Illustration Process for “On Bird Hill”

Here’s another featured post from the recent blog tour celebrating the release of On Bird Hill. In this post, I show the progression of the cover and of two two-page spreads.

Doodle-to-Cover Sequence

This is the unfinished doodle that Jane made me make a print of before she left my studio on January 5th, 2012. The print was, no doubt, lying on her passenger-side car seat as she drove humming the tune from “The Green Grass Grows All Around” and writing the story in her mind. I can’t remember if we discussed where the egg-like shape was going, but her first draft, received two hours later, included a hen, an egg and a chick.

After Jane sent me the first draft, I finished the drawing under the influence of her story.

Later I made a few modifications, primarily the furrows that broke through the curved line to the left of the egg.

I added color to the drawing using Photoshop. From the start, this vignette was thought of as the cover image.  Hans Teensma designed the cover and found the perfect typefaces.


Pages 06-07 Process Sequence

This is my very first thumbnail (7/8” x 2”) for OBH, pages 06-07, done immediately after reading Jane’s draft for the first time. The concept of a child with a dog started here (the text doesn’t mention a dog), but the pair ended up in a very different landscape.

Soon after I completed the thumbnails, I began drawing what turned out to be first-round sketches, half-sized, starting with the thumbnail but soon re-imagining the entire scene.

Because several years passed between the thumbnails and 1st-round sketches and when Jane and I actually got contracts, I felt the need to re-think everything. I drew a full-sized 2nd-round of sketches. At 9”x22”, I could really get in there and wander around, discovering a new land.

This is the full-size pencil finish for pages 06-07 (though I did add a few details later), the one where I really started to understand and visualize the look and feel of Bird Hill. As with all my pencil finishes, I used a mechanical pencil with HB leads and worked on my favorite watercolor paper, Arches 300lb hot press (it has a luscious texture).

This is an early color draft, one of many. I added all the color for the entire book in Photoshop, which may sound easier to some than watercolors or oils but which probably takes the same amount of time and work as either. For the next book in this series, “On Duck Pond”, I’ve already decided to use watercolors first, then scan and tweak the colors in Photoshop, if needed.

The finished color for pages 06-07. If I had known how hard it would be to add color in Photoshop to things like the dozens of slender frond leaves, I definitely would have used watercolors first!


Pages 24-25 Process Sequence

Thumbnail (7/8”x2”) for the p 24-25 spread. This is one thumbnail where the essential idea – foreground egg, nest, limb and stretching chick – changed almost not at all, from the first few lines all the way through to the color finish. The background went through a number of changes but ended up disappearing entirely in the final art.

FYI: Thumbnails are the critical first step in developing a visual idea into a finished image. I try to complete each thumbnail very quickly, sometimes in under a minute. The idea is to just get the idea out there quickly – boom! – before the brain starts analyzing it. The best ones usually happen this way. But, if it doesn’t work – hey, it’s easy to quickly do another one with a completely different concept.

This is one of many versions with the same foreground but wildly different backgrounds (the canyon started out as a path that became a river, then deepened).

Back in 2012, I needed to complete one spread as a sample, and I finally decided on a background.

I added color with Photoshop CS5 and then finally had a sample that, along with the cover, captured the “look and feel” of the book and was used to show to prospective publishers.

So, suddenly it's June, 2015 and Jane and I have contracts – and it’s time to re-visit my ideas and drawings from 2012. I read and re-read the now-much-revised story and realized that the nest, egg and chick were resting on a “twig”, not the limb that was “Straight and strong and long and slim” on which I had based the earlier sketches. In re-imagining the twig, I came up with the curvy, spiky, berry-bearing appendages (I was determined to avoid naturalistic leaves). I really liked them and they became a key part of the book (two reviewers referred to them as “Suessian”) – but they were a bear to draw and ultimately color, the biggest problem being that there ended up being a LOT of them!

At this point I opted for simplicity, feeling that a background, while interesting, distracted from the landscape inside the egg and the exuberant chick.

FYI: The egg is empty because I had drawn it several times and everyone already knew what would be inside. Deadlines do that to a person.

The pencil finish. At the last moment, I decided that the sticks in the nest were too realistic – what tree did they come from? – and I went with grass-like leaves that echoed the frond-like trees elsewhere.

The color finish for pages 24-25.