Saturday, November 24, 2012

Anatomy of an illustration from Hazel Mitchell

I'm sharing the thought and physical process of an illustration I recently created for the Tomie de Paolo SCBWI award 2012. 

This year Tomie gave us three books from which to chose a passage to illustrate in black and white. Tom Sawyer, Little Women or The Yearling. I chose 'Little Women'. I have fond memories of reading it as a child. Beth and her kittens always touched me, maybe because I am crazy about animals and found solace in them always.

 So that's where I started ... I found my favorite passage in the book and began to sketch ...

 Here are my thumbnails. Immediately I knew I wanted Beth to be in the lower left with a slightly above few point and the kittens around her. I wanted to show the love she had for them and how that reflected her kind and loving nature. So, THEN I sketched lots of kittens ...

And more kittens ... (this was fun! I like drawing cats).
Thanks to a friend's cat (Smittens) for modelling).


I did a 'frame' drawing of Beth, curled up.
And then I did a more detailed sketch of Beth and the mother cat.

I wanted the drawing to show the sadness and foreshadowing of Beth's death. But somehow have that as a beautiful thing. What to do? I decided to work with imagery that suggested a light shining into the room ... Beth's room ... but not a fierce light, rather the light streaming through a sunny window.

Here's a montage in Photoshop, using the initial sketch and some of the kittens from the thumbnails. I liked the idea of the cats rhythm, and the shadows and their curiosity. What do they see in the light? Maybe they are a metaphor for Beth leaving us? It all seemed a bit stark though and I wanted to give the picture some cosiness, given that the descriptive passage by Louisa M. Alcott is so evocative.

I also wanted to use digital layering techniques in photoshop. I had been working digitally for ever, but I wanted to incorporate more of my painting skills and utilize the versatility of bringing a finished illustration together digitally.

I had just returned from a week of working by hand on a Highlight's Illustration workshop and being mentored by Eric Rohmann. I realised I missed the fluidity and happy accidents of working with paint and ink. How could I combine them with years of working digitally?

I had also just read 'A Monster comes to Call' illustrated by Jim Kay .. and was blown away by his powerful images!

Now I had my idea on paper, I wanted to try some different techniques and see what happened ...

Straight graphite outline.

 Brush pen outline. (note the floating hand ... I forgot to ink it when I was working on the lightbox!)

 The outline I went with finally ... dipping ink pen and spatter technique.

I did the same for the kittens.

And here's how I created the layers and put them together.

First I painted a base for the floor shadows, all the painting was in ultramarine, then I turned to grayscale in photoshop. I used salt for texture.

I painted the values for Beth and the kittens also in watercolour.

In photoshop I white blocked out the area of Beth and the kittens. Also, to give the whole thing that cosy feel, I scanned a photo of a rug and changed the perspective and value of it to give that homey feel. I made everything point towards the light.

Then I added in the grayscale values as a new layer.

 Finally I dropped in the outline layer and added some shadows. I decided not to go with the very dark shadows of the original digital sketch, they seemed too dramatic.

Below you can read the passage from the book  I illustrated. I could have gone the literal route and made this a very cluttered and overworked illustration (my worst fault). But I decided at the start I wanted it to be about emotion and not the things around her. They are all there .. but out of the image.

Was I pleased with the end result? Somewhat. I love dipping ink pen and I enjoyed getting more texture and a painterly feel into the drawing. I was not content in the end with the girl's position, and I think there are issues with the skirt. If I was doing it again I would have set up a model to get the folds of the skirt right and more natural. When I look at the first pencil sketch I did of Beth at the beginning, somehow I feel I lost the immediacy and the pure love in her face. Perhaps there is more unconsciousness in a pencil sketch
and those first moments of communication from brain to hand to paper.
I do feel the beauty of Beth here, and that's what I wanted.

I hope you enjoyed seeing the evolution of this piece!

See more of my work at
and find me on facebook


Thursday, October 25, 2012

Russ Cox on illustrating NITE NITE SOLDIER, process & advice for aspiring illustrators - by Debbie Ridpath Ohi

As some of you already know, our own Russ Cox illustrated the recently published Major Manners Presents: NITE NITE SOLDER, written by Michael and Beth Hofer and published by Outhouse Ink Publishing.

Russ's bright, fun illustrations really make this entertaining how-to story a great bedtime reading choice. It also comes with a CD with narration (fun military-style with a kid chorus) from Major Manners. I can SO see children and parents having fun with this just before going to bed.

One of my favorite lines: "Wiggle, jiggle, jump, and dry those toes..." (like many of the other lines in NITE NITE SOLDIER, it's just so fun to say out loud).

I've hung out with Russ at SCBWI events; he's knowledgeable, supportive of other children's book writer/illustrators and one of the nicest guys you could hope to meet. Plus he plays banjo!

Where to find Russ online:
Smiling Otis Studio - Blog -  Facebook - Twitter - Google+ - Flickr

Russ kindly agreed to answer a few questions for the Pixel Shavings blog:
How did you become illustrator of NITE NITE SOLDIER?
The publisher, Outhouse Ink Publishing, found me through an online portfolio site and contacted me. I sent them some newer pieces and decided to use me. They are a great group to work with on the book.
Which portfolio site?
They found me through, which is where I get a lot of leads and contacts.
What was the illustration process like?
The illustration process began with reviewing the manuscript with the publisher. We chatted about ideas for the pages but they pretty much left it in my hands.

What tools/materials did you use?
Everything was sketched out using traditional pencil and paper. The final art was created with Adobe Illustrator but I still used the scans as a template and built everything in layers.
Did you chat on the phone, online or in person?
We chatted on the phone once or twice but mostly through email.

After initial contact, what happened next?
I did character studies of the Major character (every pun intended).

Once they selected a character, I did various facial expression to make sure he would be able to show different emotions.

I did a storyboard with basic elements in places to get or thoughts onto paper. Plus, it allowed us to check for flow, movement, and to make sure each page was interesting but lead to a page turn.
How many times did you revise the character sketches and storyboard before they were approved?
There were no changes to the character, which a rarity. I guess since I did several different head studies to find a direction, it saved some time in the long run. I did some quick basic storyboards to show them my thoughts which they tweaked and sent me their notes. From there, I did tight drawings for final approval. I think there were only a few minor changes.

After approval of the storyboard, I then worked up tight sketches which we sent to the designer to make sure the type would work with the layouts.
From there, I did the final art in Adobe Illustrator since they liked that look from my samples. There were a few slight adjustments but everything was worked out ahead of time.

How long did the entire process take?
From the initial contact to delivery of the final art, we spent around 6 months working on the illustrations. As you know, that is still not a lot of time for a book to be illustrated.

In retrospect, was there anything that surprised you about the process?
There were no real surprises with this book. I am working on a book with a different publisher and the approval process is taking longer than I expected. With the larger houses, I think this is the norm since the artwork has to go through several approval processes.
If you could go back in time and give your younger illustrator self some advice, what would it be?
Good question. I would have told myself to read more in my younger days. Especially more of the classics instead of so many comic books. Even though comics really helped me with composition and storytelling.
I think reading helps expand your inner vision and creative process, You, the reader, are painting the imagery in your head. I told my students to read any and everything. It will fill that inner illustrator morgue that they may withdraw from.

What do you mean by "inner illustrator morgue"?
An "illustrators's morgue" is a file that we use to keep things that are inspirational, reference (hands, feet, facial expressions, etc.), color schemes, compositions we like, and other things that we might fin useful down the road. 

Having an "inner illustration morgue" means keeping images in your head that are created from stories, articles, and conversations. A line from a poem can conjure up a beautiful image that you may want to use elements from in a future pieces. 

Sometimes sketching or writing things in a journal and sketchbook is very helpful to remember those moments.

Would you like to share anything about your current/upcoming projects?
Sure, I am working on a new book for the same publisher. It is a different story but is very amusing. I also have a second book from a different publisher that is in the beginning stages.
These projects sound exciting! Do you have any release dates for either of your new books?
They are very exciting! I hope they are stepping stones for working with larger publishers but I am really enjoying working with everyone in the smaller houses. As far as I know, they are hoping to get the books out my early summer of next year so my deadlines are very tight.

Plus I am trying to get my own story into the hands of a publisher or agent. I need to find some time to spend with my banjo. Oh, and my wife!

During this craziness, I am also working on a board game for Gamewright.
 What stage are you at now with the board game? How does the process of creating illustrations for a board game compare to that of illustrating a picture book? And how did you start working with Gamewright?
We have moved into final art with the game. It has now turned more into a card game but it still a fun game. I think kids and families are going to love it.

With anything in the commercial market, the deadline is much tighter. I am looking at less than two weeks to deliver the final art. I think the artwork has to go through more channels before being okayed. You also have more precise dimensions and size requirements to meet or the deadline for printing can be missed. Not a lot of room for trial and error.

Gamewright found me through my website via the portfolio site I am listed with. It might have been but I'm not sure.

Any advice for aspiring children's book illustrators?
I am fairly new to the children's book world, and learning something new with each project or conversations with established illustrators and writers like my fellow Pixel Shavers.

I would say that joining SCBWI is a great start and a good way to begin learning how the children's publishing world works. Also attend the regional and national conferences so you can network and meet people face-to-face.

I would recommend going to library and reading through as many children's books as possible to see what's out there and being published. The final thing to do is read Uri Shulevitz's Writing With Pictures. It is packed with lots of valuable information.

Where to find Russ online:
Smiling Otis Studio - Blog -  Facebook - Twitter - Google+ - Flickr

Also see:
Joanna Marple's interview with Russ Cox

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Exploring Memory by Hazel Mitchell

Lately I've been actively working on remembering my childhood. My main motivation for this (as my career in children's illustrations goes along and I find myself illustrating characters in different situations) is I that find myself thinking - 'what would I have done or felt in that scenario?'

I've never been a diarist. And especially not as a child. Life for me was somewhat topsy turvy and I never felt the need to write it down! When I learned to draw and record what I saw ... that was a kind of diary. But so few of those drawings remain. The memories, the places, the people, I am sure they were all there in the lines and marks I made. Just as they are now ... when I look at a drawing in a sketch pad it brings back  what I was thinking or feeling and hearing and smelling. It's like a little memory capsule.

Then I read Linda Barry's books 'Picture This ' and 'What it is'. Both a kind of stream of consciousness laid down in what at first seems a random way, and then, you begin to see into Lynda's mind. In the repetition of the characters, the marks, the train of thought. I was hooked!

Writer's, of course, often use exercises to jog memories, to reconnect with childhood thoughts and feelings. But, as I rooted around on line to find similar ways of jogging the mind, I found not so many ideas for illustrators.

I began my own experiment and I call it 'Look Back in Candour'. It's more like 'snapshots' than a diary, and sometimes the snapshots lead me somewhere I wasn't expecting to go. At times the memories are hard to recall, occasionally sad, but more often happy. There is so much hidden there, in my own story, it's like dipping into a fathomless reservoir. And it's bringing new significance to my other projects. Alongside the drawings, I have begun to make some abstract notes to noodle into my 'rememberings' so I don't forget again.

And the best thing? I am finding there are story ideas in there a-plenty!

You can find it online at


Monday, October 8, 2012

Visual Voice by Fred Koehler

I'm fairly certain that I am the least qualified illustrator on this blog in many of the technical areas of illustration. I could start to list my deficits, but I think you'd get bored and I'd get depressed. Instead, let's talk about something that seems to have carried over successfully from my career in advertising, and that's the concept of Voice.

Silly Fred, Voice is a writers' thing, isn't it? Yes it is. But it also has major implications for the marriage of words and pictures in the creation of successful storytelling. It's why the illustrator's name goes on the cover of the book. Because illustrators lend their Visual Voice to a project just as much as the author brings a Narrative Voice.

Here's an example from a follow-up book I'm working on to Dad's Bad Day (Penguin 2014).

"Little Gray helped his dad with the dishes." 

If you gave this line to a hundred different illustrators, you'd get back a hundred completely different illustrations. And here's where illustrators with practiced Visual Voice can differentiate themselves as storytellers.

Sketch 1 - Little Gray is an elephant, his dad is an elephant, and the little guy is helping the big guy do the dishes. TA DA!!! Here's a sketch.

The Visual Voice of this image is sweet. It's cheerful and it's a great moment between father and son. But is it the right Voice for the illustration? See, I happen to know Little Gray pretty well, and I know he's quite a cantankerous little elephant. The scene pictured above is much less likely to happen than the following sketch.

Visual Voice. Get it? Same words + different images = completely different stories. Pretty cool, huh? Here's another example from the same story.

"Little Gray got extra-special dressed up for the occasion."

Sketch 1 - I go with the words of the story.
Sketch 2 - I get inside the character's brain and draw what I think he might actually do.

  Same words, completely different stories.

There are bunches of illustrators who do this really really well. Here are three for you to check out–all brilliant, all with compelling Visual Voice, and all with books on the shelf of your local bookstore.

Dan Santat
In "Oh No," Dan takes a very short text and invents a gorgeous world to propel a fantastic concept into a really fun and adventurous final storytelling product. The nuance that he adds to his work is phenomenal.
Molly Idle
In "Flora and the Flamingo," we don't even need words to hear (and see) an amazing Voice. The story is told in simple expression and interaction between unlikely friends who make for great characters. Love it!
Jon Klassen
If you read "I Want My Hat Back" without the illustrations it might make sense, but it would be a completely different story. Jon uses visual nuance to imply a much funnier tale than the words themselves actually communicate.

That's all for today. Thanks for reading. Fred out!!

Monday, September 3, 2012

Major Manners Has Arrived! by Russ Cox

 ©Russ Cox & Outhouse Ink Publishing

I would like to announce that Major Manners Nite Nite Soldier (Outhouse Ink Publishing), which I illustrated, is now available through their website or look for it at a bookstore near you. The story is about Major Manners who teaches children to brush their teeth, bath, get ready for bed, etc. all set to a cadence. The book comes with a fun cd in which the major and kids read the story in their own charming way. We are working on a new story together that will be out late next year so stay tuned for details.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Say Cheese! By Sheralyn Barnes

Hello and Happy Summer!
For this post I thought I would share some "snapshots" I've done recently. I've had the desire to do less actual digital painting on the computer lately and instead have felt the need to revisit my drawers of pencil, paper, and paints a bit more. I've recently had several projects come in that involve making illustrations that look like snapshots and postcards and so I've been experimenting with how I can use the computer as more a tool for design of my scanned in, hand drawn images. I found a fun filtering application called SnapSeed and here are some of the results of my experiments.

The first is an experiment using some existing pencil sketches. I've always had an issue with the Aesop fable of Ant and Grasshopper and have been working on a story that puts a modern twist on a fable I feel needs to be updated for our modern world. Being a working musician as well, I tend to resent Aesop's view that hours of practicing and playing a musical instrument is a lazy pursuit, especially in our current world where people are overworked and overstressed, arts programs are disappearing in our schools, and people are generally just not playing enough! So I've had these characters hanging out with me in my sketch book a lot lately to remind me of what's 
important to me.

This image was composed of several pencil sketches, some scanned photo corners, and the magic of  SnapSeed filters. It's truly an experimental piece and a bit raw. I'm also trying to perfect a technique that I'm happy with for adding color to my pencil sketches without washing out the original integrity of the sketch. I'm getting closer, but still have a ways to go before I pin it down to a true system.

Speaking of my love for music, here is a photo I recently designed for a world music project that my husband and I have started for kids called Filibert Binkleby and the Travelers. Filibert is our fictitious friend who likes to share his adventures of traveling the world through the songs that he writes (and we perform since he's always off somewhere new and can't make the gigs). I've been having some fun with some of our old travel photos and a simple Filibert two dimensional "puppet" I created.
Again....a work in progress...but it's all fun!

Thanks for popping in for my post! 

Be sure to check up on our own wacky Brit Hazel here next time around!

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Great News & Sneaky Peeks by Fred Koehler

Hello friends!! Lots of wonderful things going on in the world of Pixel Shavings, which is a testament to both the value of forming a group and the hard work of each of its members. I think every single member has a project in the works, and that's seriously awesome.

My great news is that I've signed with Josh and Tracey of Adams Literary, rising stars themselves in the world of literary agencies. When I met them the first time, I arrived at our poolside meeting in Orlando wearing a bathing suit and cowboy hat. When they didn't even flinch, I knew it was meant to be. They even shared their french fries.

Check out Adams Literary at They are OPEN TO SUBMISSIONS!! By the by, that's how I was able to set the meeting. I sent a compelling email through their website. They had no idea who I was before that email.

Also very cool is that I've been featured on author Rob Sanders' blog. He's running a fantastic series of success stories from other authors he's met. For sure check it out at:

On to the Sneaky Peeks. Dad's Bad Day (Penguin, 2014) is going through a fair amount of sketch revisions. While I'm anxious to move on to final art, I am stoked to be working with a team dedicated to making this the best book possible.

Here are a few sketches that may or may not make the final cut. But I like 'em (and so should you!!). :-) As always, thanks for checking in with us and let us know if our collective wisdom can shine a light for you.




Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Morning Flight process, Richard Jesse Watson and digital vs physical media - by Debbie Ridpath Ohi

To you Americans out there: Happy July 4th! Today I'm going to show you how I created one of my Daily Doodles (some of which I post on As I've mentioned before, I try to draw purely for the fun of it every day.

Sometimes I start with a blank digital canvas and just start drawing the first thing that comes into my head. Other times I'll do an image search for a word or phrase for inspiration. In this particular instance, I looked for "kite child" Google Image search and settled on the image at the top of a Flow Psychology page.

Ever since attending Richard Jesse Watson's session at the SCBWI Illustrators' Intensive Day in LA last year, I've been experimenting more with textures. I loved all the sessions that day and learned something new from each of them, but it was Richard's that affected me the most because his method (very loose and free) was closest to mine.

Richard Jesse Watson during an Illustrator Intensive
at the SCBWI-LA conference last year.

 Richard incorporated textures by manipulating and using a variety of physical media. I was fascinated and inspired, and was inspired to try something similar.

Richard Jesse Watson during an Illustrator Intensive
at the SCBWI-LA conference last year.
Since I work digitally, I had to look for other ways to bring texture into my drawings. I started experimenting with Photoshop's texture brushes.

To Photoshop users: you can find many, many texture brushes online as well as tips on how to install brushes, if you don't already know. You can also create your own brushes.

I used texture brushes and shades of yellow/orange to create a sunrise (or sunset, depending on how you choose to look at it). I used several layers so I could play around a bit with different colours.

When I was happy with the look, I added a plain black ground:

And grass:

And a silhouette of a running child. I had the child's arms stretching up to hold the kite:

Finally, I added the kite. I made the layer slightly transparent so you could see part of the sky showing through. I also added a paler colour to make it look like the sun was just peeking over the hill:

I put the sun on a different layer so I could move it around and see what worked best.

And yes, I'm all about layers. I know there's a much different satisfaction in working with physical media and I totally get why many artists prefer non-digital art, but the flexibility of digital media encourages me to experiment. 

With such a small office space and limited time, I'm not sure I'd feel as free to experiment with such a wide range of styles and methods if I knew that I'd have to re-do the entire piece if I screwed up, or potentially waste expensive art materials.

BUT before you traditional artists jump on me, I also admit that I don't have much experience in working with physical media. I'd love to hear thoughts from those who work regularly with both physical and digital art! Feel free to post in the comments section below.

Next up: the splendiferous Fred Koehler, whose Dad's Bad Day comes out from Dial Books For Young Readers in Spring 2014.

And just over two months until I'm Bored (new picture book written by Michael Ian Black and illustrated by yours truly) comes out, woohoo! Simon & Schuster Books For Young Readers have moved the publication date up to September 4th, 2012. CAN'T WAIT.

-- Debbie

I blog about writing & illustrating picture books for Simon & Schuster Books For Young Readers as well as writing & illustrating for young people in general.