This is Joel Cook, and I am the illustrator for Abdo’s new Story Time for Little Monster series.
I was asked to talk about process and how I go about illustrating, so while I believe that my methods are nothing special, this may provide some insight into how I approach a “picture-less” picture book.
Before I begin, let me just say that I was incredibly happy to be asked to do the series. Some of my favorite things to draw are monsters and robots, so needless to say, I was over the moon when I was contacted by the editor.
I decided to talk about The Littlest Witch’s Story, a story about a witch who tries to use a spell on her mother to make her sleep more so she can stay up later. So here we go:
Step 1: The Manuscript
When I receive a picture book manuscript, it is pictureless. Sometimes there are prompts and sometimes it is completely up to the artist. Because I was asked to do four different books for the series, I welcomed some direction. There is a lot less ambiguity.
I generally read through it once just to understand the pace of the story, try to get a feel for the characters, and start the gears in my head moving. I will read it and set it aside, maybe make a few sketches, but generally read it no less than 10 times. I really try my hardest not to miss any details or draw something that conflicts with the story.
Step 2: Character Design aka My Favorite Part!
After reading & sketching back and forth for a bit, I work on a mix of different approaches to each character. I try to make each character different in design and simplicity, because it’s easier to be versatile than to be narrow in my approach. I usually try to hit a 15-30 different character mark, because that way editors can choose which one really speaks to them, or can “Frankenstein” a few characters together.
Here is an example of the character sketches for The Littlest Witch’s Story:
I was using this device I had just gotten that is made by Wacom called the “Inkling.” You attach a sensor to your sketchbook and as you draw with the pen, it digitally records your drawing… which is okay, because these sketches can be loose at this stage anyway. As you can see, there are some that are simpler and cute, some that are a little more complex, and a slight variance in age…. and some that make me say, “WHAT WAS I THINKING?!” I usually make notations next to the character, so an editor can say, “I like #3” …or “I like the body of #5 but I want the face cuter like #10.”
After seeing the characters, I was told that #6 was preferred, so I do another drawing of the character, a little more refined, that I keep next to me while I work on the book. That way I keep the character consistent. This is the sketch I did for this book:
Step 3: Thumbnail Sketches & Layout
Almost simultaneously to character design, I am working on the layout. The story was broken up for me with some illustrator notes, so it was easy to work on. These are the thumbnails for the Witch book:
Note that the witch looks nothing like she does from the previous step. This is because it doesn’t really matter what she looks like. This step is mostly for pacing and layout. One thing that is important is that the action flows in a way so the reader is led to turn the page. Also, special attention is paid to the middle of the spread (the binding or “gutter”) and where the words will go (those little lines in the pictures).
This is when the editor and I have discussions about which compositions work, and which ones need to be tweaked or completely redone. Some are left completely alone, and some are reworked from a different angle. For some reason there are two that look alike (16-17 & 22-23), but that got worked out. It gets really hot here in Texas, and I may have had some heat exhaustion. I dunno.
After all the layouts are settled on, and characters are fleshed out, it’s time to do the heavy lifting… or to put it simply, fun time is over and now we get to work.
Step 4: The Artwork
It is my opinion that the style/method/medium of the artwork is driven by the story. There are other things that come into play like editorial decisions, deadlines, and general feedback. I originally considered watercolor and acrylic, but instead decided to do a mix of acrylic, ink, and digital. There was a little experimentation here and there and (sigh) the complete starting-over of a few pages, but overall I was excited to try some different things.
So let’s look at a couple of the pages from start to finish.
The thumbnail for 12-13:
In this part of the story, the mother witch noticed something was amiss, while her daughter was hanging up her hat (I think I originally thought that the girl was hanging up her mother’s hat, so that is why there are two hats above).
Drawing & Painting:
As you can see, very simple. I treated my acrylics as if I was working completely digital. If this was 100% digital, this would be considered the “flats”… nothing is too rendered. It is fairly plain, but I knew that I would be digitally adding a background, so I wasn’t too concerned.
…And here is the background I came up with, done in inks:
I tried to make it look like the inside of a little witch’s bedroom: family pictures, black cats, her favorite band. I tried to keep this monotone, so the characters in the foreground would stand out much more.
…Then I digitally added some detail to the foreground painted art:
… and added her cat print on her shirt, the background, and VOILA:
That was pretty easy, and sometimes it just happens that way. But sometimes it is a little more complicated. For example, take pages 4-5.
The thumbnail for 4-5:
In this spread, the little witch is flying high above the town in a sort of daydream sequence. I drew this one from below, but after discussing it with the editor, it was agreed upon to do the scene from the little girl’s point of view.
So here is the process:
You can see some of the rough city below, as I was trying to figure out what buildings would be placed where… but similar to the last process, I had to draw up the city that would be visible through the clouds on the ground below:
I find it interesting that I have spent so much time in my life learning and teaching perspective, but in this picture I completely ignored the vanishing point and orthogonals. I think it was a little looser than if I had obeyed all those rules anyhow.
I took both these pictures, and combined them… added a little digital tweaking on the clouds, and modeling on the girl:
Sometimes, for whatever reason, I am not feeling the work 100%. I felt this one was a little too dark, so I made another version that was brighter, as this was a daydream and not relevant as to what time of day it was. I thought that maybe the witch would stand out much more as she was this colorful image against the grays/white of the sky and town.
Here is the “daytime” version:
It was decided to use the darker one, as it was moodier and fit the story better.
I really enjoyed working with the Magic Wagon staff at ABDO on this series. If you want to see more of my work, please check out my website: www.joelcookart.com. Or you if you want to drop me a line, you can write me at: firstname.lastname@example.org