Sunday, January 16, 2011


by Joan Waites
When presenting to students or adults about the art of picture book illustration, I’m often met with surprise when I describe the amount of research I do when working on any given project. “Don’t you just make it up in your head?” they ask. Oh, if only I could work that type of magic!

As you can see from the photo of my messy desk, taken at the very start of a new picture book project (due out in fall 2012), it is filled with art guidelines from the publisher, photographs, doodles, and even props. This particular book revolves around a main character who was a wealthy plantation owner, living in the 1700’s. But what did he look like? What did he wear? What did his home, his wife, his children and his plantation grounds look like? My job was to make the authors’ characters and story come to life on the page.

After reading the manuscript over and over again and collecting photographs, books on costume, hairstyles, food, and even pictures of children’s toys and plants that would be found at the time and location of the story, I began to develop a sense of who the main character was. His imagined facial features and body type, where he lived, and how he might have dressed was all incorporated into my preliminary sketches. Most often, I will also use live models to pose for me. Family, friends, and neighbors have all appeared and been turned into various characters in my books. Some illustrators have the opportunity to travel to a location to get a better sense of the story they will be illustrating, but of course that is not always possible. Surrounded by all the information on my desk, I can travel into the story and imagine myself there.

Whether the characters are actual historical figures or a fluffy bunny that lives in the meadow, giving the reader a sense of who that character is by written description or in the illustrations is essential. For example, the little bunny that lives in the meadow can be shy, fierce, or lazy. A shy little bunny might be described or shown wearing glasses hidden behind a tree with his nose in a book. The lazy bunny might be a bit overweight, snoozing in grass that is strewn with partially eaten carrots, while other bunnies are shown in the background going about their busy day.

Using these examples, have your students create a believable character using words or pictures. Older children can be assigned a true historical figure or someone fictitious who lived during a particular period in history. Younger students can use an imaginary character to describe and/ or illustrate. Have students collect photos from magazines or the internet, books and props that will give them a sense of who their character really is/was. Using a digital camera, students can also have their classmates dress up and pose for each other, using the printed photos as reference for their drawings.

Using some of these ideas among many others can be a great way to create believable and authentic characters that will come to life on the page!

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