October 21, 2017


Change is inevitable. Sometimes the change is purposeful; other times departures from my conception are accidental because of the indeterminate nature of the chosen medium. While unintended developments in a creation are usually considered mistakes, to invite the unexpected may also yield welcome results. Let the viewer decide.

As I mentioned to Janet Lee Carey in our Dreamwalks interview last May, I enjoy both drawing and painting. The creamy, soft Yellow Ochre and Chocolate Derwent drawing pencils, or Sepia water-soluble pencils are often my first choices for drafting sketches. These pencils help me draw up the soft images from my mind.

I recently learned from my Facebook friend and picture book artist, Nancy Poydar, about her process of digitally coloring her scanned sketches. That—along with Rosemary Well’s explanation of her process of character development and editing at the September 2017 SCBWI-WA meeting—has led me to examine my own comparatively antiquated illustration techniques and encouraged me to share my process.

I usually sketch from models. I set the drawing for my intended illustration beside my illustration board with Fabriano traditional white watercolor paper affixed or, for acrylic gouache application, a canvas. Glancing back and forth between the sketch and the blank paper or canvas, I mentally position my subject(s). I may transfer some large shapes with a pastel pencil, or I cut out the shape from the sketch to use as a template . This is where, and why, changes occur. Some are happy accidents. There is more free play involved in the painting. It is usually looser, with less attention to details, more emphasis on texture. With regard to a child subject, if the face or figure is flawed in my perspective, I’ll wash off the pigment and begin again. Essentially, the sketch is a study for the final illustration.

In the sketch “It’s raining Cats and Dogs,” I place the animals and child according to my heavy rain falling idea. The painting is the quick result of imagining the blurry, wet cats slipping down like big, fat raindrops and the big, soggy dog splashing into a puddle.

I enjoyed sketching the girls for "We Like to Pick Strawberries From the Garden," but I chose an unusual head-down perspective. I worried I might not have been able to paint those features. The watercolor was my second attempt, so I kept it. The transparent profile, the hair colors, the gauzy ribbons and the clear plastic berry box were fun!

In “Tao Catches Fireflies,” I suggest the contrast between the child Tao who steps softly trying to clasp a few fireflies to observe in his lantern, with his toy dragon, who rambunctiously cavorts along the path, charring the lid and knocking over the lantern. In the painting I not only try to convey this action, but also the fleeing August sun setting over the hill, softening their bright forms.

While any viewer can spot the changes between the sketch and the color illustration, who can tell if any particular difference was intentional or accidental? Training the eye and hand together doesn't always mean complete control over the final illustration. Although the modern technology available to scan a sketch and create one's own tools to infuse it with color or texture, and undo the process at any step is very appealing, working entirely with physical materials, gliding a brush over lightly textured paper or canvas threads feels second nature to me; I like to let the medium shape the ultimate expression of my characters and scenes.