This post is all about the process of creating "Spring Surprise", an illustration I completed for my portfolio. Enjoy!
PURPOSE of this PROJECT
After indulging in some christmasy illustrations for The Elves Who Went Too Far, it was time to shift gears to a spring theme. I had a few reasons for this move but here were the main ones:
This illustration would hopefully be a portfolio piece. An illustration with warm, light spring time colors and a spring theme seemed like the best addition to my existing body of work.
At the time of doing this drawing, I was 3 weeks away from having a new baby! Since it’s impossible to predict how those first weeks will go, I wanted to have something that would seem timely when I was ready to get rolling again in early April.
We live in the age of social media* and it’s important to WORK AHEAD. I started The Elves 2 weeks before Christmas. By the time I got my character designs and story skeleton worked out, it was already New Year’s! I have no regrets about the timing of that project but I wanted my next project to be something I could release on social that felt of the moment. Now I’ve got an Easter illustration all queued up that I’m quite proud of.
*I‘ve been super confused about how to handle social media ever since beginning my kid’s lit journey 4 years ago. I got great perspective this fall however from the Children’s Book Pro class I took with SVS Learn. One of the modules was about marketing and included an awesome video with Jake Parker talking about social media and it’s role in his creative process. I highly recommend taking the class so you can access this video but his basic message was: create your projects based on what you want and need to be doing in terms of your own creative aspirations and career goals. Then, after those projects are conceived of and rolling, build your social strategy AROUND what the project requires and not the inverse. This re-framing has helped me a lot.
Okay, so the next step was to check out my portfolio and see which visual elements were missing that this new illustration could include. Below you can see the finished pieces that I had created since switching back to all digital 3 months ago (including artwork from The Elves Who Went Too Far, Waiting for Pumpkin and Hansel & Gretel):
After mulling this compilation over I noticed the following:
All of my pieces feature an adult and child.
In most of the pieces the characters are standing upright.
2 out of 3 of the full bleed pieces (full color reaching to edge of pages) are cold month color palettes (winter and spring).
All of these illustrations are zoomed out on a scene. Gretel and the Witch has the biggest close up and even that is still fairly zoomed out.
None of the illustrations have more than 3 characters.
Based on those observations I decided to do an illustration of a group of kids, featuring a close up composition in a bright color palette reminiscent of spring or summer.
Of course as soon as I think spring I think Easter. I'm such a sucker for holiday bric-a-brac and Easter eggs are on the top of my list! At first I thought it would be super fun to have a little dinosaur emerging from an Easter egg. Illustrations of dinosaurs are often done in wonderful bright greens- lime green, grass green, etc, which would contrasts beautifully with the pastels of Easter eggs. I also LOVE the proportions of dinos, particularly T-Rex. Those little arms are so funny! I thought it would be cute to have a bunch of kids doing an Easter Egg hunt OR egg painting session where their eggs hatch and they find themselves face-to-face with a baby Dino. So I knocked out tis first batch of concept sketches:
As you can see, the Dino idea died a quick and early death. First of all, I had just spent a month on a project with developed characters and multiple images (The Elves Who Went Too Far) and wanted a faster turn around. The SCBWI Winter Conference portfolio contest deadline was fast approaching so it had to be a once and done image. I also know from hanging out with lots of kids that scientific inaccuracy when it comes to Dinosaurs is a major faux pas. Kind of like showing up to a cocktail party in your Birkenstocks and underpants. In the few minutes of visual research I did on Google images I remembered that 1) baby dinosaurs are HUGE, at least the species that I was interested in drawing; and 2) it’s been pretty well debunked that dinosaurs were NOT bright green and in fact probably had feathers.
Add to this that I had budgeted just 5 days to finish this illustration. On some of those days I’d be cramming in only 1-2 hours of drawing in the evenings. I did not feel like I had the time to properly research and plan a dinosaur drawing that would do itself and its kid viewers justice. Introducing a dinosaur also brought with it a litany of story telling opportunities that I would feel remiss to just neglect. A baby chick would be a simpler narrative. Furthermore, I was planning to do a group of kids with darker complexions and thought that the combo of pastel yellow chick, yellow green grass and pastel easter eggs would look really nice against the neutral, dark reds and yellows of darker skin tones. So the cousin-to-cousin shift from dinosaur to chick was made, with the hatching dino/ Easter egg concept put optimistically into my “Ideas for Later” pile.
I embarked upon the next round of thumbnail sketches. Here were my top picks:
Creating these quick thumbnail sketches is one of my favorite parts of illustrating. It’s such a free part of the process where all things are possible. For Spring Surprise, I especially loved drawing the chick’s silhouette and sweet little beak!
In the end, I decided to go with #1. Similarly to my concept sketches for the main illustration of “The Elves Who Went Too Far” where Santa’s back is to the viewer, I felt that having a back view of the bird would be great in a book or series of illustrations, but less compelling as a single portfolio piece. In a portfolio piece you don’t have the luxury of slowly unveiling a story arc to the reader over multiple images. It is once and done. I was also excited to fit in more than 3 children. So #1 was the winner!
The next step was to nail down my color palette. While I didn’t want to create a monotone illustration for this project or even work in a complimentary palette, I did want to have colors that were tightly directed and simplified. I started with big blocks of color that would include analogous colors within them (a purple block for example would include colors from magenta to blue violet). Here are a few of those concepts:
As you can see, I played with having the same color family in the foreground and background as well as using the kids as a “split” between two different colors. My goal with this concept phase was to explore the following:
How to make the chick the focal point of my illustration using color. I planned to do this by contrasting the yellow chick with an intense purple or blue violet, as well as having a stark value contrast in the same spot that I would work out in the value stage.
How to create a spring-like palette that stuck mostly to vivid, pure, pastel colors.
I realized however that I had inadvertently created a value challenge for myself. I wanted to create an illo that had values in the 1-5 range without any true darks. I ALSO wanted however to create an illustration that featured 4 kids with darker complexions. At this stage I realized that I probably could not stick to my goal of having very light values and still do justice to the deeper skin tones I was hoping to include. It was time to set color aside and move on to my value studies which, in my world, means that it was time to complete my line drawing.
I might be odd in this regard but I don’t like doing value studies until my line drawing is more or less nailed down. I suppose I do the line drawing first because I am more confident and quick with my lines. I think this has a lot to do with my decade working as a professional retail caricature artist, where my #1 job was to create hundreds of quick line drawings with lots of structural integrity and a compelling design in minutes flat. While I stuck with the original composition of 4 kids clustered around a chick, I messed around a bit with various details, the age of the kids, their outfits and so on. After all that, I came up with this final drawing:
I’d like to mention that getting to this line drawing took a few drafts. I almost always share my work at the concept and drafting stage with my kids or their friends to see if I’m hitting the mark. It’s a great practice because kids don’t pretend to like things. I showed the first drawing of Spring Surprise to my 9 year-old daughter. This kid consistently gives awesome feedback, btw. She’s my target audience, she loves art and she’s very articulate. When I showed her my first draft she made a face and said, “Mom I don’t get it”. Then she pointed out that while the curly headed boy was looking good the other characters’ faces looked too old. They looked like adult heads slapped on kid bodies. Obviously that was not the look I was going for so I aged the kids down and then, presto, I got a go from the committee.
Finally, it was time for a value study! While value studies are time consuming and finicky, I’ve come to really love and depend upon this part of the process. If I get the values right and have a rough color palette, then the final color stage comes together pretty easily. As usual, I’d be using this stage to figure out lighting, the values of different elements, creating a balanced composition and establishing a clear focal point. Sadly, to free up space on my iPad I erased all my other value studies before writing this post (doh!) but here is the value study I decided to go with:
I was happy with the overall flow of the values in this version. While I had some darker darks there were no super dense areas aside from the line which I knew I would lighten in final art. I did think the foreground and background were too compressed so I decided to mess with lightening the lines in the background at this stage:
I really liked how the lighter lines in the background gave the piece a woodblock feel. It also helped keep the viewer focused on the main action in the foreground. I’m not sure if I would do disembodied legs in the background again but at the time they felt like a good device to convey a crowd while focusing on the kids in the front.
Something was still not working here for me though. The girl with the cascading dark hair kept catching my eye. Also, in my initial sketches I had put a hat on the girl in the front. I was happy that I took that hat out but now there was no dominant diagonal pulling attention from the right side of the composition into the bird. I needed another element emphasizing the chick as the focal point, which led to this version:
I ran this version by my editor (again, the nine year-old girl who lives with me and calls me "mom") and she loved it!
Predictably however, as soon as I was ready to start adding color I noticed another problem. It’s amazing how going to value makes issues pop right out. The boy on the left wasn’t looking at the bird! He was gazing at the grass just in front of the chick. It gave him a weird body snatchers vibe. I tinkered around with just moving his irises but that also looked awkward and forced. If the chick was so interesting why would he look at it out of the corner of his eye? So I did a quick cut and paste and rotated his head to see how that would look…
…and it looked good! So I edited my line drawing and then my value study to include his new head pose.
Last but not least, you can see that in the line drawing above, the eyes of the girl in the middle are different from the value study. That’s because, you guessed it, I realized that she was gazing off into the great beyond as well. Finally, after that adjustment, I was ready to start adding color.
Once again, to save file space, I deleted a bunch of my initial color layers. These were layers where I experimented with applying color based on my initial concepts. It took me a while for example, to decide if I wanted to go with more realistic skin tones or, in service to a more limited palette, push the skin tones towards a more stylized violet. Again, in honor of the time budget I set for myself I decided to keep the skin tones more realistic (and add another ambitious concept to my Ideas for Later pile). Once I settled on the palette I wanted to go with I got rolling on final color. Here are some stages of that process:
I was so close to being done but the girl with the long hair was still catching my eye too much. I decided that the multiple value contrasts of her eye whites to irises and hair to highlight were just too eye catching. I toned both of those contrasts down and here is the end result!
And here is how it looks in my portfolio!
Spring Surprise was a lot of fun to create. I’m happy with how it looks in my portfolio and also happy to have solved a number of problems. Best of all, I’m super pumped to move onto the next piece, apply what I learned during this process, and tackle some new challenges.
I hope you enjoy this illustration and reading about my process!