Sonya Leonello, putting the pieces back together with Picture Book Illustration

Hello my name is Sonya Leonello, I live in the Macedon Ranges in Victoria, Australia. If I’m not illustrating I’m probably writing. I love to be doing something creative, in fact I have to be doing something creative. I typically love to write stories for children, and I also write comedy (for stand up comedy) which is other area I intend to explore more. I have performed stand up comedy, but only once so far! From time to time you might also see me at Dromkeen volunteering at Storytime or LitFest, as I love reading picture books to the children to inspire them sharing my enthusiasm.

If I was to describe my illustration style, I’d say …
Delightful characters, playful line work, bright colours.

Why did you sign up to the Picture Book Illustration e-Course (PBIC)?

I signed up to the PBIC as I’m chasing my goal of getting my stories out in the world for little people and big people to enjoy and be inspired to read, write and draw, like other authors and illustrators have inspired me. 

I also signed up for a very personal reason. I needed to reconnect with things I love to do – illustrating for picture books. This year has been devastating for me and my family since losing my sister. The grief and bereavement I experienced smashed me into pieces. The impact of losing my sister, my only sibling, has forever changed my life.

Unknowingly I jumped into this course to give myself time-out from my grief, and the escapism of doing something I love, which is living in the world of illustrating picture books. The course has enabled me to continue my healing through my art and creative expression, and start to put some pieces of me back together.

When and where did you illustrate during PBIC?

I tried to follow the course schedule in terms of when to illustrate, however at times I was much more haphazard in my approach. I am lucky to have a room in our house, which is my studio room. I also managed to take over part of our dining table!

How much time, each week, did you dedicate to the Picture Book Illustrtion e-Course? 
I spent a lot of time on PBIC, as I wanted to learn as much as I could and immerse myself into the process. I love the way that when I’m doing art, I totally lose track of time all together, it’s the best! There were a couple of weeks where I couldn’t do as much as I would have liked, due to what was happening in my life at the time. Moving forward I hope to set up more of a schedule.

Did you have a plan going into the 8-week course?

Initially I’d planned to work on my own manuscript however, the manuscript I had in mind didn’t have consistent characters throughout the story. Drawing characters consistently was an area I wanted to learn more about, so I decided to work on the course manuscript instead. Either way would have taught me a tremendous amount, you really can’t go wrong. For me working on the course manuscript allowed me the freedom to move through weekly stages more quickly, as I focused on the process and journey, rather than feeling as precious about the outcome, had it been my own book. I was definitely happy with choosing the course manuscript, it was such a delightful story written by Ben Whittacker-Cook and really perfect for learning Nina’s Picture Book Illustration e-Course.

What was the best thing about the Picture Book Illustration e-Course?

There were so many best things, but ultimately the Picture Book Illustration e-Course wouldn’t exist without Nina, so I have to say Nina was the best thing. She was so generous with her teachings and her time. I valued her encouragement of us to be more fearless, to explore, experiment, learn, grow and create.

What was the worst thing about the Picture Book Illustration e-Course?

The worst thing would have to be experiencing that feeling of self doubt that can creep in at times during the creative process. Having said that, this was also what was so good about the Picture Book Illustration e-Course, as at key times Nina and Pamela would be there to support us, cheer us on, and remind us to be kind to ourselves, along with support and encouragement from the other participants.

How did the course help with your character design process? 

The Picture Book Illustration e-Course offered me lots of lightbulb moments, including to use more reference for character design and keep an analog book containing the reference material. Also being able to explore your character as a human, as an animal, part animal/part human, older, younger, all helped with my character exploration and design process.

How did the character map process help?

The character map process helped me enormously. It’s given me the opportunity to draw my characters more consistently in various poses and see them really come to life. Previously I would have avoided exploring more challenging poses but now I just want to give it a go and challenge myself.

What was your experience receiving feedback during the course?

Nina’s feedback was always kind and nurturing in nature, she clearly knew what she was talking about, as an expert in her field. I always loved receiving her feedback and learning as much from her as I possibly could. Every comment was fair and on point and her suggestions always added to my artwork, or assisted in my growth.

Talk us through the process of thumbnail sketches.

Thumbnail sketches allow us to preview our entire picture book project, by jotting down our ideas for each page quickly and simply for each page, we can visualise the entire story. Thumbnails help us work out the pace, rhythm and flow of our story, allowing for changes to be made quickly and easily. I’d have to say I hadn’t really done thumbnail sketches before, I’d done larger storyboarding previously.

What was your experience making a dummy book?

I loved making the dummy book! It was such a wonderful achievement to make a physical, visual mini book. It allowed me to turn the pages, and make note of the pace, rhythm and flow of the story. It also allowed me to see what pages made me smile, and what pages I felt still needed some more work, and more changes. It even helped me to identify what pages needed a complete overhaul!

How did your illustration technique/style change or improve during the 8-weeks?
When it came to choosing which techniques to use, doing colour tests and experimenting with different mediums was a complete game changer for me. It definitely changed the direction from what I had planned. I essentially worked out the colours that I wanted to use for the city in my illustration using collage, and from there I had the challenge of working out and balancing the rest of the colours within the illustration.

If you had the opportunity to do the course over, what would you have done differently?

Better time management overall, I’d exercise more too! So that I wouldn’t fall behind, I would have postpone going away on a 3-day weekend during storyboarding. I might have made the main character a girl, rather than a cat, although I enjoyed creating my feline character. In fact, I wouldn’t have changed anything, as these were all lessons I needed to learn.

Sonya’s Final Artwork

My illustration was based on the course manuscript ‘Florence the Fox Goes to School’ by Ben Whittacker-Cook. I should point out I made the main character in the story ‘Florence’ a cat, rather than a human girl. My final illustration uses digital collage with watercolour/pencil characters and pen line work. I was lucky enough to be feeling great whilst painting my characters, which always helps.

I gave myself a personal challenge, of only using paper that I could source within my house for the collage elements.

For example, I used baking paper for two of the trees in the woods scene. I experienced a number of challenging problem solving moments, while trying to work out how to balance the transition from the day scene in the woods, to the night city scene. Essentially, I was largely using a medium that I was unfamiliar with, so there was lots of learning and problem solving going on. There were times whilst working on my final artwork when I felt like I did not know where I was going with it, but I just had to keep going. That’s part of being an artist, challenging yourself to grow, surrendering to the unknown when you are out of your comfort zone.

What’s next for you?

I’m working on my sketchbook for the ‘Sketchbook Project’, which will become part of the library collection at the Brooklyn Art Library. The project is changing the way creative people share their work, creating a worldwide community resource. So feel free to check out my ‘Sketchbook Project’ journey as I will be posting my progress on Instagram.

Also, here is a link to my online portfolio 


Join my free mini-course

As my gift to you, here is my character design mini-course. All I need to know is where to send it. Valued at $20, it is 100% free. No credit card is required. You will also receive Nina news – I love to share, but not too often, not too much, and always in support of your creative journey. And you can unsubscribe at any time.