4.1 Research

The purpose of the ‘Research’ phase

Research involves creatively exploring the subjects, ideas and concepts driven by the brief. The objective is to understand more about the problem and to explore and capture anything and everything that may be of interest in finding a solution.

For this assignment the research can be divided in into four parts:

  1. Artist research – to learn lessons from established practitioners
  2. Visual research – to generate reference material as input into the design
  3. Market research – to explore the potential market(s) for a picture book of this nature and to define the physical page size
  4. Practice research – to incorporate research practice backlog items into the working process

Artist research

I’ve chosen the work of two illustrators to analyse because I see parallels with the illustrations i need to produce for this assignment and I’m interested in learning any lessons.

Dave Mckean

Dave Mckean was born on 1963 in Berkshire and was working as an Illustrator before he left Berkshire College of Art and Design.

His portfolio is prolific. As well as being a visual artist, he is also a photographer, writer and musician. His work spans graphic novels, children’s books, films, illustrations and music and theatre. He has won numerous prestigious awards.

The themes of his work tend to be dark realised through incredible inventiveness both in terms of composition and visual language.

The image I’ve selected is from a children’s book The Homecoming (2006), that was written by Ray Bradbury.

The book is available in both hardcover and Kindle editions. The dimensions of the paper copy is 204mm x 172mm, so the illustration below is a double page spread.

Dave McKean Homecoming_dream
Fig 1 – The Homecoming – Dream (2006)

What I like about this illustration:

  • The dynamic movement across the page from top left to bottom right
  • The visual style that uses an expressive wash of colour in the background, and expressive line weights for the character outlines
  • The character fills look painted with a limited colour palette
  • The characters have exaggerated proportions and their dynamic poses full of movement
  • I love the upturned face that forms the base of the image.
  • The typography is set in two columns and this spread is fairly conventional, but on other pages becomes much more into the foreground as a creative element in it’s own right.

The elements I would like to take forward into the illustrations for this assignment is something of the expressive nature of the visual style but most importantly the slightly surreal nature of the overall image.

The question this raises is how to achieve that sense of disruptive surreal composition and use of imagination using one or a combination of the creative approaches from the earlier parts of the course.

Jim Kay

I’ve referenced the work of Jim Kay in other exercises. He describes himself as an illustrator and concept artist for books, television and film. He’s probably most well known for his series of Harry Potter book covers.

The work I want to look at for this assignment are his illustrations for A Monster Calls (2011), written by Patrick Ness.

The book is aimed at young adults and has 216-pages. The book is illustrated throughout with double page spreads, single pages, individual inset images and many background images that from boarders that frame the text.

The visual style is distinctive. Kay is a printmaker, and the illustrations are constructed out off layers that have the feel of etchings and aquatints. He achieves the effects digitally. I explored this approach in a collaborative project Keeping up momentum.

What I’m interested in with the A Monster Calls (2011),  is the construction of the images and how Kay harnesses his imagination to create the dramatic compositions.

Jim Kay A Monster Calls
Fig 2 – Illustration from A Monster Calls (2011)

I could have selected any number of other images bit what I’m interested in reflecting on with this image is the creative approach that could have been used to arrive at the composition. Many of the other double page ‘hero’ images in the book are very deliberately conceived using, what look to me to be fairly conventional creative approach. A simple idea/strong concept translated into a strong image.

The image above seems more experimental taking advantage of chance. It’s interesting that in the book an editorial decision as made to crop the image to remove the thumb prints that run down the left hand side of the image.

What I like about the image:

  • The visual style that has the texture and tonal quality of an aquatint
  • The overall sense of scale, with the huge dark monster towering above the character on the left
  • The dynamism and movement expressed through the pushing posture of the left hand character emphasised by the forward motion of his hair and gesture of hands, and the arm of a character falling backwards out of the right hand corner of the picture just visible as a white shape
  • The tonal contrast between the foreground action figures and the almost black foreboding monster in the background.

What I’m interested in in how the basic idea for the composition came about. The text in the book describes the scene as a confrontation between two boys in a dining hall. The use of scale in the image amplifies the size and action in the scene. There is no recognisable dining room reference in the image, the background is nondescript. I like how the use of hand gesture, in both characters, are some of the most expressive elements of the picture, communicating most of the action. The hand of the falling right hand character expresses so much without the need to ‘show’ much at all.

I think what I can take from this analysis is:

  • It’s not necessary to illustrate everything – in fact that’s probably pointless if the words are already doing that job
  • Just focusing on the main elements to the exclusion of almost everything else can strengthen the image and the impact on the overall narrative (i.e. the effect on the reader)
  • Posture and hand gesture are most important in expressing narrative and dynamism 

Visual research

Visual research happened in parallel with the design, with one informing the other. For example, it wasn’t until I had completed thumbnailing the story that I knew the full extent of the visual research required.

Hampton Court Palace

Photographic research from Assignment 3

The following contact sheets were carried forward from Assignment 3.

The Story of Abraham tapestries

I visited Hampton Court Palace again in order to take further reference photographs of the Story of Abraham tapestries in the Great Hall.

The State Apartments and private rooms of William III

I also took photographs from the State Apartments and private rooms of William III. The costumes were particularly interesting.

Interiors and exteriors

Market research

Feedback notes from tutor led crit

My market research was partly a response to feedback from Bee Willey as part of a tutor led crit – see full write-up here.

  • I should research the market trends for subject matter/books of this nature. This will help understand the audience and what is marketable within the UK.
  • The subject matter would position the book at a young adult/more specialised adult theme audience.
  • It would be worth looking at interactive graphic novels to see if/what the possibilities are for this genre of illustration
  • It would be interesting to look at the education market. What is the market for these ‘epic’ tales.
  • I should look up the Bologna Fiere, to check out picture book publishing worldwide

Book research

In order to shape how I would respond to my brief I needed to understand where the story might be pitched by publishers so that I could determine the likely size and format of the finished artwork.

I carried out the following market research.

Young Adult Fiction (YA)

Young adult fiction is a category of fiction written for teenagers (between 12 to 18-year olds), although half the readers are adult.

The subject matter is broad and includes most of the themes found in adult books. Wikipedia which has as a comprehensive entry relating to the subject lists common themes as: “friendship, first love, relationships, and identity (Wikipedia, 2020)

New adult fiction (NA)

New adult fiction (NA) is written for adults between 18 to 30-years old, with subjects and themes about and focused on that age group.

Wikipedia lists the common themes for this genre as: “relationships, college life, self-identity, new responsibilities, and issues like abuse (Wikipedia, 2020).

Interactive graphic novels

To be added to practice research for future investigation.

The education market

To be added to practice research for future investigation.

Book sizes

I’ve selected a selection of books that that could be classified as either YA or NA fiction that deal with the same kind of subject matter as “On the Last Day”. The information I was interested in was the book size and the size, usage and print finish of illustrations.

Title Retail price (from Amazon) No. and dimension of page Use of illustrations
Cages (Written and illustrated by Dave McKean) Paperback, £24.99 496 pages

218mm x 284mm

Full colour throughout
The Homecoming (Written by Ray Bradbury, illustrated by Dave McKean) Hardcover, £40.00 56 pages

178mm x 203mm

Full colour throughout
A Monster Calls (Written by Patrick Ness, illustrated by Jim Kay) Paperback, RRP £9.99 216 pages

165mm x 208mm

Black and white throughout

The page dimensions really varied along with the price. Although very unscientific, the stand out piece of data from this small sample is the relatively small cost of ‘A Monster Calls’, that not only has the smallest page size, but most significantly is uses black and white halftones throughout.

Different printers and self published authors provide lots of helpful and detailed advice online that is easily and freely available.

The main variables ares quantity, quality of paper, use of colour and page size and print process.

The page size I will use for the illustrations in this assignment will match those used by The Homecoming. That is a single page spread of 178mm x 203mm or a double page spread of 356mm x 203mm.

Practice research

The topics for practice research are taken from a backlog of items that is added/amended on an ongoing basis. This is currently maintained in a Word document format

The topics or tasks that were relevant to this assignment:

Research practice question Response to question
How do I use model making as a way to learn more about creating facial expression and caricature? I used clay to model facial expressions which I then used as reference. This process is written up here.
How do I use models/sets as an approach to create future narrative illustrations? I used models and mini sets as props to create four of the six Assignment 4 illustrations. This is evidenced in the following video.

Watch the following videos:


Wikipedia (2020) Young adult fiction At: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Young_adult_fiction#New_adult_fiction (Accessed: 03/08/20)

List of illustrations

Figure 1 – McKean, Dave (2006) The Homecoming – Dream [Children’s book illustration] At: https://www.davemckean.com/portfolio/childrens/ (Accessed: 30/07/20)

Figure 2 – Kay, Jim (2011) An illustration from A Monster Calls [Children’s book illustration] At: https://creepyscrawlers.com/illustration/a-monster-calls/ (Accessed: 30/07/20)


Dave Mckean – Official Site (s.d.) At: https://www.davemckean.com/ (Accessed 30/07/2020).

Eyes On Cinema (2014) The art of storyboarding with Ridley Scott. At: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ljjlXSGdSYs (Accessed 22/08/2020).

Kay, J. (2019) creepy scrawlers ltd. At: https://creepyscrawlers.com/ (Accessed 30/07/2020).

Talks at Google (2014) Into The Woods | John Yorke | Talks at Google. At: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P0UZHUnB5pQ (Accessed 22/08/2020).

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