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  • Writer's pictureMichelle Carlos

Explore and Evolve

Updated: Sep 29, 2020

During ICB7 I have made a few decisions involving my illustration technique and I’ve noticed a significant change in my style direction. I explored this further by participating in the 9-day daily Instagram art challenge for the month of September, The Great Outdoors, hosted by artists and fellow MATSies from all over the world. September was free so I took advantage of this period to play around.

Day 1 - Wanderlust: On the night the clocks stopped, Vela decided to run away…

Watercolor Pencils

The singular addition to my arsenal of art tools are watercolor pencils. For those not familiar with watercolor pencils, these are pigments combined with a water soluble binder encased in wood akin to colored pencils that can be applied similarly but can also be activated using water and brush as you would with watercolors. Brilliant invention, isn’t it?

Lyra Rembrandt watercolor pencils 72-color box set

I’m not completely new to using these. They were the handy art tools in my bag while I was in art school back in 1998-2002. My college friends and I would stay in the campus after classes until it’s time for me to pack up and pick up my Mother, a chemistry professor and the University Registrar then, from the main campus. I was her chauffeur and my friends just enjoyed the free ride. The time was spent in doodling. My best friend would illustrate popular Marvel or Manga characters in mere seconds and I would color using the washable pencils. That was our team work. The rest of our friends were just our slave drivers! They ordered us which ones to draw. To us both, it was play and practice at the same time.

Day 2 - Navigation: All night she followed the glow disc to nowhere.

Flash forward to now, I thought why not employ the same technique I was using before in our drawings? I needed the texture only colored pencils could create. So next time I had the chance to do my art haul post Coronovirus lockdown, I purchased a set of 72-color Lyra Rembrandt watercolor pencils. I didn’t bother testing nor comparing other brands, even though I was looking for Faber-Castell. One quick Google search for reviews and I was decided. It wasn’t a disappointment in the end.

Day 3 - Lost: She felt a silent elation as she faced the unknown.


There’s something about using watercolor pencils that feels all natural to me. Being the geek that I am, I would normally make thorough tests with my materials, but I just dove right into it. I only quickly familiarized myself with the colors because oddly enough the colors on paper didn’t match the dry pigment and neither did the color-coded wooden encasement nor the color chart on the packaging. I had to match the pencils to my base watercolor washes as well.

So I created my ICB pieces, and immediately the look of my illustrations became more alive. I was loving the textures as well as the overall look and decided to go this way from then on. This is me, I thought.

Day 4 - Protection: Who needs walls for protection?

Art Challenge

Every now and then I would participate in Instagram art challenges and try to finish it. Commitment is the whole point of the challenge but of course success depends entirely on my schedule and state of mind. My favorite is Folktale Week and I have attempted the 100-day challenge but only completed up to about 80 pieces. I chose my battles since then. This time I joined the Great Outdoors 2020 challenge. I had free time, and I could use this as practice with the technique and likewise for the upcoming MATS Kidbook Pitch course in October. I chose to create scenes from the story I have conceptualized with my bff one sleepless night and a quarter-life crisis. During the 2018 Folktale Week, I also created scenes from the same story. As you can see, my style now was leaps ahead from what I have done before.

Back then I was using cheap gouache and watercolors and drew black outlines on the characters. Later on I discovered I disliked outlined illustrations. Pen and black ink are not my friends. It's uncomfortable. But I intended the story to be a graphic novel, which is similar to comic book and manga illustrations so I tried to achieve that. In the end the series did not really justify my ideas. There was no color palette, no unifying concept and no strong visual language. I had to try again following this year’s travel and adventure theme and prompts.

Day 5 - Water: Beware the songs of the shallows for if you drink the water they will harvest your heart’s deepest desires.

The Plot and Concept

The story is about a girl named Vela, who decided to run away from her cloistered life on the night her guardians passed away. In her mindless meandering in unchartered territories, she encountered odd characters and adventures that changed the course of her young life.

Day 6 - Cave: The darkness devoured her memories.

The title is still a working title, which started from “Wanderlust” to “An Orange Colored Day” to finally, “The Woman King,” borrowed from a song by indie folk musician Iron and Wine. I have yet to finish the story, which is aimed at young adults. With that target audience in mind, I explored a style for graphic novels. We usually had graphic novel assignments in MATS and because of that I found out that I like this genre. However, I also had to consider the Instagram format so no panels, just full page scenes.

Mood board created for the exercise.

My research for the style and look of the series of illustrations introduced me to more inspiring artists such as the legendary children's book illustrator Lizbeth Zwerger and Japanese artist Rie Nakajima. Both watercolorists have similar signature tender yet dynamic compositions with ample negative space around the main subject often exploring metaphorical themes. Also I referred to my favorite illustrator Isabelle Arsenault's inky renditions. I have created a mood board again for a very controlled color palette consisting of muted greens, earth tones with touches of hot reds—no skin tones. I dug through my decades old character and visual pegs and drew from those my heroine’s look. For her world, I searched within my thousand travel photos from Japan, China, South Africa, and France. I knew all those manic clicking would be useful someday.

Day 8 - Sleep: She counted the days by the number of times she closed her eyes to dream.

Oh, Joy!

Creating Bob the balloon’s world was so much fun but exploring Vela’s realm was the happiest and most efortless week I had, despite the limited period in creating all nine scenes! Everything felt right. I was excited and each picture that came out from the exercise was an improvement from the previous one. I was euphoric and obsessed at the same time! It seems like I have stumbled upon something that I would really commit to and people are liking it. The increase in Instagram followers is only a byproduct of this style evolution. One instinctive decision changed the course of my artistic journey. Consequently, I have been contacted for book illustration projects. It’s a start. It’s serendipity.

Day 9 - Friends: "Can you hear them?" asked the man. More curious than alarmed, Vela convinced herself that all friends always start as strangers.

All text are excerpts from "The Woman King" by Michelle Carlos

Mock-up design by Freepik


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