the little icon is a penguin!


“When Hastings and myself, we first came to the Grand Metropolitan Hotel, there was a man at the desk. He was elderly. He must walk with a stick. But when he goes to his room, which is on the first floor, he proceeds not to the lift that is waiting, no, but to the staircase. It was a performance, Monsieur, but a performance that, to Poirot, did not ring true.”


Care to explain? How? hOW????????

The Penguin Lessons

To celebrate the release of The Penguin Lessons, by Tom Michell, we’ve asked cover illustrator Neil Baker to tell us about how he went about creating the stunning hand-drawn illustrations that punctuate the book. 

I am slightly obsessed by monochromatic birds. There, I’ve said it. I love Oystercatchers, Avocets, Puffins, Guillemots, Razorbills, Storks and Herons but most of all I adore Penguins. So, you could say that illustrating The Penguin Lessons by Tom Michell was a dream job for me.

Birds have often featured in my work, so imagine the excitement when I received a call asking me to draw some penguins for Penguin! I was a little overwhelmed. As a filmmaker and animator, I had never been commissioned to do an illustration before, let alone a book cover for the most iconic name in publishing. So why me?

Six years ago, as a break from my day job I began working on an illustrated series drawing every living species of penguin in Indian ink with tight and often messy hatching. I posted the series online and made prints available. It was these images that Penguin Art Director Nick Shah happened upon. Initially the idea was to do the cover art, but the project grew to include internal illustrations and some animated sequences of Juan Salvado de Pinguino.

I threw myself into it creating numerous rough sketches from anatomically accurate depictions of Magellanic Penguins to the softer edged more characterful version we settled upon. I created draft concepts digitally using some of the amazing “ink” and “watercolour” brushes in Photoshop created by Kyle Webster. Though the illustrations were done digitally, drawn via a tablet into photoshop, they still have a hand drawn feel as there are imperfections, which I consciously left in. All the cross-hatching was painstakingly done by hand giving the illustrations real tangibility and texture.

Cross hatching and mark making is something I have always done in my work; I like to use a variety of marks to create texture and a suggestion of shade and find it is especially effective in ink to achieve what can be quite stylised, graphic-looking images with depth and texture.

The work of journalist and comic artist Joe Sacco is intricate and cross-hatch-heavy, and has influenced me a lot over the years. Other influences that I often draw upon are the work of Charley Harper, and natural history illustration and field sketching in general. I am especially drawn to 18th and 19th century lithographs including work based on the sketches of Sydney Parkinson and the later bird illustrators such as John Audubon.

Of course as well as creating the cover for the book I also worked in the same manner to create the multiple illustrations of the Juan Salvador de Pinguino inside the book and the “sprats” that punctuate the pages. When working on these I was often thinking of the Paddington books that I read as a child, that are filled with energetic drawings by Peggy Fortnum. I wanted in my own way to give a brief glimpse of the character of Juan Salvador who has such a strong character and enigmatic quality.

I feel very lucky to have been a part of this project; it is in many ways a bit of a dream come true to work on this. Penguins are the very pinnacle of my obsession with monochromatic birds. Once it was the “Gentoo” breed of penguin that captured my imagination the most, now Juan Salvador may have just pushed the Magellanic Penguin into the top spot.

Yesterday at my piano lesson my teacher’s little son started coming in every 2 minutes and giving him stuffed animals and toys so my teacher had to sit there with a huge bunch of fluffy animals and just continued correcting me as always but with interruptions when he got a large bee or a penguin fell down