When I registered for NESCBWI's Illustrators' Intensive with Giuseppe Castellano (Art Director at Penguin Random House), we were challenged to illustrate a scene from a book by Beatrix Potter, in our own style. I've added my final illustration below. I put together this post on my process to share some of my steps along the way. I hope you'll enjoy getting a little look behind the scenes!
My Story Choice: The Tale of Little Pig Robinson
I loved the art of Beatrix Potter as a child, so it was a pleasure to revisit her many stories as an adult. At my local library, I discovered a book I had never seen before: The Tale of Little Pig Robinson. I have a great affinity for pigs, so right away I had a good feeling about this one.
Towards the end of the book, there is an exciting moment with a cat and Pig Robinson on a ship. I fell in love with the scene, and knew it was the right one for my assignment.
I started with small thumbnail sketches to figure out composition ideas (see one of my pages below).
The thumbnail sketch closest to my final piece is in the lower left. My first idea was closer to the image in the lower right. It's always good to do thumbnail sketches, because you usually end up with more dynamic ideas. I decided to show the pig sliding face first down the rope, to really emphasize the expression on his face.
I blew up my thumbnail and used it as a basis for my larger sketch. I looked at reference photos for both cats and pigs so my characters would be believable. I also did some research on how ship rigging actually looks. It's complicated! I simplified mine a bit, to avoid distracting from the characters. Here's the sketch I submitted for feedback.
I received encouraging and helpful feedback from Giuseppe Castellano, who advised me to make sure the lighting on the characters looked realistic in the final piece (it should look like moonlight, not sunlight!). He also recommended that I rework the text "Candles," suggesting that perhaps I should look at Victorian fonts as a nod to Beatrix Potter.
Next, I moved on to inking. I paint in Photoshop, so I started by experimenting with different Photoshop brushes. I inked several versions of the cat and printed my top three choices on paper. In the end, I used the style on the far left and inked the rest of the piece in a similar fashion.
Here is more of the scene inked:
I build up my digital paintings very gradually, with many layers of paint. I always want to create interesting values (lights and darks). I was also very particular about my color palette for this—since it's a night scene, I wanted to keep everything to cool blue and purple tones. I added pale colors and highlights to convey moonlight.
To add extra texture, I painted on watercolor paper, scanned the page at high resolution, converted it to grayscale, and used it as a layer set to "Soft Light" above my painting in Photoshop. I try to add a feeling of traditional media into my work.
Here is my painting without the text or pig's shadows added to the ship.
When it came time to add lettering to the ship, I studied fonts from Victorian newspapers and scans I found online. I also looked at fonts by modern font creators. I practiced several different fonts (copying each one by hand exactly) until I felt like I had some understanding of common traits. Then, without looking at any of them, I painted my own lettering for "OF CANDLES," trying to make something unique that also integrated a combination of the elements I had seen across the other fonts.
Final Review and Adjustments
At NESCBWI, hearing Giuseppe Castellano's feedback on my work and others' illustrations was incredibly helpful. His final feedback on my painting was positive overall (hurray!). He did suggest that I try converting it to grayscale to see if the characters needed to be lighter to stand out more. He was right, because I found that the cat blended in just a bit too much.
I made the final adjustment after returning from the conference. I lightened the characters ever so slightly. It's a subtle change, but I think the cat stands out just a bit more.
My Finished Illustration:
I'm very grateful to have had the opportunity to participate in the intensive. I learned so much—not only from working on this piece and receiving feedback from Giuseppe Castellano, but also by hearing his feedback to other people. Also, I discovered a new favorite story by Beatrix Potter. I highly recommend reading The Tale of Little Pig Robinson when you get a chance!
I hope you enjoyed learning a little bit about my process. Please feel free to reach out if you have any questions.