This post is all about the process of creating "The Elves Who Went Too Far". This was a personal project where I developed the skeleton of a picture book story along with designs for the 3 main characters and 3 final illustrated spreads.
PURPOSE of this PROJECT
This project was a total blast. I got rolling on it in December when the Christmas cheer was coursing through my veins in the form of eggnog and Cadbury’s chocolate. I’ve always been a huge lover of Christmas but as I’ve gotten older and busier I have had to find new ways to approach it. I thought creating a few pieces that channeled that holiday festiveness while also creating some portfolio pieces would be a good way to celebrate my favorite holiday. My intention all along was to share my process here on my blog, with lots of images of all the steps. Creating illustrations is a ton of work but I love every step of the process and am excited to share it all here.
This idea first came to me in early December when my kids and I were standing in line waiting for them to get their Covid vaccinations. They are in elementary school and have been absolute troopers through this whole Covid thing. They have been brave, flexible and have approached most of the inconveniences with a sense of humor and optimism. They do have their limits though and I could tell that, as usual, getting a shot was giving them some stress. It’s in these moments that I often try to bring up ideas for projects so they can concept with me and we can have a funny, low stress conversation. “What would it be like,” I asked them, “if Santa had some bad elves in his workshop?”My daughter immediately ran with the idea. “Oh, like elves who get kicked out for being bad? There could be one who accidentally breaks everything. Or another one who always forgets to tighten the screws on his toys!” Then I built on her idea. “Yeah! What if there was one who was always pranking people?!” At this point the jokester of our family- my 7 year old son- perked up and suggested that maybe they committed the ultimate sin of…. pranking Santa! We laughed and talked about all the different pranks they might pull.
My kids got their vaccinations (Wow! My kids made history!) and we headed home for some ice cream. As we sat around the table chatting about this and that I whipped out my iPad and got started on what would become the first sketches for “The Elves Who Went Too Far”.
This is probably my favorite page of sketches for the entire project. That could be because it’s full of ideas I’m excited to try, because I did it with my kids, or a little bit of both. I love these projects that begin as a mind meld with me and the very people I’m creating for.
After brainstorming on what the pesky elves might get up to I decided to start drawing the elves themselves. This is one of many pages of concepts I tinkered with. You can see the different experiments I’m doing pretty clearly on this image. In the bottom right are quite bold shape experiments. In the bottom left are articulated proportion experiments. In the top left I start honing in on what I’d like to go with.
I have a ton of admiration for artists who work with very simple, almost abstract shapes in their illustrations. I hope to start integrating those concepts more in earnest sometime soon, but for now I’m enjoying creating characters that are more recognizably human (or whatever creature they are) and building compelling illustrations around that. It’s fun to have a back log of things I want to tinker with. Makes it all the more fun to get through each project knowing that I’m taking one step closer to the next creative adventure!
Here are the designs that I liked the best. I showed them to- you guessed it!- my kids. They each picked the one they liked best. Interestingly, they each seemed to pick the elf who looked closed in age to them.
From here I put together these concept images:
As you can see, I ended up figuring out Pepper first (the taller elf in the bottom left image). Pickle took a little while longer to figure out. I knew as I was working on her that I wanted her to be shorter and chubbier than Pepper and to really look like a little kid (even though she’s probably about 65 years old- still well before elves reach maturity). Once I got her shape and her big puff of hair figured out I did a bunch of costume options. Here is the last batch I chose from:
It was also at this point that I decided to change the elves’ hair color, Pepper to red and Pickle to blue. The bottom right is the final design. My elves were ready!
At this point by the way, Pepper was not Pepper but “Aubergine” or “Gene” for short. Since elves live off of sugar and snowflakes, I thought it would be funny if they named their kids after human food without quite realizing it. Maybe one of the Elf Elders got their hands on a Julis Child cookbook and fell in love with all the vegetable names without quite realizing what they meant! I played with some other possible names like this one:
A hippy elf whose name is really Sausage! Bwahahaha! In the end, I thought it was weird to give my tall elf such flaming red hair and not nod to that so I went with “Pepper”.
Last but not least I spent a day putting together character poses for Pickle and Pepper. This was probably my favorite part of the whole project. These guys are just so fun!
Next up of course was the big guy himself, Santa. Santa was much more straight forward, mostly because there are soooo many images of who Santa is that I felt slightly locked in on him from the get. I thought for a bit about making Santa a different color to match the elves. I also considered how fun it would be to make a Santa of an ethnic background outside of the commonly used Northern Europe. In the end I decided to stick with the old, plump, white guy with a jolly smile. This was after all for a portfolio piece and if I reinvented the wheel I’d have to do a lot of extra work to hint at answers to the inevitable questions. I have no problems doing extra work as long as it fits into my time budget and between all the gift wrapping, family time and stuffing my face with homemade dinner rolls, the hours were ticking. So I put those concepts in my “Ideas for Later” pile and kept it simple.
Here are my Santa sketches in order. You can see how the ideas evolved over the different stage:
I decided on a shape of round belly, smaller shoulders and cute little hands and feet. I also popped on elf ears and half moon spectacles for good measure. Time for a costume!
Lebowski Santa anyone?! Isn’t is awesome how costumes tell us so much about a person? Is Santa the kind of guy who keeps his PJ top tucked in or out? Does he schlub around with an open robe or is he a bit of a dandy who likes bells on his satin green slippers? In the end I thought my Santa would be tidy yet practical. He has a whole host of elves and of course Mrs. Claus tending to his laundry and supporting him in his endeavors of personal hygiene (Anyone up for a revisionist feminist take of Mrs. Claus and her struggle for identity as the housewife of the most famously productive man of all time?). Plus, if he’s a master toy craftsman he probably takes care in the details of his appearance.
Oh, which color looks best on you, Mr. C? Hmmm. I’d go with the dark red.
And here is my final character line up!
Now it was time to figure out my composition. At first I was just going to do one illustration but as I worked on the main image I realized that it would make sense to add another image on either side of this main one. I’d put so much effort into my characters, why not show them off? Plus it would add some humor to my story telling.
Here are my initial sketches of that 3 page sequence, as well as some studies of what my elves might look like popping their balloon. You can see that I referred to some Norman Rockwell images to figure out my elves.
And here are a bunch of sketches for my big, full color spread. I spent the most time designing this illustration by far.
Here is the final concept I went with. I realized at this point that I needed to given Santa a lighting source for reading his list. This last batch is where I decided to do a cast iron candle chandelier (is “candle chandelier” redundant?).
I was ready to roll on my line and value!
LINE & VALUE
The concepting stage is by far where the most thinking goes on for me. From here on out it’s a matter of putting all of my ideas together and just pushing through the hours of execution and refinement. This is the stage where I put on my headphones and listen to the latest Billie Eilish album or my favorite podcast (Currently, “Tides of History”. The Bronze Age episode is awesome.). Sometimes the value stage is tricky but here it just sort of worked. Maybe because I’ve spent so much time sitting next to cozy fires surrounding by Christmas trinkets!
And here is the final art! 3 full page spreads, 2 of which made it into my portfolio.
Thank you for reading about “The Elves Who Went Too Far”. It was super fun to make and to share my process here. Hope it put you in the Christmas- and pranking- spirit :D