Part 5: Creating Your Graphic Fiction RT: Part 5

Research Task: Visual Language

After viewing work by each of the contemporary adult graphic novel creators listed (some of which was more readily available online than other), I selected Pam Smy as my choice for further analysis. I mainly focused on Smy’s book, Thornhill, but also looked at examples in her portfolio as well as illustrations for other authors.

Please note – I have ordered a copy of Thornhill, because it appealed to me so much, but, due to time restraints, I decided that I would base the research task on what I have managed to find online and I will not have had full access to all the content or have read the full story. I intend to return to this task at a later date, before Assessment, if I find there are additional observations to be made.

Illustration from Thornhill by Pam Smy. Source: Macmillan Publishers.

The list of keywords that I thought reflected the visual language of Pam Smy’s published work would include:

  • Gothic
  • Unsettling
  • Theatrical
  • Observational
  • Deceptive
  • Detailed
  • Voyeuristic
  • Remote
  • Pensive
  • Sensitive
  • Nature
  • Atmospheric

I found it interesting how Smy combined passages of text in the form of diary entries for one character in Thornhill whilst simultaneously telling the other characters story through images in the form of a graphic novel, with the limited use of text; interweaving the two. Smy generally works in black and white as she prefers the contrast and dramatic effects that can be created, such as a shaft of white light casting shadows.

From my research, I learned that Smy tested various different methods for creating the artwork for Thornhill, including screen printing, and initially was going to opt for more simplified blocks of subtle green, black and white so that the images would be clearer. In the end Smy decided she wanted to ask readers to spend more time on each of the illustrations, absorbing all the information within them, and so went for a more detailed style. She experimented with emulsion paints from a DIY store until she found particular make that suited her requirements. For her final artwork, Smy painted blocks of three shades of grey, lightest first, over a lightly traced pencil sketch. Once dry, she was able to use her dip pen and ink for adding the outlines of building, texture marks and other details, before finally using Tippex/white ink for highlighted areas. The resulting illustrations have depth and strong contrasts. I particularly liked the use of white to create shimmering highlights and strong silhouettes.

I found it inspiring to see learn the in-depth process Smy went through to achieve the look she wanted and it encouraged me to consider being more experimental.

Observational drawing is fundamental to Smy and she uses this as a foundation for her imaginative work, such as that found in Thornhill. I found it enlightening being able to see how Smy uses her sketchbooks (and a lot them!) for preparatory work, which is something I know I need to greatly improve on. As a side note, it solidified my regret at not having done the Illustration Sketchbook unit for Level 1 instead of Graphic Design, as I believe it would have been extremely beneficial and encouraged me to develop the habit of using sketchbooks.

Illustration from Thornhill by Pam Smy. Source: Macmillan Publishers.

In terms of inspiration, for this particular book it was coming across a deserted, boarded-up, old house whilst out walking that triggered thoughts of what it would be like if someone, a child, was living in there More generally, Smy’s work is influenced by a love of nature and reading, with Jane Eyre and The Secret Garden being favourites, along with other creative media such as films by Alfred Hitchcock and Wes Anderson. She is also inspired by fellow illustrators and artists, including two that I am particularly familiar with – Edward Gorey and Shaun Tan. This reminded me that it is important to have a wide range of stimuli to encourage creative thinking.

Most of Smy’s work is for Young Adult fiction (although it is obviously enjoyed by a much wider audience). For Thornhill, Smy wanted to depict childhood as not being a period of ‘blissful innocence’ as they do live in a world with adults… She also focuses on ‘intense feelings of dread’ and the ‘intense psychological bullying’ that children can inflict upon one another, which adults, unfortunately, do not often notice. More broadly, Smy suggests that she hopes her work will make people stop and consider how children placed in institutions, school, or, sadly, even behind closed doors at home are sometimes let down and forgotten about.

I realised after writing the above that it should have been under 200 words, but I was so enthusiastic about what I had learned and I found it clarifying to write it down.


Anglia Ruskin University, [2021]. Pam Smy. [online] Available at: [Accessed 24 January 2022].

BBC News, (2021). Cambridgeshire children to receive book on domestic violence. [online] Available at: [Accessed 24 January 2022].

CILIP CKG Children’s Book Awards, (n.d.). Pam Smy talks about Thornhill. Available at: [Accessed 24 January 2022].

Consell Català del Llibre Infantil i Juvenil, (2021). 25è Premi Protagonista Jove [Categoria 13-14 anys] РEntrevista a Pam Smy. Available at: [Accessed 24 January 2022].

Kenilworth Books, (2017). Thornhill, by Pam Smy. [online] Available at: [Accessed 24 January 2022].

MacKids Books, (2017). Pam Smy and Thornhill. Available at: [Accessed 24 January 2022].

MacMillan Publishers, (n.d.). Thornhill. [online] Available at: [Accessed 24 January 2022].

Smy, P. (n.d.). Featured Illustrator: Pam Smy. [online] Words & Pictures. Available at: [Accessed 24 January 2022].

Smy, P. (2018). Pam Smy. [online] Pam Smy. Available at: [Accessed 24 January 2022].

Yanes, N. (2018). Pam Smy on her career and her first graphic novel, ‘Thornhill’. [online] Sci-Fi Pulse. Available at: [Accessed 24 January 2022].

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