I made this piece early in April to celebrate my birthday month and April Fool’s Day. It was one of those quickly done illustrations that I had not planned to use on anything but Facebook, but so many people liked it I took it to the SCBWI annual conference. During one of the Friday round table critiques with Sophie Blackall, Sophie commented that she loved it. Wow! I was very pleased and plan to do more stylistically similar to this.
I promised to sit down and write out my experiences at the recent SCBWI-WWA conference in Redmond. I signed up for the Master Class and Round Table Critiques which were packed with excellent information and feedback. Plus meeting the dynamic Sophie Blackall and Patti Ann Harris were worth the price of admission.
So to get the ball rolling I’ll post this sketch. I am following up on a suggestion from Patti Ann Harris, Senior Art Director at Little Brown, who suggested my work would fit well with historical fiction picture books. I instantly thought of a story my grandmother had told me years ago about my ancestors participating in the underground railroad.
Last night I sat down and sketched out my first visual idea of a child sneaking into the cellar. She knows those sounds are too loud to be rats, so in spite of her parent’s warnings to the contrary, she just has to look.
I’m thinking the main character would be one of the children who is escaping with their family. I could make the child in the house be my great-grandfather Stephen, but it would definitely be historical non-fiction. At this point, I just wanted to start putting something on paper to get the visual wheels turning.
Perhaps my ancestor that participated was Jacob Rhymer in Grayson County Virginia. He was in residence in 1850 in District 19, and owned quite a few acres. I have been researching the area and there are documented “railroad stops” in that area.
I have several census images from 1850 and 1860 that document the family in that area. I had to paste Jacob’s name into this image because he was the last one on the previous page, separating him from his family. I put them together on the same page. Somewhere I have information on the acreage he owned, but the valuation of the property was 130 this year. This would indicate to me that he had enough property and buildings to have potentially hidden people.
One researcher explained that because so few people were willing to risk their lives, even for years after, nothing was mentioned. Her comment was that family history is the best evidence in most situations. Jacob’s son, Stephen (Steven), became a minister whose daughter, my grandmother Nellie, told me that we had family who participated in helping slaves to freedom. Of all the things I might remember from our talks, this stuck out in my head as something very important. I found myself feeling very proud to have come from people who would risk their own lives to help save others.
I grew up in Arkansas and although my parents were adamant that we were not prejudiced people, I assumed that my ancestors would have fought for the South. However, my grandmother said that the only ones to actually sign up to fight were from the part of Tennessee that fought for the Union. My uncle had once walked into her home wearing a Confederate cap and she commented that he was not qualified to wear it. That was the first time she began to tell us about our freedom fighting ancestors.
I keep forgetting to go back and dig through the sketches and research I do for a piece. After all, that was supposed to be the purpose of this blog. . . to post the step by step. Of course my steps sometimes wander down winding roads before I find something I like, or not. I don’t recommend looking at my process as set in stone. While I am always open for a happy accident, and Photoshop is brilliant for allowing those opportunities, sometimes relying on being able to change things infinitely creates a problem. Like this piece. Poor planning ended with too many hours wasted on an unsuccessful piece.
It was originally created to enter the Tomie dePaolo contest for the SCBWI, which specified black and white only. I honestly started out with black and white, and that is what I submitted, but being a color junkie, I just had to go back and do some digital painting.
My basic process involves looking at other artists who inspire me, in this case John Bauer came to mind. His wonderful watercolors of gnarly trolls in caves have always been favorites of mine. I also looked at 19th century black and white illustrations for style and rendering ideas.
Of course I spent some time looking at caves around the world which was a treat in itself. . . there are so many new ones being discovered, like the ginormous ones in Vietnam.
Then I spent some time with all the varieties of bats, their fascinating little faces, and the way light passes through their thin wings. The other main element in the image is a after doing some research on the time period, from what I could tell they would have been using a candle lantern because the portable kerosene or oil lamps were not readily available when the story was written.
Then I began to sketch out some of the ideas I had in my head. My first idea was to have Joe in the foreground with the children responding to him, but later decided to go with the moment when they are startled by bats.
With the thumbnails, basic information of which elements would be involved and types of clothing, I coaxed a couple of friends to pose for Christmas stocking money (they were required to spend it on each other).
We had some fun and they enjoyed trying to act out what I was describing. I took these images and combined the best ones in Photoshop, then painted costumes over their clothes.
With that stage finished I began to put together the basic shapes I wanted to create the cave area, and gathered some of my favorite pieces of texture. The piece that ended up being the back wall was from a metallic label that had rusted in the greenhouse. I loved the patterns so scanned the crumbling label. . . holding onto it for just the right piece.
With the basic layout finished I sat down sketched out the wall textures, clothing, etc., and scanned them into the image. And finally I played around with watercolor washes to give the piece more depth. All of these elements were combined in Photoshop.
I knew I was losing the image, but did not have time to start back over with some of the more interesting thumbnails. I did not achieve the faces I had in my mind. Of course the deadline came too quickly and I had to let it go, which was disappointing. I haven’t been able to even look at it since then, but today I opened the file up and tried to salvage the faces. They are easier on the eyes now so the piece is somewhat salvaged but not something I am particularly proud of. It did serve to teach me a good lesson. Using models tripped me up. I should have just gone with the images I had in my head and had fun with sketching out characters and thumbnails. I used models back in the early nineties when I was doing work for children’s educational materials but I used them very loosely as reference, not composites in Photoshop.
So all is not lost, I learned a valuable lesson about Photoshop seduction. :)
After watching several 19th century series and the current BBC shows, I came away with the distinct impression that the streets were very dirty! I was trying to imagine what it would be like to wear a large skirt over the horse manure, and rats, so “The Rat Umbrella” is the result. This is a tight rough. . . plenty of changes to make still. http://illustrationfriday.com/
This also received a strong thumbs up from the crit group, even though I used the “dots” for eyes. I had enjoyed doing that, but a few people felt it limited my range of facial expressions. The hand drawn pencil textures and patterns were similar to how I built the polar bear image, so seem to be somewhat of a style maker for me. I have folders of digital texture files that I make in my spare time, and I enjoy watching British period dramas while doodling new pencil motifs. These can be easily dropped over any pencil drawing using Photoshop.
graphite and paper
I love getting ready for the annual big night. . . catching a ferry into Seattle. . . the nervous energy. Will they like it? Will I embarrass myself? Each year we have the opportunity to have our work reviewed by a published author/illustrator with insider knowledge of what works and does not work for children’s literature portfolios. Having come out of teaching Digital Painting and Concept Art for the video game industry, my portfolio after retirement was generally not geared towards children. So I joined the SCBWI and started attending the monthly meetings and conferences.
It was an eye opening experience to have my portfolio shredded for not fitting in at all. And the most problematic was my tendency to wander around through different styles. Also the use of photo reference was apparently a big no no. Generally this could be attributed to the fact that my portfolio was largely built from Digital Art and Concept Art class demonstrations, so a variety of styles was more advantageous to the students. So I buckled down and began the process of finding an appropriate style and more importantly a consistency from image to image.
Year One looked like this:
These images were fairly well received in terms of digital painting skills, but the subject matter and variances in style were a major roadblock.
These were fairly well received, but the general consensus was that “team” work was not acceptable. The backgrounds were designed by Jason Nelson and the characters by Rachel Teigrob Willis. I art directed and did the painting. This type of team work is a given in the animation and game arts industries that I had been teaching in, so it had not crossed my mind that it would be discouraged for children’s publishing Needless to say, I was a bit disappointed, but left determined to come up with a style that was all me.
After licking my wounds a bit, I sat down with real pencil and paper and determined to start drawing my own characters. This may seem strange for someone in their 50s, but I only drew animals and landscapes, even as a child. I never imitated cartoon and comic book characters for some reason. The truth was my eyes were fixed on the backgrounds of every cartoon or animation I watched. I had little interest in what the characters were doing. But that excuse was not serving me any longer so I started the painful journey of drawing characters.
After one month, I had enough to head into Seattle for the Great Critique. My crit group leader was Richard Jesse Watson, who I admire greatly! When he looked at the pieces and said, “New Yorker” I was surprised and thrilled even though that was obviously not going to work for children’s art. But it did give me the proverbial wind in the sails to keep drawing. And draw I did! Day after day, week after week and the sketches stacked up going past a full ream of paper.
Next Step. . .
I tried so many different styles, trying to discover something that I enjoyed but was also appropriate for children. At some point my designer son suggested I take a look at dribbble.com to see the retro and graphic style illustrations that were currently popular. I played around with it and at the April 2012 SCBWI-WA annual conference Master’s Class, I received a great review from Scott Magoon and Lucy Cummins, New York publishing house art directors!
Again I was thrilled, but this time the problem was me. I did not love it! I was beginning to realize that I love soft edges and textures, muted colors and gentle images. So, back to the drawing board.
I bounced around within a general direction on my quest during the remainder of 2012. . . from retro country kids and little cowboys. . .
to women in period dress. . .
to men in top hats. . .
to female elves with big hair. . .
and various women, girls. . .
and a princess here and there. . .
But the winner is:
And this was my mother’s bright idea! I mentioned that I needed more animals in the batch, to which she replied that perhaps I could put animals in period clothing, too. And so I did.
I believe that the pages of polar bear sketches were due to the coca-cola napkin handed to me with my ginger ale on a delta flight. It was pure white with just two black eyes and a black nose. And while I think colas in general are not great for the body, the napkin was captivating as a design piece.
As I sketched the group above I laughed that the nanny was being invited to join the family at The Great Exhibition, and that Papa Bear might be just a bit too fond of her. Most likely the result of too many hours of British period dramas on Netflix. I, along with everyone else, have been captivated first by steampunk several years ago, then period dramas covering the victorian era as well as the coinciding war in the states. I will be hanging out in this time period for the year, so let’s hope I will create a passel of pictures of polar bears, and their pleasantly genteel friends.