Friday, March 11, 2016

THE TYPEWRITER: An Evolving Creative Process

My latest book, The Typewriter, celebrates the power of words and fuses imagination with writing in a dramatic visual adventure. The Typewriter follows CHALK and FOSSIL as the final chapter in my trilogy of wordless books. Each of these books explores a different elementary school subject through the lens of a child’s imagination. The Typewriter intends to foster creativity and encourages young readers to view writing as a fun and powerful tool. 

The Typewriter, CHALK and FOSSIL were not only created to entertain young readers, but I hope they will serve as educational tools as well. Wordless stories require the participation of young readers and offer the opportunity to create unique narratives by interpreting what is seen in the illustrations. This allows readers to develop an understanding of story structure, establish characters and settings, and hone prediction, sequence and inference skills. Wordless books can function as a visual prompt to build confidence for beginning or reluctant readers, as a "story starter" for older children, and as a possible launching point for creative activities or discussion. Creative educators across the country have utilized my books in wonderful ways with their students, and I hope The Typewriter will be put to similar good use. 

For me, creating a book is an evolving process. The Typewriter began as a written synopsis that was very different than the book I ultimately created. After refining my initial story idea, I drew small thumbnail sketches to clarify the story and work out the vantage point of each illustration.  As a comparison of my first thumbnail sketches with the finished book would demonstrate, the ending of the book completely changed from what I originally drew. But this isn't unusual- I constantly try to improve upon my initial idea and make many changes throughout the entire creative process.

Here is my thumbnail sketch for an illustration depicting what happened after the children typed the word, "ice cream." This illustration underwent went more changes than any illustration in the entire book (and maybe any book I have illustrated).

After settling on my idea, I always shoot reference photographs to provide visual information to draw and paint from. This helps me make every element of my painting look equally convincing and believable. My youngest son, Ethan, was the model for this illustration, and you can see him holding an ice cream cone similar to my sketch.

While photographing my other models, I realized eating small ice cream cones wasn't a very dramatic or grand visual. While I wanted to show ice cream as something kids could relate to, I thought a large bucket of ice cream would be much more spectacular and fit better with the beach. I quickly doodled an alternate sketch idea with the ice cream being in a giant beach bucket and shot additional photographs to go along with that idea. I liked it much better and moved the illustration in that direction.

Here are the photographs that I took for the various other elements of the illustration. Photographs provide visual reference that help me make the lighting and form consistent and believable. But as you can see, I alternated things significantly (especially their heads and faces). These two models, Mikayla and Hilton, were students I met while visiting an elementary school- they were WONDERFUL! I also took photos of Sunset Beach, North Carolina, our favorite family vacation spot. I use the best information from many photos as the starting point for my drawing, and then change freely to create the best and most convincing painting I can.

I draw the illustration in graphite on a piece of Crescent #115 Watercolor board.

Then I paint over the entire drawing with a thin coat of Gesso and Yellow Ochre Acrylic paint. This gives the entire image a warm "sunshine" base color.

The black areas are painted next to establish the darkest darks.

After that, I mask off everything except the sky. To make the sky completely smooth, I use an airbrush.

I really don't like using airbrushes because I have to cover my entire studio with plastic. Airbrushes throw a mist of paint in the air and everything in my studio usually gets covered with light dusting of color. My studio is messy enough without the addition of colored airbrush dust.

Then I use the airbrush to apply the sky color.

After the mask is removed, the blue sky is complete while everything else remained its original warm base color.

But despite my best efforts, a light blue dusting still found its way all over my studio.

Next, I mask off the sky and figures, leaving only the sand areas exposed. I apply various values of light tan sand colors with toothbrush to create a fine speckled texture.

After the mask is removed, the sky and sand are complete and I paint the water with F.W. Acrylic Inks. I like to work from back to front, so I always paint the background elements of my illustration first. I really like the contrast in texture between the smooth airbrushed sky and speckled sand- it is beginning to feel like the beach! I also add some light blue/violet acrylic washes to give all of the shadow areas a cool tone.

Next I paint the bucket, ice cream, and birds...

… and then the skin tones, beach ball, and typewriter...

…and the kid's clothing. 

And finally, I go over everything one last time with very sharp Prismacolor colored pencils.

After the illustration was complete and delivered, my editor and art director had some concerns about the green bucket and asked if I would consider changing the color digitally. Creating a book is a collaboration between a publisher and author/illustrator, and I am always happy to explore other possibilities if it will improve the book. As a side note- I hadn't realized it at the time, but every bucket I have ever painted was green. It was time to venture out of my comfort zone (ha, ha).

I explored several different color variations with Photoshop to show possible alternatives. Because the bucket appeared in three illustrations, the color had to work equally well on multiple illustrations.

After trying a variety of color options, we settled on the orange bucket. I like it much, MUCH better because it relates to the Monarch butterfly that connects the three books in my wordless trilogy. As complimentary colors, the orange also really pops against the blue sky.

The designer made the final color adjustment in production and this is what the final illustration looks like in the book.

Creating a children's book is a long journey and there are often many changes and adjustments along the way. My constant goal is to produce the very best book that I possibly can for young readers to enjoy. The story is MOST important, so I never allow myself to get too attached to any one particular aspect if I can possibly make it better. In the case of this illustration, I believe that flexibility resulted in a much better illustration and improved the story overall. I think the ice cream bucket was a MAJOR improvement, and I also like the bucket's color change much better as well. I might not always be smart enough to get it right the first time, but by continually striving to improve and being open to change, I try to get there in the end.

As the concluding chapter in my wordless trilogy, I really wanted The Typewriter to be special. I spent more time on this book than anything I have ever done. From drawing reflections on each of the typewriter's forty-six keys to carefully painting the letters adorning its reflective case to demonstrating the function of this beautiful vintage writing machine- creating every meticulous detail of this book was a true labor of love.  I hope you enjoy reading The Typewriter as much as I enjoyed creating it, and that it brings the power of words to life for young readers everywhere!


  1. Amazing book and author story -
    I am doing this book for a children's library class
    called Book 'N Chat - can't wait to see the kid's appreciation and wonder!

  2. Thanks for this detailed description! We just got this book from the library. My 3 year old and 7 year old love it. My 7 year old artist was very curious about the method for creating the illustrations. I'm excited to share this with him.

  3. I know this is much later but I am thankful to see your process. I went to school for illustration and everyone arrives at solutions differently. Hope you're still well. Thanks for sharing.