For Art’s Sake!

Thoughts about illustrating my stories

One of the many things that two years’ writing on Medium and Substack has gifted me as a writer is a delight in 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.

Hand-drawn images

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.

Cartoon of an angry black hen
‘Bessie’ | author image in Adobe 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.

Painting: a large shark swimming on a deep blue background.
‘Predator’ | author image in Adobe Fresco and Photoshop

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.

Here’s one:

Cartoon: a small yacht sailing away, leaving two messages in bottles bobbing in its wake.
‘In Her Wake’ | author image in Adobe Fresco

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.

Poster-style illustration. Art Deco semicircular sea baths with green lawns in the foreground and a palm tree. Small figures picnicking, walking, playing ball
‘Waterfront’ | author image Adobe Fresco

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?

Illustration: two baby goats wearing pyjamas.
‘Petting Zoo’ | author image in Adobe Fresco and Photoshop

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.

Illustration: a garden wall with an ornate iron gate. Creepers trailing over the wall, and Bird of Paradise plants rising above it. Behind the gate two toddlers in bright clothes are playing. In the background a 1930s Californian Bungalow style Australian house is sketched in.
‘Brenda’s House’ | author image in Adobe Fresco

Manipulated photos

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.

Composite graphic. A smartphone displaying the photo of a caller 'Ella', a smiling young blonde woman, next to a wood plane on a sheet of timber upon which construction lines for a ukulele are inscribed.
‘Ella Calling’ | author image using Canva stock art, own photos in Photoshop

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).

Photo edited to look like a watercolour painting of a beach with a low headland on the right. The beach is bisected by a creek in a reverse S shape snaking towards the distant surf.
‘Wye River Beach’ | author photo (iPhone 11 Pro) with Photoshop Camera and Lightroom

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:

Photo of vintage racing yachts on Corio Bay, Geelong. Artificially distressed and edited to look like a pastel sketch.
‘Festival of Sail’ | author photo (Fuji Finepix) + Adobe Photoshop Camera, Lightroom

Sometimes, however, the photos are too gorgeous to muck around with, as in these two examples from Acheron.

Photo of a misty morning scene in the Otways. Cows in a meadow and a tree with overhanging branches.
‘Misty Morning’ | author photo iPhone 11 Pro
Black and white photo of a circular pool in a rocky surface, reflecting the clouds and sky above.
‘Sky Pool’ | author photo iPhone 11 Pro, edited in MacOS Photos

Thanks for reading — and looking!


You can find my stories on Medium, as weekly episodes on my storyletter Tall and Tiny Tales and as downloadable free ebooks here on my website.

Smaller copy of the featured image, showing six yellow everlasting daisies on an orange and green-black background, in a composition slightly reminiscent of Van Gogh's Sunflowers.

Featured image: ‘Everlastings’ created in Photoshop by the author from his original photograph.

All images © Steve Fendt 2022.

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