Thoughts about illustrating my stories
My main interest is adult fiction (interspersed with quasi-factual meanderings like this one). In this field, the word is deemed sufficient. Illustrated stories are for kids — or for magazines. That’s the received wisdom, whether or not we choose to thumb our noses at it.
A lot of it was once simple economics, not any superiority of the printed word over the printed image. Until quite recently, illustrations used to be prohibitively costly to integrate with text. ‘Plates’ were literally etched plates. Full colour required four separate plates, four passes through the printing press, four times the expense of black-and-white. Even black-and-white photos needed to be printed on expensive coated paper and bound in discrete sections (signatures) of the book.
Digital printing technology has freed a lot of that up, but illustrations still add to cost, and fiction readers expect cheap books. Hardly any of the hundreds of novels on my shelves have illustrations integrated with the text.
So — publishing illustrated stories on Medium and Substack is a unique opportunity that I make the most of … in the certain knowledge that none of my illustrations will make it into the print editions I have planned for the last quarter of this year.
Now, most folk online — with notable exceptions — use stock photos to accompany their writing, and I understand that. They want to send their story out with an eye-catching feature image to pull in readers, and they want to do it without undue fuss and bother. That’s fair enough, but I want to Do All The Things myself.
I like a cartoonish style for my hand-drawn images. Most of them are drawn in Adobe Fresco on iPad or in Photoshop on Mac.
For example, this is when Smurf the Permaculture Cat realises that chickens are a lot more scary when they’re up close and personal. Drawn in Fresco.
I had a lot of fun writing an episode of my novella Stingaree Bay (one of my Friday Novellas on Substack) from a shark’s perspective. I drew this toothy character in Fresco, then imported her into Photoshop to add a background gradient suggestive of sunlight slicing into deep dark water. Making the shark slightly transparent allowed her to emerge out of the murky depths. The power of Adobe’s layers and blending tools was a great help here.
Some of the images in Stingaree Bay are full-on cartoons, like a ‘Love Boat’ sequence I drew to illustrate the erratic progress of Tony’s affair with Tasha, using the boat as a metaphor for the story arc. Drawing with an Apple Pencil on my iPad Pro is very like drawing on an A4 sketchpad — with a vast array of pen nibs, brushes and an unlimited palette.
Other images from the novella are poster-like, and illustrate their episode in a more literal way, e.g. this view of Geelong’s gorgeous Art Deco waterfront with its semi-circular sea baths.
I must admit, I wrote a whole petting-zoo scene in Stingaree Bay so that I had an excuse to draw baby goats in pyjamas. Because why the hell not?
It can be fun to create a scene from scratch with no real-life reference at all. For Hugh’s fraught family gathering, I imagined a 1930s suburban house in Melbourne’s classy Middle Park, complete with two Vietnamese toddlers playing almost concealed behind the wrought-iron gate.
There are so many possibilities these days for editing and manipulating photos — without going full AI, which for me would mean giving up the fun bits.
Most of this image is not hand-drawn, but a carefully layered photomontage of some self-taken photos and stock art from Canva, all of which was then touched up by hand. I made the upper layers transparent so that the wood grain shows through: less verisimilitude but I really like the aesthetics.
Sometimes I rely heavily on filters in Photoshop Camera and Photoshop. They rarely produce usable images alone: usually I have to tweak all the settings carefully to get the painterly effect I’m looking for, as for this beautiful beach scene in Cast Ashore (another Friday Novella on Substack).
The hunt for subject matter has given new purpose to those thousands of photos languishing in old albums. Here’s one of my favourites, taken many years ago on my first digital camera, with a vintage filter applied in Photoshop Camera and further editing in Lightroom:
Sometimes, however, the photos are too gorgeous to muck around with, as in these two examples from Acheron.
Thanks for reading — and looking!
Featured image: ‘Everlastings’ created in Photoshop by the author from his original photograph.
All images © Steve Fendt 2022.