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!

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  1. Hazel, I love how your illustrations illustrate how to illustrate! Good info too! I reposted the URL and note on the Christian Poets & Writers blog -

    1. Thank you Mary ... you don't see it yourself until the end! It's a mystery! Thanks for the repost. :-)

  2. Smittens says "thank you!"
    Now she is saying "I want pie"
    Now "Squirrel!"


  3. Wow, Hazel. And I thought writing drafts for a story was difficult. Pfew! That is a ton of work. As a very horrible artist, I always wish I could draw, imagining a mindless pen to ink and a beautiful drawing materializing. Boy, have you schooled me! I had no idea there was that much thought into evoking the emotions, that much layering, and that many choices to produce an image. Amazing. The finished product is absolutely beautiful, and if you hadn't mentioned the skirt thing, it never would have caught my eye. Thank you so much for sharing the detailed step-by-step work you put into creating. It was very interesting to read.

    1. Hi Jaimi .... well, this is the process that has evolved for me, marrying digital and hand drawn. Sometimes I DO just do a piece at one go!!

      But the choices and thoughts always remain. I wanted to share what I was dissatisfied with too .. the vision in your head is never the same in reality, and that is the crux of the matter and perhaps why we keep creating!

      I love to write too and the editing and revising parallel drawing and painting for me. Thank you so much for your thoughts and comments and taking the time.

  4. Great illustration and thanks so much for sharing your thought process. I made it harder than it is I see and gave up. So happy you went for it! Love how the light hits the rug and how you worked in the detail. Great job! :D

    1. Thanks Ann! I tried to have some fun with this one. So often I get dragged down by not translating what the initial vision is. The thing I like about working like this is, if I mess it up on one layer, I can do it again!

  5. Nice composition and light. I LOVE all your sketches of kittens--adorable and lively!

    Sophie Cayless

  6. It's beautiful, and I love that you shared your process,which I find fascinating! Thanks for posting!

    1. You are welcome .. thanks for reading and commenting :-)

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  8. Beautiful Illustration and interesting step by step illustration process! Thanks for sharing!loved the kittens and pure love in Beth's face!

  9. Thanks Joyeeta ... glad the love came through :-))

  10. Thanks for sharing the process. I am still a digi-baby, so this is really nice for me!

  11. I enjoyed seeing your process! I think you captured Beth's goodness and the emotion of the passage in a very simple way. Love your use of light on the floor with the kittens. Wish you luck!

  12. good piece of art work.liked the shadings in eyes.very realistic.

  13. Hazel, this is wonderful. Thank you so much for sharing your process. I learn from you every time.