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Author & Illustrator Tania McCartney On Her True Blue New Children’s Book

Author & Illustrator Tania McCartney On Her True Blue New Children’s Book

Award-winning author and illustrator Tania McCartney has been entertaining readers for years with her collection of adult and children’s books. And now, with the release of her first self-illustrated children’s picture book, Australia: Illustrated, her works are set to become a household name.

Tania’s Australia: Illustrated is a visual tribute to Australia that will have children and adults mesmerised. The beautiful illustrations span our wide brown land, its rich multicultural communities, culture and idiosyncrasies. From our First People and washing lines to crocodiles, footy, sunshine, koalas and Akubras, and even our skyscrapers and beaches that squeak, Australia: Illustrated is a 96 page visual adventure that both young and old can explore and be inspired by.

Tania has vibrantly illustrated these magical images with watercolour, ink, digital art and mono-printing to create on-page magic. Not only does she celebrate the more ‘typical’ Australian flora, fauna and landmarks, but she also showcases the everyday quirks that make Australia unique. Whimsical, humorous and high in detail, this is Australia like you’ve never seen it before.

Below, Tania shares her incredible career journey and the artistic process behind some of her iconic Aussie illustrations. So grab your snorkel and let’s dive in! There’s a load of inspiration ahead …

How did your love for illustrating develop?

Like all kids, I had a pencil in hand from toddlerhood, and was a prolific drawer through primary, high school and early adulthood. Alas, adulthood got in my way (as it so often does; so annoying) and I just stopped drawing and started paying bills instead. It wasn’t until I hit 40 that I realised how much I missed creating pictures, so I started the 52-Week Illustration Challenge Facebook group as a way to recommit myself to something I once loved so much. One of my biggest life secrets has been the desire to illustrate my own picture books, but I honestly thought I could no longer draw. When I started the Challenge, I didn’t think it would be possible—that’s how much I’d lost touch with art.

Author and illustrator Tania McCartney's Great Barrier Reef, QLD, Australian: Illustrated

Great Barrier Reef (QLD) “One of my greatest pleasures in creating this book was painting fish, birds and other animals. I didn’t expect to enjoy it so much. These fish were illustrated individually using ink and watercolour, before being ‘finished’ and digitally cut out in Photoshop. I sometimes add highlights to imagery in Photoshop, too (watercolour, being so translucent, can be difficult when it comes to lightening). The background for this image is textured watercolour paper, painted with watercolour and then scanned in. You can see darker blue shadows through the water, which were created with a digital brush in Illustrator, and there are also whitish, bubble-like spots that were created with a custom brush, too. The coral was made by digitally tracing photographs and then filling the shapes in white. All of these elements, along with text, were digitally layered to form the page.”

What artistic training do you have?

I actually have no formal training in art or illustration – just a profound love and appreciation for it – and an unholy addiction to children’s picture books. The Challenge was absolutely instrumental in rekindling the drawing skills I thought I’d lost in adulthood. I practised prolifically over two years, and also took online training classes, mostly in digital illustration (at It’s so true – solid practice exponentially fast-tracks long lost skills, and before I knew it, I was in production with my first illustrated book – something I never even dreamed would happen. Like, ever. I’ve been an author of kids’ books for almost a decade, so to be illustrating a book, too is just surreal. Absolute Life Moment.

Author & Illustrator Tania McCartney On Her True Blue New Children’s Book Australia: Illsutrated

Darwin Icons (NT) “This is a combination of watercolour and digital art. The children are hand-rendered in watercolour and ink, and the chalkboard is monoprinted black paint, scanned and pasted in digitally. The remaining elements are all digitally done, including the icons on the chalkboard, which were drawn using a digital pen. I have a great love of chalkboards (bring back the chalkboard!) and wanted to include it here for nostalgic reasons and also because it just looks visually beautiful (let’s face it, whiteboards aren’t pretty!). This is absolutely one of my favourite images in the book. I love the pure and full childhood expression and smiles on the kids’ faces. It just makes ME smile. I want to meet these kids!”

What was the inspiration behind Australia Illustrated?

I think it’s easy to believe that young children, especially very young children, can’t fully appreciate art. I’ll never understand why so many picture books skimp on engaging artwork, especially with the glut of wildly talented artists out there. For ‘Australia Illustrated’, I’d long held in my mind a high-page picture book (it’s a whopping 96 pages) on Australia that’s not ‘typical’ but rather quirky, idiosyncratic and perhaps even funny – something that would both delight and surprise, especially overseas readers who often have such a stereotypical view of our country.”

Author & Illustrator Tania McCartney On Her True Blue New Children’s Book Australia: Illustrated

Chocolate Factory (TAS) “I had so much fun with this. I remember visiting the Cadbury Chocolate Factory in Hobart as a child, and being utterly mesmerised by all the conveyor belts, so I envisaged kids engaging with a series of pipes and belts as they followed the chocolate-making journey. And of course, who doesn’t want to dive into a vat of melted chocolate? The kids, dog and cocoa beans were hand-rendered and scanned in. The remaining imagery was created digitally, and the pink background has a speckled filter overlay. It was important to me to include as many varied kids as I could in this book – culturally, ethnically and situationally. I wanted to include a blind child here because the sensory feel of this page was absolutely perfect for him. I love that he’s so fully appreciating the smell and feel and taste of the chocolate … the word SAVOUR is so poignant here.”

Explain the imagery and artistic process

Imagery for Australia: Illustrated was created using ink, watercolour, gouache, mono-printing, digital art and digital filters. The mono-printing was done using a gelli plate, which is a thick silicon mat that can be wiped clean and re-used. Paint is applied to the plate and then a sheet of paper is laid over the top and smoothed with a roller, before peeling off the paper to reveal the design. As many as three or four printings can be taken from that one application, with the paint intensity lightening as each sheet is applied. You can also add textures and cut-outs. I used combs and sticks and other items to scrape the paint to make marks used throughout the book. I also used textured paper, which can be seen in the Great Barrier Reef image.”

I used Adobe Illustrator for digital image creation and Photoshop for cutting out and for finishing the hand-rendered images. I hand-drew over 1000 individual pictures to use in this book, and the entire work took around a year to create, almost full-time. I created all my own fonts for use in the book, using iFontMaker. For all pages, my intention was to feature iconic, traditional or unexpected themes in an unusual, quirky way, focusing on how kids might see the world. It’s not intended to be a ‘complete’ view of Australia, but rather my own view – one that is open to interpretation by the reader.

Author & Illustrator Tania McCartney On Her True Blue New Children’s Book Australia: Illustrated

Sydney Ferries (NSW) “This was one of the very first pages I did for the book. I illustrated the boy on watercolour paper using a black fineliner and watercolour, then painted the water around him. I did the same for each ferry. These were then scanned into my computer, where I cut out each image and placed it on the page digitally. The subway tiles, bubbles, plant, mirror and sign were all created digitally, and used as a backdrop, with the boy/water and ferries laid over the top. I then added digital water splashes to help tie the watercolour in with the background/overlaying the boy. It’s great to create in this way because you can move things around until you get a nice balance.”

How can Australia: Illustrated help develop children’s story telling?

I wanted to do something predominantly visual, as I’m a big champion of visual literacy. The scant text in ‘Australia: Illustrated’ allows the images to do the talking, which is what visual literacy and nuance is all about. Kids can make their own stories with this book – each page has its own tale to tell and its own subtle messages to impart, and there’s no one better than kids when it comes to the ability to create story from image.

It was important to do things very differently with ‘Australia: Illustrated’, and I think the book achieves that, with a good balance of the ‘possibly expected’ and the ‘definitely unexpected’. It had to be something kids could relate to and take delight in, as well as inspire further exploration.

I also wanted to create something that adults would love as much as kids, because – truth be told – picture books are often as much for kids as they are for grown-ups. And so they should be. I’ve included little visual references in the book that perhaps only adults will get, but this adds to the personal experience – every reader will see something different. Hopefully!

Author & Illustrator Tania McCartney On Her True Blue New Children’s Book Australia: Illustrated

Quokka Selfies (WA) “The quokka selfie is quite the epidemic, and each one of these hand-rendered images were inspired by real life photos of quokka selfies taken on Rottnest Island. They’ve been bordered with a digital polaroid frame. The rest of the image has been created digitally and the background is overlaid with a speckled filter. The postcard is actually a real postcard that I added digitally, and the Rottnest Express ticket was made digitally.”

Tell us about your career journey

I’ve been writing professionally (as a freelancer) for almost 30 years, and have decades of experience as a magazine columnist and editor, features writer and photographer, book editor, copy editor and proofreader. In and around that, I became a Jill-of-all-trades (as is the way with most writers!) working in many jobs including executive secretary, advertising and marketing PA, promotions girl, bartender and flight attendant. I also became a mum of two gorgeous kids (who are teens now).

My children’s book obsession (particularly picture books) has been lifelong, and I made kids’ books my full-time career in 2005, while living in Beijing with my family. It all began when I self-published my first picture book, Riley and the Sleeping Dragon: A journey around Beijing, and then brought the book home to Australia in 2009. It went bananas, so I continued the series (there are five Riley books now) and also began Kids’ Book Review, now the number one kidlit site on the web. I quickly entered and began engaging with the Australian children’s book industry, and in 2010 had my first contract with the National Library of Australia. I’m now published by six different publishers and have 23 books in print, with seven in production. So, it’s been a wild ride, and just goes to show how quickly you can achieve things when you dedicate yourself to what you love.

As for creating beautiful children’s books – this is, again, something I could have only dreamed of doing in this lifetime. I truly have to pinch myself that I get to do this as a job now. Kids NEED great books, great story and great imagery. We’re so lucky in Australia that our children’s book selection and local industry is so formidable – one of the finest in the world. I’m completely proud to be part of it.

Author & Illustrator Tania McCartney On Her True Blue New Children’s Book Australia: Illustrated

Melbourne Icons (VIC) “This page was so much fun to do, least of all because I’m a Melbourne girl and love coffee! Again, I wanted to present Melbourne’s icons in a unique way, so – Melbourne being the coffee capital of Australia – these iconic sites just had to be presented barista-style. This entire page was digitally-rendered, one of the few pages that doesn’t include any hand-rendering or printing at all. The background is a pattern filter, and the cups, saucers, pencil, spoons and teddy were all created digitally, as was all text. For the text on the saucers, I wanted to create an etched look, and this was achieved by overlaying two lots of text – one pale grey and one black, slightly offset to give a shadowed effect. The actual chocolate powder imagery was quite a process. I digitally altered my photographs of these sites, to create the highest possible contrast. I then image traced the photos (in Adobe Illustrator) and then expanded them to create what’s known as a vector file (which can be easily manipulated, coloured, etc). From there, I added a filter to give a sprinkled look, then copied and pasted little dots on and around the image. This takes a surprisingly long time!”

What do you hope children and parents will get from the book?

I’m hoping it makes their eyes go wide, makes them point, maybe exclaim and perhaps even giggle. If it makes them think and wonder, that would be good, too. “I’m hoping it sends adults soaring back to childhood, and I’m really hoping it becomes a starter for discussion on families, tradition, friends, nature, ecology, diversity, and what it means to be part of this beautiful land.

Multicultural, diverse books are very important to me, and we need more of them to engage children at this formative time of their lives, when their brains are still fresh and open and free of mental barriers. Diversity and understanding other cultures and ways of life, while celebrating our own homegrown traditions and ways of being, is a fine way to bring us together as human beings – and I think it could be argued there’s no greater time to encourage this than now.

I also hope it just makes people smile, and feel that warm spread of both familiarity and nostalgia. The thing is, we’re all so very different yet still so much the same. I love the dichotomy of that, and I think it’s what ‘Australia: Illustrated is all about.

ABOUT: Tania McCartney is an award-winning author of both adult and children’s titles. An experienced magazine and book editor, she is also the founder of Kids’ Book Review and the 52-Week Illustration Challenge. Tania has many years’ experience in book design and a deep love of illustration. ‘Australia: Illustrated’ is her first self-illustrated picture book. She is a voracious juvenile literacy advocate, loves tea and travel, and has lived in Paris, London and Beijing. Today, she lives in Canberra with her very supportive family, and a mountain of books. ‘Australia: Illustrated‘, RRP $29.99  is a gorgeous textured hardcover book available from Dymocks and wherever good books are sold.

This article was first published on

Written by Franki Hobson

Franki Hobson has worn many hats during her many years as a women's lifestyle journalist and editor. Her launching pad was COSMOPOLITAN magazine, where she moved from News & Entertainment Editor to Features Director, covering everything from the legalisation of the Morning After Pill to Gwen Stefani, fashion, beauty, sex, health, fitness, entertainment and relationships.

In 2003 Franki immersed herself in all things teen as Deputy Editor, then Editor-in-Chief of teen Bible DOLLY magazine. Following this, Franki was made Editor of COSMOPOLITAN Hair & Beauty, COSMOPOLITAN Pregnancy and COSMOPOLITAN Bride magazine, where she held the helm (and tiara) for more than 10 years. Franki was also the launch editor of COSMOPOLITAN Health magazine, and is an accomplished Homes Editor and Travel Editor, covering honeymoon destinations, family travel, luxe abodes and health retreats. Franki Hobson is a contributing lifestyle writer for The Carousel.


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