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Tom McLaughlin Illustration and Cloud Spotting

June 22, 2015

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Tom McLaughlin studied illustration at Falmouth College of Arts, and later landed a job as the political cartoonist at The Western Morning News.  He spent 9 years happily caricaturing the good, the bad and the down-right ugly of politics and music. Although he had about 5 different deadlines looming, he very kindly spared some time and answered some questions, just for you guys. Because that’s just the kind guy he is : )

Which do you enjoy the most, the process of writing or illustrating a book ?

I can’t separate them. The pictures tell the story, the words paint a picture. In recent years I’ve become a lot more confident about my writing ability, I think that’s because illustrating had a 15 year head start on my writing.

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In 2006 he left the paper to become a freelance illustrator and stumbled into the world of animation when he won a bursary to direct his short animated film, The Girl With The Pink Shoes, as part of the Animated Exeter festival.

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Since then he has gone on to design and create a number of animated TV concepts with Honeycomb Animation, including The 99 Lives Of The Fuzzy Cat, which is being developed along with Molly Little Mysteries. Both projects have attracted interest from broadcasters at home and abroad. Tom has also worked as a designer for the animation studio Red Kite, and has devised a TV project called N.E.R.D.S with them, which is in the early stages of development. As well as creating TV shows, Tom is also working on the designs for a pre-school show which is currently in development with HIT Entertainment and Three Black Cats.

Do you keep sketchbooks of ideas and if so, do stories spark from those at all ? How important are sketchbooks to you in your work ?

I do keep sketch books, but I don’t doodle in them as much as I should. I have a terrible habit of losing them. Somewhere there are hundreds of sketch books with a few pages of scribbles in them. One day they’ll all turn up! I tend to write down ideas on my phone when I get them, I make written notes of visuals I see in my head. 

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On the books side, Tom illustrated Mark Sperring’s picture book for Puffin, Captain Buckleboots on the Naughty Step (2011) and other ‘Naughty Step’ titles. Simon & Schuster published his picture book The Diabolical Mr Tiddles in January 2012.

I’ve read that you are Dyslexic, do you feel that this may actually help you to look at illustrations and ideas from a different and slightly more ‘off-centre’ perspective ?

I do. For years it was a burden to me; I felt embarrassed about being dyslexic. It felt like words belonged to those who understood them. But now I think it helps. I think visually when I’m writing. I think about the mood of a story first, the pace of it, how it makes me feel. Then when I have that figured out, I add the words.

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Tom has been published both as a writer and an illustrator for a number of publishers, had his books translated across Europe and South America. In 2014 there appeared a new book called ‘ The Story Machine ‘ about Elliott, a boy who likes to find things. One day, he stumbles across a machine. At first, he can’t work out what the machine is for – it doesn’t beep or buzz like all his other machines and it doesn’t have an ON/OFF button. Then, quite by accident, Elliott makes the machine work. The machine makes letters! Elliott thinks it must be a story machine but, sadly, Elliott isn’t very good at letters and words. How can he make magical stories without them? But, wait, some of the letters look like pictures. Elliott is good at pictures and, as he discovers, pictures make stories.

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I love how the letters create the world around the central character. Clean lines and colours help the illustrations tell their story.

Apart from publishing, Tom has also spent time as a script writer and a character designer for several animation channels. His latest book which comes out in September this year is called ‘The Cloudspotter’.

The Cloudspotter doesn’t have many friends. He spends his time, all by himself, spotting not just clouds but adventures in the sky. This way, he doesn’t feel so alone. Then, one day, an unexpected visitor appears in his adventures and it throws everything up in the air. Could it be that two cloudspotters are better than one ?

Can you tell me a little about where your ideas for a new story starts from ?

I used to lie on the grass as a child and look at the clouds, I’d see shapes and adventures wherever I looked. Children should have their head in the clouds as much as possible.

Tom very kindly sent me some of his early ideas for the book.

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Before we get to see the real deal : )

Do you work mostly digitally or from drawings when constructing your illustrations ?

Both! I draw or ink away, then when I have the drawing I use a computer to move it around. Change the colour. I use lots of hand made textures, but I bring them all together on a computer. 

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What’s the nicest part of creating a new picture book ?

The blank piece of paper. Knowing that one day, that drawing, to that half a paragraph will turn into a book. That’s the best bit, sitting down with nothing and turning it into something new. 

And the worst part ?

There isn’t a worst part. Even when you’re up against a tight deadline, when you hit it, it’s a great feeling. Sorry if that sounds corny.

Which illustrators work do you most admire and why ?

Ronald Searle is my great hero. Gerald Scarfe too. I spent my early years as a political cartoonist.

Do you enjoy collaborating with other authors / illustrators or do you prefer to mould a book on your own ?

I love working with other authors. It’s always interesting to see how they work. I tend to illustrate other people’s work that’s very different to me, which makes a great change. I’ve never had anyone else illustrate my stories. That would feel really weird! I’m not sure I could do it!
When you’re the author and someone else is the illustrator, do you give them ideas as to how the illustrations might look or wait to see what images they construct before you add your thoughts to the ‘mix’ ?

It’s never happened to me. I know some authors work with illustrators, other publishers keep both of them apart. I’ve always found it helpful to have authors give me feedback.

Any plans for future books in the pipeline that you can tell us about ?

I’m halfway through my next novel with OUP, It’s called The Accidental Secret Agent. I’ve just started my next picture book for Bloomsbury. It’s about a boy who grows a planet. I can’t say any more than that! 

Thanks Tom for sharing your thoughts (and secrets) about your future books. I love the simplicity of your illustrations, the peaceful scenes of landscapes and wide skies, it certainly puts me in the right place to lie back and look for shapes in the clouds. Let’s not forget you don’t need to be a child to do this !

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Wonderful work, I can’t wait to grab a copy of the new book for myself.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. June 23, 2015 3:33 pm

    Now this is right up my strada – I LOVE this guy’s illustrations, they are so vibrant and evocative!!! More please!!!

    • June 23, 2015 4:04 pm

      I’ll tell Tom that you’d like more please and see what he can do ! : )

      • June 24, 2015 8:56 am

        Ooh, thanks hon! And make sure you keep sharing too!!! A great post – one of my favs this month without question!

  2. June 24, 2015 1:34 pm

    Thanks Lizzie, always good to know which ones turn into favourites : )

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