Children's Book Illustration
I recently presented to a college senior portfolio class about my children's book illustration process, from conceptual drawing, search, finding models, drawing again and again, to finish with watercolor painting.
Because of my realistic painting style for my children's book illustrations, I'm often asked if I start the illustration process by taking photos of my models, then paint from the photo reference. My answer is, as always, it is not that simple.
Here, I am using one of my watercolor illustrations from my newest children's book "Finding Joy" as an example to show you how I start my process.
As soon as I receive a manuscript from my editor or art director, I read the story many times. Soon the story becomes like a movie in my brain. I can see the people, their ages, the locations, and the emotions I wish to convey. Then I use a big piece of drawing paper and start sketching to put the movie floating in my mind down on my drawing paper, scene by scene. This is called the conceptual drawing stage. In this example, I used charcoal to draw each scene, then applied a light wash with gray ink.
I don't think about models in this stage. All the drawings were right from my imagination without any photo reference. This is a very important stage in the entire illustration process. When I finish the conceptual drawings, I send them to my art directors for feedback. There usually are requested changes, which means I continue to modify my conceptual drawings until we are both satisfied.
The next step is research followed by finding my perfect models.
Research and drawing
Research can be a very long, in-depth process. If you want to do the best job for your new children's book, you need to understand the story and the characters inside out.
For "Finding Joy", I did extensive research. I visited web sites that documented the adoption journey with pictures, I interviewed people who had experiences similar to the characters in the story. I tried to understand every detail and to collect as much visual material as possible. I even went to China to trace the journey in the story. I took a plane to China, and visited an orphanage in a southern city. I met the caregivers and the children there. This experience gave me the necessary emotional connection to the story and the characters that I needed.
Meanwhile, I searched for the perfect models for the characters in the book. Once I found them, I gave them directions about what they should be thinking and how they should be acting at the moment. I used a digital camera so that I didn't need to worry about how many shots I had to take to get what I wanted. Photos of my models only serve as my reference material along with other references I had collected, like houses, trees and locations.
Draw, Refine, and Draw Again
While I am doing drawings and research, I will read the story again and again. This was not only to gain an understanding of the writer's original meaning, but to refresh and further develop my own vision of the story and hone my interpretation of the situations. I never rush to start painting.
I modified the drawings of the illustrations a few more times as my understanding of the story deepens. In this drawing, the older lady on the right-hand side became more emotionally involved in the activity of the caregivers and the baby girl and communicated this just by changing her body gesture.
In the process of doing the revisions, I keep the final book and the flow of pages in mind. I must choose the best drawings for each page and make sure to leave enough room for the text on each page.
(View info on brushes) The most anticipated moment is when I start painting. After months and months of drawing, research and interviews, I was finally ready to start the watercolor paintings.
I start with the painting that excites me the most, then proceed to the other pieces. I keep all the paintings arranged in order in my studio, so that I can relate the one that I'm working on to the rest. This helps to make sure all the paintings for the book are unified.
To learn more about this children's book and other illustrations, visit the Finding Joy children's book section of this web site.