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What makes a great picture book? It’s a combination of stellar text and outstanding pictures, of course.

Unless you are also a writer, most likely you will receive someone else’s words to illustrate. The text will have been edited and been through the process of making it the tightest it can be during the time it has spent at the publishing house. Chances are you will never speak or meet the author. The editor for the book may give you some direction on what they envision for the book. When a large publisher hires you, you may be working with an art director.

What do these people expect from you?

The key to a great picture book is both careful planning and creative spontaneity. In this course, I will attempt to teach you the tools necessary for a great plan. I say attempt because what I plan to teach you in the next three lessons has taken me years to learn.

The artist’s tools for planning a picture book are:

1. A character sheet

2. A storyboard

3. A book dummy

Before the book can be illustrated, the artist has to have a plan. The plan has to be easy to understand by the art director, the editor and whomever else the publisher decides needs to look at it.

What is a character sheet?

A major difference between a single illustration (such as a magazine spot or a book cover) and the illustrations in a picture book is character consistency. It is the artist’s job to draw a character over and over again in many different poses and with many different facial expressions and in many different perspectives. The character MUST look like the same person (or animal or whatever you are illustrating) from the beginning of the book to the end of the book. This is a lot harder than it sounds. Picture book artists will spend a great deal of time on character development. They will draw the character from the front, the back, the side, the top, the bottom, and upside down. They will draw the character showing emotions such as happy, sad, mad, scared and other expressions that may be within the story’s text.

When creating a character for a storybook, things to keep in mind for consistency are:

• Gestures – what are the character’s distinctive idiosyncrasies, habits and personality quirks? How does the character stand, is it shy or bold?

• Expressions – How does the character portray what s/he is feeling? A good example of a strong personality is Calvin from the cartoon strip Calvin and Hobbes. Think of how Calvin reacts to the unidentified green goo on his dinner plate. Granted the drawing for this cartoon strip is very exaggerated, but it is an excellent example of what a character can do with its face!

Other things to keep in mind are:

• Facial proportions

• Body proportions

• Gender

• Age

A young boy will have different body proportions than an older boy, and a girl will have different ones from both. A young girl is very different in body shape than a preteen girl.

The best way to develop a character is to think in terms of 3-D.

What is a storyboard?

The storyboard is the book’s foundation. It is the base of everything to follow. In order to have a strong picture book, the storyboard must explore the many aspects of the story. But not in minute detail – that comes later. The storyboard allows the artist to view the whole book at a glance and see how each page relates to the others, and how they relate to the book as a whole. This is the time where flow and rhythm are established. The artist will start with the largest elements here. An overall pattern and story flow are decided at this stage. Are the pages going to be spreads or single? How is the image placed on the page(s), what is the viewpoint, has an environment been established? Does the flow of the individual images enhance the movement of the story? Is there continuity without boredom or repetition?

In the storyboard development of a picture book, many options for a single page or spread are explored. If the focus is in the distance on one page and in your face in another, is there a logical progression in how the reader gets there?

When I create my storyboards, I like to block out the areas where text might go. In individual paintings this is not an issue, but in a picture book, if there is no place for the text to be (and to be legible!) it could mean an entire new layout!

Some artists like to take the black and white storyboard one step further and block in rough color. I don’t work that way since I find that I like to mix huge batches of color and experiment at full size. The edges of my paintings are full of squiggles and splashes of color from my testing swashes. I also find that the soft pencil I scribble down my thumbnails which tends to muddy the color to such a degree that I have to remember what my original color choice might have been.

What is a book dummy?

Once the storyboard has been noodled over until all parties are satisfied that the rhythm, flow, and movement match the book’s focus it is time to move onto the book dummy.

This is the time to consider all the nitty-gritty details. Gutters, bleed, frame, text placement and visual continuity all must be taken into account. If the artist is working on spreads and the images cross the gutter (the dip in the middle where the book is bound) will something important be lost? Will there be frames around the art or will it be full bleed? Are the compositions from the storyboard strong enough in a larger format? It may turn out that something that looked good at postage stamp size just isn’t working at the full-page size.

Now is also the time to decide if you will work larger than 100%.  If the artist is a digital artist this isn’t so much of an issue. If, on the other hand the artist is using a more traditional media, the ease of shipping and scanning images need to be considered. I used to work at 150% but found that my art lost a lot of its freshness when it was reduced. Plus, scanning was a hassle, especially with spread-sized images. The scanners were often smaller than the artwork and the images had to be scanned and pieced together. To me, they always look “off.”

An art director was kind enough to share his pet peeves of working with artists. Here are a few of the items.

  1. Artist is missing editorial details. The AD suggests reading the manuscript thoroughly before starting any sketches.
  2. Wait for sketch approval before moving to finished art. This is a biggy, especially for the traditional artist. Do you really want to have to start from scratch to make a change that could have been done easily in the pencil stage?
  3. Leave enough room for the type. Leave PLENTY of room for type. Who knows, the book might be translated into a foreign edition. If the text area you plan is too close to the copy, that might mean new art (by someone else) or no foreign printing.
  4. Not painting in proper proportion. Find out the page size. Stick to the page size throughout the book. That could mean a dozen or more paintings, depending on whether you are working in spreads or not. Measure twice – paint once.
  5. Allow enough painting around the edges for the bleed. I like to leave an inch to an inch and half of loose color around my raw paintings.
  6. When you put in trim line, make sure they are OUTSIDE of the live area of the art. Be on the safe side and mark them outside of the extra bleed area!
  7. If you scan your own art, make sure it is high quality and resolution.
  8. Not creating art that the AD saw in your portfolio. If there is a style in your portfolio that you don’t want to do or haven’t done in a while, take it out.
  9. Not allowing enough time for the review process. The artwork for a picture book can take anywhere from 6-9 months before it is ready. Don’t push up to your deadlines. Allow plenty of time for the review process and for you to make changes to the art. Even if the AD and editor both LOVE what you have done, 9 time out of 10, they will have suggestions to improve the sketches.
  10. Not keeping in touch. Keep the AD or editor informed of where you are in the process when working on a piece.

When working on the book’s images, keep in mind that ‘safe’ is also boring. Stretch the envelope and take risks with your art. Try unusual viewpoints or perspectives. The most important thing to remember is that it is a team effort to create a book. That first draft is your own, but everything that follows belongs to the team.

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