Arts & Writing

White paper

A book illustrator's work begins where the editors have left off...



It is with a mixture of excitement and nerves that I pull a new sheet of paper out of its sleeve and wait for the inevitable cloying smell of sizing to waft up from the paper, once I have wetted it.

As an antidote to the blinding whiteness, I splash the ink and paint around, thinking about the tones needed for the scene in the manuscript.

I am mapping the flat space of the paper to reach a world beyond it, familiarising myself with its atmosphere before even populating it.

I have read and re-read the story and travelled to the locations through my research, taking notes on costume, buildings, interiors, and furniture. I need to explore the vegetation to identify trees and flowers, or creatures, which will cohabit with the characters inside the story. I’ll visit more online archives, or museums and reference libraries.

Collecting all this is exciting: it feeds my hunches as I make my rough drawings. They have been hovering around inside my head.

I am in fact circling around the story looking, and waiting – for clues and unexpected connections to be revealed.

I glean smells and images, subtle and powerful, which find their way into small scribbly prelims. The tip of the pencil, as it touches the surface, also reaches somewhere beyond it: an accessory or detail in the clothing or fleeting facial expressions are reflected back to me, as they materialise on the paper, which becomes a stage. For the characters to become fully alive, what shapes will their moods take? What body language will be needed?

There are emotions waiting to be expressed in colours and lines.

The landscape emerges bit by bit: a tree and perhaps other trees, a field around them, then the coast, the cliffs or a beach, the sea and new horizons.

I listen to the silent call from the words, their meaning or origin; look at their shape; or look out for a visual metaphor for the characters’ inner life; or for setting the scene.

I can turn the words into pictures – bringing more to light in these drawings, while I remain faithful to this newly incarnate world.

I wait for accidental marks and textures to settle into unpredictable patterns. More dampening down using crushed tissue or sponges might be necessary. I’ll need to wait for the paint or ink to dry, before the next layer can appear.

In the mean time, I get on with other drawings. It’s good to return to these views with a fresh eye.

Later, maybe after a slight hover, I’ll draw lines in colour, new threads that connect image and text.

The characters are coming alive; we are together on the journey from within their existing story onto the paper and then into the world.


Over days and days, I watch them on the paper and in my head.

Late at night, when there are few sounds from the street below the studio, I see into this imagined world. It speaks to me, soundless yet powerful; my cat is on the table under the warm beam of the angle poise lamp; a seemingly casual witness of these exchanges on my desk, but though his eyes are closed, one ear turned in her direction, he is with me, at the ready.

The characters on their journey might even appear in dreams, in flashes so clear I can put down on paper in the morning.


Silent deliberations carry on in parallel to daily life.

I can be on the bus, or waiting in a queue, or looking out of a steamed up train window at cloud floes; at silent crows fluttering up from hedgerows, a lonely fox, lines of washing in gardens, textures in the fields or the city, the hotchpotch of allotments, or patterns of car lights in the semi dark.

It is a double life.

Coincidences occur between these two worlds, prompting me.

I snap gestures and facial expressions, catch them in vignettes; or pick a stop frame, from strobe-ing sequences preceding and also following it.

I am riveted to the unfolding of the characters’ lives, and getting to know them behind the scenes.

Their previous state was contained within the grid of text, or the web of stories, intricate and still within the grasp of the author.

My work begins where the editors have left off. My pencil hooks these details from behind this mesh of words. I scan the pages again, looking for the objects needed to furnish this emerging world: they are the clues of a mystery waiting to be unravelled through drawing.

It is my job to pick out each one from the text, turn it this way and that, as people do with shells from the seashore, to feel their resonance – to perceive them fully as mementos redolent of secret past things, and whispers of promises as yet unfulfilled.

In collaboration, the perspectives of the editors and authors converge and crystallise at last.

This is the magic moment I wait for, whatever the book I may be working on: when the picture book starts breathing a life of its own, the inescapable truth of the story driving its pace and its heartbeat even, preparing for the journey with the reader …

I collect up whatever I can, piecing together truth, and hidden truth.

I fill in the missing dots, until they join, and make a picture.

About the author

b_w profile pic.jpegMarge Herman is half French and has lived in the UK since returning to study Visual communication/Illustration at Bath Academy of Art.

She has worked in the publishing field for thirty years as an illustrator and designer,  venturing into story writing in the last few years.

Still exploring narrative formats, devices and fragmentation, she is now studying at Lancaster University on the Creative Writing MA.

Investigating communication on traditional and contemporary platforms, she is currently working on two collections of short stories, gravitating around themes such as memory, loss, eating disorders; isolation; mortality; emotional geographies.

She lectures in drawing and Visual Communication.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: