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Creative Process


Primary Sources

In anticipation of my new book, STRANGE CREATURES, which will be released in Feb 2011, I decided to focus a few of my upcoming blog entries on the process and challenges of writing and illustrating a non-fiction historical biography.

STRANGE CREATURES is about Walter Rothschild and the museum that he created, and the bugs, butterflies and animals that he collected, starting from when he was just 7 years old! It seems logical to begin where the process begins – with the researching and gathering of information about my subject. Primary Sources: Very little has been written about Walter Rothschild. The challenge to bringing this character to life was to not only record the invaluable contributions to science that he made, but to honestly capture his eccentric charm and incredible will.

As an author I love the challenge of digging up interesting sources and uncovering the facts about my subject. To learn about Walter Rothschild I was able to travel to the museum that Walter created – now called The Natural History Museum at Tring -- which is about an hour northwest of London. It was a fantastic adventure to travel to England. I viewed the public collection at the museum and then was fortunate enough to get an appointment with the Museum Manager and with the Director of Education. They generously opened up the world of Walter Rothschild to me. I stepped into the museum archives, searched through old documents, photo albums, and the extensive collection that Walter left behind. I walked along the grounds of his family home, and thought about what it must have been like to be the son of a Lord, heir to a banking empire, but more interested in bugs, butterflies and the natural world.

(The two pictures above are of the Natural History Museum at Tring and the present day grounds around the former Rothschild Estate at Tring, which is now a school.) Walter's life was a contradiction of privilege and wealth alongside an overbearing amount of expectation that was placed on his young shoulders. And though few are alive who remembered Walter, I was even fortunate enough to speak to people who remembered family stories about him. These direct sources were invaluable in creating a story of the life of this complicated character. And since I'm also the illustrator, everything I learned and saw also went into the pictures in the book.


Born to be Giants Sketches

This entry was posted on the Mackids Blog last week, but I wanted to re-post it here so I could include larger images--click on any of the images below to see the larger versions. One of the challenges I enjoyed about this book was capturing the immense difference in size between baby dinosaurs and their parents. I started the illustration process by sketching loose thumbnail sketches, exploring different compositions to convey the scale of dinosaurs.

Then I began refining these ideas into detailed drawings and final art.

Throughout the sketch process, I try to keep ideas fluid. In this case, I thought an aerial view of a parent next to 5 school buses would show the immense size of a mother Argentinosaurus. But I thought there might be even a better to way to show her scale. Then I calculated that a parent weighed as much as 17 elephants. I love drawing elephants, and thought the idea was better than the first.

Originally I sketched backgrounds around the dinosaurs. But the thing I wanted to emphasize the most with each illustration was life-like gestures of the dinosaurs. My editor, Deirdre, and my art director, Danica, suggested I try a white background around the art. I loved it! The negative space also helped tie the layout of the book together. The book has a pattern of 2-page spreads. The first offers clues (or facts) that scientists have discovered. The second is a full spread conveying educated guesses about how baby dinosaurs and their parents behaved. Combining all these details worked with this layout.

I loved creating illustrations that demonstrated how dinosaurs must have behaved like animals alive today. The challenge was to tie illustrations of living animals with dinosaurs and show their similarities.

I chose poses that were reminiscent of things we’ve seen in the animal world. For example, a dinosaur nest seen from above, as if you were looking down into a bird’s nest.

The cover – that’s always the most fun! Here are just a few of the thumbnail sketches I drew to explore how to create it.


Pencil Sketches

(Written by Dave) We were just updating several of the pages on Lita's website and thought we'd post a few pencil sketches. These are part of a story that's currently percolating. (Click on any of the images to see them larger)



playing ambulance

cat circus

More sketches are here and more illustrations are here.


Creative Process: Developing Characters -- Part 3

Continuing the discussion on developing characters in my picture books, I wanted to mention the importance of secondary characters. All characters that appear in my stories are important, even if they aren't the main characters of the story. I gather reference, do complete sketches, and then do color studies for these minor characters. Sometimes they only appear once in the book. But their role is crucial. They must have the same sense of life—the same uniqueness—as the main characters. Here is a short series, sketches to final art, of five figures (including the dogs) who appear in "Pennies for Elephants." The role of the husband and wife, the "Snooty Couple", is to ignore the little paper boy. Their gestures and clothes wordlessly portray people who aren't interested in what the little boy is saying. Even their dog can't be bothered to notice the paper boy's dog. These characters add some humor. And even though they have no dialog, they convey meaning just by their attitude.

Creative Process: Developing Characters -- Part 2

For the second part to my series on developing characters, I thought I'd discuss the process of developing my animal characters for Pennies for Elephants. As I mentioned before, this book takes place in Boston, 1914. I demonstrated how I developed my little girl in the first part. This story also has three elephant characters. The children in the story are painted in a style which is not realistic, but rather reminiscent of an old fashioned style. Because they weren't realistic, my elephants couldn't be realistic either. I needed to make them slightly anthropomorphic to fit with the style of the children, but still real enough so my readers feel they were true characters. I started as I always do by gathering reference. I found an elephant named Dinde, and her trainer was happy to work with me. Dinde did tricks and took poses that I needed for the book. And since the characters in my book got to ride elephants... so did I! That's the best part of creating my characters - immersing myself into the role so I can bring life to my sketches. After working with Dinde, I was ready to begin sketching. I did hundreds, searching for the proper style to fit the children in the book and finding enough expression in the elephants faces to bring them to life. The sketches often start very crude and simple, then slowly build in character and detail. Once sketches are done and I have found the style that works, I am ready to begin painting!

Creative Process: Developing Characters -- Part 1

As part of my series on creative process I thought I'd share, over my next three entries, how I develop my characters for a picture book story. The first character is a little girl named Dorothy in my book Pennies for Elephants (due out next spring). The book is set in Boston 1914. I wanted to create a sense of nostalgia with the book and with the characters. I also wanted it to be a younger story, not as realistic as One Thousand Tracings -- that meant developing a new style for depicting my figure work. I find it's actually easier when I do work that's realistic, because I just hire a model and paint what I see, but for this book I worked to develop a style which captured the proper mood and period of the book. I began by looking at examples of illustrators from the early 1900's to immerse myself in the period. I also looked through clothing catalogs to see what people wore. Then I drew lots of sketches! Hundreds of drawings of children. My style swung from too representational to overly cartoony. I experimented with putting different types of clothes on my characters, and used different gestures to create the personality I wanted. At last, I started focusing on the look of my character. But the work wasn't done. Translating a pencil drawing into a painting is often the most difficult step for me. There are still decisions to be made in the final paintings that the pencil drawing doesn't cover. How could I paint my character to capture the flavor of fun and nostalgic early 1900's. I did a series of color studies, experimenting with different colors to capture the right mood. I also experimented with different qualities of line and paint to find the right balance of emphasizing the getup of my little girl through line, but softening the look so the art felt warm and inviting. I did all these steps before the manuscript was even complete. Because I'm so visual, I often need to get my character down on paper as an illustration before I can complete the writing. After I 'm happy with the look and personality of my character in the illustration, I can move toward finishing the story.

Creative Process: A new storyboard

I've been planning to share my working process on my blog by doing a series of entries that coincide with each step of creating my picture books. I thought now would be a good time to start because I'm just beginning another story. Most of my stories are based on historical events, so the very first step usually entails a lot of research. After reading stacks of books and taking enough notes to write a novel (I fall in love with all the fun details), it's time to start writing. Because I'm so visual and approach my picture books with a strong sense of what I want to do with the illustrations from the very beginning, the writing phase begins with both words and drawings. I make dozens of sketches of my characters, exploring their personality in drawings as much as in words. Then I start a storyboard, each page of the book laid out on an 8 1/2 x 11 piece of paper. I fill these pages with both words and sketches, blocking in my manuscript and illustrations. The separate pages allow me to keep the manuscript fluid and helps me think about the pacing of the book. I can also see the book as a whole from the very beginning this way. It is my favorite stage in a book, Sasha's too! Sasha and Story Board Dave has noticed I have one other critical step in beginning a picture book --which may not seem important -- nonetheless, I can't seem to move forward on a project until I've completed this step -- rearrange my studio! This entails not only cleaning up the piles of reference and sketches from the last book, neatly stacking the hundreds of drawings that accumulated on the floor and walls, but actually moving the furniture. Maybe it's because I moved so often in my childhood. Now that we are permanently settled I feel the need to get a fresh start by moving furniture. I think its Pavlovian. I'm really not a procrastinator, I'm always bursting to launch into another book. But first, I spend a day shuffling tables, book shelves and easels, getting my nest ready for another book. Pu loves this stage. Moving the picture book collection creates a fortress of tunnels between stacks of books. The kitties stalk each other and hide within the trails until I'm ready to load up the book shelves again. Dave has given up trying to convince me this step really isn't critical to starting a book and now cheerfully helps me move the couch when I'm ready. Then I can settle down to work. Pu Books