Sunday, January 20, 2013

Overall Narrative, Thinking Vs Drawing and NAKED! Sketching: What I'm Learning About The Picture Book Creative Process - by Debbie Ridpath Ohi

In case you haven't heard, I'm going to be illustrating another Michael Ian Black story: NAKED! Yes, the exclamation mark is part of the title. :-) The news was first announced on Entertainment Weekly site last week. I'm excited to be working with Justin Chanda (editor/publisher) and Laurent Linn (art director) at Simon & Schuster again.

Anyway, I'm a few weeks into the process and working hard on the first round of sketches so we have something to discuss at my Simon & Schuster meeting at the end of the month.

I learned a lot during the I'm Bored process, and am using some of the techniques that worked well for me before. As I finish a version of a drawing or sketch, for example, I use painter's tape to hang it from my office ceiling: 

Photo of my office ceiling last year during I'm Bored
I do this for two reasons:

1. I like being able to see all the drawings I've done so far for a particular project, mainly so I can check for consistency but also for overall narrative flow (more on this later in the post).

2. Because it gives me a sense of accomplishment: the ceiling starts out bare, and then gradually fills up, which is satisfying to watch. Later on, I start replacing the rougher sketches with more polished versions. Tall people have to duck when walking through my office during this time.

One of the things I love about Michael Ian Black's stories is that they leave a lot of room for the illustrator. This is even more true for NAKED! Michael told me he did this for me on purpose. I love that: knowing the author trusts me enough with his story. 

Above: my ceiling right now as I work on sketches for NAKED! Sorry for having to censor out part of the image -- some of my sketches were showing through the paper. 

What I'm finding different about the process this time: 

I do more staring at the sketches I'm taping up on the wall than actually drawing. Reason: I'm spending a LOT of time thinking about the overall narrative flow. Not just what's happening in the text, but also what's being shown in the illustrations, and how that can enhance the overall story.

There's an ebb and flow, I'm discovering, with the narrative in the illustrations sometimes diverging (but still enhancing the story) from the text but then drifting back, merging and then away again. 

Hm, I'm not explaining this very well again, am I? I'll have to give it another go at some point in the future. In any case, I'm having even more fun working on NAKED! than I did on I'M BORED.

My advice for aspiring illustrators:

Before you plunge into sketches for your story, or someone else's text, think hard about the overall story. When you do start sketches, take regular time during the process to sit back and look over what you've done so far. Instead of just examining each image on its own, make sure you scan them in sequence to check for a smooth narrative flow. Then compare to the narrative flow of the text, and how you could adjust your images to improve how both work together.

I'm finding it an immensely satisfying process. I'm meeting with Justin and Laurent in a couple of weeks; we made a great collab team during I'm Bored, and I'm so looking forward to getting their creative input.

But now it's time to take my own advice and get back to work. I'm looking forward to seeing fellow Pixel Shavings member Fred Koehler at the SCBWI Winter Conference!

- Debbie

Debbie Ridpath Ohi's illustrations appear in I'M BORED, a picture book by Michael Ian Black (Simon & Schuster Books For Young Readers) that was chosen by The New York Times for its list Notable Children's Books Of 2012. Writer's Digest recently chose Debbie's blog as one of the Best 101 Websites For Writers. Twitter: @inkyelbows.


  1. How very exciting, to start a new project like this. Congrats, Debbie. I have a similar process where my sketches are spread over a double bed (my studio doubles as a guest bedroom). Great advice too!

  2. How fun to have your illustrations hanging from the ceiling. I guess that IS a good way to get an OVERall sense of the story!

  3. I think you describe the flow thing pretty well, Debbie.

    I noticed flow overall one year at the Bologna Children's book fair. I saw beautiful posters showcasing work, and was surprised when I picked up the book to feel disappointed - eventually I realized (after picking up hundreds of books) that I was looking for something I can only think of as 'musicality' - the satisfying shape of a tune, a symphony, a chord. And strange as it was, though excellence was bursting from every seam at the fair, finding this musicality - or flow - was a rare thing. Really made me think and rethink text and illustration, portfolio, all visual flow, really. Great post.

  4. Debbie hi, actually, reading your post today comes hot on the heels of a piece I read last night from 'illustrating Children's Books' by Martin Salisbury which perfectly echoes your description. It is definatly something to consider seriously for a novice like me. Thanks! Nicky