Thursday, September 10, 2015

Nicky Johnston Leaves No Stone Unturned

Nicky Johnston is the Creative Director of the 52-Week Illustration Challenge. It's a weekly challenge for Illustrators of all levels. The community is a safe and positive place for Illustrators to share their work. Nicky's personal work is wonderfully colorful. Her process is meticulous and produces wonderful results! Nicky has been kind enough to share many pictures to show her illustration process!  


Dani: What do you love most about Picture Books?

idea sketches
Nicky: I have been collecting picture books all my life and when I read my childhood favourites, I am instantly transported back in time reliving many vivid memories from when I was young. I love how a picture book can show many stories in one. As a child I had an amazing attention for detail and loved searching for the ‘hidden story’ in each book, even if it meant me making one up.

Now, with my own children, our reading time fills me with such joy as we explore many wonderful books on our bookshelf, some of them we read over and over until the children are reading it to me!

Art Deco

Painting the front cover

Dani: Tell us what keeps you motivated to create. 

Nicky: I don’t think I have ever felt a lack of motivation to create. I HAVE to create in order to feel settled, calm and balanced. If I don’t have time to draw or paint, my body feels like it is going to explode and I become extremely grumpy and agitated. For my own sanity, I MUST schedule in dedicated ‘Creative time’ this is the reason I carry a sketchbook with me at all times, to capture an idea whenever it comes to me!

a rough draft of a spread from ‘The Worst Pain in the World’
rough and final from ‘The Worst Pain in the World’
a rough draft of a spread from ‘The Worst Pain in the World’

internal from ‘The Worst Pain in the World’

Dani: What's your main goal in life?

Fairy tale
Nicky: My main goal in life is be grateful for all I am and give back to the universe through kindness. Kindness costs nothing, yet can mean the world to people who receive it. As an educator, I like to think I go beyond what is expected, as a mum, I try to support other mothers, and as an illustrator I try to help others in the industry.

Dani: How long does it usually take you to draft a full dummy submission package?

Nicky: When I am illustrating a children’s book, I live, breathe and dream the story 24/7. I become so immersed in the story I feel a sense of urgency to work through all the first rough spreads, addressing all the challenges and making all the decisions and I usually work on it in intensive block of time. While the dummy process is the toughest part of illustrating, it is also the most satisfying once completed.

For me, every book is different in the timeframe it takes to complete the draft dummy, (and depending on the deadline) It can take me anywhere from one to three months. Every publisher is different too, in what they expect in a draft and the timeframe they require it, and how many drafts it takes to refine it.

I usually like to sit with a story for a couple weeks to absorb every dimension of it, especially if I am not the author of the text. I use my daily sketchbook to scribble and play around with character and setting designs. Then I begin the full layout spread of the book and work through the dummy design process planning the flow and intensity points of the story. I allow my creative ideas to come to me when they decide, which means the spreads are often created out of order. It is quite an exhausting process!

I start with sticky notes to number the pages to create a small storyboard, giving me an overview of the book, and then I create individual page first draft roughs.
Sticky note story board layout

Individual roughs lay out

I keep written and sketched notes of ideas, things to remember and continuity points to cover. I also keep a list of settings, points of view and layout options. Some ideas never make it into the dummy, but they may come in handy for a future project.

Being a mum to four boys, my time is often quite limited, so I keep a ‘travel bag’ to take with me anywhere. Watching my son at Cubs proves to be a great drawing office!

My ‘take anywhere’ folder of illustration roughs
My ‘take anywhere’ sketch bag

**I have had to blur out the actual illustrations and information in the photos as they is of a current WIP

How I keep my info

Dani: How do you deal with rejection (if not from publishers/agents, then in general)?

Nicky: I think it is natural to feel disappointed when a rejection is received. Rejection is an opportunity for reflection and consideration. Usually I will ask myself a range of questions in order to process it. Was I suited? Was this my best work? Was the timing right for me?

Individual folders for spreads
Most of the time I don’t get the answers, and what I have come to learn is that there are factors that may have contributed to the rejection that were completely out of my control. I am (like most creators) my harshest critic and I will push myself to do the very best I can, so I don’t allow myself to take a rejection as a sign of not being good enough. I take it as a sign that it is not yet my turn.

After I have felt the inevitable pang of sadness I go back to basics. I continue practising, pushing, extending, learning, changing and growing. I don’t think there will ever be an ‘end’ point of my illustration development, but rather the continuous journey of striving to improve. So for as long as my creative drive brings me great joy, I will continue with my journey as an illustrator.

Nicky is an educator, speaker and author/illustrator of children’s books. She is passionate about promoting resilience in children and raising awareness of mental health issues. Her love of teaching sees her busy with school visits and presenting at workshops and conferences.

Author and illustrator of:
Go Away, Mr Worrythoughts!
Happythoughts are Everywhere...
Actually, I Can
The Worst Pain in the World

Currently working on a children’s book written by author Dimity Powell due out beginning 2017




52-week Illustration Challenge
Nicky is the Creative Director of this wonderful community of like-minded creative souls who participate in creating a piece of art every week to a different theme. Originally founded by Tania McCartney, Nicky and her fabulous admin team, ensure that the Challenge is a supportive, encouraging and fun community to be part of.

Blog: www.illo52weeks.blogspot.comFacebook Page: Group:


  1. The 52 week challenge looks like a blast. I just joined the Facebook group.

  2. I love to hear how you manage the process, especially leading such a busy life. No excuses! Thanks.

  3. Thanks for the encouraging post! Will look into the 52 week challenge - looks motivating. :)

  4. I loved seeing your creative process. Thanks for sharing. And what a way to build a portfolio with the 52-weeks challenge!

  5. Thanks for sharing all the details and photos of how you construct your dummy, very helpful to see the processes you use to organize yourself. I was wondering why you put your pages in plastic sleeves, is it just for protection or does it have another organizational reason?

    1. Thanks Aijung Kim, great question. I keep them in separate plastic sleeves at this stage to keep all development sketches together. Some pages have up to 10-15 different ideas for the page layout, with the chosen idea on the top, making it easy to see the whole book in one glance when laid out. Once the roughs are approved, I then move on to 'final roughs' which are drawn 110-120% of the finished book size.

  6. Thank you for giving so much verbal and visual detail in your post Nicky! It's one thing to explain the process to someone and it's another to see it all taking place. Your pictures are so beautiful. I also love that you give tips for organization. It's so important when making picture books!

  7. Thank you for giving so much verbal and visual detail in your post Nicky! It's one thing to explain the process to someone and it's another to see it all taking place. Your pictures are so beautiful. I also love that you give tips for organization. It's so important when making picture books!

  8. Thank you for your great post about your organizational ideas. Love the clear folder with the 'top' illustration first and others behind, as you can see all of it that way, in case, you get a better idea for another way of 'showing' it. Thanks again!!!