How to Create a Fun and Simple Picture Book Character: Hint – It’s Much Easier to Draw Realistically Than to Cartoon

I am working feverishly toward ilustrating one of the picture books that I wrote about 15 years ago. This particular book’s main character is a cow. She is not just any, old cow, however. The cow for this picture book is a unique animal with a specific human-like personality. My cow is Mrs. Cow. Both Mrs. Cow and her story are unique.

I am a visual writer. By that, I mean that before I write something, I see it inside my head, and then I simply jot down what I saw in my mind’s eye. Therefore, I have a very good idea how each scene in the books that I have written will look before I write them. But for the longest time, I was a bit stumped about how I would actually depict the cow that I need for this book that I am illustrating now.

Mrs. Cow – Jacki Kellum Illustration 2019

Because the book that I am illustrating now is a whimsical and humorous picture book, I knew that I wanted a simple and fun cow for the book, but I knew that it was essential that my character would have some basic “cowness” about herself, too.  If you simply look at the rather cartoonish cow character that I created, however, you might deduce that it would be easy to draw her–certainly easier than to draw a more realistic cow. 

Cow – Jacki Kellum Pencil Drawing – Drawn in 2018

“No single event can awaken within us a stranger totally unknown to us. To live is to be slowly born. It would be a bit too easy if we could go about borrowing ready-made souls.” – Antoine de Saint-Exupery

Most people think that my ultra-realistic drawings are evidence of great artistic talent, but that is not necessarily the case. When I drew the realistic cow above, I had an excellent and clear photograph of the animal, and I simply copied what I saw in the photograph.

Mrs. Cow Loves Big, Bright Polka Dots – Jacki Kellum Illustration – 2019

Creating illustrations of my cow is different. There were no pre-existing photgraphs of cows inching along a tightrope for me to reference when I drew the scene above.  It was necessary for me to completely invent that cow, and while it may seem that the simple cartoon character would be much easier to draw than my realistic cow drawings were, that is not true.

Early Concept Drawing for Mrs. Cow in Copic Marker – Jacki Kellum Illustration Process Step 2

When I create an important character for a book, I generally begin by drawing that character realisticallly, and then, I begin to exaggerate the real [as in the concept drawing above].

Concept Drawing for Mrs. Cow in Copic Marker – Jacki Kellum Illustration Process about Step 2,000

I continue to exaggerate and simplify and draw and redraw until I finally get the character that I can love.

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Mrs. Cow – Jacki Kellum Illustration in Watercolor – 2019

When you compare the cows above, your first thought might be that the cartoon cow is simple and that a second grader could draw her, but that’s an illusion. I drew the realistic cow in a day, but  it took me one full month of long and hard days’ work to pull my simple, easy-looking cartoon cow character from somewhere deep within myself. Drawing realistically first was a tiny part of that process, but the true challenge was to go far beyond the real.

The Sun Needs to Rise – Jacki Kellum Illustration 2003

The Owl Hunt Is Over. The Owls Go to Bed – Jacki Kellum Illustration 2003

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The Piglet Has Fun – Jacki Kellum Illustration 2003

“Farming looks mighty easy when your plow is a pencil and you’re a thousand miles from the corn field.” – Dwight D. Eisenhower

I wrote several picture books 15 years ago, and I began to illustrate them at that time. But in doing so, I quckly learned that illustrating is much harder work than I had thought that it would be. I experienced several set-backs during those same 15 years, too. For instance, my house burned to the ground, and I lost all of my art and writing. I also moved over a thousand miles away twice during that time. Realizing that illustrating my picture books would be very hard work was discouraging, and until January of this year [2019], I have simply avoided returning to that job.

“Castles in the air – they are so easy to take refuge in. And so easy to build too.” –  Henrik Ibsen

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Mrs. Cow Wears Starry Pajamas – Jacki Kellum Illustration – 2019

“Only entropy comes easy.” – Anton Chekhov

After a month and a half of hard work, I can finally say that I am well into the process of illustrating one of my picture books, and I am surprised to add that the task is not as odious as I had anticipated that it would be.

Mrs. Cow Is Very Thrilled – Jacki Kellum Illustration 2019

I have worked several 18-hour days this past month, and I burned up the hard drive of a brand new computer in doing so. But I am on my way again.  Today, I am awaiting the delivery of my new computer, and I decided to take a few minutes to assess my challenge as I return to the task of illustrating my picture books. I can honestly say that it is much easier to do the work of illustrating than it has been to live with myself when I wasn’t doing what needed to be done.

“The first and worst of all frauds is to cheat one’s self. All sin is easy after that.” –  Pearl Bailey






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