~ by Julia Anne Young
I have always loved The Wizard of Oz. When I was a kid, I wore out our VHS tape. As a grown-up, I work with a shelf of L. Frank Baum’s Oz books directly across from my desk.
Naturally, I was beyond excited when Maria Middleton, Art Director for Random House Children's Books, created an Oz-themed assignment for her illustrators’ intensive at the 2017 New Jersey SCBWI Conference. She asked us to put our own spin on any character from The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, write an original story brief, and illustrate a story scene.
Follow me down the yellow brick road as I share the process of creating a brief and art for my story: The Forgotten Cavern of Oz!
Generating Ideas from a Manuscript
At this point, my story brief and art were somewhere over the rainbow. I was facing the scary blank page. Time to revisit the classic book!
When I illustrate based on someone else's writing, I read the material several times. While images flit through my mind, I jot down notes and make tiny sketches. If I get to choose which scenes to illustrate, I select standout moments in the story—scenes that have a lot of drama, evoke a strong emotion, provide humor, or set a certain tone or mood. Illustrations should complement the writer’s words and also add something special.
A strong book illustration will often spark the question of “What's next?" in a reader's mind. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is full of exciting and magical moments. In that spirit, I wanted my brief and illustration to pique a reader's curiosity with their own dramatic and otherworldly qualities.
Although I chose Dorothy as my primary character, reading about the flying monkeys (who are not actually evil) inspired me to include them in my project.
So, I had at least two characters, and I knew some of the feelings I wanted to inspire with my illustration. Now it was time to stretch my wings and figure out the brief!
I continued playing with ideas in my “process journal”—a concept I was introduced to by The Fundamentals of Illustration by Lawrence Zeegan. I create journals for projects in the iPad app Paper by 53, filling pages with notes, sketches, photographs, etc.
After rejecting several ideas, I latched onto the concept that my Dorothy would be a camp counselor for The Flying Monkey Scouts!
During a canoe expedition on the Emerald River, Dorothy tries to rescue a monkey camper from a magical water cyclone. They end up in an underground cavern, in a village filled with rubbish and creatures that have fallen through the same drain. No one has escaped the cavern for decades, but Dorothy and her camper must find a way home.
I started working on character designs. I don't worry about how good things look yet—my journal is for pure idea exploration!
Refined Character Sketches
Maria Middleton encouraged us to consider our character from every angle. Here are the three tighter character sketches I sent for review.
She gave me great advice for the final piece, including a suggestion for a middle grade cover design: Dorothy’s canoe coming straight at us, about to tip into the cyclone. Among other things, she also recommended adding touches of Oz to Dorothy’s style, like a ruby slipper charm.
Before starting on an illustration, I create several thumbnails (tiny sketches). Thumbnails help illustrators experiment with composition ideas without expending energy on larger sketches. Here are just a few of mine.
Collecting Reference Images With Pinterest
At this stage, I will gather reference images either by taking them myself (as often as possible) or finding them online. I create secret Pinterest boards for my projects. I never copy a reference image exactly—it's essential to truly make the sketch your own. Gathering multiple photos and studying them before drawing really helps with this!
Sketching and Value Studies
I enlarged my favorite thumbnail to the correct dimensions and started sketching in Photoshop with my Cintiq drawing tablet. To get Dorothy’s pose right, I photographed myself and used my little artist’s mannequin.
Here is my sketch, still at a very rough stage:
As is the case with strong writing critique groups, a strong illustrator critique group makes all the difference! I asked for my group’s thoughts on these value studies, which help artists figure out their lights and darks.
After refining my sketch, I began inking on a new layer using a favorite Kyle T. Webster Photoshop brush. I smudged some of the lines for the water.
From Black and White to Technicolor—Time to Paint!
I use “watercolor” and “gouache” digital brushes created by Grutbrushes and Kyle T. Webster to build up my paintings gradually, using many Photoshop layers. I spent a lot of time on the water, making some layers more or less transparent and trying different colors.
To add additional texture, I take my own scanned, hand-painted watercolor background, convert it to grayscale, and set it as an “Overlay” layer above the painting.
Off to See The Wizard (at New Jersey SCBWI)
Here is the final painting I took to the conference:
During our critique at the intensive, I found out that although this might work as an interior illustration, I would need to increase the drama to make it a strong cover.
Maria Middleton and the other participants gave me specific and valuable feedback. For example, they suggested I zoom in, add more whites to the water in the whirlpool, and darken the surrounding water. They also suggested incorporating more magical and Oz-themed elements, and they advised me to revisit the drawing of Dorothy and the canoe.
I completely agreed that the changes would make the painting stronger. So, where does this leave me?
There’s No Place Like Home — for Revisions!
I’m sorry to end on a cliffhanger, but as is the case in the children’s book world, final art will sometimes require final revisions. This assignment was a great challenge, leading me to try new things and learn along the way. Soon, I’ll be taking this painting to the next level and posting a new version to my website.
In closing, I hope this journey through my Oz adventure gave you insights about some common steps in the illustration process. I love reading a manuscript and taking inspiration from it—using my imagination and old-fashioned elbow grease to create a unique illustration that suits the narrative. When a writer’s manuscript is paired with an illustrator’s interpretation of their text, I truly believe the final collaboration can yield some of the most great and powerful magic!
Julia Anne Young is a Boston-based freelance illustrator and member of SCBWI. To learn more about Julia, visit her website at juliaanneyoung.com, or visit her on Facebook at www.facebook.com/juliaanneyoungillustration. You can also connect with her on Twitter or Instagram at @juliaanneyoung.
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