My process of children's book illustration

Paint the Fog Horn in Steps in Watercolor

Children's book illustration

Recently I presented to a college senior portfolio class about my children's book illustration process, from conceptual drawing, search, finding models, drawing again and again, to finish with watercolor painting.

Because of my realistic painting style for my children's book illustrations, I'm often asked if I start the illustration process by taking photos of my models, then paint from the photo reference. My answer is, as always, it is not that simple.

Here, I am using one of my watercolor illustrations from my newest children's book "Finding Joy" as an example to show you how I start my process.

Paint the Fog Horn in Steps in Watercolor

Conceptual drawing

As soon as I receive a manuscript from my editor or art director, I read the story many times. Soon the story becomes a movie in my brain. I can see the people, their ages, the locations, and the emotions I wish to convey. Then I use a big piece of drawing paper and start sketching, to put the movie floating in my mind down on my drawing paper, scene by scene. This is called the conceptual drawing stage. In this example, I used charcoal to draw, then applied a light wash with gray ink.

I don't think about models in this stage. All the drawings were right from my imagination without any photo reference. This is a very important stage in the entire illustration process. When I finish the conceptual drawings, I send them to my art directors for their feedback. There usually are requested changes, which means I need to modify my conceptual drawings until we are both satisfied.

Then the next step is research and finding my perfect models.

Paint the Fog Horn in Steps in Watercolor

Research and drawing

Research can be a very long, in-depth process. If you want to do the best job for your new children's book, you need to understand the story and the characters inside out.

For "Finding Joy", I did extensive research. I visited web sites that documented the adoption journey with pictures; interviewed people who had similar experiences as the characters in the story. I tried to understand every detail and collect as much visual material as possible. I even went to China to trace the journey in the story. I took a plane to China, and visited an orphanage in a southern city. I met the caregivers and the children in the orphanage. This experience gave me the final confirmation and the emotional connection to the story and the characters that I needed.

Meanwhile, I searched for the perfect models for the characters in the book. Once I found them, I gave them directions about what they should be thinking and how they should be acting at the moment. I used a digital camera so that I didn't need to worry about how many shots I had to take. Photos of my models only serve as my reference materials along with other photos I had collected, like houses, trees and locations.

Paint the Fog Horn in Steps in Watercolor

Draw, refine, and draw again

While I am doing drawings and research, I will read the story again and again. Not only to gain an understanding of the writer's original meaning, but to refresh and further develop my own vision of the story, and my interpretation of the situations. I will not rush to start painting.

I modify the drawings a few more times as my understanding of the story deepens. In this drawing, the older lady on the right hand side becomes more emotionally involved in the activity of the caregivers and the baby girl, just by changing her body gesture.

In the process of doing the revisions, I must keep the final book and the flow of pages in mind. I must choose the best drawings for each page and make sure there is enough room for the text on each page.

Paint the Fog Horn in Steps in Watercolor

Watercolor painting

The most anticipated moment is when I start painting. After months and months of drawing, research and interviews, I was finally ready to start the watercolor paintings.

I start with the painting that excites me the most, then proceed to the other pieces. I keep all the paintings arranged in order in my studio, so that I can relate the one that I'm working on to the rest. This helps to make sure all the paintings for the book are unified.

To learn more about this children's book and other illustrations, visit the Finding Joy children's book section of this web site.