Working up the storyboard: how rough is too rough?

‘Huff and Puff’ publishers have just cleared the storyboard for the wolf’s new picture book. Time to embark on rough artwork. Hooray!

On my short-ish but frantic journey to publication, I’ve learned a few things about doing roughs. At first, I had only a vague idea of what constituted ‘rough artwork’. How rough should it be? How long should it take? And would my client suddenly realise they’d signed the wrong illustrator?

It varies from person to person but, after four picture books and six junior fiction titles in quick succession, I’ve had to brush up fast. I now reckon there are a few key points that stand true for all, so here is a ‘wolf to wolf’ pep talk for anyone embarking on rough artwork:

Rough artwork – a pep talk

1: Roughs are the point at which character HAS to be resolved.

Unsure what shape your character’s feet should be? Draw feet until you’ve worked it through. Can your character be simplified? Strengthened? Start working on it. Is there anything about your character(s) that doesn’t sit well with you, or that you don’t enjoy drawing – or something that’s just a bit… pedestrian somehow? Change it so that it works for you – or the artwork will suffer.

What outfits will your character be wearing? What are their hobbies and interests, and how are these reflected in their clothing, posture and expression? The text (which may or may not be yours) will give hints, but what can you add? it may not always be obvious. And you may be able to add extra background characters to compliment the narrative.

eg. For ‘The Witch’s Britches’ I added frogs, cats and birds that weren’t mentioned in the text.


Do you have a whole family to draw? Get them all right, so that you’re not changing in final artwork.

See the character here of ‘Henry’ for my first picture book ‘Frankie and Finn’. I really didn’t like him in the roughs, and gave up trying to resolve him. This created loads of extra work later. At least the final artwork was digital.

Henry (oh dear!):

2: Roughs are not that rough

Don’t know what a passenger bus looks like? A lame 10pm ‘google search’ with a glass of wine by the desk (a common technique in the wolf’s lair) is not proper research. Get out on the street in daylight with your sketchbook and camera, or head to the ‘bus nerds’ section of your library/second hand bookshop.

The mirror/Photoshop is your friend. This is the point to flip compositions and characters – hold up to a mirror or window, or scan in and flip in Photoshop. Errors will become (often horribly) apparent.

Look at Jim Field’s digital roughs for ‘Cats Ahoy!” – not that rough.
jim field cats ahoy

Less excitingly, here a couple of pages of mine for “Frankie and Finn”… Guess which ‘rough’ was the hardest to develop later?

(Note: the below is too rough)

Put in work now, and doing the final art will be the pleasure it ought to be. Which leads to:

3: Roughs can be gruelling

Roughs are tough. You need to think hard. You need to resolve pretty much EVERYTHING – redraw, rethink, study perspective (again). This is the time to ensure continuity, work out what the seasons will be, and make sure the story takes place in a consistent world, even if the book’s set on another planet. (There will be an illustrator somewhere, right now, trying to work what a cappuccino in a café on Pluto might look like… )

Your pencil should wear down to a stub. Regular breaks are required. Caffeine may be needed, sometimes even a slug of liquor – and neck stretches are vital.

Below is a rough from Lynne Chapman – every line has been worked and reworked till the composition is resolved:


4: While roughs are in progress, start developing a strong idea of what the end aesthetic will be

If you don’t quite know what materials you intend to use for the final art then, after a neck stretch break, do some puddling about. Blob paint on tissue paper, paste your favourite images around the desk, flick through a few book, skim old sketchbooks, go outside and collect some leaves you like the look of… etc. etc. Then start putting things together, working out a process for production of final art.

This can save you from the ‘where the hell do I go from here’ moment when roughs are approved and now, somehow, they have to turn into a real book…

Here an example of beautifully resolved pencil roughs, and research into technique for final artwork. (I wish I could credit the artist for the images below, but have lost the original source)


5: Keep questioning the work

During the production of roughs and artwork, I have some text stuck up by my desk which helps:

  • What makes it different?
  • Does it feel ‘real’?
  • Does it make sense?
  • Is it funny enough? sad enough?



For those embarking on roughs – good luck! Yours roughly… wolfie.


  1. June 2, 2016 - Reply

    This is so awesome. Thank you!

  2. June 3, 2016 - Reply

    Thank you so much for this insight. I’m just beginning to explore the illustration side of picture books and never quite sure how to make things look professional. This insight helps immensely!

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