Illustration Q & A
Hows, Whys & Tips for Illustrators
This giraffe from The Wildlife 123 started out
as one solid color with black ink details.
Scratching off paint created the splotchy
pattern and the illusion of hair.
What is Scratchboard?
Scratchboard is a paper coated with a soft layer of white clay or gesso, which is then usually covered with black ink. A sharp tool is used to scratch or scrape off the ink, (in my case, paint), revealing the white ground. Extremely fine, bright white lines can be made, much finer than are possible with a brush and paint.
For my children's books, The Wildlife ABC & 123 and A Tree in a Forest, I first applied gouache paint (opaque watercolor) and black ink to the board. Then I scratched. And scratched. And scratched. Wherever white can be seen in these illustrations, there was once paint.
It's a finicky process. Scratching off paint produces very fine pigmented dust, dust that has to be removed from the work area since it instantly turns into paint again if it comes into contact with moisture - a real problem on hot, humid, hand-sweaty days. So the meticulous, rhythmic process goes something like this: scritch-scritch-scritch-scritch, blow, scritch-scritch-scritch, blow, for days on end.
The border for this illustration
of a tale from Scandinavia in
Crow and Fox is based on the
knitted pattern of a Norwegian
Why do you use borders?
First - I like the way they look. I've always loved patterns. Second, and this is most apparent in The Wildlife ABC & 123, I sometimes compose scenes on an angle and a strong border helps the viewer to look at the illustration straight on instead of tilting his or her head. Thirdly, borders offer an opportunity to add extra information that's not included elsewhere. So in The Wildlife ABC I used the borders as a place to show an animal's mode of movement (the way an inchworm inches along) or the food it eats (salmon for the bald eagle) or its lifecycle (metamorphosis of a frog or honeybee). In The Wildlife 123, I used the borders for repeating the number featured in the main illustration. In Crow and Fox, each border is based on artistic styles from the various places the stories originated (i.e. Australian bark painting; Sioux beadwork, etc.).
Because I was repeating each Wildlife 123 number in the borders, I had to
paint 1,000 tadpoles twice - exactly
1,000, since I was sure there would
be at least one kid out there who
would count them (more than one, as
it turned out).
How do you know what animals look like?
Though I often stylize them to a certain degree, I still like to paint different species with some accuracy, so I always use photographic reference while working. I started cutting out and sorting magazine photographs when I was twelve and now have 4 drawers of a filing cabinet jammed full. I also have lots of animal books, and now I use the Internet, as well. I don't copy pictures. If I'm drawing a bear, I spread a bunch of bear pictures in front of me and refer to them as I make up my rough pencil drawings.
Reference-wise, Before & After was the craziest project since each page had at least twenty animal species. The dining-room table (my work table) was completely covered with pictures for 9 months. Guests had to eat on their laps in the living room.
How long does it take you to finish a book?
Anywhere from 7 to 12 months, working pretty steadily - 9-months average, just like a baby.
Do you make a lot of money?
No, not for the time spent. To make a decent living, most illustrators need to do several books a year. Sometimes an illustrator is offered a flat fee for a book, but unless this is generous and up front, a portion of a book's royalties and an advance on those royalties is preferable. Some books do better in the marketplace than anyone could have predicted, and the odd book takes off like a rocket - for those books, the continuing return in royalties can be a wonderful thing. The downside, of course, is that no one seems able to predict which books those will be (and if you know anyone who can make such predictions, please send me their number!).
Would you consider illustrating something I have written?
I'm sorry, but, no, since I almost always write my own material. Beyond that, publishers generally take a dim view of preconceived matches between illustrator and writer. Part of a publisher's expertise is the ability to choose the perfect illustration style to go with a particular story. In fact, in most cases, writer and illustrator have no contact whatsoever.
Do you sell your original illustrations?
I sure do. (click here)
Do you ever make art on the computer?
Many of the photographs in I Found a Dead Bird are actually photo-illustrations I created digitally (see how I did it!) and The Rumor was partly done on computer (see how I did it!). Over in the Meadow was my first completely digital children's book (see how I did it!). I curse myself now for not having switched over, at least partially, for Before & After since it required a few exact replications of backgrounds. I've spent my entire working life being extraordinarily careful not to spill cups of coffee or drops of brush-rinsing water on works in progress so I won't ever, ever have to do something twice, (life is just too short) - and here I'd set myself up to paint each and every background two times! It was torture.
I have made some sample illustrations. Now what?
First, research in the library or on-line children's publishers. Don't forget to look for educational publishers and children's magazines that frequently need single illustrations and are more likely to give an unpublished illustrator a break. Make copies of your art to send out. Don't send slides and never send out original artwork. If you would like to illustrate books, it helps to include among your samples a series of 3 or 4 illustrations of a single work to show continuity in your style. It also helps enormously if you can include samples of lively, active children (I know, I know - my own people-drawing skills are appalling, but take my word for it). If you have published work, include tear-sheets in your package. Publishers of both books and magazines keep active files of illustrators' work; if they like yours, they'll want to keep something on file. You would, though, like to know their reactions to your work, so include in your package an SASE. Some people add a preprinted checklist of responses for a publisher to tick off and return. Some of these responses might be:
We like your work
We like your work, but it doesn't fit our needs
We'll keep your work on file
We are not looking for illustrators right now
We don't feel your work is right for us