Preparation for Illustration

Happy Friday, everyone!

sketchbookIn the interests of getting ready for next month’s NaNoWriMo/PiBoIdMo, I thought there might be interest in one of the aspects of children’s book illustrating: specifically, the research an illustrator does for a non-fiction  picture book. The following is from a panel discussion I participated in at the National Marine Educator’s Association conference held in Annapolis, MD in July 2014. I had been invited by Arbordale Publishing, and one of the other panel members was Jennifer Keats Curtis, whose book I am currently illustrating.  After a While Crocodile: Alexa’s Diary will be published by Arbordale in 2016.

research15When I start to work on illustrating a picture book, the first thing I do is study the manuscript and keep notes on my visual impressions. Then I gather research material including my books at home and from the library, clippings I have on file, and photos from the internet.

In this example, I needed to depict a migrating gray whale mother and calf for one of the spreads in On The Move: Mass Migrations, by Scotti Cohn (Arbordale Publishing 2013).

research14 research13


This part can be time-consuming but I try not to rush it because as I read and search I am learning about my subject, and those activities can inform the creative process and help me depict each scene in a believable way. I keep notes on all the photo references – such as the position of an animal, or the point of view – and group them so that I can find them again easily. Occasionally, as the work progresses I need to see more detail, and seek out additional photo references.



The thumbnail sketches come next, after research. I reduce the size of the rough layout to fit all the spreads on one page and print it; I sketch right on that print and compose the book in storyboard fashion. From my tiny thumbnail sketches I make more detailed sketches at about one third the finished size and these are scanned and sent to the editor for approval. I make revisions and submit a new sketch if necessary, then proceed to final art. Sometimes, I’ll add color digitally to the sketch to establish color guidelines for my painting.

research2 research1

Using an overhead projector, I transfer the sketch to illustration board in pencil at finished size and then apply the color. On The Move was illustrated in watercolor and I used many layers of paint, from light to dark. I always scan my artwork when it is finished, and because these illustrations are larger than my scanner bed, I scan in sections and piece them together in Photoshop. I also use Photoshop for little corrections and clean-up of the artwork. The whole picture book illustration process takes eight to nine months.


There are instances where my research reveals a mistake in the manuscript. For example, in the first spread of Pandas’ Earthquake Escape, the original manuscript described the mother panda and cub climbing and sleeping in a bamboo tree, but I found the only Untitled-9bamboo that grows in Giant Panda habitat is tall and supple – it’s actually a member of the grass family – and not able to be climbed by these large animals. I got in touch with my editor Donna German, who posed the question to the Education Specialist at The National Zoo, and bamboo tree was changed to just “tree” in the manuscript. Giant Pandas do climb trees.

Research is as important to the illustration process as it is to writing, especially for non-fiction children’s books.

About susandilldetwiler

Freelance illustrator living in Baltimore
This entry was posted in Book Talk, Illustrating & Cover Art Tips, NaNoWriMo / PiBoldMo, Writing & Drawing Exercises and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Preparation for Illustration

  1. Great post! And very timely for me. My computer screen currently looks like a giant pin-up board. But research isn’t just for nonfiction. If you’ve got a fictional story set in a certain time and place, or even a religious holiday different from those you celebrate, there’s costume, architecture, and cultural research to be done.

  2. mikecrowl says:

    Susan, I enjoyed reading about your research as well as your actual artistic process. I have often wondered how picture book illustrators actually did their artwork and how it gets from an easel to a book. Your article revealed some excellent points from sketching in watercolor to scanning multiple images and photoshopping (photostitching?) them together.

  3. Thanks, Mike! I find that good research gives me the confidence to draw and paint more freely. The method of starting with thumbnail sketches is pretty typical of all children’s book illustrators, but the steps that I take after that are specific to the kind of artwork I produce; style and medium informs process, as does the personal preferences of the individual artist.

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