The Path To A Book: Illustrations

A reader asked if I blogged about my art today, and I realized I hadn’t really talked about it.  Or the book.  I feel like I should put that in italics: “the BOOK.”  My book.  Saying that makes me feel all warm and happy inside.  Woohoo!  Anyway, since my art and “the book” are all linked together these days, might as well write about it.

“What book?” you might ask.  The children’s book I’ve been working on – explaining overexcitabilities to gifted littles.  It’s a picture book, so as you might expect, someone had to do the pictures. That someone was me.  No point in being an artist if you can’t do your own art, right?  So even though I had no idea what it takes to be an illustrator, I jumped right in and started trying anyway.

Please note: I am not an expert.  Most of the time I have no idea what I’m doing!  In fact, I’ve never really worked with watercolors until this past year.  Despite that, I decided that I wanted to do the illustrations in watercolor and ink because I love how it looks.


The process

I’m currently working on a set of spring art trading cards for our upcoming ATC swap, so I used this set to show the progression of my process.  It starts with pencil drawing.  Light pencil, in this case – so light it was difficult to get a picture of it.

I’m not the best artist and I fully admit it.  I struggle with drawing, and it’s really hard for me to get proportions right.  Instead of getting intensely frustrated with that, I decided to work with a whimsical style and go for the idea of something rather than an exact representation of it.  Which is still tough.  Sometimes even tougher than exact representation, because it’s the concept of the thing instead of the thing itself.

I sit in front of my computer with my art supplies and look up pictures of what I’m trying to do.  For example, I searched photographs of a parent holding their child in a hug, because I was having trouble getting the arms and angles right.  Then I draw (and redraw and erase it in frustration and try again) until I have what I’m looking for.  For the book illustrations, the original drawing are a massive mess of erased lines and overdrawn concepts.

Once I get it right, I move on to the next step.


The next step

I’m not very precise, and I find it very hard to paint without some sort of guidelines.  To solve that problem, I use ink.  But not just any ink, because it has to be waterproof when I paint it.  I need a very fine line so the image doesn’t look cartoonish.  I use Micron pens, black ink, generally the 02 and 005 sizes.  They’re not cheap.  These pens are about $5 a pen, but they’re worth it for the results.

Once my pencil drawing is set, I go over the lines with the Micron pens.  Outlines get a thicker line, details get the super thin, 005 line.  For delicate things I use a very light touch and sometimes skip the line a bit.  It’s a very basic outline, nothing fancy, no shading.

Then I let it sit and dry for a few minutes.  Once dry, I erase all the pencil lines with my art eraser – it takes all the pencil off but leaves the ink.  I’m left with a clean, precise image.


For illustrations

For the book illustrations there was an additional step.  Once my image was complete, I used tracing paper.  Place the tracing paper over the image and go over the lines with a #2 pencil.  It needs to have rich graphite or this won’t work.  Flip the paper and trace the lines on the back.  Then place the tracing paper on the watercolor paper, and draw over the lines on the tracing paper one more time.  The pressure of the pencil transfers the graphite from the back onto the watercolor paper.  Once I’m sure I didn’t miss any parts (oops!  missed that tree) then I go back with the pens and draw the outline again.

By the time I get to the final illustration, I’ve actually drawn the entire thing 5 times.  At least.  Because if I bobble something and mess it up, I’m back to tracing paper and another outline.  Yes, I did bobble things.  Quite a few times, actually.  Did I mention I’m not an expert?


Finally, watercolor

Now that I have an outline, I can start to watercolor it.  There are many different ways to watercolor including moistening the entire sheet of paper, but I prefer to work in small sections.  First, I’ll brush a section with a little water, then I start with a light dot of watercolor.  I spread it out evenly across the section, adding water if needed.  I layer the watercolor for deeper colors. adding on more pigment.

Any shading is done with color, and sometimes I’ll mix colors on the paper as I’m working.  If I goof up, then I instantly wet the area and rub the brush to remove the pigment.  Not the best practice, but it works in a pinch.

The funny and annoying thing is that watercolor doesn’t always photograph well.  Sometimes the gradations don’t transfer well, or the spots where I removed pigment look strange.  The open violet flower in the image is a prime example – the top petals came out looking weird in the image.


Photographing the illustrations

Once the images are done, I flatten them for a while.  Then I photograph them.  I won’t get into the lighting technicalities (and I don’t have the best set-up) but your lighting needs to be even and diffused or you’ll end up showing a lot of paper “tooth” (the texture of the paper.)

The creamy watercolor paper looks dirty in the photographs, so I have to manually go in and remove all of the paper from the image in Photoshop.  When it’s cleaned up, I’m left with a lovely illustration on a perfectly white background.  Ready to print!


What about the book?

Getting back to the book – it’s done.  Except for edits, of course.  I have a publisher lined up, but nothing official has happened yet so I’m not really posting about it until things are more concrete.  I’ll be posting more after the conference in the summer as we start moving forward.  I’m so excited and happy to have this opportunity!

Of course, “the book” isn’t the only one.  I’m working on the next one – about asynchrony, and I have vague, nebulous plans about a picture book explaining homeschooling for kids.  If things go the way I hope, there will be a series of picture books about gifted traits to help explain giftedness to children who know they’re different but might not understand why.

It’s my goal to help kids understand themselves with these books, and to feel less alone.  Sometimes reading something that you experience makes it better.  Especially for little kids.



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