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  • Writer's pictureMichelle Carlos

Creating My Own World

Updated: Mar 13, 2021

Here’s where I describe my process and share my epiphanies as I dove into this year’s Make Art That Sells Illustrating for Children’s Books season 7.

A lighthouse inspired by a sugarcane stalk | Watercolor, watercolor pencils and digital collage | 2020

In Love

The truth is I’ve been preparing for this course. That is something I realized midway through. Let me explain: I’ve signed up only for the Make Art That Sells My Year of Art Live classes because I do not see the practicality in purchasing the self-paced classes and would like to concentrate on the ones where there is live interaction with the mentors and participants. This gives me extra push to up my game even more. So came and went Editorial and Bootcamp and all throughout the year are monthly bonus assignments that are self-paced and covering various markets for our art to populate our portfolio. Looking back at my earlier submissions, I’ve noticed that my style is leaning more towards children’s book illustration. Curious. I have subconsciously directed my burgeoning illustration style to this market even though I must admit that I have a love-hate relationship with cute naive art.

Ever since I joined the ICB6 last year, I started collecting picture books mainly for research and over time, after discovering illustrators I really admire like Isabelle Arsenault, Carson Ellis, Sophie Blackall—those personalities whom one might call “artists’ artists” in the art world, hunting for gorgeous children’s books became a hobby. That was proof enough that I am converted to this genre. Then came our MATS Prep exercises where I faithfully and diligently complied with the weekly prompts. It gave me a chance to explore creating scenes for picturebooks and even nudged the dormant writer in me. As a consequence, I have improved upon the landscape art style I have discovered last year.

Sophomore Year

This was my second year in ICB and I was so thrilled to be part of this fantastical ride—giddy even! Our mentor, art agent and guru, Lilla Rogers, asked us a question: What brings us joy? For me it is in thinking of stories and concocting ideas of scenes and then putting them on paper. Seeing people especially the little ones reacting to my pictures was a welcome extra. But what am I going to produce this time around? And so the course opened and we were given four manuscripts from which to choose.


After posting another MATS Prep illustration, a landscape with a wayward balloon, one of my peers teased that I would love one of the stories. That was my cue to dive into the course contents. She was right and I chose the one with a balloon that traveled the world, written by one of our mentors, Zoë Tucker. Wow! What a brilliant vehicle to showcase my landscape art. Immediately I was hooked. I will create Bob’s world. But first, who is Bob and Bug, his human best friend?

Since I read Bob’s story, I obsessed right away about this sentient inanimate floating toy, simply because I love balloons. First thing that came to mind, of course, was a round balloon but I explored further and made him into different shapes (a caterpillar, a fox, etc.) and yet I kept reverting to a round balloon. Out of nowhere a green balloon landed on my balcony. After disinfecting it, I adopted the slightly deflated green balloon and christened it, “Ben.” I’ll keep it simple then and challenge myself with his expressions and poses later. Unlike his cousin, Bob would be orange to let him stand out from the landscape that are going to be mostly blues and greens and because a red balloon is too cliché. Speaking of a red balloon, why not watch “Le ballon rouge,” again? It’s a 1956 French short film from which I loosely based my character, Balloon Boy, who is forever traveling the planet with his paper balloon drawings. Now where is that drawing?

Trivia on colors: If you have seen movie production videos, do you wonder why actors are shot against blue or green screens? Because those are the two colors that have the most contrast against any skin color, which is in the tonal range of orange. It's easier to key out (separate and remove) the blues and greens.

Anyway, I showed my initial colored drawings of Bob to a 2 y.o. boy and immediately he giggled, which made me giggle, too. Okay, I thought maybe this could work.

So, meet Bob and his favorite person, Bug. Everything is new to Bob. They are both curious, fun-loving and most of all, they’ve got wanderlust.


This time around, I was determined to show discipline, skill, technique and reveal my true self. Most of all, I will have fun. I would no longer create something that is a shadow of someone else’s work and try to do what other artists I admire have been honing for years just to conform to trends. Instead I would create a world that I would want to create for my characters. I also constantly reminded myself to not make the obvious choice unless it’s the absolute best way to convey the message.

"Bob" moodboard

The advantage of having taken ICB already is that I could anticipate what’s coming and what’s required. I’ve reviewed the lessons and live reviews from last year. I know where I shine (landscapes) and where am lacking and how I should attack it (character design and drawing people). In order to have the most time creating my double page spread, the highlight of the course, I did the following:

  1. Buy a set of high quality watercolor pencils

  2. Skip the mini assignments and daily sketchbook prompts

  3. Breakdown the manuscript through thumbnail sketches and identify the scene to illustrate

  4. Research, research, research

  5. Explore lighting conditions for my orange character

  6. Create a mood board for color palette and style inspiration

  7. Watch fantasy movies for landscape scenes, overhead shots and cinematography

  8. Storyboard

  9. Draw, draw, draw

When I took ICB last year I was so apprehensive about drawing people let alone poses. This time I’ve become more comfortable with illustrating people by observing them, asking for tips from more experienced illustrators and watching viral videos of babies and children every day!

Also I didn’t care much about having a distinctive style yet; I just need to draw them properly for now. I think I’m getting there because some of these were drawn from memory especially the hands.

Landscape and Architecture

Although I purposely did not stylize my characters, I have greatly considered the treatment of my environment and architecture. Why so? As I studied illustrations and artistic styles, I’ve come to the conclusion that artists can be identified by the way they create their world—how they render their trees and foliage as well as their buildings and structures. Immersing myself to children’s books art, I have discovered artists like Shaun Tan and his rustic yet charming surrealism, Francisco Fonseca’s highly rendered but wonky cityscapes, Jim Kay’s vision of Harry Potter’s wizarding world, Oliver Jeffer’s quirky fun musings just to name a few among a dozen other fantastic illustrators in this century. At one point while staring at my expansive Pinterest board about children’s books illustrations, BOOM! I realized I am drawn to rendered but whimsical places and quickly searched for my Gaudi booklet and hundreds of Hundertwasser house pictures. I sketched a lighthouse and a fairytale castle and painted the scenes to practice with their design principles as my guide.

At this point, sometime between Week 1 and 2, my head was like a box of 10,000 puzzle pieces that are slowly arranging themselves the more enlightened I became.

Bob discovers a fairytale castle | Watercolor, watercolor pencils and digital collage | 2020

Another scene I created while building Bob’s world that became quite revelatory to me is an overhead landscape perspective of Bob discovering a castle. I’m still finding my way, or that so-called voice or style in illustration and after finishing this, I realized that this is the direction I want to explore because this manner of painting and creating came natural to me. I asked my ad creative director and illustrator BFF for an adjective and he said “whimsical”! I admire a lot of artists out there who make effortless minimalist flat gouache or digital illos and I also dipped my hand into that style but it just doesn’t feel right to me. I like rendered, detailed and dramatic scenes with a touch of whimsy. I will continue using traditional media and finish digitally, a technique and workflow that I have mastered from making art daily. I briefly considered submitting this to the gallery but opted for my first choice of scene because of the reason I will explain later. Nevertheless, I’m so excited and can’t wait to make more of this! I just love children’s books art!

The Highlight

Three weeks in and my work hasn’t made the cut for the live review despite the generous recognition by my peers. This only confirmed that my character design is still lacking according to experts and so I must address that in the future. One oversight on my part was showing the relationship between the main characters. Bug is very much a part of Bob’s world. It’s their friendship that drives the story forward. However I do love my characters' look and so I made minor adjustments to them and carried onto the next assignment. You see, the time and energy that might be spent in sulking and beating myself up for not getting reviewed is better spent in improving my work. If you’ve been a MATS student for a while or a working illustrator for that matter, you’ll be used to rejection by this time. I thrive when challenged.

Beach time | Watercolor, watercolor pencils and digital collage | 2020

So, creating an environment is on the fourth week. That’s the most fun part—my favorite part. That’s probably the reason why illustrators make picture books. I’ve been making a few environment studies for my version of Bob the balloon’s world. In the story there are so many landscape scenes and that’s one of the reasons why I chose it.

First I imagined the lighthouse and mapped out Bug and Bob’s domaine. Where do they play? How can I have scene where they are at the beach and the lighthouse behind them. There’s a scene describing Bug finding Bob at the fairground so how can I illustrate that in one spread? Aha! I would draw Bug coming home, the lighthouse, with her Mom and Bob trailing behind her as she runs to her Dad, the lighthouse keeper. Also I want the lighthouse to have a character. I imagined this is a lighthouse that Neo-gothic Gaudi might design and just added my candy trees as embellishments. The time of day? Dusk or magic hour because I want to play with dramatic lighting (my former colorist skills became useful here). Again, this is just playtime, a practice in look and mapping out a world. Still unsatisfied by this stiff lighthouse design, I worked on a different lighthouse and two more scenes from the book. Think Gaudi, I told myself. But what was Gaudi thinking about? Natural forms! I dug my flora book and found images of towering succulents and sugarcane stalks. Eureka!

Bug's lighthouse | Watercolor, watercolor pencils and digital collage | 2020

In between lessons I slowly worked on my double spread because with the scene I wanted to create, I did not want to rush. When I read Bob's story, I fell in love right away and thought that this is perfect for the style in landscape art I am brewing and started looking for the scene to illustrate. But hang on, I've been doing landscapes mostly that making them are almost a breeze already. So I chose the scene that will challenge me a lot: PEOPLE.

But what to do with it? My brainstorming brought me to Macy's Annual Thanksgiving Parade. I experienced it when I was in NYC in 2015 and Bob's view here was literally my view of the entire parade! I was perched on top of a waiting shed. A police car just in front of us. The setting was perfect to put everything in context without being too literal and I could also include my beloved characters like Mrs. Zee and her tea party, the Harlequin Dino from last year's salt and pepper shaker Bootcamp assignment, and a few more Easter eggs here and there. Of course a parade is not without the giant balloons that Bob can admire and aspire to become when he grows up. It was crazy fun making this scene and was ecstatic upon seeing my finished artwork. As though hypnotized, I stared at it all night and hit the upload button the next day.

Double page spread for "Bob" | Watercolor, watercolor pencil and digital collage | 2020

Ease into the Exercise

To create the complex scene, I allotted two weekends to paint each element and character separately, scanned and assembled in Photoshop so I can easily move them around as though crowd directing in a movie set.

Fact: In an IMDB page created for me by someone, I am listed as a crowd director of one teenage flick. In high school I wrote and directed major school plays that kindled my love for theater and filmmaking.

Digital collage is a technique I’ve been utilizing for flexibility in layout especially when the output will be digital or in print. I left it for a while as I worked on the character assignments until adding the final tweaks on the fourth week in time for submission.

Finishing ahead of time, I made four more environment studies for Bob because I’m completely in love with the story and I want to see if I can pull off a consistent series of pages, as well as see if they all belong to one world. I’m also pretending that I have landed this project.

Bob begins his adventure | Watercolor and digital collage | 2020

There’s one where Bob begins his adventure like Superman swooshing overseas and a melodramatic Bob pose inspired by The Shawshank Redemption liberation scene, only that Bob’s ordeal is the opposite... he’s lost and therefore, trapped.

Why do dramatic scenes always happen in the rain by the way?

Planning Pays Well

Creating these extras was a fun exercise all because I budgeted my time and planned accordingly. I have broken down the text and made a storyboard and a mood board, too a-la-Lilla! I have a playlist called “Quirky fun” for when I am creating my characters and I’ve watched dozens of animated movies, mostly Ghibli, and the entire Harry Potter series because I want to be in that magical realism space. I’ve done lighting tests on my character because I want to understand how the color will react to dramatic lighting. I’m treating this in the same way as how we would do it in film pre- and post production (because I come from a movie making background). I stuck to my daily routine, had my breakfast, freshened and entered my cave at 10 in the morning. I slept well and woke up with fresh ideas. Most importantly, I have decided to embrace my maximalist tendencies. I’m owning this whimsical but beautiful style that I am brewing. I am weird, so they say, but so what? In MATS we were constantly reminded to be ourselves with a vengeance.

Guess what? My work was reviewed while I cooked chicken soup for supper. My husband rushed to my side when he heard my name mentioned as though anticipating the winning numbers of a lotto ticket! It was a soulful dinner.

I’m owning this whimsical but beautiful style that I am brewing. I am weird, so they say, but so what? In MATS we were constantly reminded to be ourselves with a vengeance.

Revised double page spread after the live review

Book Cover

The icing on the cake, the final assignment: book cover design. I always refer to movie posters when creating a book cover and for this story, Bob and Bug’s story, I definitely wanted cinematic landscapes and lighting. I wanted to feel the sea wind and the poignant memory of rushing home from playing all afternoon in the rice fields with my childhood friends. Wanderlust is key here as well as friendship.

Book cover design for "Bob" | Watercolor, watercolor pencils and digital collage | 2020 | Mockup designed by Maquette

Before finalizing my book cover, I have created photo collage studies including babboons as stand-in for Bug and Bob and asked my creative director BFF again for his opinion:

Giving Back

As the weeks progressed, I found myself teaching by sharing my process and insights. In MATS we are also encouraged to give back when abundance is present. In the Facebook group, I have noticed several questions about techniques and how to deal with dilemmas. When I was rebooting my art 4 years ago and did not know how to begin and where to go with it, I only wished I had someone to personally guide me. Our MATS mentors are brilliant and are a treasure throve of insider knowledge and experience but it is clearly impossible for them to cradle each of the 500+ students from all over the world. Naturally I learned to educate myself while being kind by befriending my inner critic. I am skillful in traditional and digital art already and have a pretty good understanding of color when digitized and so I shared what I knew as best and as comprehensible as I could. This blog entry is also part of my teaching ways to remind my peers that this 5-week course, though intense and nerve-racking, is manageable and enjoyable when you have a strategy and that success in any task is not measured by compliments but by the intensity of joy felt after finishing a piece of your own art amid difficulties. “People buy your joy,” our fairy art mother always tells us. And now onto the next adventure!

"People buy your joy" - Lilla Rogers

a bundle of balloons with faces
Emotions page for Bob | Watercolor and digital collage | 2020

NOTE: The text for "Bob!" 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.

#childrensbooksillustration #MATSICB #picturebooks

Book mockup designed by Freepik

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