I’ve been looking at lots of rabbits; I have rabbits coming out my ears.
I am working on another jacket for the popular Brian Jacques Redwall series (Philomel), and once again I’m drawing animals wearing clothes and wielding weapons. This is always a challenging process for me. Challenging, because I prefer animals to be as nature intended: in the buff (fur and feathers, that is). Getting an otter into a dress, a rat into a jerkin, a tattoo onto a weasel’s face, these are easier said—with words—than done—with pictures. I would bet that putting a hat on a rabbit requires more sleight of hand than pulling one out of a hat. It’s the ears. Either the hat must have a roomy crown, or holes, or grooves in the brim, or else the ears get bent.
But this isn’t about hats on hares. It’s about the creation process for my illustration work, and some of its parallels to writing.
Since the jacket I mentioned is a work in progress, I’m not going to preempt the publisher’s plans by showing the art; instead, I’ll use an example from the illustrated tenth anniversary edition of Redwall, in which Basil Stag Hare pays a surprise visit to an antagonistic rat. A flamboyant military gent, Basil is conveyed in the narrative through personality, action, and speech, more than by physical description, so as the illustrator I had some room with his looks. It’s always a welcome matter when a character is not overly described. This also makes it easier to avoid redundancy. You don’t want to repeat what the author has said, but rather enhance it.
The thumbnail sketch comes first, and it’s usually done in the margin of the manuscript as I’m reading it for the first time. I want to catch the visual moment. This drawing is for me, an idea on which to build. Like a rough draft or random notes, it’s primarily to show the essentials: a particular scene with subject and setting in a rough composition.
Then there’s the second sketch. If there were no need for approval—of editor, art director, and marketing team—I would bypass this stage and move directly to the finish, which, as you can see below, is removed in several ways from this second sketch. But seldom do I get that privilege.
Once I get to the finish, I begin drawing on my illustration board, using any needful references—whether live animals or actual objects or 2-D images, plus notes from the text. I draw and draw until I get it right. It’s like the revision process for the writer. I continue making small adjustments as I then begin the painting, and continue reworking the painting until I’m satisfied with the results: the final edit. Working with acrylics allows me this opportunity—unlike oils and watercolors, they are very forgiving—and rag board takes lots of abuse.
Here’s the finish: Basil’s mocking bow from the viewpoint of the antagonist, who is out of the picture frame but presented in the text—a viewpoint that is also the reader’s. To enhance the subject and the occasion of this moment, I’ve echoed Basil’s pose, and particularly his ears, with lively repetitive shapes: the blades of grass and foliage, the feather, boots, and cuffs, the bent iron fence. It was through writing that I learned this technique, after seeing a similarity in how structural repetition—theme and imagery—strengthens a story.
As to the color, I laid in the strongest hues first, such as the red and purple, to establish areas to base the surrounding colors around. I put the foreground in cooler greens to help frame the hare and hint at the shadowy environment from which his (implied) opponent stares. Also, if you squint, you’ll see two basic values of dark and light. Study the masters of realism and you’ll find that their solid, succinct compositions consist of two contrasting values.
To my great disappointment (and loss of any chance of royalties), this anniversary edition was pulled prematurely after one year. Before it hardly had a life, it was gone.