Making the Board Book: Praise Him!
In this post you will read about how I created my first children’s book project, "Praise Him!" written by Lauren Chandler and published by B&H Publishing Group.
Book 2 Birthday
Woohoo! In a few weeks is my next book birthday! I am all smiles really. I have worked on this debut project in summer last year immediately after we moved back to Germany from Dubai. Yes! The making of a single book can take that long. But it will soon hit the shelves on September 6. So watch out for my social media posts.
The truth is I was working on two other books almost at the same time. It was a test to my abilities. You know what they say about not knowing your full capacity until you cross the line. I am mixing idioms here because I could hardly contain my excitement. I have been holding onto this news for more than a year!
Not too long ago, I was writing about my experience in creating scenes and characters for picture books through our online course, Make Art That Sells. Just months ago I debuted my picture book, "Morning on the Farm" and showed you my hybrid workflow and now I am telling you once again the story about how I created an inspiring board book. Friends, with perseverance dreams do come true.
A confession: I smiled when I read the title because I thought it was a little joke from Upstairs. Though I am not quite religious anymore, being raised a Catholic, I said a little prayer of thanks for this first book project and immediately thought of my loving parents who have been the strongest pillars of faith in our family. I dedicated the book to them.
In order to get into the spirit of the story, I asked for the manuscript and any references the publishing team could afford me. I was sent this version of the song sung by the author herself. Lauren Chandler is a singer-songwriter and has authored Bible study books as well as the picture book, "Goodbye to Goodbyes". The manuscript had initial notes on the imagined scenes on each spread but I set that aside first and just let the melody of the song permeate. I wrote down the text on paper so I could really familiarize myself with the words. Beside the handwriting are my own notes and rough thumbnails. I also looked up the author’s website and studied Lauren’s Instagram account to get a feel not only of her aesthetics but also her life. The story felt deeply personal that was why it made sense for me to get to know my author at least through pictures. Only then did I revert to the editor’s notes to see if our ideas could merge.
This was my interpretation of the story as explained to the editor:
The song has a gentle flow to it (especially when Lauren sang it) that I feel like tying up the scenes together and follow that melody. Initially I thought it might be interesting to place the characters or events in different locations, i.e. countries, but after rereading the manuscript, I feel like the events should take place in a community.
I love the symbolisms in nature as the loving nature of God as well as the idea of a storm that symbolizes hardships.
I am picturing the scenes to be tender, caring, atmospheric. But I would love to know your visual pegs as well so I could decide on the look and color palette… As for the cover, I imagine a child surrounded by nature.
In the end, we agreed to this direction and improved on some scenes to make the visual storytelling more cohesive and impactful.
As you know with every project, I start with research to create a mood board. After my sneak peek into Lauren’s life in addition to the editor’s notes, I visualized the overall look of the book to be soft like the gentle sway of grass on a summer day. The general color direction was warm pastel tones and subdued greens that transitioned into indigos as the storm surges in the night.
Apart from the children, nature was also a major character that symbolizes the encompassing presence of God.
Although the palette is on the softer side, I made sure not to lean towards pinks or light purples and add brighter colors to attract a wider market share. The main color combination was orange, olive and purple hues plus tertiaries.
In addition I drew inspiration from my older pieces that my client were particularly drawn into, which also greatly helped with my style direction.
I visualized the overall look of the book to be soft like the gentle sway of grass on a summer day. The general color direction was warm pastel tones and subdued greens that transitioned into indigos as the storm surges in the night.
The editor interviewed the author about the style of art she was looking for and she pointed out two artists, Caldecott winner Michaela Goade and Lucy Campbell. They believed that my work reflected their styles. Immediately I looked up these artists to get a sense of their art.
Another point to consider from the author was that she wanted the book to be beautiful and inspiring where nature in a grander scale shows God’s immanence and transcendence, comforting the child, the reader, with beauty. Got it!
I toyed with a few ideas for the cover but the one with a child blowing a dandelion up in the air felt the strongest for me. The dandelion seeds floating up in the air symbolized a prayer—the song of praise. I presented the rough sketches with a second version of a group of children instead of just one character. Both the editor and author opted for the solo child though the lead child was changed to a girl with darker hair inspired by Lauren’s youngest daughter, Norah. I proceeded with character sketches thereafter.
We tried to add a puppy together with the child but was later left out in the final piece along with a few more tweaks here and there. By September, the cover was colored and approved.
Birds. I wanted birds to be integral in the story. To fit my color scheme, I wanted a common red bird and the first thing that came to mind was a northern cardinal. The color, which would be dialed down to a salmon hue, would anchor the reader onto the page and follow its movement all throughout. I checked the spiritual symbolism of a cardinal and it turned out to be a harbinger of hope, joy and rebirth. They are believed to be messengers that give you encouragement through the hardships for it is one of the birds that are omnipresent through all seasons that sing a beautiful cheerful song even in winter. Geographically speaking, these bright birds are residents of the eastern part of the US but they can also be spotted all year in the west, which was the inspiration for the landscapes in the book interiors—Montana in particular but also the hilly residential parts of Stuttgart, Germany became my reference for the houses.
I wanted to open with a serene scape of the community at sunrise, a magical hour, and follow the day of the little girl in a flow like a bird in flight. She encounters hiccups along the way but finds her voice and footing again with the help of her friends.
Birds. I wanted birds to be integral in the story.
The Design and Technique
Just like the song, the story and the pages follow a linear path to emphasize its quiet melody that reaches a gentle crescendo towards the end as the children run uphill in celebration of a new day. In our children's book illustration class we were always encouraged to break the page to add interest, but I maintained the continuity of the visual narrative through full page spreads. To avoid clutter, the layout was balanced with vast skies or bare walls. The suggestion of the editor to flip some pages further enhanced that linearity that was similar to a musical sheet. Composition wise, I employed the rule of thirds all throughout. Imagine me drawing a straight line from left to right with my hand slicing through the air as I visualized the scenes in my head.
The rough sketches were to scale with the final colored piece. This enabled me to trace the sketches 1:1 once approved and then transfer onto 600gsm paper for the painting stage. For traditional artists, tracing saves time! Everything was hand painted using watercolors and colored pencils to add textures. These were all scanned at 600 dpi and then composed in Photoshop. To create that cohesive look, I added a general color grading layer. It was already Christmas around this time.
When I accepted this project, I was worried about meeting deadlines because we were moving from Dubai back to Stuttgart. You probably already knew how I always struggled with moving. Fortunately making picture books requires a long process and it was not necessary to rush at all. We were still transient when we arrived in Stuttgart until we found a more permanent apartment with a working home studio three months later.
Since all my art tools were still in a container somewhere except for the absolute essentials, my watercolor set and scanner, the first thing I did once settled was to gather my materials. Luckily we were back in Germany, which is a haven for watercolorists or any artist looking for the best tools for that matter. Hahnemühle papers have always been my weapon of choice (see this post about my watercolor paper test). I also knew I would work on a bigger format to allow more refined details. For this project I used Hahnemühle Leonardo 600gsm hot pressed 30x40 and accompanied it with A3 tracing papers. I invested on both Faber-Castell Polychromos as well as Prismacolor colored pencils but with limited hues that would only match my chosen palette. I could always purchase individual pencils later.
As I was planning my attack, I realized I had to adjust my illustration workflow. First I had to consider the rough sketches—how detailed was the render, how big and on which paper, and how long I needed to finish one sketch? If this was a personal project I would have been happy with a thumbnail sketch but this is pro level now and so I needed to present my ideas through clear rough sketches to my client. It made sense to draw in the same scale as the final painted work and so I used sketching papers and cheaper and thinner watercolor paper in the same size as the Leonardo block. I used watercolor paper for sketching because there were times when I needed to do a quick wash over backgrounds so I need not spend hours of shading using graphite pencils. This way I am already showing the client the look of the page but only in monochrome. I also had to consider my schedule and how long I will need to work on each double page spread. As I looked back now at my rough sketches, they were actually quite detailed, which in the end helped me for I only needed to paint the main elements such as the characters and major objects in the scene. I was able to use some elements from the sketches, too, such as the sky and the meadow that also added more texture on the look of the page. There were a lot of aha-moments in my new picture book process that I was able to utilize in the next projects. I was learning as I went.
Speaking of other projects, around this time I was able to book two more children’s book projects. I was elated but also standing at the edge of my capacity. How could I also say no? I was pumped and eager to work. But I also wanted to test myself. How many projects could I take on at the same time? The waiting period between communicating with the clients allowed me to distribute my time.
How did I deal with this? I laid down a calendar, a physical one that I could write on. Plotted my schedule according to page spread. Because of my daily art making practice, I could already estimate how much time I would need on an artwork and so I would also plan according to the complexity of the illustration. I also communicated with my agent if there would be any conflict in schedules and she was very supportive of this. The problematic part was that the due dates for all three books were in January and I could only allot three weeks to finish the color stage of each book! Fortunately one book project was delayed and so I did not even have to think about that. The way my brain works is that while I am working on one project that I have fully digested prior to execution, I will begin planning for the next one. That is why getting the sketches right are crucial because once these are approved, it would just be a matter of execution and rendering. It could get tricky because you lose concentration sometimes on the current work in front of you. But in crunch times like this, you have to plan ahead and make it work.
Once all colored interiors were approved, I prepared and finalized the files for printing. It is important to emphasize here the color modes that you are working on. Just look at the side by side comparison of the cover design viewed on an RGB screen (you are looking at an RGB screen). The CMYK image looks dull and less contrasty. The sky is paler because the range of cyans in the CMYK gamut is limited. On the contrary, RGB pictures when printed will look darker and that is because the CMYK printer needs to compensate for the missing colors and substitute whatever color mixture it has that is closest. Think of the discrepancy between color modes like a box of 8 crayons versus 24. If you need a thorough discussion on colors, read my post about colors in the digital world. In there I explained why the colors on print do not match your colors on screen regardless of gadget or program you are using.
Obviously my working space is RGB because my monitor screen is RGB. I did not use a CMYK work space because my eyes could get used to the dullness of the image and increase contrast and saturation along the way that might look garish in print. Because book printers are working on a CMYK mode I needed to convert my RGB artworks into CMYK before I submitted everything to the client, who gave me the technical specs that they required. Communicating with the book designer was also crucial to avoid errors in printing that may cause delay or worse, irreparable damage. In this case there were no printing proofs to check and so I had to make sure that the colors, layers and file size are up to specs. I did not hear any technical issues from my publisher and that is always good.
In a few weeks we will see the final product in online bookstores. Once I receive my copy, I will be able to compare my own work on print versus my painting and digital art. Wouldn't that be interesting to talk about?
“Praise Him!” is a song and book written by Lauren Chandler with a message that encourages us that in the day or in the night, wherever we go, we can praise God continually. It is published by B&H Publishing Group. You may pre-order the book from their site, Lifeway, Amazon, Barnes & Noble and various online bookstores worldwide. It is due to publish on September 6, 2022.