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How Does an Illustration Begin?

How does an illustration begin?

Illustrators, like all artists, do not sit down at their desk and *poof* the perfect picture appears. They don't get it done in the hour before dinner, call it perfect, and enjoy the rest of the evening. No, we have to try and try and try again. This is called thumbnails and rough drafts.

Thumbnails, aptly named, are tiny sketches that are so rough and embarrassing that I am not even posting them here. Often they include stickmen, arrows, and a lot of erasing. But their purpose is to help us figure things out.

What is going to be on this page? How many characters? What is in the foreground and what is in the background?What about location? Time of day? Where is the text going to go and how can I make it stand out? Where should the composition lead the eye as the reader looks at the page and text? What about colors? And how do the colors effect the mood of the page?

These are just a few of the questions that get answered in thumbnails and then later in rough drawings. Because it is an illustration based on text, many of these answers are already given to the artist by the writer—but many more aren't!

For example; in the pages below, the writing talks about moon jellies and seals gliding past the kayak. But it does not tell me what perspective to use, colours to use, or how to create an interesting composition on the page. I had to try out a number of different variations (showing the scene from above, from the side...etc) before deciding this underwater version was the most interesting and magical choice. I love underwater photography, especially when it captures the light on the surface of the water and the light streaming down through the depth of the sea.

Seals & Jellies - final version | copyright Crystal Smith

Seals & Jellies - thumbnail version

Many Changes are Involved...

You can see in the photos above, both the original rough drawing (a digital sketch) and the final artwork for the two-page spread. Although it looks like a similar picture in both, there were a number of big changes that had to occur during the process from rough to final.

But where do we put the text?

From the placement of the seals and jellies in the rough drawing, I obviously assumed the text would go on the right hand page amid the jellies and be white lettering. Figuring out where to put text without hiding it, but also without breaking up an image too much, is a challenge in kids books.

Then, it turned out that the text had to be black, not white! This is because the publisher has a focus on international versions of the book, and it's a lot easier to change the text to another language when it is done in standard black print. Obviously, I appreciated that—but I didn't need to make some changes.

So, I moved the text to the opposite page and juggled the other elements in the picture, moving the seals and gathering the jellies more. Even doing that, I had to lighten up the left-hand page quite a bit to make sure the words showed up clearly. Then I focussed on high contrasting and deep-toned colors on the whole right-hand page.

Overall, the page design was better with these changes. I like the composition of the piece, the negative spaces, and I was able to better position the seals to guide the viewer's eye around the two-page spread and into the page turn.

Keeping it light at night

I want to mention that having all black text in a book that has 90% night scenes was a bit of a challenge. I had to add a lot of light to some of the book's scenes to allow for the text to be seen. However, I think ultimately it helped the entire design because otherwise those pages would have been much too dark. It really forced me to learn about adding light in unexpected places—because ultimately our eye is automatically drawn to light, not dark.

This is one of my favorite pages in the book. The colors at the bottom right corner are completely west coast ocean and the jellyfish swarms (smacks) remind me of my own experiences paddle boarding on the coast!

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