Thursday, August 12, 2010

The Creative Process for CHALK

Every illustration that I create starts with an idea. I explore different idea possibilities by doing a series of rough thumbnail sketches, usually dozens for each illustration. To explore ideas quickly, I keep the sketches at this stage very cartoony and fast. Rendering details would slow me down and stifle the free flow of ideas. At this stage, my focus is on establishing the content and general compositions for the story. To avoid redundancy, I want every page be a completely different visual experience. Like a movie director, I constantly experiment with diverse vantage points and perspectives to add visual interest while advancing the story. The larger thumbnail is for an illustration from my book, CHALK, showing two children trapped in a tube slide with a dinosaur looking in at them.

Once I settle on an idea, the next step is to get visual information to help me bring my idea to life. In my work, I strive to make imaginary situations look real, so readers feel like participants in the scene. However, because I work realistically, every part of my painting must look equally convincing- any mistakes will result in a lack of credibility and attract unwanted attention. To assist me, I take reference photographs to look at while I am painting. I take hundreds of reference photographs for each illustration and between 5,000-10,000 photographs per book.

I don’t rely on any single photograph, but rather look at the best parts from numerous photos and make changes freely. Photos provide visual information that help me paint believable details, but are only a means to an end. Here you see photos I shot of a boy, a girl and a slide interior that were some of my reference sources for this illustration. Because there are no dinosaurs, I made one out of clay. Images of lizards and alligators also helped me create realistic texture details for the dinosaur. I also really enjoy exploring how light defines form and creates texture- this is a very important element in my work.

Looking at the best parts of numerous photos and adjusting accordingly, I create a detailed pencil drawing on watercolor board working out everything in the composition. I try to make my drawings dynamic and use a variety of perspectives so the reader will feel like they are part of the scene. I also have to carefully plan the placement of all the elements and allow room for the book’s fold and typography (if there is any).

Next, I paint over the entire drawing with a mixture of gesso and yellow ochre acrylic paint. This eliminates all the white areas and gives my painting a warm base color. Then I paint over the entire image again with a thin wash of purple oil paint. After the oil paint dries, I erase all of the light areas with a kneaded eraser. This creates a nice underlying texture, and separates everything in sunlight (warm color) and shadow (cool color).

Then, I create a very detailed painting using acrylic paint and a group of very fine brushes. I don't mix mediums with the paint, but rather use it in very thin washes and build up layers like watercolors. This is the most important and time-consuming part of my process. In this particular illustration, I also used an airbrush on the blue sky and tube interior. I don’t really like airbrushes, and use them only to apply large, flat areas of color.

As the final step, I go over nearly everything again with colored pencils. This allows me to add further details and all the finishing touches to my illustrations. This stage is also quite time consuming, but I enjoy it the most. Each illustration takes anywhere from 60-120 hours to complete depending on its complexity.

CHALK was released in March of 2010 and is available at most book sellers.


  1. Hello Mr. Thomson, I found your blog through Aja Wells. You are her Thesis Adviser. She made a post mentioning you on Facebook and that you had a blog up! Chalk was one of my favorite books this year! Wordless books so well illustrate the art of storytelling and you Sir are a Master! Bravo!

    Your book also helped me get over the anxiety of competing with fellow illustrators for work. When I saw your book I realized that certain artists are just made for certain books. I could not have done Chalk justice with my style of rendering. In our industry it's not about competing with each other for work, each of us present unique visions that need unique books to showcase them. All we can do is get our artwork into the hands of as many art directors as possible and hope they have the book/script that is meant for us and our individual style. Thanks so much for that!

    I will be keeping an eye out on your artwork and blog Mr. Thomson. You have a fan in me!


  2. Hi, Wilson-
    Thanks so much for your nice note! I really appreciate your kind words about my work. You have got your art philosophy exactly right- don't be distracted by "competition", but rather focus on yourself and pursue the things that you are passionate about. Everyone is unique with diverse strengths and interests, so concentrate on being the best "you" that you can be and good things will eventually follow!

  3. I'm a little embarassed, as a children's librarian, to say that I only just discovered this book.

    I've used it in two storytimes so far this week, and it has been a huge hit. I've never seen the kids so visibly affected by and involved with a book.


  4. Thanks for posting, Christopher, and I'm happy that the kids enjoyed it!