Inventing cute fairies!
Updated: May 2
One of the best parts of illustration is designing new characters for a given story. Are you writing a good old fashioned buddy drama set on top of an ice cream cone? Ok well how about a cadre of sprinkles who are always in competition to be the brightest yet routinely have to band together to avoid being eaten?! Or how about a modern take on Hansel and Gretel? What does the witch look like in the current candy landscape with snickers, m&m's, swedish fish and pop rocks all at her disposal?
Illustrating Autumn Fairies was no exception. If you haven't read about my artistic adventure with this super cute poem by Sarah Meade you can read more here. Or stick around on this page and hear all about how I created these fantastical little graffiti artists.
You might say that fairies are in my blood. I grew up listening to fanciful stories spun by my English grandmother, a lively lady with a wild imagination and deep story-telling roots. When I wasn't hearing tales about the pixies in the trees or the mermaids in the River Mersey, I was usually curled up reading Mr. Pink Whistle by Enid Blyton or Elfquest by Wendy and Richard Pini. Fairies have been stewing and percolating within me since my earliest memories and I could not wait to create some new creatures to illustrate Sarah Meade's poem.
The first step to illustrating my autumn fairies, was to come up with a basic body shape. Honestly, coming up with basic body shapes is not my favorite part of the process. It can take me a while to muscle a design into shape that I'm happy with and requires a lot of scratching and erasing different sized circle and squares in the sketchbook. It is however, very important. Without the basic body shape I feel like I'm trying to put up walls on a house that has no frame. It also means that I have skipped really important work figuring out things like how the different body parts fit together, how the character will move and how they will interact with complicated environments.
Fortunately, over the last 2 years I had already spent quite a bit of time developing elf characters and honey bees. They were some of my favorite characters in fact! You can make their acquaintance below:
I figured I'd go with a similar style treatment for Autumn Fairies. After all, what's a fairy if not a mash up between an elf and a honey bee? It was nice to be able to draw on that hard work I had already done. Kind of like dipping into the freezer to find a morsel of dessert only to realize that I had a whole pie laid away from the last cherry season! Thanks, me!
I also had some space constraints to consider. My #1 goal with Autumn Fairies was to create a portfolio piece. To get the most bang for my exertions, I decided to create a spread that could either function as an example of my ability to lay out images across multiple pages or as 2+ images that I could split up to use on my portfolio landing page / my printed portfolio as I pitch to agents and editors.
Without much trouble I decided that doing a sample spread for Babybug magazine by Cricket would be ideal. This meant I would be designing for a 2:1 ratio spread. I'll translate this in case art speak sounds like gobbledegook to you. Basically, every page is exactly as tall as it is wide, and when 2 pages are laid side by side (as in when the magazine is opened on a cute baby's chubby legs) it is twice as wide as it is tall. You can see that here, in this image of Alexandra Thompson's extra adorable illustration for Babybug's spring cover:
I planned to create a spread of images that would be compatible with Babybug's format while also fitting in more than 1 large image. Having a cast of different bodies shapes might end up being a bit cluttered considering my space constraints so I decided to stick with one basic body shape that was appealing, whimsical and very cute. Here was the basic figure that I came up with:
I love thinking about where characters live and how the natural resources and material culture of their world impact their appearance and behaviors. These elves, I felt, as the critters who paint the leaves new colors in autumn, must be steeped in nature. They are almost like little gods who bring about vast, intrinsic change ever though they are very small. I dressed them in natural materials like grasses, furs and leaves with raspberry and pear hats making cameo appearances.
Of course, our autumn fairies needed their art materials. As an artist myself (in case you didn't know that by now), I have spent a lot of time studying different art materials. This was not a project where I wanted to spend too much time coming up with complicated paint brushes etc. After all, I wanted the characters to be simple so they would read quickly and cleanly in the small format of Babybug magazine. I did enjoy a certain satisfaction however in giving them little acorn top paint pails and simple handmade brushes with wooden handles. You can see in the above that I just put the same pail and brush on every fairy to keep things simple. In the final artwork however, I added some big, square brushes as well.
Last but not least, it was time to add some color. There were 3 major considerations for color in this project:
TIME. I've been building out my color palettes in Procreate over the last few years as a tool for minimizing how much time I have to put into figuring out color for these smaller projects. I was pumped to use one of those palettes and see how it translated from one project to the next. You might also call this "efficiency", but that's a clunkier word to use in a list!
THEME. This is a poem about autumn! Time to break out those gorgeous, autumn colors!
LOCATION. My fairies are little nature lovers. They don't have access to all the vivid colors that are produced by synthetic chemical processes. Any vivid colors will occur by natural causes, whether it be in their own pigmentation or in the environment around them.
Based on these factors, I decided to use the palette I put together for my Princess Honey world. This palette happened to feature the same colors one might find in an autumn, woodland landscape. Vivid greens with that interesting ochre color of leaves when they are in-between green and red. Deep browns, vivid reds and oranges and, of course, a vivid blue sky.
I also nursed a desire, quite briefly, to have Princess Honey make a cameo in my Autumn Fairies illustration but I ended up removing her in favor of more generic woodland critters so that the fairies could be the main characters. That was a big factor that lead me down the path of using this palette.
I also had to figure out what skin tone, etc I wanted these fairies to have. It's really important to me to create artwork that all children can relate to and see themselves in. When dealing with a limited cast of characters it is virtually impossible to capture all the gorgeous variations of the human palette. So I leaned on an old trick of creating my fairies in lots of colors that, while on the muted side, did not mimic the colors we find on actual humans. It also opened up a lot of fun color combos for me to play with!
The finishing touch was to add color to my fairies' paint brushes and acorn top paint pails. Once those colors were plopped in I went back and re-jiggered the fairies' skin, hair and clothing colors so that they complimented their particular paint pail.
And here is the end result! I came up with 3 designs that I leaned on to create the crew of graffiti artists featured in my final illustration: