Thursday, April 18, 2013

How I Make a Picture Book

And not the only way to make a picture book, obviously.

If it’s not my own story, then I’m starting with just a Word document or whatever of the author’s manuscript. Sometimes you can tell by the way he broke up his sections how he thinks the book ought to be paginated. But I’m free to ignore that if I like–paginating the book is the illustrator’s prerogative.

A manuscript as it appears on my computer-machine. This is actually some text from the next book I'm doing with Gaiman–couldn't find the last one.

So I print that manuscript out and start marking it up. I draw brackets around sections that I think ought to stay together on a page or a spread. This turns into a bit of a puzzle for at least a couple reasons–because you want to be deliberate about where your page-turns are falling, and because virtually all printed books have a page count that’s divisible by eight. In a novel you can just throw a bunch of blanks at the end to round out another eight pages if you have to, but with a picture book you need to be more precise. Add to this that nearly all picture books are either 32 or 40 pages long, and it gets even more restrictive. Few PBs are more than 40 pages. None are less than 32 (board books don’t count).*

I probably just lost half my readers discussing this stuff, so I’m bailing out now. But there are a lot of tricks for getting to the right page count, and not all of them are obvious. So to the guy in the comments section who is going to claim he found a PB with 35 pages I preemptively say: Nope. You didn’t. We can talk about it after class.

Once I know what’s going where I can start sketching the thing out, and I always end up doing something like this:

Actually the thumbnails to Chloe and the Lion.  Couldn't find the thumbs to Chu's Day, either. Should I have made a "panda thumbs" joke here?  Because pandas have thumbs? Maybe it's a little too on the nose.

I draw 32 or 40 or whatever little boxes on a single page of my sketchbook and start filling them in. I only have the most rudimentary notion what each page is going to look like, but this is where I usually discover the ideas that will make this my book as opposed to a book that was merely illustrated by me.

Once I have all my pandas in a row I probably sketch character designs. This is easily my favorite part of the process, when everything's still new and the book in question is still the best thing I've ever done or will do.

On this sketchbook spread you also see Merle Lynn, a character from my COLD CEREAL trilogy, and also Abraham SuperLincoln fighting an octopus on the moon.

I refine the page thumbnails into loose sketches, and the loose sketches into finished sketches.

Eventually I compile all the sketches into a dummy of the whole book.  In the old days that meant a lot of photocopying and binding together a physical mockup.  Nowadays I just assemble a pdf. This is often the first thing the publisher sees from me.

The pdf is named for its inventor, Paul Diogenes Format.

Now's when I start entertaining comments from the editor and art director, and make changes, and fight for things I don't want to change.

 I don't remember there being much disagreement over this particular book, though HarperCollins didn't care for the way I was treating the text in my pdf. They nixed the CMY bubble-things, and hired a letterer so I wouldn't have to worry about that, as I was already several months late at this point.

At this step I consider why I fail to meet deadlines, and why I'm such a constant disappointment to all who depend on me. You may want to skip this step, but I can't seem to.

Anyway, you can guess the rest. Once the editor and I agree on everything, and the author either likes it or else the editor decides the author is wrong for disliking it and therefore doesn't tell me, then I finish the illustrations.

I render the finishes a little differently on each book.  About halfway through I'm so sick of pandas I'm actually glad they're endangered.

When I turn in the art I'm worried that it's totally inadequate.  When the book arrives in stores a year later I only see mistakes.  A few months later I love it.

*Okay, almost none.


Chris Dunn said...

Thanks for posting your process, Adam. I'm amazed at how refined the PDF document is that you send to the publishers. I need to up my game!

Unknown said...

I love the part about meeting your deadlines (or not, rather). Is it a good thing to hear fellow CB illustrators also struggle in this department? Or does it just confirm the stereotypes that all artists are lazy, extremely unreliable, and strikingly hansom?

Sean Scanlon said...

I always love process posts so thanks! I appreciate your candid description. I know this sounds strange, but it's reassuring to know someone with your talent still has doubts upon submitting their art. How DO you get your PDF scans so clear?

Adam Rex said...

I ALWAYS made my deadlines back when I was doing work for hire, Adam. But those only required me to gauge how many Magic cards I could do in a month, or whatever.

I just don't seem to be able to guess how long I need to do a whole book, despite how many I've done at this point.

Unknown said...

All joking aside, that's pretty much where I'm at now. I thought as I progressed in my career, It would get easier to gauge the marathon that is children's book making. But no matter how much time I tell the publisher I need, I find myself behind as I round the last corner of any project.

It's reassuring to know it still happens to illustrators who have the talent and career I'm striving for.

Michaele Razi said...

Sir, you are the man. Love seeing your process and your work is just jaw dropping! Seriously! Neil Gaman? Awesome!

nicole j. wroblewski said...

This is excellent. Interesting, funny, reassuring. Thanks for giving us a peek behind the scenes.

Daniel said...

I love the sketchbook drawings. They're better than the finished illustrations. Well, okay, no, the finished illustrations are amazing. But the sketches are better than my finished illustrations. Could we see more pages from your sketchbooks?

Wendy Edelson said...

Love your elephants, love it all actually especially your wonderful drawings.
Yes to everything you said, especially the self flagellation hair shirt late part. No matter how carefully I think I plan I'm always late and sleep becomes nothing more than an occasional exercise in which I dream of painting.
Thanks for the show & tell.

jonny duddle said...

Brilliant post Adam... beautiful artwork, and there are so many comments in there that seem to mirror my picture book experience too.

Love the book by the way, I got myself a UK copy a few weeks ago!

Adam Rex said...

Thanks, Johnny! Good to hear from you.

Celia Marie Baker said...

Stellar post. Thanks so much for sharing!

David Derrick said...

Wow- Thanks for sharing your process.

Ellen DeCarlo said...

Thank you! Illuminating, informative, and fun to read!

Julie Smits said...

I was discussing this little gem with a friend of mine today. So I was pretty happy to see you posted your 'making of'. The only thing I'm still not clear on, is this, did you finish it with paint or digitally?

On a side-note, the reason I was discussing the book with my friend today, is because I was writing a little message to my newborn niece. The text is actually longer than the text in the book so maybe it isn't such a 'little' message...

The people who have seen the book so far are in love with the illustrations, so I hope that it will inspire my little niece as she grows up as well.

If you want to read my message, it's here


Unknown said...

Loved reading this post! I'm a children's book author, so it's fun to see if from the illustrative side. Gorgeous illustrations, by the way.

JohnF said...

I really enjoyed reading your process. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

This makes me ridiculously happy for some reason.

SpacemanMike said...

Thanks for the wonderful insight into your process.

Out of geeky curiosity, what's the rational for the 32 and 40 page limit? Does it have to do with printing and cutting large sheets of paper?

Also, I've given high praise to Chu's Day on my book review blog,

Check it out!

SpacemanMike said...

Is this the usual process for writing an illustrated children's book?
1. Author proposes book to publisher
2. Publisher sends manuscript to illustrator
3. Illustrator lays out and paginates book
4. Author and Editor sign off on layout
5. Illustrator executes book (with lots of additional assistance from the publisher)

Does it ever go the other way, where the illustrator proposes the book? Do authors and illustrators conceive of a book together and then go to the publisher with a joint proposal?

It seems like a lot of the real work of the book falls on the illustrator and I wonder why we privilege the author.


Adam Rex said...

SpacemanMike: Well, the author does WRITE the thing. Those who think little of that step should definitely try it themselves.

But your outline is basically correct. The author is asked to sign off on the illustrations and illustrator, but may very likely be overruled by the editor.

I've never heard of a case where the illustrator proposes a book but does not write it, but I have no doubt such a thing has happened.

Authors and illustrators have successfully proposed books jointly, but this is discouraged. Especially if you're new to the business. Authors are encouraged to write their manuscripts and let the editor match them with illustrators, and illustrators with no ambitions to write are encouraged to send portfolio samples.

Don Murphy said...

How much time does it take for you to complete an illustration, such as the library interior? I realize that depending on the subject matter, all timetables are different, but do you give yourself, say 4 days to complete a color illustration when budgeting time? (I'm just throwing a number out there.)

Adam Rex said...

The library scene probably took me more than 4 days, Don, but it's a good guess as to my average.