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Working really hard, really!

I should be getting myself off to bed, but I felt a need to share. Gods know why. This internet blogging stuff is sort of addictive.

I have been working on the final art for Watchers all year. Getting from rough idea to final page is a long process, one that completely baffles my accountant husband.

He doesn’t understand why I just can’t sit down and paint an entire book right on the watercolor paper. Maybe there is an artist out there who can, but I haven’t met him/her yet. All the artists I know do preliminary sketches and rough drafts. With a picture book like Watchers, there is also the thumbnails, sort of like an outline in really rough form. If I bothered to show anyone my thumbnails, I sincerely doubt anyone but the most imaginative could see anything but a huge scribble. Some of the thumbnails have a word or two just to help jog my memory as to what I was thinking.

I draw all the thumbnails on a single sheet of paper. Watchers is a relatively short book, thumbnail speaking. There are 12 main pages, a cover and a back cover. I sketched several series of thumbnails until I had the page turn right. That was done last August. I’ve spent the intervening month from then until early December reworking the story. It’s taken me 3 YEARS to get it right.

With a picture book, there are relatively few words, and as fashion will have it, they are getting fewer all the time. Back in the 60s a typical picture book had between 1000-1500 words. Now-a-days the typical picture book has between 500-1000 words. Consider that this blog entry has more words than that and you get the idea of how hard it is to make every word count. There just isn’t any room for a word which isn’t carrying its full weight. But back to the art.

After the thumbnails come the rough pencil sketches. These are where main details and composition are blocked in, kind of like putting up the studs for a wall in a room. These have to all work in harmony so that anything put on top of them will be true. So once the rough pencil sketches are done, they need to be approved. Most often they come back with comments and suggested changes. Of the 15 pieces of art in this book, only one came back “good as it is, don’t change a thing.”

After all the comments are in and major changes are made and they are approved, I move on to the tight pencil sketches. Here is when I add tiny details, such as fingers, patterns and make the changes suggested in the rough stage. Once these tight sketches are approved, then I transfer the approved art onto watercolor paper. I have a huge light table that I lay the tight pencil on, then lay the watercolor paper over and draw the final art lines onto the paper to ready it for coloring.

So far I have drawn each image 4 times. Now I have to go back to thumbnails, only this time instead of sketches they are color and value studies. Really rough splashes of color are made in small blocks so I can work out all the details of highlight and shadow, center of interest and all that technical stuff that artists do to make a beautiful piece of art. I won’t bore you with the details. I may do multiple color studies before I even get to the big art.

There are special issues when working on art for a picture book, the biggest among them is that the characters in the book must look consistent from start to finish. So must the clothing and the backgrounds and the supporting cast and props. Usually this issue is worked out in the rough pencil stage. I usually make sure of this by locking the cats in the basement and laying out all the full sized pieces on the living room floor before I paint them. I fix an eye there, a lip there and make an ear bigger there. Details on clothing are double checked. Does the shirt have the same cuff size and collar shape all the way through? You’d be surprised at how a misplaced pencil mark can change a peter pan collar to a boat neck collar instead.

And I wonder why making a book takes so long…

Then I have to take all this precious art and drive up to St. Louis and hand it to someone who will convert it into digital format. And hope a clumsy technician doesn’t spill his coffee on it or drop it on the floor where someone steps on it. Both things have happened to me in the past. Not recently though, thank Gods.

That reminds me, I need to order more pencils…

Related posts:

Picture book illustration process for "The Story Circle."
illustrating The Story Circle home stretch
Living in a culture not my own