Lucinda Gifford cat illustration

Making head and tail of it…

Dogs are grrrreat! Cats.. meh. But they’re good to draw. Here’s how the wolf tackled cranky Kevin, from ‘The Cat Wants Custard’.
** Warning – post contains many pictures of cats **

In late 2014, Scholastic emailed through some text for The Cat Wants Custard by P Crumble – would I like to illustrate it? With a heavy cold and propped up on my pillows with a cuppa, I giggled to myself as I skimmed the document. ‘The Cat Wants Custard’ looked fun and funny, and I’d always wanted to do a book with an animal – even a cat – as the main character, so I signed up as soon as I could.

But what kind of cat would Kevin – the star of the story – be? Once I was back on my feet and able to draw for a couple of minutes without coughing, I pinned some cool cats to the wall. I was looking for striking design, cranky expressions, and stylish poses.

Just some of the cats looking down from the studio wall.

Just some of the cats (and a tiger) looking down from the studio wall.

Although fluffy cats are hilarious, the text demanded lots of body language – and it’s hard to get that across when the main character looks like a fuzzy cushion with a leg at each corner. Slinky cats would work better for me. I particularly liked Cliff Robert’s illustrations for Thomas by Mary Harris (top left in the previous pic).

'Thomas', illustrated by Cliff Roberts

‘Thomas’, illustrated by Cliff Roberts

The black looks great for Thomas and the illustration style is retro and quirky, but I felt a black cat would only work well in a book with just one or two colours, or where silhouettes are used in the compositions. And it seemed to me that ‘The Cat Wants Custard’ was a different type of book – more bright and silly (in a good way). I was also worried the range of expression and posture would be more limited if the cat was too dark or too light, or one flat colour.

So I looked up some cat breeds for inspiration…

Ooooh! Look at all these cat breeds! Pick a breed...  any breed.

Ooooh! Look at all these cat breeds! Pick a breed… any breed.

… and used neighbours’ and friends’ cats for reference.

Conrad, from up the road, in his favourite spot by the corner window.

Conrad, from up the road, in his favourite spot by the corner window..

And 'Bluey', from next door, in her favourite spot on my desk chair

And ‘Bluey’, from next door, in her favourite spot on my desk chair.

Bluey’s colour and expressions (she knows, she just KNOWS the wolf is not comfortable around cats, that’s why she’s on my chair), and Conrad’s haughty posture helped me come up with a character and look for Kevin. I decided he needed to be slinky but not skinny and blue-grey in colour, with a subtle pattern to make him more interesting in close-up.

First I tried making Kevin a Siamese, but the design was looking a little fussy.

First I tried making Kevin a Siamese, but the design was looking a little fussy.

An early Kevin - in light grey.

An early Kevin – in light grey.

Kevin crouching reproachfully.

Kevin crouching reproachfully.

Here he's starting to come together.

Here he’s starting to come together.

I was also trying to puzzle out the structure of the book. The Cat Wants Custard was to be a slim 24-page (rather than the more common 32-page) paperback. But there seemed to be quite a bit of content.

Scholastic had mentioned Simon’s cat, and so I thought that they and the author were looking for something more like a comic – or at least split into frames like Mo Willems’s Don’t Let The Pigeon Drive the Bus.

Simons cat

‘Simon’s Cat’ demonstrating just one of the many ‘cute’ things cats do.

My editor at Scholastic had already broken the text into spreads, so I worked with these and also split some pages into frames. Here are some early scribbles:

toons2

toons

At this point I chose a retro, pastel pallette, inspired by 50’s cartoons.

Initial colour palette for 'The Cat Wants Custard'

Initial colour palette for ‘The Cat Wants Custard’

Retro colour palette

Retro colour palette

Here are some early thumbnails from the first storyboard:

thumb-1

thumb2

After I sent the thumbnails to Scholastic, they thought the pages were looking crowded and decided to go for a 32-page layout instead. This was a positive change, but demanded a bit of a re-think. I was also re-considering the palette, after discovering the illustrations of Abner Graboff, and marvelling at his use of bold composition and bright colour.

Wonderful illustration by Abner Graboff

Wonderful illustration by Abner Graboff

I thought strong blues and reds like above would work much better for the book. And, although there was now more room, I wanted to keep the backgrounds minimal and focus on the cat.

bright

roughs2

I, er, didn’t get round to telling the lovely folk at Scholastic that I’d completely changed the colour palette. I think they were a bit surprised. Fortunately they liked it, and the new layout, and so I went ahead with finals.

Although all the final drawings are digital, I used hand-painted textures for the backgrounds and for Kevin’s fur and collar. Here’s an example of a texture I used for ‘Kevin’s’ sofa (it’s paint and pastel on coloured paper):

Kevin's sofa

Kevin’s sofa

And Kevin’s fur is a combination of paint texture, crayon texture, and digital ‘hairs’ all layered over each other:

Watercolour texture

Watercolour texture

crayon and pencil texture

crayon and pencil texture

Kevin with all his textures applied. He's not looking too happy about it. But that's cats for you.

Kevin with all his textures applied. He’s not looking too happy about it. But that’s cats for you.

Kevin on 'his' sofa. Spot the texture.

Kevin on ‘his’ sofa. Spot the texture.

Finally – hurrah! – Scholastic decided to go for a hardback first edition! This meant endpapers, so I came up with a couple of very loose concepts. This was the chosen one:

ends

And the final endpaper illustration:

The cat wants custard endpapers lucinda gifford

I also put together some cover ideas, but nothing was quite working layout-wise (note the slightly different name too – it takes a while to decide on these things…):

cover1

Fortunately, the designer at Scholastic put together a gorgeous, striking cover – bold and bright, well-balanced and with lovely typography for the title:

Final cover design by the talented folk at Scholastic.

Final cover design by the talented folk at Scholastic.

And The Cat Wants Custard has been going well! You can buy it at your local bookstore, or online here or here. (and here if you’re in the UK). If you’re into cats and/or Abner Graboff, have a look at this wonderful book, first published in 1963.

And one of his cats...

Happy cat from ‘A Fresh Look at Cats’ by Abner Graboff.

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