Interview with Michael Tomkins, illustrator of new picture book SHEARER

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!

One of Michael’s magnificent illustrations in SHEARER

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.

Michael’s family connection to shearing. This is his Pa.

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:

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

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Neridah McMullin

Photo By: Prue Sheed



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