Category Archives: Sketchbook

Sketches and drawings.

Diamond in the Roughs

The manuscript is in sections all over my studio, covered in notes and brightly colored page markers. A mug of lukewarm coffee is to my right, a silent inkjet printer is to my left, and directly in front of me is my computer, wacom tablet plugged in and ready. I’ve been sitting digitally drawing for days, and haven’t looked back at a single thing I’ve drawn. What am I doing? The Roughs!

The physical illustration process for almost any book begins with the “roughs,” an initial set of rough sketches that go along with the text. For myself I like to get through this stage as fast as I humanly can, because a blank piece of paper (or a blank screen) is one of my biggest fears, a world where every mark can become an instant, ugly scar. Without a break-neck pace I’ll endlessly revise and revisit drawings, resulting in zero progress and crushing self-doubt. It almost doesn’t matter what I draw or how bad it is in the first pass; the point is to get something completely done so that I have a place from which to start editing. In my first pass at the 36 to 40 rough scenes of interior art, how many times did I draw three West children pointing at maps? At least three (yuck!) but from there each scene could only improve. I’m happy to say that by now all of the “map pointing” has hit the cutting room floor.

One of the things that keeps me moving during the Roughs is an even more terrifying shape than a blank white rectangle: a black diagonal line keeping time on The Chart:

This metronome for progress is one of the most useful illustration tools I own. Back in February, when I learned that I would be illustrating Sarah Stewart Taylor’s THE EXPEDITIONERS, I also learned that I’ve only have 12-14 weeks to do the book from start to finish. The drawing experience would be a marathon, with some sprinting and high-jumping thrown in for good measure, and I needed a gun to get me sprinting from the start. The Chart was directly inspired by the ever-talented Alec Longstreth (Basewood), a former teacher from The Center for Cartoon Studies, who uses this tool to track progress on his own work. With an aggressive goal of reaching 40 interior drawings (vertical axis) in the time span of 8 days (horizontal axis), there was absolutely no time to be afraid of the blank page. The rest of my to-do list may have failed, but this angry line kept me on track at a pace of five rough digital drawings a day.

Of course, not everything drawn in the Roughs stage is bad, and sometimes I even hit on something terrific. A stellar composition! A character design that rings true in future drafts! Or even a concept can be relocated to work better earlier or later in the manuscript. The Roughs give me a foundation on which to build the book, and each successive pass gives the structure more definition.

In THE EXPEDITIONERS, one of my favorite drawing moments is when the eldest brother, Zander, discovers a new species of slug. Here’s the full sequence of drawings, from concept sketches to digital rough (above) to the final rough draft before it goes to final art. This reflects about four weeks of worth of change. Note that after the digital rough draft, I abandoned the idea of having the characters posing with the slug in favor of showing the slug alone, as if from the character’s point of view. The result is, I feel, a much stronger and more interesting compositon:



I’d like to thank Art Nouveau, the Viennese Secessionists, Japanese postcards, and everyone who’s ever posted photos of cool slugs. More roughs and sketches from other scenes coming soon!

Leap of Faith

There is a moment that happens while working on any big art project that for me is full of electricity and magic. In a film, this moment would fall at the end of Act 1, about 25 minutes in, when the character makes a choice and crosses into the world of Act 2. It’s when Ripley and the Nostromo touch down to investigate the signal in Alien. It’s when John McClane decides to stop the terrorists in Die Hard. It’s when Joel gathers his things to erase Clementine from his memory in Eternal Sunshine for the Spotless Mind. (Can you tell that I’m married to someone who loves to talk about story structure in film?)

But in art, in books, when working on a manuscript in life, this transition into Act 2 really does happen (which is why it works in stories at all). And for me the moment looks just like this: a tiny box divided in half full of scribbles that represent a page spread:

To anyone else this might look like the very beginning. After all, my sketchbook is empty, and I’ve made countless trips to the kitchen to avoid doing actual work. But usually months have already passed since the initial project discussions and I’ve been turning over the problems in my head for some time. I’ve met or spoken with the editor or art director at least once or twice, and I’ve done my reading, I’m doing research, and I am beginning to fall in love with the material and the context. Perhaps I’ve even started to doodle some characters. Anything (but not everything!) is in the realm of possibility, and I’m trying not to let my fear of certain failure keep me balled up on the couch.

Now there’s nothing left to do but to “start.” More and more I am learning to recognize (and have faith in) the threshold of Act 2. There is a beat, a breath, a pause… and the world goes absolutely silent. I peer into the abyss ahead, knowing that in six months or one year I’ll have completed the project, even though from where I stand I can’t see how it will happen. I pick up a pen and I take a leap of faith. It will all work out (or it won’t) but there’s not going back to Act 1!

Three hundred pages of S. S. Taylor’s EXPEDITIONERS!

‘Tis Friday the 13th, which means that I finally get to announce the THIRD book (!!) that is on my desk and in my life: this spring and summer I am teaming up with none other than mystery novelist/teacher Sarah Stewart Taylor to illustrate the first in her fabulous chapter book series, THE EXPEDITIONERS! Whooooot!! Book one, THE TREASURE OF DROWNED MAN’S CANYON, is full of action, suspense, high adventure, and a dab of steampunk futurism, and is exactly what I would have loved to read when I was a kid. I am oh-so-happy that the weeks and months ahead will be filled with time spent in the world of this book. Orphaned children and government agents? Mysterious treasure, terrifying cave birds, and a newly discovered glowing slug? Boy howdy, do I love it!!

Here’s how our publisher describes THE EXPEDITIONERS online: “Explorer of the Realm Alexander West has disappeared and is presumed dead under mysterious circumstances while on an expedition … But not before smuggling half of a strange map to his three intrepid children — Kit, the brain, M. K., the tinkerer, and Zander the brave. Why are so many people trying to steal the half-map? What powerful secrets does it hold? (And where is the other half?) It’s up to Alexander’s children — call them The Expeditioners — to get to the bottom of these questions, and fast. Success could mean fame and wild riches. Failure could be … Well, let’s just say failure is not an option!”

Sarah and I first met at The Center for Cartoon Studies where she teaches writing classes to first and second-year students. While Sarah is a terrific teacher, and her graphic novel on Amelia Earheart is one of my favorites, I never dreamed that I’d soon be at work on her first book project written for children. THE TREASURE OF DROWNED MAN’S CANYON will be out this November from McSweeney’s McMullens, which means that it will be my first book with a major publisher to hit the shelves of a book store. There is still a vast amount of work to do between now and the final art for both the interior and the cover, but it begins with notes and sketches filling the margins of the 308-page manuscript as my studio wall rapidly fills up with roughs:

With the thirty-six black and white illustrations we’ll need for the book, I’m doing by best to try and both 1) capture each scene and 2) maintain an even pace. In the end it will be a bit of a balancing act, as there are 50+ chapters of 2-10 pages each, but thanks to a terrific 2-day brainstorm with Sarah in my New York apartment and many, many hours of work put in at my drawing table, I think we’ve hit on a good direction from which to take the roughs. The next step is to fully work through all thirty-six drawings to get a clearer sense of what’s working… and what’s not.

The loudest “THANK YOU!” ever shouted is soaring over hills towards the state of Vermont. Sarah, thank you so much for wanting to work on this series with me, it’s been a privilege and an honor to be on your team and build this visual world. I’m already such a huge fan and can hardly wait to read the rest of the books to come!

Last, but not at all least, a programming note is needed for this simultaneous explosion of good news: EXPEDITIONERS, CITIES, and SHARK all at once would not have been possible without my Amazing Agent, who has maintained order in my drawing universe for the last four months straight. Stephen, I think I owe YOU a burger feast. Or, in the very least, a bacon pancake shake. : )


Huzzah! Macmillan Book Number Two!

There are so many things I love to draw: Nature. People. Architecture. Ancient civilizations. Llamas.

Did she say llamas??


With cheers of excitement and at least one bottle of wine, I am delighted to announce my SECOND book deal with Macmillan as the illustrator of BURIED BENEATH US by author/wicked-smart professor/Danny DeVito look-alike Anthony Aveni! From where cities come from and how cities grow, to daily life and the function of religion, this terrific and compelling non-fiction picture book focuses on life in four ancient American cities: the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan, the Incan city of Cuzco, the Mayan city of Copan, and the mound city of Cahokia on the Mississippi.

The book will about 96 pages long and filled with dozens of my black-and-white illustrations, which will both help explain the information and reach a wider audience. The final art is due September 1st, and will be published with Roaring Brook sometime in 2013. A huge thanks and shout out to Deirdre Langeland, my soon-to-be editor for this fabulous book! Huzzah, let’s do it! Ready or not, llamas, here I come!

Over the spring and coming summer I will be up to my ears in research and graphite, which is the BEST kind of way to spend any season. In anticipation of this book I’ve already paid a brief visit to both the Met and the Museum of Natural History here in New York City to do a little preliminary visual research and refamiliarize myself with ancient American art. How I love the simple elegance and design of Incan fabrics, Aztec sculptures, and Mayan vases! Here’s a glimpse of some quick doodles from one of my (oh-so) high-tech sketchbooks. More drawing are sure to come this way soon:

In the meantime I have ONE MORE AWESOME BOOK that I’m already waist deep in the midst of illustrating. That triumphant announcement will be made this Friday; stay tuned for more news from my studio and mountains of roughs, sketches, and process work to come. Whew, what a busy year I have ahead of me!


Seven Ways Not to Draw a Great White Shark

The past week has been FULL of awesome news and exciting work, but most of it is top secret (so I can’t talk about it here! Ack!). But what I’ve been up to lately that I can discuss is more white shark drawing at all hours in my studio. And after many trials and a great many errors I am proud to announce a triumphant discovery: the Seven Ways Not to Draw a Great White Shark, or SWNDGWS (for short). In sharing these failed attempts I hope to shed a little light on my process, and demonstrate the kinds of questions I ask myself when making images for book illustration. So, without further ado: let the Ways begin!


Digital and pencil rough draft for the final image of the hunt.

First, to make a final drawing I have to know what it is I want to draw. That sounds easy but it really isn’t; as any writer knows, arriving at a working rough draft is by far the most challenging part of a book. But at least for this spread I already knew that I needed a scene of a white shark hunting a seal. I scanned in a small drawing and played with value and color in my computer, and came up with a composition I was fairly happy with. And so the question surfaced: how do I want to complete this drawing? The only way to find out would be to fail again and again and again until I got something that felt right. I started where I usually start: pencil line as a separate layer from the color.


SWNDGWS #1: Too much detail.

Seven Ways Not to Draw a Great White Shark #1

But right away I knew this wouldn’t work. See all that detail in this first pencil drawing? Yikes. Talk about flattening out the space behind the shark! Though it’s true that the reefs are home to millions of creatures, I saw right away that by putting so much detail in the background I had eliminated depth. So for something completely different… I did it all over again almost exactly the same.


SWNDGWS #2: Too much detail with cute animal friends.

Seven Ways Not to Draw a Great White Shark #2

So much for not learning from my first attempt. And this time, what are all of those cute little animal friends doing in a reef where a shark is hunting a seal? If I wanted a spooky mood this approach achieved exactly the opposite. I also noticed that the shark’s tail was wrong: on a white shark the upper caudal lobe is larger, not the lower lobe. Of course the tail looks all sorts of sizes while a shark is swimming, but the detail and flatness of the drawing seemed to eliminate all movement. Still clinging to hope, I grasped at color to save me, which leads us to #3…


SWNDGWS #3: Too much detail with cute animal friends and digital color.

Seven Ways Not to Draw a Great White Shark #3

Well at least I fixed the upper caudal lobe thanks to the warp tool in Photoshop. Here the value and contrast are doing their job, but I felt that the details were blocking a sense of movement, and the digital color quickly felt much too sober. I abandoned the digital color (which, if you remember, still wasn’t the main problem!) in favor of watercolor to see if that worked any better.


SWNDGWS #4: Too much detail with cute animal friends and watercolor.

Seven Ways Not to Draw a Great White Shark #4

After printing out the line art on two pieces of watercolor paper I loaded up a brush and began filling in colors. The non-digital color instantly felt better, but my fundamental problem from SWNDGWS #1 was still unresolved. It occurred to me that perhaps the pencil plus watercolor approach was all wrong, so I pulled out some pastels and drew directly on the watercolor paper, covering up the #4 attempt as I went. I didn’t get very far.


SWNDGWS #5: Too much detail with cute animal friends and pastel.

Seven Ways Not to Draw a Great White Shark #5

Having never worked as a story board artist for Pixar, I knew right away that this just wasn’t going to work. In my hands pastels are stubborn, angry things that decide to break and crumble and play with all the wrong colors. With mild desperation and not a little panic, I started over with charcoal, which brings us up to #6…


SWNDGWS #6: Charcoal.

Seven Ways Not to Draw a Great White Shark #6

Look! Look! I finally dropped the detail! At last I was on to something, though I quickly saw that charcoal would be nearly as difficult to control as the pastel. The values were working, but the smudge factor was dicey. What if I tried the same idea but in pencil shading instead?


SWNDGWS #7: Pencil Shading.

Seven Ways Not to Draw a Great White Shark #7

For the most part I was very pleased with how this drawing turned out. There’s just a tiny bit of charcoal in the blacks and the rest is entirely with 2B and 4B woodless pencil. But as I worked I slowly realized that I would not be able to consistently sustain this approach, for two reasons: 1) for any above water scenes this approach would feel much too dark, and 2) this would put me right back in the chair of using digital color. Frustrated with (at this point) several days of failed attempts, I pulled out a scrap of paper and did an angry two minute drawing of a seal swimming. And… POOF! Something that worked:


OWDS (One Way to Draw a Seal) #1: Pencil and watercolor.

One Way to Draw a Seal

Simple, full of motion, and with natural hand-drawn color. Through all those other attempts of trying to figure out how to draw the scene, all I had to do was to just draw the way I usually draw (hey! what a concept!). Stay tuned for the final art sample. Happy March everyone!

Shark Snacks

Busily working away in my studio this week as my white shark book dummy begins to take shape. One poor northern elephant seal continues to be a hot lunch:

Today’s task is to wade further into the middle and continue to explore words and drawings that will engage kids in learning these beautiful apex predators. I want to share the awe and fascination (and obsession, as the weeks go by!) I feel when reading about their color vision, their rotating teeth, or their rete mirabile, the “wonderful net” heat-exchange method of maintaining warm-bloodedness. It is SUCH fun research to do. More sketches to come soon!

Pregnant Figure Studies

This weekend I had the fantastic privilege of attending a figure drawing session with a full-term mother as the model. Such a wonderful and rare opportunity! If you’re unfamiliar as to why, the venn diagram of overlap between women who will model for art classes and women who are 5-9 months pregnant (and thus most draughtsmanly) is very small indeed. In the many years since I started at RISD I believe this is my first chance. If you’re pregnant and willing to pose, please consider doing your local art community an enormous service!

Here are three studies in conte, red crayon, ink, and gouache. I wish I’d had a lot more time and a lot more practice before the session, but it was a terrific day nonetheless. A huge thank you and congratulations to our soon-to-be mom!

Shark Sex!

When I was a deck hand and educator on the schooner Adventuress, the quickest way to get grown-ups interested in a marine-wildlife talk was to talk about sex. Mussel sex, crab sex, anemone sex, it didn’t matter; the adults would drop all conversation and scurry over to the tank to listen. Barnacle sex was an especially big crowd-pleaser– not only do barnacles reproduce sexually, they are hermaphroditic and are thus all endowed with the largest penis-to-body-size ratio on the planet. As we used to say on the boat, “that’s an inch and a half to be proud of.”

So it makes sense to me to begin my first post about great white sharks (or simply ‘white sharks,’ as scientists call them) by talking about how they have sex. I’m into sharks these days as I chase a story idea, and over the last few weeks I’ve come across stunning facts and footage of these incredible, gorgeous, and terrifying predators. My top five white shark sex facts? Here we go!:

The Toothy Grin of a Great White Shark

1) White sharks reproduce sexually. Male sharks have two external organs called ‘claspers’ that are used to deliver sperm into the female shark during reproduction. During mating, the clasper unfurls and “opens like an umbrella” to secure delivery until the male is finished.

2) White sharks seem to be rather rough lovers. The females often have deep scars around their head and gills, probably from courtship and mating. The skin on a female’s back is much thicker than a male’s–probably to withstand this abuse–and the females grow to be larger than males (an adaptation known as sexual dimorphism).

3)  White sharks are ovoviviparous; they hatch from eggs inside of their mother’s uterus and continue to grow until birth. This means that they probably participate in intrauterine cannibalism, and EAT their weaker, would-be siblings before birth. Yikes.

4) We think white sharks have between 2 and 7 pups, and have an 11-14 month gestation period. Only one pregnant female white shark has ever been caught, and she and her pups were chopped up for chum by local fisherman before scientists or the press caught on.

5) No human has ever witnessed white shark sex. Our best guess is based on observing other shark mating behavior, but really, nobody knows for sure. French-maid outfits? Black leather dorsal-fin collars? Gary Larson can draw whatever he pleases.

That’s it for now on white sharks from me. Back to my research and my roughs– expect to see more drawings over the next few weeks and months as I dig in. Also, a big shout out to Chris at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center for making my week! Chris was about to draw my blood for a test and then recognized my name from reading my blog and my Caterpillar stories. He still drew my blood, of course, but the conversation made my day. Thank you, Chris!