Drawing A Story

21st July 2017
6 min read
8th October 2020
A Walk in New York book cover

Drawing Your Own Story

Books are a relatively simple technology but still hard to beat I think. They provide a wonderful container for ideas, words and pictures. Making a book helps me to organise my thoughts into an order, into a beginning, middle and end (& all the dynamic tensions in between) it also allows me to explore a theme in depth and finally arrive at a point of view.

This is an introduction to two of my book projects, how I thought about them and how the process of making a book evolves.

City life has always inspired me. A Walk in New York was my first picture book and led to a series that explored cities and the thrill of urban life. London supplies me with a never-ending cast of characters to think about and everybody comes with a story! I like to find a busy street corner and watch the drama of everyday life unfold.

Each book usually begins with an intense period of visual research and first hand observation. Here are several drawings made on location in New York. I’m collecting different ingredients to help me form the graphic identity of the city. What makes New York, New York?

The character of the dad is loosely based on me. I’ve always wanted to be taller and of course anything is possible in a story. The boy narrator, in the striped t-shirt, is a version of my son.

The job of the first page is to introduce the characters and the theme of the book. I wanted to convey the frenetic energy of New York and the characters that make it so distinct.

I work hard to recreate ‘believable’ moments and the observation drawings help to feed my imagination. There are lots of details to discover (I’m rather addicted to detail!) – ladies gossiping, excited children …

and friends re-united (on platform 31).

Once I'm feeling more confident and have a draft of the story I begin to put words and pictures together into a rough page layout.

The theme for this page is ‘tallness’ and the gravity defying skyscrapers. The boy and dad are straining their necks to look up… it’s exactly what I did as a visitor too.

Drawing To A Story

I love drawing to a story … finding a way to meet the words with my pictures. Although I enjoy wrestling with words its also exciting collaborating with someone else’s imagination as I did here with David Almond and Harry Miller’s Run.

Harry was very vivid from the start … that’s the power of a good story!

Harry is based on elements from different people, an elderly relative who lived to be 100, a man I used to see regularly at the bus stop who, like Harry, also used a walking frame and sometimes I would ‘try out’ an interesting face on the London underground, a fellow passenger, that I might draw and ‘audition’ for a role in the book!

There is the NOW of Liam’s story, the boy excited about taking part in the Junior Great North Run and there is the BEFORE of Harry’s memory and how he once ran all the way to the seaside of South Shields in 1938. The book is about how these two stories overlap.

Harry loves people and people love him. Everyone is interesting but some people are simply good fun to be around and I sense that Harry is one of those characters. He probably knows lots of good jokes, some of them rude no doubt! Here he is sprinting towards an imaginary finishing line.

I wanted to break away from the convention of presenting the past in black & white, Harry’s memory is at the heart of the book so I decided to show the past in vivid colour and old Harry in grey and muted tones.

My version of North West England in 1938 was partly real and partly imagined. I live in a street of Victorian terraces and there are still many workers’ houses all around, so I drew these instead. I magically moved my east London streets to Tyneside, I re-imagined them alongside factories, gasworks and trams. To add authenticity I included posters advertising traditional drinks like Bovril and Rington’s tea.

The more I drew, the better I came to imagine and SEE proud housewives scrubbing their front door step or beating a mat clean, delivery boys on bicycles, children playing in the street and the horses and carts. It happened gradually but this process helped me to enter the world of the story and feel it. 

And of course I David Almond’s wonderful words to guide me too!

Salvatore Rubbino is a graduate of the Royal College of Art in London. A Walk in New York (2009), his first picture book, began as a series of paintings that was short-listed for the Victoria and Albert Illustration Awards, and was followed by A Walk In London (2011) and A Walk In Paris (2014). He has illustrated Harry Miller's Run by David Almond, Just Ducks by Nicola Davis and most recently A Book Of Feelings by Amanda McCardie.