider my own life’s story and then branch out into creating entirely original fictional stories that had nothing to do with my, but reflected the life I would love to live.  There was excitement, haunted houses, mysterious train journeys, even more mysterious strangers who watched me constantly and gave me the jitters.   

My fictional life became a lot more exciting than my reality life so I wrote — every day.   Words gave me control over a world, characters, a life that I longed to live.  My own reality life was something I seemed to little or no control over.   Escape is what I longed for and escape writing is what I did.  I wrote to escape.

People talk about living in an alternate universe.  I suppose this is true of many writers.   Writing about a character or a world truly does take over your existence.  For a while anyway.   I seemed to write the most when I was at my low ebb, or in the “depths of despair” as Anne Shirley would say.   The more depressed and stressed I felt, the more I wrote.   

Writing words literally saved my life.   

Writing is a cathartic release from the pressures of the reality of our lives.   We can fell in control, feel happy, or just simply be.  Be whatever it is we want to be at any given moment in time in our story.   The more I wrote about the life I longed to live the more my own reality life began to reflect my fictional life.  

Today I live the life I always imagined I would like to live.  It’s not a perfect life by any means, but it’s a happy life, a productive life, a life filled with adventures.  And dogs.  And books.  And one man who loves me and makes me feel safe and secure in my reality life.   I think the expression I’m looking for is: I’m living the good life. 

This is not to say a rich lifestyle (as in rich and famous) but rich in being happy and being where I want to be.   And being free to write as much and for as long as I desire.

Most likely it was simply a matter of time before I started “blogging”.  I detest the word blogging but the activity serves a purpose.   Writers feel compelled to write.   It’s almost like an addiction.  Oh, good grief, it IS an addiction!

I still write in journals (professional writing logs and personal journals) as well as earn my living professionally as both a writer and illustrator.  I write in endless chat dialog boxes and on my FaceBook page (which I consider just another form of a personal journal letting friends and family know what I’m up to, thinking, or have stumbled across in cyberspace that I think is interesting.

Words are my life.  My life is words.

I decided to start this blog to offer a bit of insight into my life as a writer.   This blog is titled “The Writing Life at Henwoodie” and I’m fairly certain that anyone who starts reading the blog will wonder “What IS Henwoodie?”    

Simple answer.  Henwoodie is the name of our house.   We live in a one hundred year old Arts and Crafts house that looks like a giant henhouse.  Hence the name: Henwoodie.  

Here is Henwoodie:

Henwoodie Christmas 2013 2

It is here at Henwoodie that I do nearly all my writing, either sitting in the Breakfast Room staring out at the terrace and gardens and trees.  Or, sitting on the terrace listening to the sounds of nature and thinking and writing.   Most often it is when I’m in bed, late at night, with words bombarding my brain from every imaginable direction.

Writing in bed is the perfect place for me because our bed becomes the world that I am writing about.  Lately, that world is in a 1920s First Class train compartment barreling across a strange landscape in Europe or Scotland not knowing exactly where the journey will end, but paying attention to all the details of the journey.

Our bed

This is our bed.  You have to picture this bed in a room painted a dark forest green with a very light ceiling and rail above.   The bed has a thick comfortable mattress, a cozy quilt, eight pillows, and at least five dogs.  And me.

Here is our bed in reality:

Bed messy

Writing can make quite a mess of the bed, as you can see.

Lying in bed with the pups and my laptop always compels me to want to write.

I’ll end this post with this thought:  Words are all we have with which to communicate our thoughts and feelings.   Ideally, our actions support our words.   Words can weave a magic spell, take to another realm in time, or inflict intolerable amounts of pain.   I like to think of words as pearls.  When strung together just so they can create something of great beauty.  Or something of great horror.   Choose your words carefully.  String them together thoughtfully.   Cherish your words just as you would treasure pearls.