Sketchy Vikings

While Norman was in the Shetlands researching, I was at home in Perth, doing some research for the pictures.

I made a few initial sketches of Viking things- costumes, houses, the bows of ships,  rune stones, helmets… Norman has a huge collection of books on Vikings, so I wasn’t short of material. These sketches gave me lots of ideas for how the pictures and characters might look. (I haven’t shown all the sketches here, because  don’t want to give away too much of the story).

In all the kid's reference books about Vikings, they show these cool little carved chess pieces. There's two in this sketch- the king up the top, holding the sword on his lap - and the warrior down the bottom, biting his shield

In the middle is a copy of an illustration of the real King Knut, trying to hold back the ocean. Norman will talk more about him later...

Norman also made me watch a film called ‘The Vikings’, made in 1958. It’s epic- it has huge sets, incredible costumes, proper Viking ships, and sword fights. Kirk Douglas is in it, his chin gets its own credit.

Here’s a cool clip from the movie, where Kirk Douglas climbs a ladder of axes to storm the enemy castle.

I got a few good ideas out of the movie- what characters might wear, things they might do, how helmets look, how Viking shoes strap to your leg, and so on.

Kirk Douglas and Ernest Borgnine, practicing their ABBA karaoke routine
More Ernest- he played the chief, Ragnar. The movie was also great for looking at tricky angles of Viking ships
An early costume and character sketch for Knut, based on Kirk Douglas' costume in the film. The circles are the size of his head- they help me to get his proportions correct when I want to redraw him.

After this initial research, my next step was to design the main character- our young hero Josh, who becomes the Viking boy Knut. For that, I was going to need some assistance…

Author: James Foley

James Foley makes children’s books for children who read books. If you’re a child and you’re eating his books, you’re doing it wrong. His books include Brobot, Dungzilla, Gastronauts, Chickensaurus, Toffle Towers, My Dead Bunny and There's Something Weird About Lena. James lives in Perth with his wife, 2 kids, and a labrador. He is a massive Marvel movie nerd and comes from a long line of queuing enthusiasts. Follow him on FB/twitter/insta/youtube @jamesfoleybooks, or at .

9 thoughts on “Sketchy Vikings”

  1. A superb post, loved seeing all your wonderful sketches James and good to hear the process you and Norm have taken with the book. Great idea working out how many heads would fit into Knut’s body! I love the blog banner too, it’s perfect; well designed, nice typeface and lovely snippets of illustrations. Can’t wait to see the finished book and see all your work on display!

  2. Very interesting to read your chain of thought in these initial research phases of the book. As an artist myself, who has always entertained ideas of illustrating children’s books, it has given me a good insight as to what is involved. Great work 🙂

    1. Hi Philippa, Can I suggest you entertain the idea, but only for a brief moment, then squash it under your boot. I reckon there must be ten times more work in a 1000 word picture book than in a 50,000 word novel. Let alone what the poor illustrator has to put up with – interfering writer, picky editor, publicity officer on steroids, deadlines, and then having to find his way around WordPress because his collaborator has trouble opening his fountain pen, let alone fill in this space.
      Thanks for the comments and the :-).

    1. Hi Philippa- don’t listen to Norm 🙂 yes it can be hard work, but if you’re passionate about it, it’s all worth it. I’m learning heaps as I go, and the more I get into it the more motivated I’m getting. Send your stuff into Claire, you never know what might happen. And I recommend joining the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI)- it’s a very supportive group of creators, I’ve learnt heaps talking to the people there, adn it’s how Norm and I met and started collaborating. Good luck!

    2. Yes Philippa, Don’t listen to me. I must have been having a low energy day. It is hard work, but also sooooo much fun, especially when you see what’s in your head magically appear on paper. Nothing beats it. Get your illustrations out there for the world to see. I’m curious, for one. 🙂

  3. Thanks for the positive comments, I am also the librarian in a small wheatbelt primary school, and love checking out the latest illustrated children’s books. I always think it would be great to illustrate one. I will have to get some ideas down and send them off to you Claire.

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