Illustration Process for “On Duck Pond”, Part 1

Some readers familiar with “On Bird Hill”, the first book in Cornell Lab’s new imprint for young (2-6) children, might notice a different “feel” to the artwork in “On Duck Pond”. Kirkus Review put it this way in their very positive take on the book: “Marstall’s delicately colored paintings are less whimsical and more realistic than in the previous book.”  Here’s the story behind that shift:

When I first began working on “On Duck Pond”, shortly after finishing “On Bird Hill”, I was faced with a bit of a dilemma. Generally, everyone involved was happy with OBH and the warm reception it received – but we all knew that it was definitely a “one-off” kind of book, given that Jane Yolen wrote it based on one of my doodles, which then became the cover. It was my first fiction picture book, after a long career in nonfiction picture books. [For the full story, check out my website blog from last year on the making of “On Bird Hill”]

When it was decided that the book would become a series, it became part of a larger discussion about the direction of the new imprint. The consensus that emerged was that accuracy has always been the Cornell Lab’s main focus when it came to birds, and that the new imprint should be part of that mission. At the same time, it was acknowledged that the series would still be thought of as “fiction”.

I’ve been a nonfiction illustrator for most of my career, so illustrating accurate birds and animals was part of a normal day for me. What made it very interesting to me was the tension between the “species-specific birds and the made-up backgrounds – the task was to make the realistic birds feel as though they actually inhabited the wholly-invented environment I put them in.

When I first began, though, I was trying to think of ways to carry on the spirit of “On Bird Hill” in the new book, which meant pretty much making everything up. I spent some time searching for “a way into” this book and, during this period, I came across some postcards of 12th-century Japanese “manga” that I’d picked up when I visited Japan in 2007. One example:

Using a reference to this and other 12th-century artists, I did a number of quick sketches. For this one I added some made-up background:

After this preliminary noodling, it came time to develop the book as a whole via thumbnails:

Thumbnails for “On Duck Pond”  [fyi: each panel is 1”x2.5”]

Because I wasn’t yet thinking “species specific”, the thumbnails are quite fanciful and rooted in that 12th-century-frog approach – not to mention my own doodles, which kick-started the whole series. As a direct result of the shift toward more realism, many of the my initial visual concepts (as shown in the thumbnails) had changed considerably by the time the watercolor paintings were completed. The following sequence (p08-09) offers a good example of this evolution. Jane’s text for this spread reads:

Trout and turtles turned and scattered.

 An old frog leaped off lily pad,

Quite surprised and very mad.

 Detail of thumbnail for pages 08-09

First full-size sketch [9”x22”] 

Below: The finished pencil drawing (9”x22”), on Aches 300lb hot press watercolor paper. Once I get the drawing to the point where I understand the space, I use a kneaded eraser to remove all the heavier graphite, which creates a ghost-like image (the shaded-in areas disappear but the basic drawing remains – only now you have to look closely to see it).  Then it’s ready for watercolor!

The first step is to wet the paper briefly (I hold it in my shower for a few seconds on each side), then immediately staple it to a prepared board (I use homesote painted with acrylic gesso). Once it dries and tightens, I begin by “masking” the foreground areas (including water ripples) by painting them with liquid frisket, (which looks like translucent rubber when dry and then completely resists water).

To achieve the blending of the warm and cool watercolors, I coat the entire surface, including the impervious frisket, with many, many layers of watercolor with a large, flat brush that is loaded with water and very little pigment, which allows me to build up the color tones slowly, with a lot of control. FYI: it’s important to allow the paper to dry flat between layers. I begin with a warm color at the top and a full, watery brush, which has much less pigment by the time I get to the middle. The process is then repeated with the cool colors, working from the bottom up, with the two colors blending smoothly together in the middle.

Once everything is dry and I’m happy with the color range and the blending of the background, I remove the frisket simply by peeling it off, leaving those areas perfectly white with the drawing still visible. I then gradually build up the tones and colors on the foreground figures with many different layers – and never again have to touch the background.