Thursday, May 14, 2015

How I illustrate a childrens book.

Work in progress for the book, "And Candy Lived", by Carole Sarkan
As I enter the final stages of illustrating my latest book, "And Candy Lived", a sequel to "And Candy Smiled", by Carole Sarkan, I am finding that it is very challenging  to keep the two books consistent. When I did the first book in 2010 I had never illustrated a book (or anything for that matter) and had never used photoshop. I have grown tremendously as an artist since then in many ways, so keeping it the same is tough. The first book was sent off to the Caldecott people in 2011 and went through the entire nomination process right up until the final handful of books. It surpassed somewhere around 3000 books to get to that point if I understand the process correctly. I don't really get how it works since I had never heard of a Caldecott nomination until I was told it was in the running. I guess its a pretty big deal in the book world. It didn't win of course, but its still a huge honor for a self published book painted by someone who has never illustrated a book before to be recognized. Lets hope and pray that I can achieve the same magic with this  next one.  I don't really care about winning, but I am excited to have learned something new. Here are few pages from the first book, published in 2011.  These are the images before being digitalized.  To see the final results go to

I specifically have not done much study on how to illustrate a book. I may be wrong about this, but I am hoping that my lack of knowledge will keep my illustrations unique from other books. Instead of doing what other illustrators do  I just do what feels right. I had this same attitude when I illustrated my second book. This book was also a learning process.  "Savannah of Williamsburg", written by J.S. Devore, was already a published success, but it did not include illustrations.  (  The author commissioned me to create 20 illustrations for them which will be published in their new digital book sometime soon.  They were looking for something with pen and ink with a wash on top, sort of like Winnie the Pooh or Beatrice Potter.  I had not worked in pen and ink in many years but hey, pen and ink they want, pen and ink they get.  Here are a few examples of the book. 

Many people have asked me to describe my process for book illustrating.  Its hard to describe something that I am just winging, but I will do my best.  First I collect photos.  In the Candy books I used photos of random English Springers then gave them Candy's likeness. Giving them her likeness basically  meant removing one of the legs and matching the spot patterns.   I had many photos of Candy that I used directly as well and also had the pleasure of meeting her.  Meeting her was important to me.  I wanted to capture her spirit, not just her likeness.  I also used photos of random people and gave them the likenesses of Carole's family, but used photos of the Sarkans when ever possible.  Below are examples of all of the photos used to create the last page of "And Candy Smiled".  It was supposed to look somewhat like a scrap book with Poleroids taped to paper.  The older the photo the more yellow I painted it.
Some random dog I found in a google search.  I altered his appearance to look like Candy.  I used this reference photo for the bottom right image on the last page by illustrating him next to Christine.
Another random photo that I found on a royalty free web site.  Again, I altered her appearance to look like  baby Christine and altered the dog to look like baby Candy.  This image was used for the top left of the final page.

the last two photos are of Christine which I stole from her facebook page. (with her mother's permission of course).  This was used  as references for the bottom right image on the last page and the upper right image. .  I think she was around 15 in these cute selfies, so I aged her for the bottom right image of the final painting.  I knew she had her heart set on going to OSU, so I painted her as an OSU student.
Page 26 using all of the photos above combined. This is the painting before the photoshop final alterations.  The final page looked entirely different.
Important note to new artists.  If you use a random photo off of the internet you must alter it significantly.  I think the legal amount of change is 10%, but I usually try to change 50%ish if I don't have written permission.  I also purchase photos from  I am purchasing their copyright permission and royalties, so I can copy them as much as I wish.

Next I combine the photos on photoshop to give me a "book dummy".  These early compositions have text so that I can visually see the book. The publisher will add the final text, so I eliminate the written part after this step. Once satisfied I print each image out then tack them to my wall to visually see that they flow. After tweaking these photo collages I use velum to trace the tricky parts and add my whimsical touches by eye.  If you look closely you will see that I did much more by eye than by tracing.

Photo collage for page 11, 12 of "And Candy Lived"  The random lines were added on photoshop before printing.

sketch of page 11
sketch of page 12.  As you can see I made major changes from the photo collage to the drawing.  I eliminated the flowers, lost the tunnel and turned the body of the dog.

 Once I am satisfied with all 27 velum sketches I scan them back into the computer again and clean up the lines.  I print my own sketches, which are reduced to 50% opacity, (lightened up), directly onto Strathmore 140 lb watercolor paper.  Each sheet is enlarged to around 12.5 x 16.2" so that I can really dig in there and get the details. Once I start painting I shut my brain down and just go for it.  What comes out comes out.  I think that my art angels and spirit guides take over at this point.  (long story)This is where I am at right now, which brings me back to the WIP at the top of the page.  It is of page 11.

So, after painting all of the pages I scan all 27 of them back into my computer yet again.  To do this with the larger sheets I have to scan them in pieces and knit them back together on photo shop, because I am too cheap and lazy to take them to a printer who might have a larger scanner.   Now I sit down with my bamboo Wacom tablet and zoom in tight to clean up the paintings.  Cleaning means eliminating drips, cat hairs, spaghetti sauce stains and smudges.  (I don't always stop painting to eat, I just chew and paint!)

Once each painting is cleaned and resized to 8.5 x 11, I digitally cut out the painting so it resembles a sherenshneitte.  On the last book I literally cut them out with a knife, but then had to cut them out again on the computer.  Not doing that again this time!  That will save me at least a few weeks of work.  I will layer the "cut out" paintings on top of a textured mat board and add shadows so that the painting will appear to float over the board.  At this time I will add the boarders and other little things like textured dots and such.

I save each painting at 300 dpi, put them on a cd and mail them off to Carole, who is waiting patiently for the end result.  She will take it from there by working with the publisher.

It takes me about 80 hours per page to create each painting.  It is hard work, so I am not sure that I will illustrate another book after this with everything else in my art life going so well.  I wish I could clone myself so I could do it all!
Finished book cover for "And Candy Smiled".  This is what is sent to the publishers after about a year of work.

No comments:

Post a Comment