Tag Archives: Sarah Stewart Taylor

Bird Attack!

The very first project I assigned my freshman 2D design class at the Art Institute of Boston was a “Bird Attack” in cut-out black paper against a white background, and I must say that they weren’t terribly thrilled with the idea. I could clearly see them thinking “aren’t we in college? what’s with the kindergarten assignment?” But the critique the following week built a foundation for all subsequent discussions. What does a horizontal line do? What does a vertical line symbolize? Which arrangements will create the most tension, depth, and speed? In other words… how can we use seemingly simple shapes to compose our content before we ever start to draw? In the projects that followed I was delighted to see that their ideas took leaps and bounds forward as they started to think about the picture plane in a whole new way. (For a fabulous introduction to this, be sure to pick up Molly Bang’s Picture This.)

Which, oddly enough, directly relates to THE EXPEDITIONERS, because while reading the manuscript I found that Sarah Stewart Taylor had given me just that assignment: to draw giant vultures attacking the four main characters as they travel downstream on a river. If only I’d made the assignment that much more complicated for my students!

I poked through the files of my brain trying to remember our in-class discussions. Diagonals create tension. Sharp shapes are perceived as threatening. I can use the oars and wings to tilt the movement of the composition. I went through countless versions of this drawing, trying not to completely disappoint myself after having forced my students to attempt the same problem. I also imposed upon my husband at least twice to pose as a terrified teenager. It turns out he’s quite good at imagining fictitious birds attacking him while sitting on a storage bench in a 10th floor New York apartment.

I finally came up with a solution I liked to use as the foundation for the final line art for the drawing. As for drawing the actual attacking birds, the turkey vulture proved to be the most helpful reference. Vultures are mostly scavenging birds, and turkey vultures have evolved bald heads and huge, unseparated nostrils as adaptions to stay clean and stay breathing while diving head first into the bloated bellies of dead animals. Turkey vultures also have a six foot wingspan (!!), not quite as large as these birds but certainly a good place to start. I’m quite relieved that facing-off with a vulture is not part of my foreseeable future!

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:

 [DIGITAL ROUGH GOES HERE]

 

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!

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. : )