For many artists, October becomes Inktober—a month-long practice where artists and illustrators sketch something new every single day for the entire month of October.
Inktober is meant to keep illustrators practicing their craft, but for Erin Barker, one of her Inktober sketches became much more than just a little doodle.
Erin Barker, illustrator of What Is Soft? , chatted with us about sketching two characters who would later become the opening characters of her upcoming picture book, Mr. Pumpkin’s Tea Party. Read what she has to say in her own words below.
I had given myself the challenge of doing a drawing for Inktober every day, and one of those drawings that I ended up doing was a pumpkin-head guy, kind of like Jack Skellington having tea with a skeleton person.
They were very proper English gentlemen, they had suits and they were clinking their tea glasses together and saying things like, “I dare say,” and, “Indeed.”
I immediately just loved it. I had such a fun time drawing them, and it got a really good response on Instagram. People wanted prints of it, they wanted tee shirts. It was just a really fun drawing.
Months later, my editor Amy contacted me. She said, “Hey I saw this drawing that you did for Inktober, and I think it would make a really, really cute book.”
From Inktober Sketch to Storyline
We had originally talked about the book being some kind of manners book, along with it being a counting book. The original idea did include counting. And we were going to make it a board book. It was just going to be a quick little counting from one to ten for little ones—for toddlers. And then when we pitched it to blue manatee press owner Dr. John Hutton, he liked it so much that he wanted to expand it into a picture book.
A picture book is longer than a board book. It’s much more involved than a board book, so we had to expand it to take up a lot more space, and because it also had a level of sophistication that just didn’t make sense for a board book. So we wanted to make it a little bit more for older kids and that just made sense for a picture book.
Autumn In the Air
Inktober definitely inspired the kind of like spooky, Halloween, autumn feeling. The movies that you watch—the cozy sweaters and the fun times you have with friends in autumn. It’s just such a celebratory season.
I personally love getting together with my friend group during this season. I have fun little dinner parties, and we sometimes make them fancy nights and everyone dresses up, and you bring a dish and we all get together at someone’s house.
I think subconsciously, I was putting a lot of my love for those get-togethers into this book and I didn’t realize it until I was about halfway through the book.
Mr. Pumpkin’s Tea Party
So Mr. Pumpkin has decided to throw a tea party, and he’s inviting all of his friends over for this little get-together. Everyone brings something, so we are introduced to each of the characters as they are arriving at the party, and we are counting up to the number 13.
So Mr. Pumpkin has made one cake, and the first guest is Sir Bones, who is the skeleton from the original drawing, and he brings two jugs of cider. And then we have different guests come, and they bring something that may be three or four—so on and so forth—counting up to thirteen.
Thirteen is finally, “The clock strikes thirteen with an echoing chime, and everyone’s had a frightful good time.”
We see everyone together, feasting at this great table. As the book progresses, the sun is setting, so it’s kind of turning into this nighttime party. At the end, we see everyone having a great time.
It’s really fun. It’s a little spooky, but also charming and approachable. It’s definitely not a scary book. The characters that are coming to the party may be spooky characters normally, but they are dressed in very dressy garb, in very fancy clothing, all very polite and just excited to be with their friends and be at this party. So it’s a very delightful little counting book.
Creating the Characters
Mr. Pumpkin and Sir Bones came to me really easily, thanks to Inktober. They were the first two I made, and so I knew them really well.
Then the third character that was very simple and came really easily to me was Lady Nightshade. She’s a vampire. I thought of her name pretty quickly. I put her in a flapper dress, this kind of twenties style with a little feather and she’s carrying this little parasol umbrella. Immediately her design was set, and I loved her.
But then some of the later characters were harder to come up with, especially when we needed to expand the book. The toughest was getting the witch right.
I also thought maybe she was going to be like a gorgan or something, I had come up with a few other ideas, because I wanted another female character. But once I decided she was a witch, it was hard to figure out things — like her outfit was tough for me to get right.
But when I finally decided on a witch, I knew pretty quickly that she was going to be in this black dress with a black hat but she’s going to kind of be glitzing it up just a little bit. She has this fun purple hair with a white streak in it, and she’s on this cool broom. Once these things kind of like fell into place, then I was able to get it right.
Another tough character was getting Baron Laguna right. I wanted a different character because I’ve got like a furry character, a mammal, I have some undead characters—I wanted something a little bit different from that.
So, landing on Baron Laguna, he was very inspired by the Creature from the Black Lagoon which is why he has the name that he does. He was a little tough to nail what he was going to physically look like but then once I got him to just be huge and much bigger than the others, I was pleased.
I think my favorite one to draw might be Lady Nightshade. She is a lot of fun with her little umbrella and with her cute little dress.
I think my favorite character, the one I feel I love the most is probably a tie between Mr. Pumpkin and the wolf, Lord Wolfington. He’s just a sweet angel baby. With his cute little scones — also scones are my favorite. He might be my favorite.
But Mr. Pumpkin is partially based off of my love for hosting, so I have a soft spot for him. And he was like the OG. He’s my Inktober baby. It’s his party and he can cry if he wants to.
Catch the Cat
Pretty quickly, we had this idea of having a black cat that would appear in every illustration. I remember reading, there was specifically the Usborne books that were really, really delightfully illustrated by Stephen Cartwright.
I always loved seeing his work. He put these little yellow rubber ducks on every page somewhere, and I remember just loving trying to find that sort of secret little Easter egg that was hidden somewhere on the page.
I loved that sort of Where’s Waldo, seek-and-find, tiny details feeling, just immersing yourself in the imagery. I loved those types of stories, those types of books, so I wanted to include a little element of that in this book.
The Artist’s Process
I start out by doing thumbnail sketches and figuring out on a very small scale how I generally want the composition of the page to be. So that’s just done really loosely and quickly in pencil.
Then for this book, I moved from that to transferring it digitally, and getting more of an exact composition. But digitally, I can move things around really easily and quickly. So going from that initial hand-drawn sketch to moving it all digitally was helpful for me to get things just the way I wanted.
So once I had the page exactly composed the way I wanted it, I would transfer my digital sketch over on tracing paper. I would get it to the exact right size that I wanted it to be, and then I did it on a piece of tracing paper. Then from the tracing paper, I would trace it again onto my big watercolor paper.
From there, I would have my base layer sketch physically on my page the way I wanted it using a red pencil. And then I just paint. I do several layers of paint, working from lightest to darkest. I usually spend hours upon hours just getting it exactly right and adding little details when I see them. All the while keeping in mind where the words are going to be, and how it’s going to be flowing in the order of the book.
Then I scan the piece onto my computer. It’s a huge file, it takes forever. I make sure the scan is all clean and crisp, and then I edit the layers.
I make sure the contrast is the right amount, and I brighten colors if I need to. If I made a little mistake, I can kind of clean things up a bit. So then I put the words over top, and send it off to my editor. Then I overthink it for years.
Pictures and Words
You are working with an older audience most of the time with a picture book, and so your content needs to be longer, but it also needs to be a little more complex.
To be both the author and illustrator versus just being illustrator is a lot scarier for me. I can’t just hide behind someone else’s words. It’s all mine, so if people don’t like it, it’s all my fault. It’s my first book that I have written, so that’s nerve-wrecking for me; it’s totally new territory for me. I’ve been writing my own stories for a long time, but this is my first published piece. So yeah, that’s terrifying.
Making an appropriately spooky book for children is a hard line to walk. But growing up watching movies like Coraline or The Nightmare Before Christmas, seeing like characters that were modeled for me, were charming and a little spooky, I really took some inspiration for that sort of storytelling. I really loved trying to find the right balance there.
Erin leads story time twice a day, three days a week, which has given her a better understanding of her target audience and what would be too spooky or just spooky enough when illustrating
Mr. Pumpkin’s Tea Party.
Advice for Artists
Practice! It’s really tempting to see other people’s work and think that they just got there immediately. Especially in the age of Instagram and social media where you’re just seeing these finished products that look so great, or you see artists doing these great Inktober sketches. But just remember that those people worked for hours, for years, honing their skills.
I worked on the book for a full year, but I created pumpkin maybe a full year and a half before that. So this project has been years in the making. Before I even did Pumpkin, that was built on years of training, and school and other inspiration that I came across and loved. It came out in a specific style, so it’s so much more than the immediate finished work that you’re seeing.
So don’t take that as discouraging; take that to mean just keep working. Practice, practice, practice. And if it doesn’t immediately look the way you want it to, that’s okay. Keep trying, because you will only get there if you actually put in the hard work to do it.