Sunday, December 8, 2013

FOSSIL: The Creative Process Revealed

FOSSIL was inspired by the fond childhood memory of discovering fossils with my brothers in our backyard creek in Roanoke, Virginia in 1970. I wanted to replicate the thrill of our fossil discoveries for young readers and use it as the catalyst for a visual adventure. Most of my books begin this way- - thinking of an interesting subject and then using it as a topic for a story.

My father, grandmother, and the fossil hunters in Virginia. 

After I settle on a story idea, I draw rough doodles (about two and a half inches in length) of random scenes from the story. Drawing the entire story in sequence can be monotonous, so I prefer to begin by freely experimenting with different key scenes. This keeps my focus on designing interesting images that will serve as the cornerstones of my story.

I do these sketches extremely fast and cartoony, essentially just playing and having fun. By keeping them quick, the ideas and possibilities flow and aren't constricted by editing ideas or rendering details. I am primarily concerned with the vantage point and how I might use the space. I draw a stack of rough possibilities and then clean up the ones I like best. Some of my initial sketches for  FOSSIL are shown below. 

I originally experimented with having this book oriented vertically as I did in another book, Building With Dad, but my editor, Margery Cuyler, suggested keeping the format horizontal. This would make it more consistent with CHALK, the first book in the wordless trilogy of imagination-based adventures. Margery always makes great points and is a wonderful resource throughout my creative process.

When designing the story,  I try to create a pattern of page layouts so the story flows evenly. I love the visual impact of large spread illustrations, but I also use spreads with inset boxes as a tool to provide more information and adjust the pace of the story. The placement of the boxes throughout the story establishes the pattern. The trickiest part of the book’s design is creating a pattern that corresponds to the pace and action of the story. 

In FOSSIL, the pattern consisted of 2 full spreads followed by 2 spreads with inset boxes. I alternated a spread with three additional small boxes and a spread with one additional large box, reversing the order each time. Because pages 4-5 begin the story and establish the setting, I placed the three inset boxes on the right side instead of the left (a subtle but necessary shift in the pattern). It took several days to figure out a pattern that would work best. This pattern allows the key moments to be emphasized with the largest spreads and the inset boxes serve to advance the story and provide clarity.

Then I cut out my sketches and arrange them in sequence following the pattern. At this editing stage, I function like a movie director, visually telling the story in the most clear and interesting way possible. I constantly refine, freely adding and subtracting sketches to make the story more cohesive. I try to vary the size, scale and vantage points so that every page is completely different while clearly advancing the story.

Now I'll focus on the creative process showing the development of one of the illustrations from FOSSIL. The thumbnail above was for pages 8 and 9 and was also selected as the cover. This scene utilizes an extremely low vantage point to prominently show the fossil. Even more importantly, it emphasizes the shocked expression of the boy and his dog upon making their discovery.

After deciding on the content of my illustration, the next step is to bring my idea to life. Because I work realistically, I use photographs as visual reference for my paintings. This requires carefully selecting models, finding locations, and building props. For FOSSIL, I shot over ten thousand reference photographs. The central characters in FOSSIL are a boy and his dog, and I wanted them visually connected by their long hair. The boy I selected played football with my youngest son- his nickname was “Hollywood” because of his flowing locks. I spotted the English springer spaniel while taking a walk with my wife, and instantly fell in love with her long curls. For the characters to appear natural, it is very important to coach my models in their facial expressions and body language. Getting the dog to do what I wanted was more difficult. However, after I discovered her love for Dunkin’ Donut Munchkins, some well-placed donuts coaxed her into the positions I needed. I always have a good light source on my subjects to define their form and texture.

Looking at the best parts of several reference photos and freely making adjustments and additions, I draw out the illustration. I tried to make the dog look apprehensive, a warning of things to come. I use graphite for most of the drawing, but used colored pencils on the skin tone shadows to keep the color rich. After the drawing is complete, I spray it with fixative so the graphite doesn’t smudge.

Using very small paintbrushes, I establish the black areas with acrylic paint. 

Then I paint over the entire surface with a light coat of gesso mixed with Yellow Ochre paint. Next, I paint over the entire surface again with a light mixture of purple oil paint and mineral spirits. Using a kneaded eraser, I erase the purple to expose the areas of sunlight.

This leaves an under painting of yellow and purple that establishes the areas of light and shadow.

I always paint the background elements first, so I mix 5 different shades of brown that will be the ground color. I also mix the middle value into pumice gel medium that contains small pieces of real volcanic rock.

Next, I mask off everything except the ground using liquid frisket. Then I apply the medium and gesso, so the foreground has actual rocks mixed in with the texture. Using a sea sponge, I create a ground texture on top by overlapping the various values of brown.

When I peel off the frisket, only the unprotected areas will have the rock texture. While this three dimensional aspect of my painting can't be reproduced in the printing process, the way paint reacts to the texture does, making the ground feel bumpier and more realistic.

Continuing to develop the background of the painting first, I mask off everything except the sky using adhesive frisket. Then I paint the sky using an airbrush. While I don’t like airbrushes, I sometimes use them to apply large flat areas of color. However, everything in my studio also gets a light blue coating of dust that takes me weeks to clean up. Since I'd rather be painting than cleaning, I keep airbrushing to a minimum. When I peel off the frisket, the sky and ground are complete.

Then I paint in all the foreground areas using acrylic paint. This is the most painstaking part of the process, but the color begins to breathe life into the painting.

And finally, I render everything again with colored pencils, bringing out all the details, highlights, and textures. The entire process for this illustration took over 125 hours.

After my artwork is completed, Two Lions Art Director, Katrina Damkoehler, made digital scans of all the paintings to use on her cover design. I love how she incorporated elements from numerous illustrations to create a representative book jacket. Katrina also created a beautifully textured FOSSIL logo that would serve as the centerpiece of the cover.

If you enjoyed seeing this sequence, the creative process for another FOSSIL illustration can be seen on Alyson Beecher's Kit Lit Frenzy blog.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

FOSSIL Book Trailer

Please watch an adorable video trailer below for FOSSIL that Two Lions created in conjunction with the book's release. The video was created by Timoney Korbar, and she did an absolutely amazing job. According to Timoney, she gave each of the children a copy of FOSSIL and asked them to read it while she filmed- the children were not coached in any way. This video is one of the cutest things that I have ever seen! Having the opportunity to create books for children is one of my life's greatest blessings, and seeing this for the first time… well, I have to admit, I got a bit choked up. Thank you to Timoney and these wonderful children!

or click this link:

Monday, November 18, 2013

B IS FOR BOOKS appearance: Saturday, November 30

I will be appearing at the  B IS FOR BOOKS bookstore in Orchard Park, NY on Saturday, November 30 from noon to 4pm to sign books and visit with customers.  This appearance is part of the Indies First movement supporting local independent bookstores. I am very excited to participate in this Small Business Saturday event!

Local independent bookstores play a very important role in our communities, and B IS FOR BOOKS perfectly demonstrates their value. B IS FOR BOOKS serves the greater Buffalo NY community by selling a wide assortment of books, educational toys, and gifts. This wonderful store also hosts birthday parties and provides seasonal camps centered around writing, art and books.  B IS FOR BOOKS also conducts weekly storytime and music events, and even provides fund-raising events for schools, sports teams, troops, and other organizations. The folks in Orchard Park are very fortunate to have such an active and engaged independent bookstore within their community!

To find this local treasure, please visit:

6562 E. Quaker Street
Orchard park, NY 14127
(716) 667-2383

Store hours are:
Monday: 10am-3pm
Tuesday through Friday: 10am-5:30pm
Saturday: 10am-4pm

I am very excited to visit B IS BOOKS on Saturday, November 30! I hope to see your there, and if you can't attend, PLEASE SUPPORT YOUR LOCAL INDEPENDENT BOOKSTORE!

Thursday, November 14, 2013

FOSSIL Blog Tour

Two Lions and have organized a book tour for my latest book, FOSSIL. The tour features some GREAT blog sites dedicated to children's literature. Each site was provided with a copy of the book by the publisher and directed to provide a true and honest review or conduct an interview. Many of the sites are offering a giveaway of the review copy to their readers.


Sat, Nov 9
Booking Mama

Mon, Nov 11
NC Teacher Stuff

Tues, Nov 12
Just a Little Creativity

Wed, Nov 13
There's a Book

Thurs, Nov 14

Fri, Nov 15
Kid Lit Frenzy

Mon, Nov 18
Once Upon a Story

Tues, Nov 19
The Children's Book Review

Wed, Nov 20
5 Minutes for Books

Thurs, Nov 21
Geo Librarian

Fri, Nov 22
Growing with Science

Sunday, November 10, 2013

New Britain Museum of Art FAMILY DAY EVENT- Monday, November 11th

On Monday November 11 at noon, I will be making a slide presentation and doing a book signing at the New Britain Museum of Art in conjunction with their Maurice Sendak exhibition FAMILY DAY event. Children will also have the opportunity to to decorate the museum sidewalk with chalk drawings!

Friday, September 20, 2013

Princeton Children's Book Festival- Saturday, September 21

I am excited to be joining a wonderful group of children's authors and illustrators that will be appearing at the Eighth Annual Princeton Children's Book Festival on Saturday, September 21 from 11-4. You can read about the event here:

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Rocks In My Head... (And Other Childhood Memories)

Whether making art or writing stories, I believe a person's best work comes when they have a personal connection with their subjects. With that in mind, I always revisit my childhood for inspiration.

In 1970, I was seven years old when my family moved to Roanoke, Virginia. It was there that my brothers and I began to experience and appreciate the wonders of nature. We moved into a new neighborhood with a beautiful sprawling countryside behind our house. The gentle downward slope of our backyard met a creek before turning upward into a great hill. Cows would graze on the weeds along the hill and often continue their daily feasting right up to our back patio.

My brothers and I loved to explore our new environment. We caught Monarch caterpillars that were hiding under the leaves of milkweed plants growing along the creek. They were absolutely beautiful creatures with silky-smooth skin and bands of green, black, and white wrapping around their chubby bodies. We kept the caterpillars in a bucket and used a tennis racquet for a lid. We fed them fresh milkweed plants until the day that we found chrysalis suspended from the strings of the tennis racquet. The chrysalis resembled jewels with little yellow beads lining their green polished exteriors. Weeks later, we returned from school to find Monarch butterflies erupting from their transparent encasements. Their miraculous transformation was complete. We watched in wonder as they aired out their wings and eventually lofted into the afternoon sky. I would later pay tribute to these butterflies in my book, CHALK. They were the only magical creation left at the end of the story.

The creek was always the source of our greatest adventures. In addition to the caterpillars on the milkweed plants, we pulled newts, frogs, tadpoles, turtles, and crayfish from the small creek's rippling clear waters. Each day was a new opportunity to investigate our aquatic backyard neighbors.

One day, my younger brother, Joe, and I were looking for newts when I spotted a small board at the water's edge. It should be noted that when exploring a creek, a discarded board almost always has an amazing treasure hidden beneath. On this occasion, turning the board over revealed something we had never seen before... a small reddish-brownish shape was uncoiling and stretching for the water. Before Joe could finish screaming the word, "snake!," I had scooped it up in my blue metal Maxwell House Coffee can and slapped the clear plastic lid on it. Joe and I looked at each other, and then I slowly lifted the lid so we could have a peek inside. The snake lunged towards our wide eyes, and I slapped the lid back down. In unison, my brother and I sprinted back up the incline towards our house, all the way shouting, "Mom, look at what we caught!"

We burst into the house and ran up the stairs to find Mom by the stove making supper. She was talking on the phone and we contorted our bodies under the outstretched phone cord to get closer and show her our catch. She continued her phone conversation and leaned down to see what we had. Again, I peeled open the lid of the can, and again the snake exploded towards the opening. It was only then that my mother interrupted her conversation to say, "get that filthy thing out of this house". Apparently, Mom wasn't as impressed with our catch as we were.

Then we had one of those guardian angel moments. Our excitement undeterred, Joe and I walked out the front door and were met by a car pulling into the driveway. An old family friend named Fred was in town on business from Connecticut. We quickly ran over to him, hoping our snake might generate a more enthusiastic response. I repeated my can-opening ritual for a third time. However, this time our audience recognized exactly what the can contained.  Fred said that the snake was a Copperhead and it was deadly! He told us to stay in the front yard while he took care of it. Joe and I watched as Fred took a shovel from the carport and disappeared around the back of the house with the can. A few minutes he returned with the shovel and an empty can. Fred told us that he buried the snake in the field and not to look for it because the snake's fangs were still poisonous. We always approached snakes with much more caution on our future adventures.

Dramatic moments aside, one of my favorite memories of the creek was when new construction extended the bottom of our street to the top of the hill in our backyard. My brothers and I were mesmerized by the parade of construction equipment that slowly cut their way up the hill. The new road went over the creek and a pipe was installed to allow the water to flow underneath. This created something new for us to investigate.

Surrounding the pipe was a field of rocks that had been unearthed by the bulldozers. We didn't give the rocks much notice. They only warranted our attention when we tried to climb down the slope of the creek and the sliding rocks created a minor avalanche. Splashing rocks scare frogs, so we always tried to be VERY careful navigating over them.

One day, I tripped and slid down the bank with a cascade of rocks and dust. As I scrambled to get up, I saw an unusual shape on one of the rocks. The rock contained the fossil of a fern! These insignificant annoyances suddenly became a great source of fascination. We found that the rocks split easily, and many more of them revealed the impressions of ferns and other strange shapes inside. Who would have imagined that a dirty old rock could contain such amazing ancient treasures? Inspecting each impression was like taking a peek at a secret past hidden by time. The thrill of that experience never left me and I have had rocks in my head ever since. Forty-two years later, this memory would serve as the inspiration for my latest book, FOSSIL.

Sunday, July 21, 2013


CHALK was the first book that I solely created and it has probably been my most successful book to date.  After the book's publication, my publisher invited me to present more of my own story ideas. After I illustrated Soccer Hour, I developed 10 different book concepts. I avoided a CHALK follow-up book because I wanted to investigate new subjects.

However, I was very interested in exploring imagination further.  My favorite idea was to create two companion books for CHALK.  This was my publisher's favorite as well. The imagination-based trilogy will all be 40-page wordless stories, but each book will apply imagination to three completely different elementary school subjects.  Where CHALK applied imagination to art, the next book in the trilogy will apply imagination to science.

The second book is called FOSSIL and it will be available in November.

When I originally created CHALK, I hoped that it could be both an entertaining story for children and a helpful educational tool for creative teachers.  Similarly, FOSSIL is a visual adventure that offers teaching possibilities as a book for beginning/reluctant readers, as a writing prompt, or as a visual aid for prediction.

However, I hope this story will also help to engage students' interest in science (particularly, fossils and prehistoric life) and serve as a launching point for study and discussion.  Additionally, there are great possibilities for art making- creating fossil impressions out of clay can help students better understand how the ancient world was preserved!

Creating FOSSIL was a true labor of love, and I will describe where the inspiration came from in a future post.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

CHALK (Dessine!) Wins Prix Livrentête 2013

I was delighted to learn that Dessine! (the French version of CHALK published by l’école des loiters in 2011) won the Prix Livrentête 2013, a children’s book award voted on by the children of France. The Prix Livrentête competition is sponsored by Culture et Biblothèques Pour Tous in Paris, France, and Dessine! was selected as the winner in the ages 4-7 category.

A book award selected by children always brings the greatest satisfaction. However, it was especially gratifying to learn that my artwork successfully communicated with and was enjoyed by children of a culture whose language I cannot even speak!