Welcome, Michael, to my blog. Congratulations on the release of SHEARER and on your amazing illustrations. I was so thrilled to be paired with you, I think we’ve created a magnificent book.
Tell us, how did you get into children’s book illustrating? What’s your story?
I grew up in the Blue Mountains of NSW, where early on I developed a love and appreciation for the beauty of the unique Australian landscape, its light and colour. I also loved exploring the visual worlds created by artists in video games and picture books. Shawn Tan was an early inspiration for me through his children’s books such as The Rabbits.
I went on to study both digital art and fine art, and developed a practice in plein air painting, as well as a career in animation and video games.
It has always been a dream of mine to make my own contribution to Australian children’s books, and when the opportunity came along to illustrate my first book – Shearer by Neridah McMullin, I jumped at it.
Can you describe your illustrative style for SHEARER?
I knew straight away that Shearer was going to be a traditional approach, rather than digital, and wanted to incorporate my plein art practice into the work to create the unique Australian colours that I love so much. I spent time immersing myself in the works of Australian impressionist artists such as Arthur Streeton, Sydney Long and Tom Roberts, from whom I drew inspiration to create a visually striking narrative.
I decided to use a combination of acrylic paint and colour pencil, with a warm colour pallet to capture the sunburnt world of Jack Howe.
I wanted the book to feel like an authentic but playful look into the true events the story is based on, and decided that a hand painted style would best capture this. The combination of pencil detailing and paint brushwork, created the depth of texture I was after, from the rustic shearing sheds, to the rolling sunset hills of Queensland.
The character of Jackie Howe himself was crucial to get right – wanting to give him the heroic and strong appearance he is known for, with a warm and friendly demeanour. I’ve always enjoyed children’s books that include fun details for the reader to discover, so you might notice a few other characters pop up throughout the pages, such as a dog, a kookaburra, and even a sea monster!
How does the story of SHEARER relate to you?
I also bring a personal connection to the story of Jackie Howe, as I have a family history of sheep shearing! My mum grew up on a dairy farm, and my grandpa on a sheep farm. Grandpa, his brother and their father all worked as shearers at Store Creek out of Stuart Town, NSW. It was pretty special to look at old photos of my family sheep shearing, and bring that personal connection to the book. It gave me an opportunity to explore my family’s generational world, in a way I hadn’t before.
What items are essential for your creative space?
Having high quality tools, space and equipment is vital to my creative process.
I used all the tools as my disposal, including digitally sketching my page compositions before taking them to the paper, 3D character development to explore pose and perspectives, and a handmade drafting table that I bought on marketplace, to lay out my canvas and paint mixing.
I love to be surrounded by art books, both visual and theory, to draw inspiration and help with my decision making. While I’m painting, I’ve given up trying to keep my space clean and organised as the creative process can be chaotic! That’s half the fun.
Name 3 artists whose work inspires you?
As I already mentioned, Arthur Streeton and Shawn Tan are definitely two that inspire my work.
Another artist I love is NC Wyeth, an American painter and illustrator whose use of colour and composition, and choice of subject matter- pirates, knights and explorers – create worlds I can happily get lost in.
I know you only asked for three, but another artist to mention is Brett Whitley, whose unique approach to perspective and his contribution to the visual history of Australia, is something I aspire to use in my work.
What is your favourite part of the illustration process?
I really enjoy the early stages – when I’m sketching and dreaming up fun worlds and characters. I get ideas from everywhere in my day to day life- and I love being in that idea generation stage.
Another great moment in the process is when I get to finally squeeze the paint onto the pallet and start mixing the colour. I’m a colourist at heart.
What is your favourite illustration in SHEARER and why?
This is a tough one. I poured a lot of love into every single page of SHEARER.
But one that stands out is where “some joker” is sneaking sheep back into Jacks catching pens. The warm glow of the shearing stage, the rim light on the sheep as they are lining up to be shorn, the sheep looking on annoyed at the joke, and the overall composition being so dynamic, it was really fun to execute. I feel proud of that one.
Digital Portfolio: michaeltomkins.artstation.com
Thank you so much for chatting with me today, Michael.
Big thanks to our wonderful publisher @Walkerbooksaus and Sarah Davis for her incredible design work. May our little book fly well into the world and land into the hands of little readers.
Our book can be found in any good bookstore, or you can purchase it through this link at Booktopia
This is the true story about the greatest shearer in the world … whose incredible shearing record remains unbeaten after more than a century!
In 1892, a shearing competition was to be held at Alice Downs Station in Queensland. There was a gold medal and a cash prize. Jack was determined to win it.
Jackie Howe’s hands were the size of tennis racquets, his were legs like tree trunks and his wrists were made of steel. Despite his size, he was light on his feet and was an excellent dancer. But what Jack was really good at, was shearing sheep. At a local show, Jack won 100 yard sprint on grass in 11 seconds in socks. He also win Irish Jig dancing competitions including the sailor hornpipe.
With a hand blade, Jackie Howe sheared 321 sheep in 7 hours and 40 mins.
But there was another side to Jack Howe. He fought for the 8 hour day. He represented working class men, navigating his way through the Shearers Strike and was a key person behind the scenes in the early formation of Australian Labor Party.
This is a rollicking Australian story, about the charismatic, Jack Howe – the greatest shearer in the world who set the world record for shearing sheep by hand. He also invented the “singlet”!
Huge thanks to Michael Tomkins whose illustrations are delightful and a big thank you to Sarah Davis for the design of the book and the front cover.
SHEARER is due out with Walker Books Australia on September 1st and available for pre-order at Booktopia here
Over the coming weeks, I’ll be posting some incredible old photos which inspired this story.
Lucia Masciullo is an award winning illustrator who loves to create whimsical characters and colouring with traditional techniques, mixing watercolour, pencil and collage. Born and bred in Livorno, Italy, she moved to Australia in 2007 and since then she has illustrated thirty books, including Come Down, Cat!by Sonya Hartnett, which was a CBCA Honour Book and shortlisted for the Prime Minister’s Literary Award. Lucia currently lives on the Gold Coast and when not at work she likes running, watching anime and eating homemade pizza.
I feel so lucky to have had Lucia illustrate EAT MY DUST. It’s such a meaningful book to both of us.
Lucia, welcome to my blog today.
1. Can you describe your illustrative style for EAT MY DUST?
The illustrations in EAT MY DUST are in watercolour and ink. My idea was to create a contrast between the detailed drawing in ink and the vibrant freshness of the watercolour. Being instructed to colour inside the lines since I was a child didn’t help me much in this task, so I set a personal rule to use the watercolour for a maximum of 15 min per illustration.
2. What items are essential for your creative space?
A large table in front of a window (I love the natural sunlight), pencil, lots of paper, watercolours and sometimes even some music. I choose what to listen in accord with the mood of the illustration: ABBA for a joyful illustration, Queen for an epic moment, Adele for a sad illustration.
3. Name 3 artists whose work inspires you?
This is quite tricky, as there are at least dozens I could name!
Speaking about EAT MY DUST, I was mainly inspired by GI PI, or Gianni Pacinotti, a well-known Italian comic book artist, who was also one of my teachers when I started my career as an illustrator. I’m also a big fan of the work of Isabelle Arsenault, Beatrice Alemagna and I recently found another amazing artist, Victoria Semykina. Ok, these are four artists, instead of three, pretty close!
4. What is your favourite part of the illustration process?
I love different parts of the illustration process for various reasons: each step challenges a different part of my brain.
The creative part is what I really enjoy. Drawing the characters, working on the layout of the pages, and finding the delicate balance between text and illustrations are all aspects that excite me.
Next comes the editing stage, where my problem-solving mind comes into action. There are often issues that need to be addressed, such as ideas that are not working on the page, or too many illustrations to choose from. Luckily, I have the support of a team, and the Publisher is always keen to help (thank you, Kristina and Amanda!).
Finally, there’s the colouring stage. This part is usually quite relaxing, as all the decisions have been made and I can simply indulge in the pleasure of using the medium.
However, for EAT MY DUST it has been a different experience: I challenged myself to work swiftly and loosely with the watercolour and sometimes I had to create several copies of the same illustration until I achieved a result that I liked.
5. What is your favourite illustration in EAT MY DUST?
One of my favourite illustrations is the one where they are driving in the salt lake that shimmers like diamonds. I like the composition of the illustration, the glimpse of the horizon, the expression of the girls and Barney the dog. It’s a magical moment: it seems that the beauty of the view has distracted them from the race.
6. Tell us about the special ‘item’ you recently found at your Nonna’s house in Italy that is connected to EAT MY DUST?
Early this year I went to Italy to visit my family. My parents recently moved in the house that once belonged to my grandparents, where my unconventional Nonna lived (I dedicated EAT MY DUST to her). My Nonna was around the same age as Jean and Kath, the two protagonists of the book and although she didn’t own a car, as a girl she defied tradition by climbing the Alps and wearing pants, something considered quite inappropriate at that time.
Well, while helping my parents move things in the basement, a mix of their stuff and my grandparents’, I stumbled upon something that took my breath away: the same Kodak camera featured on the title page! When I asked my Mum, she told me it belonged to my Nonna and she said I could take it in Australia with me.
Thank you, Lucia, for coming onto my blog. You’ve been so brilliant to work with. Your illustrations are incredible and I’m so proud of our book.
If you would like to see more of Lucia’s amazing art work, you can visit her website here
EAT MY DUST can be purchased from Booktopia or any good bookshop.
Big thanks must go to the Walker Books Australia, the best people!
EAT MY DUST is the amazing true story of Jean Robertson and Kathleen Howell, who helped map Australia.
In 1928, girls didn’t drive cars, let alone race them. But best friends, Jean Robertson and Kathleen Howell and their dog, Barney, made history racing across Australia. They drove across the Nullabor from Perth to Adelaide in an attempt to break the land speed record. They faced many challenges along the way, because there were no roads or maps and often had to drive overland. They followed train lines and telegraph lines, with sometimes only a compass to guide them. They got flat tyres, they got bogged and they got lost. Jean and Kathleen drove day and night and covered 2824km in 2 days, nine hours and 57 minutes.
This is an inspiring true story about two pioneering girls.
This book was a massive team effort, thanks to Walkers Books Australia. Big thanks to Kristina Schultz (my incredible editor) and Amanda Tarlau and for her gorgeous book design. Massive thanks to the talented and award winning, Lucia Masciullo, for her incredible illustrations of the Italian racing car, Jean and Kathleen, the landscape and the historical details that I love so much.
In the coming weeks, I’m going to be posting some of the treasure I found whilst researching this story.
A book launch is coming! But this book is available now for pre-order here
I’ve got my first MG novel coming out on October 5th with Walker Books Australia. It’s for 9 -13 years, although it’s a read anyone can enjoy. Middle Grade fiction is my favourite reading genre, as it is for many grown ups.
EVIE AND RHINO has been a while in the making. I wrote the first draft in Adelaide on a May Gibbs Creative Time Fellowship in 2017. I re-wrote it a few times after that, but didn’t really re-write it properly until the first lockdown in 2020. The main reason for this was that I didn’t know what I was doing. I didn’t know how to do a structural edit. My story meandered in the middle and I didn’t know how to fix it. Anyway, after several re-writes, I worked my way through.
Isn’t the front cover beautiful? Everything on it is symbolic. After you read the story, the front cover will mean so much more.
On a stormy night off the coast of southern Australia, a ship transporting a cargo of exotic animals tosses and turns in enormous seas. Rhino senses they are in grave danger. . . Not far away, ten-year-old Evie and her grandfather shelter in their crumbling, once-grand old home. They know too well how deadly storms can be. When all is calm, Evie treks over the dunes to the sea and makes a discovery that will change her life, and Rhino’s, forever. Will the tragedies of their pasts finally be put to rest?
A young girl with a tragic past and a rhinoceros facing life in captivity form an unlikely and magical bond after a fateful storm and a shipwreck bring them together. A moving tale about love, connection and the healing power of friendship.
EVIE AND RHINO is also a story about monkeys and exotic parrots, a chicken named Albine, and a devoted milking cow called Dominique. There’s an old crumbling house and as many apple pies as you can eat.
The most common question…where did I get the inspiration from for EVIE AND RHINO?
I’m originally from the Shipwreck Coast that stretches along the south-west coastline of Victoria (born and raised on a farm halfway between Port Fairy and Hamilton). Anyway, from 1840 to the late 1800’s, 638 known cargo and passenger ships were wrecked along this coastline. A lot of people don’t realise Bass Straight is so treacherous. It has incredibly unpredictable weather, frequent gale force winds, currents, rips, and shifting sandbars.
To quote Mathew Flinders’s: “Seldom have I seen a more fearful section of coastline.”
So, I love shipwreck stories and was determined to write one. I’m obsessed about researching shipwrecks and through the State Library of Victoria, one can read witness accounts of all the shipwrecks along the Shipwreck Coast. At the time, the Maritime Board of Melbourne had to investigate any ships lost at sea. They interviewed witnesses and survivors i.e the captain, the crew and passengers. These first hand witness accounts gave me an incredible insight into the terror of the situation these people found themselves in. More often than not, poor navigation was the cause of these shipwrecks, but that’s another story for another day.
This is a wooden engraving I found of the Steamship Bancoora, which ran aground in 1891.
Image: State Library of Victoria
Anyway, the Steamship Bancoora ran aground at Breamlea in 1891. They were sailing from Calcutta to Melbourne with a cargo load of exotic animals bound for the Melbourne Zoo. There was a young elephant, a rhinoceros, six monkeys and several exotic parrots. The whole story took my breath away.
Image: Additions to the Zoo, 1891. State Library of Victoria
FICTIONALISING SOMETHING THAT REALLY HAPPENED
From the moment I read this account, an image was burned into my mind. I imagined the animals had washed ashore, and that my main character, Evie, found the rhinoceros asleep in the shallows and led it home by the horn.
Image: ‘Rhinoceros Unicornis’, Biodiversity Heritage Library, Smithsonian Institute, U.S.A
There are some other very special ephemera that inspired the story of EVIE AND RHINO, and I shall blog about them soon.
Next week, I’ll be posting an interview with the amazingly talented, Astred Hicks, who designed and illustrated EVIE AND RHINO.
EVIE AND RHINO will be released on 5th October but is available now for preorder.