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  • Writer's pictureMichelle Carlos

Courage under Fire

Updated: Aug 6, 2019

What does it mean to illustrate for kids? Through an especially crafted art e-course, I examine the process of making picture books while I discover new knowledge about myself as an illustrator.

Slacking and Lacking

Goodness! It has been a roller coaster ride only that I am mostly at home sitting on my cushioned dining chair—the dining room I have completely taken over. I have also neglected this blog—all because of the daily illustrating and conceptualizing with occasional traveling that I’ve been doing in the past months.

In November last year, I signed up for a whole year of Make Art That Sells (MATS) e-courses and since then I have been preoccupied. As if I haven’t enough on my hands literally, I challenged myself to do the 100 day project on Instagram in between—but that’s another story.

Why study again, you ask? Because I needed to know which market would suit me best so I can create a business plan and focus on it. I also need to build a portfolio that may attract work that I love to do.

At the beginning of the course we are asked to fill this up to put our goals on perspective.

Drawing for Kids

In this series of e-courses one of them is Illustrating for Children’s Books. I am scared of this course. A good kind of scared, though, because I knew it would be a challenge.

What is illustrating for children’s books anyway? We all know what kind of books these are: colorful, cartoony, entertaining and just lots of pictures with minimal texts, hence the category picture books. The better question would be, how would you illustrate a story that could capture the attention and imagination of a child and at the same time attract a parent to buy that book out of hundreds piled together on a shelf?

This MATS e-course illuminates all these questions. The beauty and genius of it is that the tandem of brilliant art agent, Lilla Rogers, and seasoned picture books art director, Zoë Tucker, make it all easy to understand and guide you one step at a time along the complicated yet collaborative process of making a picture book (that would sell) regardless of your current artistic skill. Not only do they teach you the technical how to’s but they also allow you to be yourself and enhance that innate creative talent or if you don’t know your style yet, they help you discover it as you tread on in the 5 weeks of intense workshop.

Girl holding a Stop! sign
My very first version of Greta and her favorite things.

The Rub

As an artist, I know what my limitations are because I know which skill I did not develop. Can you guess?

Apart from not practicing for decades, I haven’t really mastered drawing people. Even in art school, I didn’t pay much attention to it. My jam was coloring and rendering.

In this course, however, you won’t be able to escape drawing people—that’s why I was scared of diving into it. I also didn’t know if I could pull it off especially when writing and making a book has been a dream of mine since ages. Also, my inexperience with kids make drawing for them even more mind boggling.

So, here we go.

Various facial expressions of a girl
My main character, Greta, in a moody state. Week 2 is about facial expressions.

5 Intense Weeks

The first three weeks were all about character design, emotions and poses. Great! What a brilliant way to face your fear: just look at it straight in the eye and roll with the punches. Prior to the first strike, we are given three texts from which to choose and stick with all throughout the duration of the course. Ms. Tucker penned the manuscripts. One is about a creative but scaredy little pearl, another is lyrical almost echoing Baz Luhrmann’s sunscreen anthem and Dr. Seuss’s Oh, The Places You’ll Go combined and the other was a revamping of a classic fairytale girl vs. wolf adventure only subliminally dealing with more contemporary issues about saving the planet from man-made destruction.

The story "The Girl Who Said No!" had me at wolves and I am also a tree-hugger. Now I just needed to draw my main character, Greta, a brave little girl, inspired by teenage environmental activist, Greta Thunberg. Immediately I did my research. I looked at pictures of Greta, who is always captured looking so serious, by the way, and collaged all her facial expressions. But wait, I wondered how much likeness of Thunberg we have to incorporate. Our mentors explained to just capture the spirit of her and that the girl has to be at an age relatable to its readers, between 5 to 6 years old.

How on Earth do I draw a girl child who is brave and able to reason with a pack of vegetarian wolves in suits and pointy shoes? What would my wolves look like?

A girl talking to a smoking wolf wearing a suit
An earlier version of the wolf and Greta

The wolf I drew received mixed reactions from a survey I did on social media. Is it too scary for a child? I'm concerned. So I dragged myself into the children's section of every book store to get honest opinions of children and parents alike about my wolf. I didn't hesitate even in public places to ask my target focus group. In the end I changed the look. Greta got a makeover, too.

Girls who showed keen interest to my characters.

In my head they live in a northern country just nearing the end of a harsh winter, hence the warm clothing. Why else would the wolves be scavenging and wrecking havoc in that forest?, my logical brain asked. I also wanted to keep the real Greta Thunberg’s signature yellow oversized anorak because of its visual drama and retention—making my child character even smaller and making her stand out against the grey setting I was planning to place them.

Great! What a brilliant way to face your fear: just look at it straight in the eye and roll with the punches.

Anthropomorphized wolves and a little girl
Revised wolf and Greta together with the other rowdy wolves

As the weeks of characterization progressed, my designs are still not working—however carefully I rendered them. By this time though, I'm convinced I could draw people. Why was I afraid again?

Various illustrated poses of a girl
A new version of Greta in various poses for the week 3 assignment

Good Disruption

On the 4th week, we are to create an environment in the story. Love this part. I decided on a scene about Greta's home inspired by rows of Scandinavian houses, hilly German village streets and the drawings of the great Harry Potter illustrator Jim Kay of Diagon Alley with idol Wes Anderson’s rule of thirds blocking. I am also sticking with my muted color palette ridding of bright reds this time. The wolves were implied and rendered as silhouettes and Greta fuming at the center.

However, I didn’t have enough time to attack this massive illustrated spread since I was traveling with my visiting Aunt who was always supportive and encouraging of my endeavors. I was nearly panicking. I had three days to finish and I want to entertain kids with this grand scene. Fate indeed sends us people who will play pivotal roles in our lives. She told me to just go for it.

Three illustrated row houses
The spread showing a scene and environment for the characters we've created.

The Icing on the Cake

Think movie posters. That was my mantra for the final assignment, book cover. It’s funny how my past work experiences were resurfacing. I’ve done movies and movie posters, too, as well as done lots of hand lettering in high school, which was quite nostalgic because that was my gig back then. Teachers lured me out of the classroom so I could make their visual aids and blackboard announcements in fabulous lettering that rewarded me free get out of jail time coupled with skin asthma derived from excessive chalk use.

Ready to send after 1.5 days of labor, I was extremely happy with it. I completely scrapped the winter setting and clothing and decided on creating another environment: the forest landscape shaped like the wolf’s head and courageous little Greta in protest. The main challenge here was giving the visuals enough impact even on a thumbnail size. If you can see the title and the basic form of the character on your mobile phone held at arm’s length, then the design layout must be working.

The final assignment: Book cover design


A few things I realized during this course: 1. I can draw people—what was I so worried about?, 2. MATS ICB e-course is really effective, 3. I could roll with the punches or criticisms and use them to my advantage. I knew I am not going to get it right the first time and that is completely fine, 4. I may have cracked the code of an emerging style, 5. I love children’s books art and I am definitely going for it.

You see? Sometimes we just need to channel Greta's spirit and be brave.

a girl playing teacher with her toys
Another scene I've imagined in the story, "The Plan"

NOTE: The text for "The Girl Who Said No!" is copyrighted by Zoë Tucker. All inquiries pertaining to this text must be addressed to her directly or via the Make Art That Sells website.


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