Inside the Process: The Ups and Downs of Illustrating My Book

Sheesh. I thought this would be easier. I thought I could whip out 40 small, simple, black and white illustrations in no time. 40 might sound like a lot, but these would be really simple drawings - the kind that many middle grade novels have at the beginning of their chapters. Case in point - Garth Williams has them at the start of every Little House on the Prairie book chapter. Great little black and white drawings of everyday items like buckets, harness, ears of corn - things that are reflected in the chapter. I have long-loved those drawings of his, and wanted to make them for my own book. So I thought - naively - no problem! I can whip up 40 small drawings of ravens, a squirrel or two, some pine cones, blackberries, maybe a bear - I do have a deadline, and it's only two weeks away. But that seemed like plenty of time - and so I got started this morning, fully expecting to get at least five done today.

Um, no. I got one. And now that deadline suddenly feels like tomorrow.

The problem is consistency. They need to look like each other, they need to be very clean, very perfect, and I guess my chops are rusty, because they are none of those things. Argh. Trying to re-learn how to draw in time to illustrate your own book is perhaps - duh- an impossible task.

I do just fine when I can erase away, leaving smudges and smears, and corrections that are visible, but when I go to make the "final" drawing - the one I'm going to actually use - I get all shaky, and the proportion is always off, and I just can't re-create the success of the first sketch. I have no idea what most other illustrators do, but I'll bet some of them have the exact same problem.

When I was a print maker I used to think that I was lacking some fundamental skill because I couldn't draw directly onto the plate very well. After all, my favorite etchings had draftsman-like perfection. How in the heck did they do that?! For me, drawing in ink with a stylus is a wiggly, shaky, very imperfect affair. I felt I couldn't be a "real" artist because real ones could surely call up a perspective-perfect drawing, full of gesture and life - at a moment's notice, in any medium. I thought that printmakers like Rembrandt drew their masterpieces straight onto the plate, with no guides.

I've since found out that is not true, by any means. Artists have any multitude of ways of transferring pre-drawn images onto their final medium. Placing a drawing directly onto the ink and tracing it will leave the desired image behind. Carbon paper was a favorite transfer tool, as was poking holes in a paper along the lines of an illo and (believe it or not) blowing colored chalk dust through them to mark where to put lines. And there are tools for easier drawing on awkward surfaces - there are wrist bridges to hold your arm off a wet or smear-able surface - you don't, as I used to think, have to be an uber-strong contortionist and create a perfectly-rendered masterpiece while holding your aching wrist in the air. There are all kinds of trade tricks and secrets to getting just the right final image, whether it was your first attempt or last.

So - luckily I have many sketches for the book that I've done over the last year, that I love. To solve my consistency problem I am going to call on some of these age-old methods, and transfer these sketches onto clean paper, instead of making whole new ones. They have the proper perspective and the life and character I'm looking for, they are just too rough to use directly. But if I transfer them very lightly to a clean sheet of paper and then go back in to ink them in, I think they will work beautifully. Hooray!

That means I only have about ten more to do from scratch. In two weeks. I think I can do that. (still naive?)

One of my favorite illustrations and by far the most complex is a lovely, big map of the entire land in story. I love a map. This one has many real-life places such as Mt. Hood (Wy'east), Mt. Adams (Klickitat), Mt. St. Helens (Loowit), the Columbia River, and of course The Bridge of the Gods itself. It is generally a map of Oregon, although not an exact topographical match.

 A fun note: the reknowned hippy fair in the woods known as "The Oregon Country Fair" (where I spent a significant part of my childhood), is featured in the book as "The Cobbly Fair". Look closely and you might even find a loose reference to the Flying Karamazov Brothers, a legendary juggling team. Good times! ;)

Meanwhile, here is a sneak peak of what I'm doing in the next two weeks - just to (hopefully) tantalize your imagination, and make you wonder about Chloe's story, and what happens to her in the Bridge of the Gods.

Today's artistic process take-away? Let the frustration flow through you, and then let it go. Look for a solution, you're farther ahead than you think. Stay light, stay focused. xoxoxo