Talk with Author/Illustrator Hazel Mitchell and Free Book Giveaway!

* Giveaway ends October 15th, 2016 *

TOBY. Copyright © 2016 by Hazel Mitchell. 
Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.

Today I’m honored to have children’s book author and illustrator and all-around good egg, Hazel Mitchell visiting my blog to talk about her artistic process. 

Read to the end of today’s post to enter to win your own copy of Toby.

Hazel’s new picture book, Toby, was released by Candlewick earlier this month. This adorable book is about the bond between a boy and his rescue pup, Toby. The story is loosely based on Hazel’s real life four-legged friend.

Today I’d like to focus on your creative process in creating the lovely illustrations for Toby. 

You have illustrated numerous books but this is the first that you also wrote. How is the creative process different when you are both the writer and illustrator?

Hi Jennifer .. thanks for inviting me and Toby to visit your blog :-).  I guess the main difference is that when you’re illustrating someone else’s book you get a manuscript! Sounds obvious! So, then you have a story already and a concept and theme. It’s your job to imagine and create the pictures that will accompany it and weave them around the words. But, when it’s you are the author, the first thing you’re thinking about IS the story.

Do the words or the images come first?

It depends. When you see things visually, sometimes you ‘write’ the story in images. (And the ultimate conclusion to that process is a wordless book!). With Toby I’d begun to draw him as soon as we adopted him. It’s what we do, right? Sketch stuff! If it moves, draw it! I’d already fallen in love with his cuteness and vulnerability. I began to think about writing a story starring Toby and what happened was I continued drawing him. I started to draw all the things he would do; hide, howl, run away, lay and look at us soulfully, be scared. Then when he started to play and run and be interested in things I drew him doing those too.

As I made these scenes up I began to add a new character … a boy … much more interesting than drawing me! I realized that I was creating a story based on things that Toby was doing, but with the fictionalized character of a boy and then the boy’s dad. The theme of the book became the growing friendship and trust between them. I pieced the scenes I’d drawn together, adding the missing links and it was only then I began to think about the words that would bind it all together.

At first I thought it might only be dialogue, but by the time the book was finished I had a good many linking sentences so the flow of the story made sense. There are still few words in the book. I should count them! I think there are more words in the author note at the end than in the book. To sum up … drawing images is like writing with pictures. (I should have just said that 10 minutes a go!)

 Do you find it easier or harder when you are also crafting the story? 

Different. I like the challenge of illustrating another author’s manuscript, but writing my own story has been a very personal experience (perhaps because I was so close to the subject). I enjoyed the process of pacing the story, working out the arc and the ending. OK, the ending was the hard bit! It was a different feeling not wondering if I was fulfilling another writer’s vision. There’s a certain freedom in that. You have to make sure the story is working when it’s just you. I guess there are pressures on both sides of the fence. I look forward to illustrating other manuscripts and writing more of my own, too.

Can you explain your process for creating the illustrations? What medium do you use? 

Sure. The process I used for ‘Toby’ is one I’ve used in other books … ‘Imani’s Moon’ by JaNay Brown Wood and ‘Animally’ by Lynn Sutton Parrish. Previous to those books I usually drew by hand in pencil or pen and ink and then scanned and coloured quite heavily in photoshop. (Mainly to meet tight deadlines … although most deadlines are tight in books!). I was beginning to feel that depth, light and shade and texture was missing in my work. I love to paint in watercolour, oils, pastel. I hadn’t brought these skill sets into my work. But I also like to colour digitally!

As a compromise, and because ‘Imani’s Moon’ cried out for lots of texture, I decided to do a watercolour underpainting. In that book I really could let rip with lots of salt and scraping and blotting. It was like a grisaille underpainting. I usually do this in one colour, either prussian blue or burnt sienna, it just works for me. And it really doesn’t matter what medium you use, but I use watercolour (I am impatient and it dries fast!). I painted on top of my graphite final drawing done in 7b pencils for Toby (I use 9B for something like Imani’s Moon.) Toby was done on Fabriano 140lb hot press paper. (Imani’s Moon was cold press 300lb because I wanted a rougher texture and I punished the surface). Surprisingly the soft pencils (Derwent brand) don’t bleed much when painted on top. And I actually like it when they do, causes those ‘happy accidents’. Often I go in afterwards with more pencil.

When I’m done with that I scan them. I usually create the pieces about 125% larger than the finished page. I scan at 400dpi tif so I can capture the grittiness of the drawing and painting. I found if I scan in at too high a DPI I start to lose the hand drawn feel, which is the whole point of the exercise. I import into photoshop and turn them into grayscale images. (I ‘m also experimenting with just unsaturating them to the point that I can still get the feel of the colour or turning them sepia, but in Toby I made them grayscale as I wanted to keep the colours painted over the top muted.) Leaving the grayscale as a base layer, I open another layer on top and name it ‘colour’ and I set the blend mode to “color”. Then I begin to add color to this new layer using the brush tool also set to the “color” blend mode.  I will keep a scant (I am lazy) record for colours that I will use throughout (like skin tone and clothing), but mostly I have a finished image open on another computer screen and I colour pick from that. I paint digitally much as I would with a real paint box. Mostly everything is on one layer. I shade and lighten on that layer, and sometimes on the grayscale layer too. And I rarely use a lot of textures or brushes. I mean, when I’m painting physically I only use a couple of different brush styles in different sized. So usually I am using a soft edged round brush and hard edged one in photoshop from the standard palette and I vary the density and saturation and opacity levels. (I also don’t like the look of a lot of forced textured brushes. I guess that’s why I prefer to underpaint in watercolour to do all that. It’s easier too!). I sometimes have another layer on top if I need to have a denser colour and set it blend mode to “multiply” or “color burn” (like for the red shoes and collar throughout Toby), or if I need to add shadows or another created watercolour texture, but that’s it. If someone asks me how many layers I use I say about ‘3’ and I really couldn’t tell you how I do it, just like I couldn’t tell you how I do a physical painting. It’s just ‘doing it’. And nothing creates that lack of thought like painting and painting and painting. And then a bit more painting.

 My spreads are ready to send straight to production, (to have text added and laid out for print), so there is no scanning by the publisher. It’s imperative you see a proof from the publisher, though. In the past when I haven’t sometimes it’s shock to see that the colours are just too dense, or too light when there could have been an easy adjustment. And I do digital prints as I go along to see how they are looking in real terms.

 Other tips … get an ICC (International Color Consortium) printer profile for the paper they will be printed on, it helps to proof on screen. And don’t forget to set up in CMYK for print (convert to RGB for online images).

AND ALWAYS MAKE A BACKUP EVERY DAY AND SAVE AS YOU GO ALONG!! Saving off site is a good idea too. Never hurts to have a copy somewhere else just in case!

I really like the colors in “Toby.” They are very delicate and muted and fit very well with the subject. How do you go about determining a color palette for a book? 

I once heard Paul O Zelinsky say that he could taste the colours in a book. And I know what he means, sort of, (because obviously he’s a genius). The story kind of tells you what it’s colour mood is. It might be happy or crazy or thoughtful or the culture might dictate the colours (like Imani’s moon and Africa) or sad or it might be a particular genre … well, the hows and whys of what might tell you about the colours to use are endless. Originally I’d thought of Toby as grayscale and then with coloured images when Toby got happier. Or with just red on the collar and the boy’s shoes to indicate an emotional tie. I kept that idea and added a pale colour scheme, with the great direction of Ann Stott, my art director at Candlewick Press. The boy’s sweatshirts turn different colours too – sometimes you don’t want to distract from the story with a lot of clothing changes, but you do want to indicate time is passing. And that the characters have more than one set of clothing! In the end the feel of Toby is a bit retro and European, which, of course, I love! (Being British).

I love finding out if an artist has included things in the illustrations that reflect their own life. Of course, you have modeled the dog in the book after your own poodle Toby. But are there other personal “Easter eggs” hidden in the illustrations? 

Hmm. There are a lot of things that snuck in from Toby’s real life. His rabbit for one, which I gave him when he came to live with us. In the rescue center I put the names of a couple of my dogs on the doors – Sprout was my dog, and also ‘Lynsey’ is my editor Liz Bicknell’s rescue golden retriever. And to honour my tennis-mad agent, Ginger Knowlton from Curtis Brown, Toby is pictured with a tennis ball. Oh! And the kitten Toby is scared of is ‘Powder Puff’, a kitten Liz Bicknell also rescued WHILE I was working on the book. Not really ‘hidden’, but with hidden meanings.

I’m always on the lookout for new gadgets and art supplies. Do you have a favorite artist’s tool and why?

 I’m like so zen with my equipment, less is more, or maybe I have a cluttered brain. Couldn’t do without my Wacom tablet, my Derwent pencils and a couple of Kolinsky watercolour brushes. And Photoshop and Arches and Fabriano paper. And Yorkshire Tea. (That’s an art supply, right? Should be!).

What advice would you give to an illustrator who wants to try writing their own stories? 

Read. Draw. Read. Draw. Learn from others. Read. Draw. Read. Go to conferences. Draw. Write. Read. Draw. Write. Repeat (endlessly). And don’t forget to show people your work, or you will NEVER get a contract!

Thanks for the great questions!

Thank you Hazel for being so generous and sharing your process with us. 

For more information about Toby please visit:
On Twitter @meetToby
And on Facebook at

Buy a copy of Toby today at or at

And now (drum roll please) free goodies!

==== Toby Picture Book Giveaway ====

Contest Ends October 15th, 2016

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