• Michelle Carlos

Making the Picture Book: Morning on the Farm

Updated: 1 day ago

In this post, you will learn about my process in making a picture book using a hybrid traditional and digital workflow while solving design problems and working through distractions on a tight deadline.



Cover art of "Morning on the Farm" | Watercolor and digital collage | 2022

Book Birthday

Morning on the Farm is the third book I worked on but it is the first to come out. Say that again? My book just came out! I am now officially a published picture book illustrator and just a year after I signed with my agency, Astound US!


This project came about in November last year and around that time I was already working on two other children’s books. It was all about farm animals and scenery and I have always wanted projects where I could show off my landscape paintings. So it was a perfect fit.



Past Professional Life to Present

At this point I have already developed a solid and effective workflow in making picture books. Of course not all book projects are the same. The requirements differ but the basic tasks stay the same: character design, rough sketch, cover design and final art. The purpose of a workflow is for you to have a standard procedure in terms of traditional or digital technique and technical process that allows you to optimize your project schedule. It should also be flexible enough to anticipate unexpected issues.

In my past professional life in post production, workflows are crucial in completing a project because there are numerous departments and people involved in every step. A post house must have a full-proof workflow in order to deliver. The workflow is at times the core of the company. In my own color grading suite I have my own workflow to ensure that I deliver the proper graded materials (i.e. 30 minutes to 3 hours worth of video files) to the next editor on time. Our services are budgeted by the hour so we need to be super fast.


In film archiving, apart from the technical workflow in film restoration, documentation is a crucial and non-negotiable step. This means organizing and updating file libraries as well as recording metadata and all information necessary that supports the material for future users. People hired me to create workflows for their archives and post houses. I wrote and published papers about effective workflows. Simply saying, workflow is my thing.


I thank my decades of professional experience in handling projects in color grading and film restoration and archiving for my systematic project management approach in making art. Who said artists are lazy and hare-brained? I think most artists have to be über organized!


A hybrid traditional to digital workflow in making a picture book

Hybrid Workflow

In a nutshell, this diagram shows my hybrid illustration workflow. Hybrid because I employ both traditional (watercolor and colored pencils) and digital techniques (Photoshop edit) in my process. It is also important to note that I allot at least 1 working day, about 8-10 hours, for every page depending on the details may it be a sketch or a painting. If I know that the page would be a scenery for example with lots of activity or foliage, the labor time would increase. Once I have done my thumbnail sketches, I would then plot my schedule for each page on a physical calendar, one that I could hang, write on and check every time, and note how many days I need to meet the deadline. You should also know that schedules differ for every book. For instance you cannot simply continue to color right after you sketch. The client has to approve the sketches first and this could take weeks even months before you hear from them again. There are long waiting periods for feedback and approval. Understand that publishers have so much going on. This is the reason why making a complete picture book takes a long time. The illustrator has its own schedule within the entire publisher’s time frame of the project. This is also the reason why an illustrator must consider doing other projects to keep occupied and financially sustained.

This likewise includes following up if all files are good for printing. It is also important to have a system in filing. Organizing your projects from the beginning by creating a hierarchy of project folders and file naming conventions will ease and standardize your archiving. Since I use papers, I keep a folder with clear envelopes for every book project. Finally, back up while you drink tea or coffee.


table with artwork and art tools
From sketching to printing an interior page

Milestones

There are important milestones in the project. They are so-called milestones because each step is crucial before you are able to proceed to the next step of the picture book making process. These are often stated in the contract with designated due dates.

  1. Mood board - It is a collection of art inspiration and color palette that help conceptualize the look of the book. This is not a requirement of the publisher but I make it a point to always create one so the client understands my vision. The mood board also helps me keep in track. It is a visual guide.

  2. Rough sketches - This is a requirement. You present character studies and pencil or monochrome sketches of the cover and interior spreads. You may also present a storyboard, which is always helpful to see the pacing of the story. My sketches are to scale 1:1 with the final colored art, which means the sketching paper is the same size as the watercolor paper. I then trace the original sketches onto the watercolor paper so that I am not changing anything from the approved sketch.

  3. Cover Art - This is usually the first requirement and you always begin with a rough sketch. Once the cover art is approved, you may proceed to the interior pages. The cover art is used in marketing the book early on in the project.

  4. Interior Art - This is the body of the book and really where the great fun is. You create an imaginary world within those 24-40 pages. The bulk of the schedule is dedicated to creating the interior art for both the rough sketches and the colored version.


Mood board for "Morning on the Farm"

Research

As soon as I received the manuscript and brief, I dove right into researching and brainstorming my ideas. Over the years, being a manic snap-shooter, I have amassed pictures of German or South African meadows and fields, farm animals and birds as well as botanicals that all populated my library of visual references that also became useful in this project. The authors were distinct in how they imagined the scenes and so I only had to put my own interpretation and magic touch to every page. "Morning on the Farm" is based on the classic Irish children’s song, “On the Farm in the Morning”. It is actually the second book I worked on, which is based on a song.

So old was the song, I suppose, that I could not find a sample of it anywhere in the world wide web to listen to. Instead, I put on my Quirky Fun playlist to set the jovial mood of waking in the morning in a farm. I gathered images of artworks including my own that would serve as my illustration inspiration as well as a color palette that transitions from dawn to early morning light. This became my mood board and desktop background for the duration of the project.


The authors were also so specific with the kind of birds they wanted featured and so I studied those birds through gathered references. In order to get a 3D reference of animals and not depend so much on Googled images or save me from going to an actual farm somewhere in the Bavarian Alps, I began collecting Schleich animal figures and began my studies. Do you know what I discovered about myself? Cows are the most difficult for me to draw! Tip: look at a cow as a rectangular box with legs and a tail!


a farmhouse in the morning, two children running and the farmer on a buggy and two cows
"The Farmhouse" | Watercolor and digital collage | 2022

Another thing that got me hooked was watching YouTube videos in farm living and home improvement. I have never lived nor stayed in a farm and so I have no idea how things are done there. Although the village where I grew up in the 80's was adjacent a rice field that later became a Motocross track and then a residential area while our neighbors raised livestock from pigeons to water buffalos in their own backyards, I was only a child spectator who thought live chickens were gross. As an illustrator I am always conscious about telling stories that is not mine to tell. And so I make it a point to understand the logic of things in order to properly and authentically represent them through art. While sketching, I watched videos of a day in a life of farmers, how to milk cows, how to build a chicken coop, how turkeys do their mating parade and so on. The barn would be a character in the story that also serves as an anchor and so I had to layout my farmland and design the architecture of both the barn and the farm house from the very beginning.


Mother and baby in the kitchen with breakfast foods on the table
"Breakfast" | Watercolor and digital collage | 2022

The art direction described that the farmer walks from the farmhouse to the barn under the moon. I had to plot the line of action as well as the actual ground plan of the buildings that best fits the portrait format of the page. I had to consider viewing the architectural structures from different angles and so continuity in layout was considered. For example, where is the pond in relation to the barn? If I was a bird, how will the house look like from a tree top? American farm houses are kind of special, aren’t they? The kitchen is a feature and so the things I learned in the home improvement shows as in how the designer tried to understand the homeowners’ tastes and character came in quite handy. I asked myself what kind of family this is or what kind of homemaker the mother is. At the same time I also found myself purchasing pots and plants for our new apartment!


Before I begin any drawing, I always ask my client which of my artworks in my portfolio that drew them in. That helps me understand their expectations, tastes and also which style direction to take.

Sketching and Styling

I debated with myself if I was going to make my animals cute or realistic. I went for beautiful.


Before I begin any drawing, I always ask my client which of my artworks in my portfolio that drew them in. That helps me understand their expectations, tastes and also which style direction to take. But wait, you might ask, you do not know your style? This is a difficult question, which I have gladly expounded on my last Blog post. The truth is I have not been illustrating children’s books long enough to clearly define my style. I know that I have been experimenting a lot, which meant that my style might still be all over the place. But I also know that my pictures would always be beautiful—at least according to my own definition of beauty. This also meant stylized avian plumage and foliage.




What was also crucial was the composition because the book format was a portrait without double page spreads despite the story calling for a lot of sweeping landscapes. In illustrating picture books or in illustration generally, the illustrator becomes a problem solver like a visual mathematician when it comes to composition. I have consistently adopted the rule of thirds and always considered where I want the viewer to look at first and then lead their eyes next. You need a focal point in your image. For instance the barn, or a bird or the farmer.


“But I also know that my pictures would always be beautiful—at least according to my own definition of beauty. This also meant stylized avian plumage and foliage.”

Making the Cover Art

Though the cover art was the first milestone requirement, I delayed conceptualizing this one. The interior pages were much clearer in my head because the authors already gave suggestions but the cover art was the last piece of the puzzle. I searched for published farm-themed picture books in order to avoid having a similar concept. I must also take into consideration that a cover does a lot of work in selling the book. There is no character in this story but there is the farm as the stage and what better represents a farm other than a barn and some animals about. I asked myself, how would I paint a farm in my style? So I decided to put the red barn in the center stage as an homage to classic farm picture books and make it look like a picturesque post card that is consistent to the interior environment.



table with artwork and art tools
From sketching to printing the cover art

Making the Interior Art

The difference in this picture book amongst the other two I also finished was that it was not character driven. The farm was the stage and every animal had its role to play. So I created an alternate farm world based from the art direction, my research and imaginations. This picture book has allowed me to showcase my landscape art and animal drawings. I was also able to highlight my strength as an illustrator—details.

Since the Schleich animal figures are to scale about 1:24, it was easier to draw them in many poses and perspectives but still maintain the realistic proportions. I also realized that my style has a blend of realism and bended reality through my renders and foliage design. No matter how I experimented, cute cartoon animals were not my thing! It was never my goal anyway.



The farm in the morning | watercolor and digital collage | 2022

The art direction stated that the story starts from dawn with the moon still visible in the sky and then progress to early morning light when the entire farm has come to life. Now my colorist skills came into play here and I have utilized my grading techniques in Photoshop. I also woke up in the middle of the night or at dawn when the moon was full to observe the lighting in the gardens behind our apartment. Anyway, everything was painted using watercolors but assembled in Photoshop as well as color graded to create the misty morning atmosphere. To get an idea on how I compose a page in Photoshop, watch the videos below where I show my process in hyper speed.

"Everything is painted using watercolors but assembled in Photoshop as well as color graded to create the misty morning atmosphere."



blue cow and calf
Paint the cows cyan to distinguish from the white paper

Some animals have white coloration like the cows and the ducks and that is always problematic in traditional art because how to show white paint on paper, right? In watercolor painting, in order to show white you leave the paper as is and glaze grays for shading. But that only works unless I paint everything in one go including background or I draw an outline. But I am not a fan of outlines, grey paint is not captured properly in scanning and I like the objects, such as the animals, independent from the background so I can have the flexibility to move them around the page in Photoshop where I also add the background like the sky or the meadow on a separate layer. This means I am to digitally key out my object from the background. Sounds like too much work but here is a tutorial on how to seamlessly remove backgrounds in Photoshop.


TIP: Note that cyan and green are easily selected in the digital color space, much like to the "blue or green screen" chroma keying technique in film making. A simple understanding of the HSL adjustments will do the trick.

So we go back to the question, how to separate the white ducks and cows from the watercolor paper when digitized? Paint them cyan, which is lighter than blue but contrasting enough against white paper. In this case, the equivalent hue in my brand of watercolor, Schmincke Horadam, would be cobalt turquoise. That way, once scanned, the separation and removal of the background would be easier. The textures of the grainy pigment and paper can also be preserved even when the hue and saturation in Photoshop is changed as I pleased. Any paint hue that is midtone (mid range in the color scale), pure pigment (direct out of the tube without mixing) and one of the primaries (cyan or green) will do. Note that these hues are easily selected in the digital color space, much like to the "blue or green screen" chroma keying technique in film making. A simple understanding of the HSL adjustments will do the trick.




Digital versus Traditional

You might ask why I go through all this trouble of sketching, tracing, scanning, separating backgrounds, and color grading? I bet you that purely digital artists do not undergo so much stages and need so much tools, work and storage space in their process compared to traditional artists like myself.


My simple answer is personal preference. It is because I love the look of watercolors and the tactile feeling of painting on paper. No digital brush at this time can truly create that effect and feeling regardless how "paper like" the surface is. The simulation is never the same. Digital illustrations, though beautiful and revolutionary, in my opinion, still looks like plastic, whereas paper and paint look organic, if that makes sense.

"It is because I love the look of watercolors and the tactile feeling of painting on paper. No digital brush at this time can truly create that effect and feeling" regardless how "paper like" the surface is.

On the practical side, I do not need and do not have the patience and time anymore to learn how to paint digitally especially when pressed with deadlines. It is completely unnecessary to purchase an iPad and additional application when I already have a powerful MacBookPro and Adobe CS subscription. I may need a Wacom pen and tablet, which I have already invested in, to allow me to instantly retouch in Photoshop without redoing my painting. I have developed my hybrid workflow and perfected it through daily practice.


When I was a matte painter for movies using Photoshop as well as Corel Paint together with Wacom, I experimented with digital painting and developed this digital collage technique I am using right now. I loved and learned a lot from the works of matte painter and concept artist Dylan Cole and digital artist Linda Bergkvist and desired to create similar pieces. In fact I follow a lot of contemporary digital artists in Instagram. However, digital art looks so clean and perfect while paint is imperfect—those nuances like paint bleeds and the many unpredictable textures it creates really make my heart flutter. I cannot verbalize how excited I am each time I hold my brush knowing that I will be making something beautiful or a mess that I could not easily undo.


Moreover, mixing traditional medium and digital techniques also creates a certain flavor that is uniquely mine in the finished artwork, which is obviously in a digital format. And that adds a certain je nais se quois in my art, otherwise known as my own style.





Distractions

I have been asked many times how I keep on track with my work and how I am not distracted. Truth is especially with this project, I was extremely distracted. First was my current health condition that is becoming detrimental in my daily activities. I had to include my doctor’s appointments, medical examinations and physiotherapies within my schedule. You all know that sitting inside the waiting room takes at least half a day’s worth of working hours, right? That knocked off a huge chunk in my one page a day target. Luckily my agent backed me up by requesting the client for a longer period to finish the interior pages.


Disciplined as I have always been, it was a great struggle to shut out all the bombardment of information that I was both receiving and actively searching. You have to be in a certain positive and cheerful mindset when creating children's books.

Also the onset of the Ukrainian war and the disastrous national elections in my country, the Philippines, have both affected my mental constitution. The war in Ukraine, which is happening at the doorstep of Europe is an international affair but to explain further the gravity of the elections in the Philippines, imagine that our version of Hitler had a son and he won the presidency by a landslide because of historical revisions, black propaganda and fake news that he himself and his cronies propagated! It is serious back there. Though I am not directly affected by any of these socio-political issues because I am an expatriate, as a human being and a Filipino, I could not help but grow anxious about the world around me and my family and friends’ fragile situation back home. As an apolitical person, I have never been so emotionally invested in my country’s politics more than this. How I wish I cared less! How has it affected my work, you ask? The constant following up on the current news in both countries had diminished my concentration. Disciplined as I have always been, it was a great struggle to shut out all the bombardment of information that I was both receiving and actively searching. You have to be in a certain positive and cheerful mindset when creating children's books. Despite all that, I finished a few days ahead of deadline. Phew!


“Morning on the Farm” is a charming book that teaches little ones about the sights, sounds, and fun that can be found on a farm, and includes sheet music so everyone can sing along. Retold by Sabrina Ehlenberger and Shalie Miller from the original Irish song, this picture book is published by Warren Publishing. You may purchase the book through their site and Amazon stores worldwide.