Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Design Foundations: Part One- Shape

This is a Dear Diary entry to myself about doing the things I know to do. You know what I mean. . . half way through the illustration process the disturbing realization hits like a cast iron face palm. Once again concept, content and style have taken over the forced march to final product with only a hurried and obligatory nod towards foundational DESIGN. Afterall, you know it forward and backwards, right? You learned about the Design Elements and Principles of Organization years ago and it it flows through your mind and into those basic thumbnails without conscious thought, right? Thumbnails that will define the eventual success or failure of the final project, all hanging on those first embryonic sketches and scribbles.

Hey look~one thumbnail!

Nothing like shooting yourself in the foot before even starting, because, hey, you don’t need to do all those thumbnails anymore, right? I literally mumbled outloud to myself recently. . .“Don’t you dare jump into this project before walking through a measured exploration of design. DESIGN. And Contrast of SHAPE. . .Big/Small Light/Dark, Big/Small Light/Dark, Big/Small Light/Dark” How can someone who was trained as a designer and hired to teach design so casually skip over  

This is the mindset I must to tap into every time I sit down to do an “Illustration”.  I have to forget about “media”pencils and ink and paint and paper — as well as style.  But that is simply a matter of semantics, right? Apparently not to my brain. I think about all those years I spent working in a design firm and freelancing, and all those years I spent teaching design. I never took an illustration class. I never taught an illustration class, so if I put on my “designer” hat each time I start a project, I should experience a mental paradigm shift. A shift that will send my brain back to the beginning, back to foundational design, instead of starting with medium and message. And I will be infinitely more satisfied with the final result. Point, Line, Plane, Shape, Color, Value, Texture, Space, Hue, Brightness, Saturation, Balance, Contrast, Dominance , Harmony, Proportion, Repetition, Rhythm, Scale, Unity, Variety, Movement, Symmetry, Curvilinear, Rectilinear, Focal Point. . .

The verb and the noun, the active process and the static final product. I am guessing seasoned illustrators and designers work with most elements and principles without giving them much thought, but perhaps many of us have a few blind spots that need more attention. Well, at least I do! These are screen grabs from a few pdfs that I made for my typography students, showing the design principles as applied to letterforms. 

Did someone say Shape? Shape, shape, shape! Without a solid foundation of well conceived points and lines creating appealing and communicative shapes and forms, no amount of color, value, texture, or space will create an engaging illustration or design. Shape exploration is a powerful vehicle for pushing beyond predictable “realism”  towards unique and expressive “voice”. 
Predictable “Realism” is my default state. It is true that studying an animal’s bone and muscle structure is imperative for developing the confidence needed to freely move towards “abstraction” of shape. However quite often finding an appealing shape, especially for illustrations geared towards children, requires tossing anatomy and physics out the door. Bones in the legs? Elbows? Knees? Forget everything you know about anatomy (not easy for someone raised by a science/biology teacher) and the shape will become more graphically appealing and stylized. 

Some illustrators do this easily, especially those who grew up copying comic book and cartoon characters. I did not. I was the kid who only looked at the backgrounds on animations and was completely mesmerized by their beauty. 

It is not hard to research the “ingredients” for strong character development. . . body gesture and facial expression being the core of the recipe. And to focus on those two things effectively it helps tremendously to have a prerequisite understanding of basic design principles and solid crafting techniques. That is to say it is particularly hard to define personal “style” and “voice” before mastering design and craft, and certainly while simultaneously seeking to define the character’s own visual “voice”. 

Obviously intensive/immersive drawing on a daily basis goes a long way towards developing the chops necessary to free the mind to focus on the character’s body language and facial expressions. As I mentioned before, shape and contrast of shape is particularly important in character stylization. The possibilities are endless when experimenting with contrast in proportions and contrast in types of SHAPE. . . curvilinear vs rectilinear, large vs small, light vs dark, etc. 

Now on to the process for this leaping lambs project. I have a group of lambs that came with an Italian creche my mother purchased for me one Christmas. I keep the wee lambies perched around the studio. . .some sleeping, some eating, some star gazing. . .and for this project they came in handy for turning around in space and sketching. My default to realism is evident in these first sketches. 

But after sketching out a couple of pages of “realistic” sheep and lambs, I put all the reference away and began to push shapes.  Realistic legs with joints? Stick legs? And down the page  I went. These are some of the ones I liked best.

I generally hang around the edges of somewhat realistic representations, but I do push shapes to the point they no longer feel like “me”, then I drop back into my comfort zone. 

When it came time to work on the older sheep I realized that making the shape large and round with very small legs helped show how much older they are compared to the smaller thinner lambs. “Hey, Ralph, remember when we could do that?”

Once I had the basic designs I scanned them into Photoshop. Just as I had done with the realistic approach to the characters, my default is to start painting in a more realistic style for the background. But being mindful of this, I pushed myself past the landscape background mindset and began to “design”, working out basic shapes, then adding hand drawn textures. One thing I noticed immediately was how flat the values were, so looking for something to make dark, I chose the lambs. I found a breed with white bodies and dark faces. At that point I pushed past my default “realistic” color and made them blue! If Franz Marc could paint a blue horse, I could paint blue flying lambies with orange striped blankets. I fell in love with his blue horse the first time I saw it as a kid, and of course I wanted one!

As I thought about making the lambs much more colorful perhaps with floral fabric on their blankets, breaking completely with realism, I did a few thumbnails. At that point I stumbled onto a photo of baby lambs wearing blue blankets and I knew I had the additional design element that could carry more color and even textures. And of course the idea of “cape” is now added to the mix of these high flying lambs.

Something else that came into play was remembering a comment from a SCBWI mentor, Paul O. Zelinsky, during the round table critiques in Los Angeles. He suggested I make facial expressions more obviously different. In that situation it was a flock of baby chicks. The comment was a concern the chicks were so close in style that they may appear to be a copy/paste in Photoshop. And there I was feeling pleased with myself for keeping them “on model”, considering my own flocks of real baby chicks were generally identical.  But the point was well taken and I put it into play with the lamb project.

Based on that previous conversation, I felt the expressions were probably too similar. As I began to work on facial expressions I pulled out some copy work I had done from one of Wallace Tripp’s books that has a laughing lion. This helped me push the expression on the little lamb’s faces further than I might have normally drawn them. Also adding the floppy ears to the second set gave me another design device to add variety to the characters.

For the sake of this blog post I finished both design directions with identical backgrounds, but with two different styles of lambs. The first set was the original set with more realistic proportions, and the second set were slightly more “cartoony” with larger more expressive ears. As can be seen in this comparison, I had also increased the contrast of size between the four lambs, adding more interest. 
All in all, I prefer the second set, but the laughing mouth on the center lamb could be more exaggerated. I lost something of the expression in the translation.

In closing, for me I know contrast of big/small light/dark SHAPES, or lack of it, has plagued me for years, perhaps because high contrast has such strong visual energy. With design it was a must, as all the logos were designed in black or white. It had a visual punch I most likely avoid in illustrations, preferring soft low chroma/low value graphite drawings and ink washes. Daily life has a propensity for adding a dash of clutter and chaos, visual pan banging (all those logos out there) mixed with honking cars and hippies playing drums on the bus.  

I am embracing high contrast in shape and value, and realizing the Golden Ratio built into my brain is not doing me any favors in that direction. 

But that is another post! Stay tuned for Design Foundations: Part Two- High Contrast (and why the Golden Ratio/Mean/Rectangle is not).


Thursday, May 14, 2015

Character Bibles - Discover Your Story

One of my favorite speakers last summer at the 2014 SCBWI LA Conference
was the amazingly talented, inspiring and funny lady: Judy Byron Schachner.

(Author and Illustrator of the popular SkippyJonJones Books)

The name of her talk was: Thinking in Pictures: My Storytelling Process. 
She shared with us how she finds the story by creating a character bible for her books:  

The example character bible she presented was from her new book
Dewey Bob, Dial Books for Young Readers (Available September 8, 2015)

The basic concept is to discover your story and characters by collecting:
  • reference photos
  • sketches
  • unusual ideas
  • sayings
in a:
  • random
  • non-linear
  • no rhyme or reason
sort of way.

This process appealed to me because I am a non-linear thinker. Through experimentation and by collaging different illustrations, ideas and design elements together, the characters and story evolve visually.  

I couldn't wait to get home to get started on one of my own manuscripts. I experimented with many different techniques and styles so that I could discover the characters and setting that fit with my story.
Below are some of the images from the pages from my character bible for I AM Goose!

Choose any size sketchbook. This is a  6"x 8" sketchbook. Next time I'll use a larger one.
I filled it up and ran out of room so ended up using paperclips and extra pockets to fit all the sketches.

I tested out lots of different styles and techniques for Goose.
I made notes on the medium used and jotted down what was working and what was not.

 More sketches and test palette for Rabbit, Pig, Dodo, Chicken, Squirrel and Pig.

  Color sketches with more of the characters. 

 I clipped out old photos of old buildings, sample palettes and played
with sketches and washes for the setting.

These are some of the pencil sketches for the characters. 

This has been a great learning process for me. My tendency is to finish off every detail in an illustration. But when I look back through this character bible, I realize that the loose sketchy images are my favorite. My next step will be to finish the storyboard, dummy book and final art to get it ready for submission.
Thank You  Judy Schachner for sharing your process at the 2014 SCBWI LA Conference
Dorothia Rohner enjoys illustrating and writing 
stories for children that combine nature and the magic of imagination.
Twitter: @dorothiar
Instagram: @dorothiar


Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Interview with author- illustrator Frédérique Bertrand

Frédérique Bertrand is an award winning French illustrator living in Nancy, France.
She has illustrated over 30 children’s books and works as well as an editorial illustrator for magazines such as the New York Times, Le Monde, etc.
To learn more about Frédérique’s work, you can visit her website: 

Her books are playful, beautiful, poetic, and have inspired me greatly for the past years!

"Le Petit Bonhomme Pané" text by Olivier Douzou (Éditions du Rouergue, 2011)

I am very happy to share with you an insight of Frédérique’s process and her work:

Q. What is a normal day of work for you?
A normal day of work is very similar to every other day for me. When my eyes are wide open and that my head is well placed over my shoulders, I climb a few steps that lead me to my studio in the attic of the house where I live with my family. There, I get installed in my table, I take my sketchbooks and my pencils.

Q. Where do you find inspiration for your illustrations?
I get inspired by the every day life, family, the time that goes by, the little concerns of some, the dreams of others.
Also, I am very curious and sensitive to many different artistic expressions such as texts, music, films, images, dance.
For example, when my daughter was 7 years old, she would hurtle down the stairs singing a little rhyme from a song she learned at school. I challenged Olivier Douzou (art director at Rouergue, author and illustrator) to write a similar refrain for Violette my daughter, having as the main character a pony, her favorite animal at that time. Olivier answered this with the nursery rhyme “Poney” as well as with many other animals: a dachshund, a kitty, a bear, a chicken, a rooster, a piglet.
This challenge became a series of board books for toddlers “Les Comptines en Continu” (The Continuous Rhymes).

"Comptines en Continu", text by Olivier Douzou (Rouergue, 2012)

As for my personal projects, whether it’s a book, an illustration or a painting, I work the same way, my close entourage and daily life are my greatest sources of inspiration. I also have a deep affection for houses and everything that could happen inside them, household activities, furniture, couples, kids...

Q. Which are your favorite tools?Paper, pencils, painting, brushes, scissors, glue... every tool that we could find in a pencil case or schoolbag. 
I love the tools that we can find within easy reach, because of this the only thing you have to do is to seize them and play with them, to take the time to “listen to them” to let them tell stories.
I love tools that leave traces on the paper and get your hands dirty.

"Ding Dang Dong!" (Éditions Mémo, 2009)

Q. How has your work evolved through the years?
I realize as the time goes by, that my work evolves naturally as the reflection of myself. I am not necessarily looking to give this or that orientation to my work, it is evolving with every encounter I have, every wish and opportunities in my way.
I think it is wonderful and terrifying at the same time! Wonderful because the adventure is renewed constantly, terrifying because nothing is ever granted. 

Since the beginning of my career as an illustrator, I worked a lot for the children’s editorial illustration with a black and white style that I colored with inks. Later I started to create my images with paintings, for different editorial projects (everyday news, weekly, monthly, company, etc.) and at the same time for children’s books.

Editorial illustrations for United Airlines and Wall Street Journal

I started to experiment also with mix media: paintings with collage, paintings and pencil drawings, or pencil drawings and collage. My interest in mix media was to to evoke the subject of the picture by its technique (for example when talking about copiers at school, using school notebooks as support), instead of recreating existing techniques.

 Nowadays, I am retaking drawing with only lines to tell stories about my every day life, as if it was a written drawing.

Illustrations from "Déjà Noël (Éditions Esperluète, 2010) and "Bientôt l’Été" (Éditions Esperluète, 2007)

I work these same subjects in paintings on canvas.

 also cut paper decorations to stage the “magic” pictures of  Michaël Lebond in our series “Pyjamarama”. It is a little bit funny how here we are talking about playing with something you would see in an e-book in real paper!
In these books, we can move a magic plastic grid on top of encrypted images, and a small animation based on an optical phenomenon is triggered. 

It is fun to imagine these printed books behave as digital books!

"New York en Pyjamarama", animations by Michaël Leblond (Éditions du Rouergue, 2011)

Q. Favorite children’s book(s):
I have always loved Tomi Ungerer’s books: Moonman, The Three Robbers, Zeralda’s Ogre, and all the others! First, for the universe that emerges, and then for its graphic effectiveness, the strong  themes and texts.

But above all, I had a revelation when I discovered the work of Maira Kalman, with very creative  picture books, funny and full of colors. The adventures of her dog Max are told with such a narrative freedom. 

“Max in Hollywood, Baby”, by Maira Kalman  (Viking Penguin, 1992)

Q. Can you tell us about your first experience as an author-illustrator? How did it happen?
I started working very quickly in childen’s books. I was very lucky! I had met Olivier Douzou in 1994, during the Montreuil Children’s Book Salon in Paris. I showed him my portfolio, my thesis drawings, and he asked me to do my thesis as a children’s book.
I imagined a little reporter, who would run around the planet with his microphone and notebooks, and reported events every week, for a whole year. My book became “ Le petit monde 1995”.
It was very fun, but also very challenging, because I didn’t think I was capable of meeting the challenge even if it was a project that I had worked in 1993 (for my thesis at the École des Beaux-Arts de Nancy, where I studied).
At the same time, I spearheaded the writing and illustrations of my first picture book called “Nino dans le Frigo” (Nino in the Fridge), a fun challenge!
I was very lucky to find my editor. I've had great exchanges with him in each of my projects -as an author-illustrator or illustrating texts-. He follows me, guides me in my explorations, my doubts, etc.
I think that I would have never created children’s books if I hadn’t crossed Olivier Douzou! It’s crazy when I think about it!

"Nino dans le Frigo" (Éditions du Rouergue, 1996)

"Le Petit Monde 1995"  ditions du Rouergue, 1996)

Q. What has been your favorite project that you have worked so far?
I love “On ne Copie Pas” (Do not Copy), this is the book that marks the beginning of our work in tandem with Olivier Douzou. 
It is also the book that allowed me to discover at what point the beauty in a series of images can contribute to the same title of the book as the text contributes to tell a book.  
With this book I felt I grew wings, and I realized that I was having so much fun working, that I was feeling good in what I was doing, that I was in the right place.. It is from this book that I wanted to go on and on with this adventure, look for stories, games, silliness and good drawing times.  

"On ne Copie Pas", text by Olivier Douzou  (Éditions du Rouergue, 1998), Bologna Ragazzi Award 1999

Q. What is the best advice that someone has given you in your illustration career?
“I’ll see you in one month, and you can show me a book project” -Olivier Douzou
I think it was the best thing that someone could have asked me: a challenge to accomplish.

Q. What advice would you give to people who aspire to be illustrators?
I would say without hesitating, that you need to believe in what you do, and most of all and above all, you need to have fun to draw and escape in the pictures. 

"The Land of Hungry Armadillos", by Lawrence David (Doubleday, Random House, 2000)

Merci beaucoup Frédérique !
Thank you so much for the inspiration Frédérique!

To read this post in French you can check it out here

Ana Aranda writes/illustrates for children and creates murals.
You can find her work at 
these different locations:
Twitter: @anaranda2

Friday, April 24, 2015

How I Study Picture Books - By Maple Lam

I don't know a single colleague who does not read picture books voraciously. "Read. Read. Read." is the very basic key to all aspiring picture book author-illustrators. The other basic key is "Practice. Practice. Practice." Just like everything else in life, the rules are simple but hard to follow. Perseverance is the key; there is no short cut. :)

Today, I would like to share how I study picture books.

First, I pick a bunch of picture books and read them just to enjoy them. I don't want to see myself analyzing anything at this point, at least not intentionally. 

Then, I pick out the ones I loved. Yes, it is a subjective selection, based purely on my own picture book tastes. It's okay though. The important thing is that these books resonate with ME.

On a 8.5x11 paper, I copy the entire book as rough thumbnails. 

My study of David Ezra Stein's wonderful book 
published by Nancy Paulsen Books, 2013.

This process is helpful because I now have the benefit to step in that artist's shoes and absorb the composition skills. I don't copy the details, but the process forces me to truly see and absorb. 

I also write down the key words of each page. I like to then go back and circle what sentence structures or story structures are repeated. How many repetitions were there? How did they affect and enhance the story? 

My study of "Lucky Ducklings",
written by Eva Moore,
illustrated by Nancy Carpenter,
published by Orchard Books, 2013.

The copying process also helps me understand the story arc at-a-glance. Where did the author-illustrator put in clues to the ending's twist? How are page-turns executed? How was the problem-solution arc tackled? 

I find this exercise very helpful. The more I do it, the more I develop a good sense of what makes a great picture book. The best ones look some effortless! What a great art-form!

I encourage you to do the same too. Maybe there is only time for one study per week. That's okay. Like I mentioned earlier: perseverance is the key.

How do you study picture books? I would love to hear from you and learn from your methods! :)

~ Maple Lam

Illustrator of Two Girls Want a Puppy by Evie and Ryan Cordell (coming June 2015)
Author/Illustrator of My Little Sister and Me (coming Summer 2016)

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Mice! Color Process

I recently had an art director ask me if I had any mice in my portfolio. Nope! The only mice in my portfolio at the time were microscopic. Cue mouse sketches!
Copyright Jen Betton 2015
I drew up a bunch of sketches, both to figure out ideas and compositions, but also to get used to mousey anatomy. I decided to develop this one into a full-color piece. 

For the color studies I knew I wanted something warm and sunset-feeling (partially because I'd been doing a lot of cold paintings – tons of night and underwater scenes). I collected some color palette images I liked on Pinterest, and did a few color studies.

Copyright Jen Betton 2015
The general palette didn't change much, but I experimented with values – middle study is dark mice against a light background, bottom is dark background (to better show the rim lighting), and top is in between. It really helps me think about composition to remember it is just an arrangement of light and dark shapes – so each shape is either light on dark or dark on light. I decided to go with the center study.

Copyright Jen Betton 2015
Process is my friend – I really love approaching a finish with confidence because I know what colors and values I'm using, and I have a refined drawing for a foundation and good reference to look at while I paint. I know lots of other people who don't work this way, but for me, it makes everything smoother and faster. 

For more info about color, see my blog series here.

Jen Betton illustrates and writes for children. You can see more of Jen Betton's mousey sketches here

More of her work is at these locations online:
Twitter: @jenbetton