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  • Writer's pictureMichelle Carlos

One Step at a Time

Updated: Nov 19, 2019

This is about the process of creating art for children's books and how to get into the habit of creating even more art despite difficulties.

Picture Books Round 2

In the last 8 weeks I have been excessively drawing and sketching for my assignments in the e-course Make Art That Sells Illustrating for Children’s Books and ICB Plus and boy, was it a wonderful experience!

I started from knowing nothing about children’s books then progressed into improving my character designs or illustration in general to discovering new techniques that I could evolve into a style or “artistic voice” entirely my own to a portfolio of which I could be proud.

Previously, I wrote about my initial experience with this course, now I would like to share about the joy and excitement I am feeling after the additional 3 weeks of intensive yet more relaxed paced course on illustrating picture books.

Like a Sloth!

This time I chose the text written by one of our mentors, art agent Lilla Rogers, "Jasper the Sloth Isn't Lazy." It's a mini text about a creative sloth, who is daydreaming about painting his house with tiny orange flowers by mixing red and yellow paints despite worrying everyone else around him. It was a brilliant story in that every artist would be able to relate to this goofball. For example, I once painted my mother's dirty kitchen black just because and got a good scolding afterwards!

This story appealed to me because I wanted to add an animal character to my portfolio and would also love a scene in a lush jungle. I had the visuals already pegged in my mind. Moreover, the previous picture book assignment was about a girl warrior, Greta, and I've already created a street scene for it.

So sloth it is.

Strangely, prior to knowing which text to choose, I already grabbed some plastic animals from the local toy store to play with character designs and one of them was a sloth. It's always good to have models to get the angles right when sketching. Jasper seemed destined to be my lead character. Now it’s time to create him but how to do that? Research, of course—and not just pictures but also movement and environment in addition to some more interesting facts about sloths. I spent a good day just looking at adorable slow moving fuzzballs. Who would have thought that sloths are difficult to draw? I made lots of sketches until I memorized the basic anatomy of a sloth. Suddenly I was drawing it without any reference at all as though my brain was in autopilot.

Tip: It's always good to have models to get the angles right when sketching.

My Version of Jasper

All the while, I was adding to the story of Jasper. In my head Jasper is very creative and imaginative but gets easily distracted. He actually reminds me of my best friend who is always tired but would come up with the best ideas in the world. Jasper likes salads with berries and nuts. It has to be a perfect combo of freshness, tanginess, sweetness and crunchiness. He loooves hibiscus iced tea and a snack of dried laver.

Together with his friends, they would dangle at the neighborhood jungle gym but spends most of his time daydreaming in his hammock on his tree house or stargazing while he concocts creative ideas.

One time on the way to see his aunt from another tree across the river, he spotted a canoe with a boy. Curious, he swam to the boat. The boy saw him and quickly held out his ore to Jasper. He grabbed onto it, climbed onto the boat and cruised along the river. He saw the most beautiful trees and an endless hedge with rose and hibiscus flowers of red, orange and yellow. Upon seeing this, he promised himself that he will paint his walls with flowers.

Also Jasper needs buddies so I chose a Costa Rican forest tree frog and a sloth moth. Sloths populations are found in tropical rain forests in South and Central America. They live mainly on top of trees like the cecropia and mangroves and have a symbiotic relationship with a type of green algae living in their fur as well as sloth moths. My choice of secondary characters are based from research and likewise how their relationship might play in the story. Sloths are slow and lethargic with smiling faces while a frog is minute, agile, alert and has a natural pout. They also have a similar habitat. The colors were considered, too. Brown and green have a nice contrast when placed together.

A chilled sloth lying on a hammock and a frog on his head surrounded by lush jungle vegetation
Here’s my version of Jasper with his little buddies, Tony, the forest tree frog and Lulu, the moth.

Live Review

Every week, we have a 1-2 hour live review over Facebook wherein our mentors, Lilla and picture books art director Zoë Tucker, pick a handful of submissions that met the deadline and their set of criteria. To be selected from about 500 participants from all over the planet is a big deal because 1. you get noticed by industry experts 2. you get constructive criticisms, and 3. you get a sense of validation. Not being included even though you thought you did a great job could feel deflating at first. It became practice for future and much harsher rejections from publishers. The most important thing is learning from the wisdom of Lilla and Zoë and if you are smart and mature enough, you see what needs improvement in your own work. Then you check your ego and get back on track.

After the review I realized that my Jasper still looks older and therefore not relatable to the target readers, kids. I looked at baby images to fashion Jasper's dreamy gaze.

Scene Stealer

The assignment for week 2 was to create a scene for the character. I was definitely going for a jungle scene. Jasper is a warm brown because he needs to stand out from the lushness of greens. As you conceptualize you encounter design problems. In this case, I wanted to use a limited color palette but the inclusion of an important story element, the red and yellow paints and orange flowers would make my page burst—and so I did just that: flowers bursting off Jasper's colorful mind.

Sloth holding a hibsicus flower lying on a tree while he thinks of flowers
The two-page spread showing Jasper in his dreamy state

More Practice

In between the assignments, I would draw more Jasper and gang scenes and poses for fun and practice. I wanted to get to know them more. I could work really fast if I’m in the flow. Consistency is also key particularly with their relative sizes. The title was also considered here: handlettered, serifs and white.

The foliage was the best part because I could practice my developing decorative style. But how to show lushness and depth without overpowering the page? One of my techniques is to work in layers by making several plates and individual elements sans background so these could be composed in Photoshop like a collage. Each plate was scanned at 600 dpi to allow resizing.

Tip: Having a good grip of Photoshop is a major advantage for an illustrator.

The Cherry Topping

For ICB Plus, we were only required to submit two assignments: character design and scene. But to further our journey, we were asked to either create another scene or a book cover at our own pace. While I am still at it, I worked on a cover straight away. This final piece will complete Jasper’s visual story.

Looking at this, I can't help but see his evolution. When I know that I myself wanted to have a copy of this book it is such a good indicator that I had fun.

In the 8 weeks, I’ve grown so much as an artist, found another niche for my art and perhaps a voice to go with that. How to accept rejection and criticism likewise is one thing I have learned but being resilient, an innate quality of mine, I could carry on and make much better art. If you want to get into children’s books or just grow as an artist MATS ICB is the way to go.

To summarize my MATS ICB education:

  1. Just start—you’d be surprised at how far you can go.

  2. Research and observe like crazy.

  3. Experiment and have multiple inspirations and merge it into your own style if necessary.

  4. Teach yourself how to do things because no one will.

  5. Doodle a lot. You will only get better.

  6. There are down days and criticisms but it’s completely fine. Grow.

  7. Procrastinate. Sometimes the best ideas come from staring in space, just like Jasper!

  8. Challenge yourself—get out of your comfort zone. Let go!

  9. Talent isn’t enough. You also need discipline and a better and mature attitude to get through tough times.

  10. Plan your next move. You know when you’re ready—just listen to your inner cheerleader. You’ve got this.

Having said that, it's now time to get back to the drawing board, rather my dining table, and make more art.

NOTE: The text for "Jasper the Sloth Isn't Lazy" is copyrighted by Lilla Rogers. All inquiries pertaining to this text must be addressed to her directly or via the Make Art That Sells website.


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