Studying Jill Murphy

I’ve been revisiting books that I loved growing up and studying the illustrations. Jill Murphy’s The Large Family collection was a favourite of my younger siblings. We had the audiobook on repeat in the car, so ‘A Piece of Cake’ is one of my favourite stories. It was nice to spend time with the pictures and find a newfound appreciation for them as an adult.

I had so much fun doing some studies after taking a closer look at the illustrations. Something I enjoy about the way Murphy anthropomorphises the Large family is the way she treats the trunks. Actions which would look clunky or unnatural in their “hands” make more sense visually being done with the trunk. It’s more reminiscent of how elephants actually use their trunks, and it adds an interesting and playful element to the pictures.

Jill Murphy, A Piece of Cake

When I started sketching I knew that I wanted to design an elephant character first using the books for reference. Rather than copy directly I wanted to design a character that could fit into their universe. ‘A Piece of Cake’ has an ironic humour because it’s about an elephant loosing weight so I wanted to play on that.

I then wanted to think about how to anthropomorphise other animals in a similar style. For the kangaroo I wanted to sketch something which still showed the pouch being used. In the same way that Murphy illustrates holes in the clothes for tails, and keeps the functional trunks I felt like the pouch was a key feature of a kangaroo. I’m also trying to get into the habit of drawing characters from different age groups. Obviously where there are children there are adults helping and caring for them, but I so often forget this when drawing and instead get caught up drawing cute young characters.

I found it quite difficult to find anything about Murphy’s illustration process online. However, a quick google image search showed amongst spreads from her books, photos of her at a drawing board using coloured pencils. I think the medium is part of the quality of softness in her work that I admire.

Jill Murphy at work. Photograph: MacMillan Children’s Books

I have to confess, pencil isn’t a medium I reach for a lot mostly because I’m impatient. I thought I could put down a base layer of watercolour and add shading with pencils, but the end result didn’t come out the way I pictured it. So I went back to the drawing board and redid the elephant sketch in pencil. It made me realise that I need a lot more practice with coloured pencils so that will be my next Skillshare class to look for.

When I scanned the images in they looked awful! They lost so much life. It reminded me of a youtube vlog of Anoosha Syed’s nightmare with translating the traditional artwork for a project. I am yet to master editing my traditional art to make it look decent digitally. However, they look much truer to life when photographed.

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