Tuesday, April 30, 2013

How To Catch a Ladybug: the process for my May/June 2013 spread

Ladybug Magazine, published by Carus Publications, is one of the most prestigious literary magazines for kids. This is the story of how I got my first illustration with them. Without a doubt, the first step was the hardest one: work very hard for a loooong time to be good enough to catch the attention of the editors and art directors. I mentioned in this post about how long that took for me.

Step Two was just like any other project. It starts with the assignment on my drawing table and a blank sketchbook.

The assignment was for a silly illustration involving a May Day picnic with all kinds of fairy tale characters. Some of the characters would be doing traditional fairy-tale-y things others would be doing zany, silly things for the kids to find and laugh at.

Right away I decided I would knock it out of the park on the silliness. My goal was to put no less than twenty silly things into this 10 x 18 spread.

Here's what the first sketch I sent looked like:

"Whoa nelly" was the response from Ladybug.

Apparently twenty silly things is a little bit of overkill.

They explained, and this made all the sense in the world, that too much crazy stuff made it hard for young readers to figure out where the punch line is. So I de-sillyed.

Here's the second sketch I sent:

With just a couple more tweaks this sketch was approved. As I mentioned, I was swamped with work right about this time but I was determined to give 110% of my attention to this piece so everything went on hold. I estimated it would take me three uninterrupted days to get the final done. I started by transferring the sketch to watercolor paper via my light table and penciling in the tonal values. I think of this process as a pencil "underpainting." It helps me map out - in an editable medium - where the lights and darks will go:

Finally I could procrastinate no longer. I was going to have start painting it and keep my fingers crossed that I didn't spend the next three days completely messing it up.

Obviously, since it's a giant scene of an outdoor picnic, there was going to be a lot of green involved. Let me tell you something about green.... it has a way of being a bad influence on every other color in a palette. It makes reds look brown and blues look washed out. Since I knew that the background color would have a huge effect on the rest of the painting, I did it first. That sure is a lot of green:

Then little by little I started to fill in the rest of the characters:

Finally it was finished on the drawing table. Time to bring it into Photoshop and work out some of the details as well as increase the saturation on certain colors. But here I ran into a problem... my scanner was only 8.5 x 14, too small to fit the whole painting on the bed. Two awesome illustrator buddies Susan Eaddy and Wendy Lawrence had offered to let me use their large format scanners but at the last minute Susan came down with a stomach bug and Wendy was out of town. So two days before the piece was due I sat down at my scanner and scanned it in four sections. Doing it in that many sections allowed plenty of overlap so I was able to piece it together seamlessly in Photoshop.

Then I worked on the colors, including the sky and the details on the tea cup. I made the queen's skin tones a little more creamy, and darkened the leaves around the cup. I paid extra special attention to the right side because I plan to use it as a promo mailer later this year, the composition on that side is strong enough by itself.

At last, the finished piece:

Off it went to Ladybug and a few days later I got back the best response I think I have ever gotten on a project:

I always wanted to be funny. And yes I really did pin it to my bulletin board. Frankly a key step in an artist's career is keeping inspiration and encouragement close at hand.

That was the first of February. Last week I got the contributor copies in the mail. The color reproduction was stunningly good and I couldn't be happier with how it turned out. Then Baby Sprout got her subscription copy in the mail. Possibly the best part of the whole process was sitting with her to look at the magazine. Sprout's copy showed up just a few days shy of my "freelance anniversary." The issue is currently in bookstores and libraries and the original piece is on display at Nashville's Public Library (I'll tell that story next.) All in all not a bad way to celebrate 15 years as a children's artist.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Beyond the Cover: a cover process revealed

Lets just jump straight in with the money shot of the finished cover that I just received from the publisher:
Published by Magic Wagon, a division of ABDO, in September 2013

When I started the process for this cover the initial problem I fixated on was how to show the boys in a graveyard, close enough to see expressions, but not so close that I couldn't get some eerie graveyard details in the mix. I flipped through a lot of old graveyard pictures trying to get inspiration. Of course I also needed to leave room for those teensie details known as the title and creator credits.

My first stab at it looked like this:

This sketch was well received but the title needed to be in the top third of the illustration for marketing purposes. Oops, back to the drawing table. "What about a wrought iron sign with the boys and graveyard under it?" was one suggestion. I tried this but never did get anything I just loved:

More flipping through pictures of graveyards. Then I came across some pictures of old mausoleums... ah-haaa...

Now we were on to something. First I did this rough:

The creative specs required a 1 inch bleed around the top, bottom and right side of the piece so I filled up that area with good graveyard details. They may not be visible on the final book but I had fun doing them and they make the piece work better as a stand-alone illustration:

Finally the finished piece:

I did my own type treatment also, although the designers at Magic Wagon, didn't use it - theirs is much better!

Tuesday, April 9, 2013


Last Friday I jumped off a cliff in the dark.

For real.

Sure, sure I had a helmet and there was a teeny tiny wire attached to another teeny tiny wire which was presumably attached to something in the dark. I know there was a tree because I got really close to it for about one twelfth of a second before careening backwards to a stop. 

I attended the SCBWI Midsouth Revision Retreat and moonlight zip-lining was the first nights activity. A few months ago I wasn't going to go to the retreat - I just felt squirmy about even saying I was a writer. Then fellow Midsouther Courtney Stevens Potter talked me into being a group leader for the picture book group. I was going to have to jump and hope that I could stay on course - with both rewriting picture book ideas and as a group leader.

I'm really glad Courtney held out that teeny tiny wire because the weekend was just what the doctor ordered for creatives who struggle with creating and recreating amid the noise of every day life. For 36 hours we all took a break from the world and focused on our creative babies. At the picture book table we each bounced around 3 or 4 babies! Revision is HARD but much easier when surrounded by like-minded artists and beautiful scenery (and lots of snacks.) After the weekend I feel pretty confident that I can lash on one of those babies and jump off the next cliff in LA.

Besides turning the creative tap on full force it was also nice to make new SCBWI friends like Heather Dent! Go check out her blog write up. Below are some pics and sketches from the weekend, starting with my sketch of the first nights activity:

The picture book table hard at work. With Mary Uhles, Heather Dent, Hilary Statum and Kim Erickson's talented ankle
Using Courtney as a model on the porch during Saturday's free work time
She was working on being this character
The wall of food was enough to inspire anyone
A bunch of talented writers (and at least one illustrator) who's work is even better after this weekend. Thanks Midsouth SCBWI!

Monday, April 8, 2013

The First Shall Be Last: It works for picture books too

At a recent writing retreat I listened to fellow kid lit creator Courtney Stevens Potter relate hearing how Shaun Tan chooses to create his images for a story. Tan does not paint his characters in the chronological order they appear in the book. His reasoning is that the more time you spend with the characters they better they will be. Therefore paint the scenes that appear first in the book last because they will be the best renditions of the character. Readers should see the best images of the characters first while they are hooked into the story. Once a reader has fallen in love with a character they will forgive minor variations or weaknesses in the images that appear later in the story.

Let's go ahead and state for the record that for this, and many other reasons, Shaun Tan is brilliant. Happily, I'm standing in the shadow of brilliance because I've already been doing this with my character illustrations - and for similar reasons. As I mentioned in this post, the recently finished illustrations for Beyond The Grave, were not created in chronological order either. Most illustrators will notice an evolution in their character's "design" over several pages. My evolution usually takes the form of putting more and more detail into the images as I get used to painting them. By intentionally painting the scenes out of order my hope is to sprinkle this detail over several pages making it unnoticeable that some versions of the characters may have an extra line around their mouth or extra attention paid to the shading on clothing. Since I usually transfer two images to the board at a time and work on them side by side the trick is figuring out which two images should go together.

In Beyond The Grave, along with the two boys there was also a cast of ghosts and the requisite Evil Doctor. I didn't have that many images to get across the point of how evil Dr. Naper is so I figured I'd better go straight for the jugular in the first one - literally. Here's the initial sketch and final:

Do you want this guy chasing you around a creepy science lab? I hope not. In case you are wondering why this looks like it's been ripped out of a newspaper - well, you have to read the book.

Evil doctors rarely work alone and Dr. Naper is no exception. Here's a sketch of his monstrous creation and the final.

I worked on these two images together even though they are pages apart in the book. Both depend on lots of solid black tones to carry the drama. And these were my two clearest images of the monster so I was able to check my details on each one.

Next Beyond The Grave post: the cover!