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History of illustration – Jo Empson

Puffin UK and Philomel Books
Jo Empson
Sketchbook included page – drawing from wildlife while watching Netflix.

Jo Empson graduated from Cambridge school of arts with a MA is children book illustration, she also has a background as a graphic designer. She is inspired by nature, colour and design.

Her books have depth, meaning, a colour and movement narrative and very much fun.
While I was reading her blog I get the impression that she is very driven by story telling and that is very clear throughout everything she has written and within her illustrations. She rarely talks about herself and seem to preferring to get involved in projects to help children, which is something I inspire to myself and helping others.
Epsons personal drive is what inspired her in the direction of books is also something I truly can relate to, growing up having many books and yet finding something magic in books, the book I did own was like treasures and well loved. Empson also said she is inspired most by Shaun Tan, Eric Carle and Brian Wildsmith, this I can see in different ways within her work.
Wanting to know more about her choice of medium for images and why I reached out to Epson on twitter, I had told her her work is inspiring, that I bought the book and if have time would you be able to explain your choice in medium. I thought I would try my luck, thought one polite tweet cannot hurt, I didn’t get a reply but to be fair didn’t really expect any.
I then tried to research deeper so I changed my search engine wording and got a few more interview results, while the same sort of questions and answers were given also the fact Empson is an author as well I found that I wasn’t getting so deep into the art side of things.
I did come across a part where she explained that she start her work by doing lots of sketches from life and nature, also by watching wildlife videos.
This was something I did try myself doing while working on this exercise while watching animal documentaries on Netflix, I’ve included these in my sketchbook (Later I would also use this method to draw rabbits via youtube videos)
My early thoughts back when first researching illustrations I was most inspired by Empson latest book, Jungle Jamboree this is the pages that truly inspired me.

(C) Jo Empson
Penguin Books Ltd

While Jungle Jamboree has such a beautiful story and message about trying to change yourself but you’re beautiful just the way you are and I just love the artwork, I found something about her style that draw you in and brings out the inner children who still wants that acceptance themselves.
It was to be Jo Empson “Rabbityness” that will be my study piece. I found the story of a rabbit being different and accepted for that, and when gone that can still enjoy what made rabbit special, the perfect follow up to John Minton. It is hopeful, bright, with an important message and still has it “sad” parts that makes if very much real life that you can relate to.

I also bought this book while researching, I have a real love for books and more so if it inspires me. I personally think Jo Empson books should be on the “list” of viewing for all students that wish to be a book illustrator because her work seems different, I like illustrators that bring something new, exciting and different it is something I inspire to, even if a wide ranged of mix matched styles.

Nearest I could find to an illustrator at first that seems familiar in this style was David Stone Martin, both Empson and Martin styles in their art that expresses music seem alike. Funny that I’ve found this, as David Stone Martin illustrator was in same period of the prior part of the exercise of an from illustrator 50 years ago.
This give a good reminder why we study illustrators of the “past” as can evolve into a style that suits today.

(C) Jan Piekewski

*After I had explored and pretty much finished this exercise, I was reading understanding Illustration and I had highlighted Jan Pienkewski as an illustrator I wished to research. This was mainly due to I had noted his use of timeless silhouetted images.
I was looking though his beautiful works when I came across Little monsters (1986)

I started to explore in my sketchbook, I also wanted to explore ways to get the splatters, so I invested in some compressed air, not long ago I came across a class on skillshire class titled Drawing Daily Monsters: Finding Inspiration in a Drop of Ink by Stefan G. Bucher
He had shown how using compressed air creates a better splatter, more spidery and arty effects on ink than that of blowing though a straw. At the time of watching the class I didn’t have the compressed air to explore, I had used a straw, so now was the perfect time to test this effect.

Using a basic shape of a rabbit for the Silhouette, I inked out six simple rabbits ready to experiment with.

Testing different media for best effects (These are included in my sketchbook)
  • Rabbit one – I kept this one plain
  • Rabbit two – I used PH Martins Bombey Ink
  • Rabbit three – I used Komorebi Water colours
  • Rabbit four – I used gouache
  • Rabbit five – I used Brusho
  • Rabbit six – I used acrylics

The effect I liked most was Kormorebi water colours, bombay ink and maybe a touch of brusho (just for the little bleed dots)
While gouache is the worse result as is lost the rabbit in the splatters, if I was doing the piece solely traditional medium I would be temped to use just a little, as on the cover of rabbityness you can see that their is a couple of splatters digitally coloured to create a bold matte splatter in contact to the watercolour/ink techniques.
This will be something I will be trying myself with photoshop later on but if didn’t have that option I would be able to create a similar desired effect with gouache.

In my sketchbook after exploring the mediums I wished to use, I tested techniques.
I used compressed air, straw, flicks and sponge I came to the conclusion all these would work.

Using movement and simple gestures to create rabbits
Also a test on splatters and using a sponge to create paint effects
on the left I’ve tried different ways to add effects.
1st Compressed air
2nd blowing splatters via a straw
3rd paint flicks
And a pocket to keep the medium test rabbits in my sketchbook
Rabbit drawings I created while watching you tube

Next I really needed to work on what I’m actually creating inspired by Jo Empson, on nearly every page of the book rabbityness I found I could be easily inspired, ideas left, right and centre.
So to help make up my mind, I’m doing the cover to mirror fact I did a book cover for my final study piece on John Mintons.
While I did some sketches on rabbits and looked into rabbit movements, wanting to put my own spin on this design I’m going to do a cat. It also help me relate as I have a little black cat.
After all I’m worried of making a unintentional direct copy while being inspired by Jo Empson style.

***in my sketchbook images you may notice a young girl dancing, I have an idea for something that I may use in my summery of the this exercise, so here I’ve just doodle part of it, as using an animal as similar subject to Empson this idea will not work at this stage***

I already knew what paper my final will be completed on, which is watercolour 300gsm cold pressed (NOT)
While I prefer the smoothness of Hot pressed watercolour paper, I have spotted in Jo Epson’s illustrations the paper texture, while it is not seen throughout the image as its clear her work is finished digitally so some texture would be lost, I feel the texture we can see feels organic under the ink, so I’m not thinking its added digitally via brush or textures in photoshop but I could be wrong as these days you can mimic the feel of traditional mediums quite well digitally.


I did try different layouts, while wanting to stick to the portrait view of the cat.
I did in end added the paws as I thought was cute, I also lowered the head so be almost like peeking up though the book at us.
I also tried getting the feel of the lettering style of Rabbityyness to complete the look of the “book cover”.

I debated a little adding paw prints however, I decided against it due to over kill and too much happening on the page so could end up being too busy on the eyes.

Lets keep in simple as the splatters will bring a lot to the final piece and that needs to be showcased.

Testing the final layout in my sketchbook.

I then went on to the final piece, created first using Bombay black ink for lettering and cat, once dyed I added splatters in parts so that had time to try between and not run into each other too much. I did use a tiny bit of brusho, however I feel it got lost in the image so maybe should have used first or when more of the page was wet.

Next stage is to scan in and enhance digitally via photoshop.

unedited scanned copy of the “final” piece.

In photoshop one of the first things I did was adjust the brightness and contrast, I also corrected this in curves as well. I somehow added some red spots in the black so using both lesso tool and black standard brush I was able to clean this little “mess” up.
I used to have millions of brushes on photoshop, I had deleted these as much as I love playing with brushes so that I could “brush” up my skills with a few brushes. I had had the “perfect” brush which I couldn’t find again.
I downloaded Kyles sets from adobe, found a couple close ones but wasn’t quite right. I did have more luck with a set I bought last year called Grut Brushes, had to use a combination of the brushes to get a desired look into the piece. I used a masking later to create the splatters just on the cat.
Finally wanting the piece to look more polished for printing I used the filter, high pass, soft layer.
I’ve really enjoyed this method and honestly would like to use again in my own work, but with more my own spin. It is one of them pieces that not only uplifting on the soul to view but to create.

Final piece inspired by the work of Jo Empson


2 thoughts on “History of illustration – Jo Empson

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