author · Drawing · IlIustrator · Interview · notebooks · papers · pens · writing

Interview with John Shelley

Pens and pencils are at the absolute core of what I do as an illustrator, I use a variety of traditional dip pens and nibs and a bottle of india ink (old school!) for my finished book illustrations. Outside the art studio though, for everything else – doodling, sketching, writing, shopping lists – I’m completely devoted to black ink Pilot HI-TEC-C pens, 0.4 or 0.5 thickness, I use them for almost everything.


These pens have a tiny tube nib giving an even, fine line. I love the quality of line and firm contact which makes it a great pen for small scale detailed sketching, especially on smoother paper. On the down side the tips (especially 0.4) have a tendency to clog up after a while, especially when used on softer or textured paper so I tend get through quite a lot of these pens, I’ve a bunch of unusable blocked pens still with partly full ink cartridges, and try various techniques to get them working again, with mixed results. You can buy these pens in the UK easily enough, but are naturally much cheaper in Japan so I usually stock up when I go back to Tokyo. I found out on my last trip though that Pilot have redesigned the HI-TEC-C, selling it at a slightly higher price under the name “Maica”, and are also marketing retractable cases with replaceable cartridges, which I imagine is an attempt to deal with the high wastage of half empty clogged pens.

I don’t often use these pens in final artwork, at least not for children’s books, partly because the ink isn’t quite solid and waterproof enough to hold it’s own under watercolour, which means I have to scan the drawings and print them onto water colour paper for colouring, there’s always a loss of quality. The other reason though is because I’m just in love with the swells and hairline flexibility of traditional pen-and-ink drawing. I do sometimes use them with scanned digitally coloured illustration though, for magazine editorial work etc, and exhibition experiments – they’re just perfect for the kind of sketchbook doodling I get up to.

pilot_pensCaption: Variations on the HI-TEC-C. Older style on the left, the new ‘Maica’ packaging in the middle, retractable replacement type on the right. The contents are all the same!

Tokyo is stationery-mecca, so every time I go back I pick up a range of pens to experiment with. From my last trip I’ve still got half a dozen unopened Kuretake brush-pens I’ve yet to try out.

When I’m out and about I carry a pocket writing notebook for ideas and a pocket sketchbook just for drawing, usually stuffed into a small multi-pocketed shoulder bag (also bought in Tokyo, utility bag heaven!). Size is important, as the pocket books have to easily fit in my bag – I take them everywhere with me. The pocket sketchbook is Japanese, a Maruman Croquis s163, I’ve used the same brand of pocket sketchbook for 20 years and just re-stock whenever I go back to Tokyo. In addition I use an A4 sized studio/lounge sketchbook at home, currently one from Ryman the stationers. Occasionally I use more elaborate sketchbooks for sketching from life, sketchcrawls etc, but I don’t like sketchbooks to be too expensive, as it can make you approach them with too much reverence, almost scared to sully the pages with marks, especially when it’s new.  Good quality paper in a cheap sketchbook leads to the smoothest flow of creativity.

My writing notebook I bought at Muji in London quite a while ago, small, lots of pages, it’s falling to bits now as I’ve had it a long time.

That’s about it for writing, but for drawing I have to keep my studio regularly stocked with art materials – most frequent buys are pen nibs for my dip-pens (usually Gillot 303 or Leonardt EF Principal nibs), drawing/watercolour paper, and watercolour paints. For dip pen holders I prefer the old style “school” type holders with a sleeve ferrule, these are very difficult to find nowadays, I only know of one place with them in stock, but I much prefer them as they’re slim and very light, perfectly balanced in the hand. I have a bunch of the more common spring-ferrule type pen holders often sold in art shops too, but rarely use them, they’re heavier, thicker, never my first choice.


Caption: Dip pens for illustration with some nibs – my favourite sleeve ferrule holders on the left, I don’t use the spring ferruled ones on the right so much.

My writing process for picture books tends to start with scribbled story ideas in the little Muji notebook. Eventually I’ll type up the most promising ideas on a Mac, and start working on picture/character ideas in my Sketchbooks. When I’m satisfied with the story I’ll make a storyboard sheet to plan out the book, then draw small scale pencil roughs of the spreads on A4 copy paper, which  are scanned, adjusted, compiled to make a dummy and printed out, or (if it’s a commissioned book) emailed to the publisher as a pdf.

My next picture book is a spooky adventure Magic For Sale, written by Carrie Clickard and published by Holiday House (US) on 25th July – just in time for Halloween, though it’s not just a halloween book!. (In the UK pre-order on Amazon etc, though it should be in some shops as well).

MagicForSale_cover72Magic for Sale

Words Carrie Clickard, illustrated by John Shelley

Holiday House Publishers Inc

Released 25th July 2017 (available for pre-order now)

ISBN: 9780823435593



I worked as an illustrator in Tokyo for over 20 years and many of my commissions still come from Japan or from the US, I’ve just finished illustrating three early readers for US author Douglas Walker, to be released later this year.

2017 is my 35th anniversary as a published book illustrator. My chief focus will always be illustration, however I do periodically write as well, some of my own self-penned stories have been published in Japan. Though creative writing has been on hiatus for a while due to a heavy workload of commissioned illustration projects, I’m now working on new picture book ideas to submit in this country.

My website

There’s a list of all my books on this page :

Twitter: @StudioNIB

Instagram: @studionib

English language Blog:

Facebook artist page:

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