I’m often asked about my process in creating the illustrations particularly for picture books… So this post will describe how I created the illustrations for the upcoming non-fiction picture book, The Crayon Man -showing the various levels of sketch stages, all the way through to the finished illustrations…
The Crayon Man is the picture book story, wonderfully written by Natascha Biebow and published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, and will be released in March 2019. It’s the true story of Edwin Binney who was a chemical manufacturer of black inks, black dyes, black pigments and black paints for various industrial uses, when in 1903 he was inspired to invent one of the most iconic American products ever… the first color crayons made just for children! And his wife Alice suggested a unique name for Edwin’s new product: CRAYOLA -which was derived from the French word craie for stick of chalk, and the word ola from the word oleaginous, meaning oily, like the oily texture of the crayon wax. Crayola Crayons was born, with the first pack having only 8 colors, and costing 5¢. They became an instant hit!
author: Natacha Biebow illustrator: Steven Salerno publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt ISBN#: 978-1-328-86684-4 editor: Ann Rider art director: Sharismar Rodriguez designer: Opal Roengchai
above is a cropped detail view of one of the illustrations for The Crayon Man. Edwin Binney was a chemist and manufacturer producing only black inks, black dyes, and black pigments for various industrial uses… So his daily working life was a dark, smoky, black smudged environment…until he had the idea for creating color crayons just for kids!
Thus far in my career I’ve illustrated 30 picture books… and of the last 12 picture book projects I’ve been involved with 7 have been non-fiction stories. This current string of illustrating non-fiction titles began back in 2012 when I illustrated Brothers at Bat (written by Audrey Vernick, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) which is the true story of 12 brothers who made history as the longest playing all-brother professional baseball team in history! It was the very first non-fiction picture book I illustrated because prior to 2012 all the picture books I had illustrated were fiction titles. I really enjoyed the added challenge of depicting real people in a historic time and place which I stylistically illustrated in a more realistic manner, compared to the much more whimsically stylized look of the illustrations I create for my fiction picture book titles. The success and popularity of Brothers at Bat became the spark for other publishers asking me to illustrate their non-fiction picture book titles, too
Click here to view a complete list of Steven Salerno’s published picture books to date, both fiction and non-fiction.
For those unfamiliar with the relationship working with a publisher to illustrate a picture book, in a nutshell it goes like this: The publisher obtains an author’s story and then the story’s editor, art director, and designer determine who they feel may be the most appropriate artist stylistically to illustrate that specific story, and offers that person the project. So I was contacted by editor Ann Rider at the publishing house, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, with the offer to illustrate The Crayon Man. After reading the manuscript, pondering the subject matter, and envisioning how I might approach illustrating the text, I readily and enthusiastically accepted the project. We negotiated a mutually agreeable royalty contract and then I proceeded with the long process of creating the original art images for the picture book…
ILLUSTRATING THE CRAYON MAN
FIRST THINGS FIRST: thumbnail sketches & reference search
With a historical non-fiction picture book, in order to create the illustrations that correctly depict the real life people described in the story, as well as to accurately render the appropriate fashions, architecture, time period, etc… the illustrator must spend a great amount of time researching and locating sufficient, historic period photos to use as visual reference to accurately create the sketches and illustrations. However I delay the photo reference search task and instead jump immediately into reading the manuscript while simultaneously drawing tiny, very rough thumbnail sketches directly in the margins of the story manuscript to quickly visualize my thoughts on which actions and events within the story I want to illustrate, which then dictates what specific people, items and places I need to locate reference photos of.
In this early rough stage I create a great many of these tiny thumbnail sketches, and through trial and error work out my basic plan for all the intended illustration images. It can take a couple weeks experimenting with these tiny rough thumbnail sketches just to get a firm grasp on my intended art images for the entire story, and in so doing this also tentatively adresses placement of the text blocking and page turn breaks, too.
My tactic of waiting before doing the photo reference research is merely because at this crucial early stage I just don’t want the reference photo search to possibly distract me from my main task of initially feeling the story and instinctively planning my the art images. These tiny thumbnail sketches are a kind of visual shorthand executed in a quick, rough, simplistic manner indicating the content of the scenes, the dynamic composition of the scenes, and even the general placement blocking of the corresponding text within the scenes. They are only about 1.5” x 3” in size, nearly postage stamp size, and drawn with ball point pen or pencil directly into the story manuscript margins (and on additional sheets of paper when I run out of room on the manuscript!) These rough thumbnail sketches are always just for my eyes only… and never shown to the publisher.
Its only after I’ve completed drawing this wave of tiny rough thumbnail sketches that I then also finalize all my photo reference research. The photo reference material is an essential visual tool to proceed with the next stage in the sketching process: to refine and expand upon theses tiny rough thumbnail sketches into a series of larger format sketches that eventually lead to even further refined final sketches. (It’s the official final sketches that will be formally presented to the publisher’s team consisting of the editor, art director and designer.)
BELOW are some of these tiny, very rough initial thumbnail sketches, drawn directly in the margins of the story manuscript… as well as the corresponding final stage sketch, which you can see expands and refines upon the core idea visualized by the initial thumbnail sketch. Also shown is a cropped detail of the final completed illustration -which of course was directly derived at through the various evolving sketch stages…
STEP BY STEP PROGRESSION OF AN ILLUSTRATION START TO FINISH
(1) initial rough thumbnail sketch (2) small refined sketch (3) enlarged refined sketch (4) final sketch with color (5) final completed illustration
above: STEP (1) ROUGH THUMBNAIL SKETCH
My initial very rough visualization of workers in the chemical factory where inventor Edwin Binney is experimenting with the creation of COLOR crayons for children. In this scene Edwin’s workers are leaving the factory covered in the early crayon colors. This initial thumbnail sketch is tiny… only about 1.5” x 3” in size, and drawn with ink & pencil directly in the margins of the story manuscript
above: STEP (2) SMALL REFINED SKETCH
The more refined sketch stage… wherein the worker characters are more fully defined. At this point I referred to reference photos I researched of workers and fashions from the 1900 to 1910 era to help create an authentic period feel to the sketch. (That’s a circa 1900 lunch pail the man on the far right is carrying) I have also begun to work out the composition relative to the book’s actual proportion, and have also blocked-in where the corresponding lines of text will roughly be placed. This pencil sketch is still relatively small, only approximately 8.5” wide x 5” high.
above: STEP (3) ENLARGED REFINED SKETCH
…in this stage I have scanned the sketch from STEP (2) and brought it into Adobe Photoshop as a layered digital file, where I enlarged it up to the actual full size of the book’s spread format. Now the sketch is at 17.5” wide x 11” high. I also further refined the look of the worker characters and added in gray scale tones, background atmosphere of the factory interior, and a wall clock because in this scene the workers are ending their long work day and heading home… You can see I have also tentatively determined where the text associated with this spread will be blocked in, so I can make sure the art image is allowing sufficient space for the text.
above: STEP (4) FINAL SKETCH with essential COLOR INDICATED
…in this last sketch stage I have added color digitally. This is the official FINAL sketch stage which is then formally presented to the publisher for their review and comments. NOTE: normally when creating final sketches for a picture book project I do not show color at all, preferring to keep the sketches only in B&W. But because with The Crayon Man, since the story IS about color playing an essential role, I was logically compelled to makes the final sketches in color.
above: DETAIL CROPPED VIEW OF THE (4) FINAL SKETCH.
NOTE: Once all the final sketches are shown to the publisher and get their full approval, the corresponding final art is then created based directly on these approved sketches.
above: STEP (5) THE COMPLETED FINAL ILLUSTRATION
above: a cropped detail view of the FINAL ILLUSTRATION
The final illustration shown above was created by using the final sketch as my guide… and briefly described, my final illustration process is: I take the B&W version of the final sketch, place it on top of my light box and then place a sheet of fine-textured cotton rag paper on top of the sketch and use the illuminated sketch underneath as my guide for making the final line drawing of the characters with a dark sepia compressed charcoal pencil as well as a dark sepia crayon pencil. As I am creating these drawings I make further refined adjustments to all the characters as I go along. I then scan all these final charcoal & crayon drawings into a Photoshop file where they are arranged and composed into the final scene, again using the final sketch as my compositional guide. The background textures and other textures seen in the final illustration are derived from gouache textures I paint then also scan into the same Photoshop file. I compose all these various elements comprising the scene in a hierarchy of individual layers (including added digital color layers) to create the final full look of the completed illustrations.
above is a screen shot of one of the final illustrations in progress as a layered digital file in Photoshop. To the left of the art image you can see the LAYERS window with 28 individual layers which comprise all the elements of this particular illustration. Once I have finalized the completed look of the illustration I then save a flattened version of the digital file so that the publisher gets a copy of the final illustration but without access to any of the individual working layers.
NOTE: another sample of working in Photoshop layers to make the completed final illustrations is further ahead in this post…
PHOTO REFERENCE MATERIAL
Above are a couple of the vintage period photos I referred to when making the sketch and final illustration of the workers walking in a line all covered in splotches of pigment colors seen above. The true story of inventor Edwin Binney in The Crayon Man takes place mostly between 1900 and 1910, so my research looking for pertinent photo reference was within that specific time period.
Let me put the photo reference search generally involved with a historical non-fiction picture book story into some perspective… my photo reference search for The Crayon Man involved reviewing an estimated 3,000 period photos to narrow them down to the approximately 130 reference photos that I actually used as printed visual assistance in creating my sketches and final illustrations for the book. It’s generally not too difficult locating the needed pertinent period photos of the people, places, fashions, objects, and architecture from the specific time frame -but obtaining photos that are of a sufficient enough pixel size enabling me to print them out at a reasonable size and use as reference sometimes can be very difficult. And sometimes locating a reference photo of a specific person at a specific age is impossible! I might have to review 50 photos of an item or person before finally selecting just one that meets my photo reference requirements!'
Above is 1 of the only 2 effective reference portrait photos of the real Edwin Binney that I could locate which I used to assist in creating the sketches and final illustrations for The Crayon Man. However there was a problem! …in the story Edwin was only about 36 to 38 years old, however the only 2 reference photos I had of him he was much older, about 53 and 65 years old. So I had to employ my skills of facial characteristic analysis and projection to create the illustrations of him in the picture book at the much younger age of 36 to 38 years old. This kind of necessary manipulation is often the case when using photo reference that isn’t quite sufficient for various reasons.
above 2 images: The top image is a period reference photo of an old hand-cranked grinding machine, circa 1890… which I used to assist in creating the illustration seen above (cropped view) depicting some of Edwin Binney’s workers grinding and sifting various colored minerals and rocks to extract their pigment colors to use in making the initial color crayons which ultimately were named CRAYOLA. You can see that I followed the reference photo quite closely in creating my drawing of the grinding machine… The fashions and various objects seen in all the final illustrations: weight scales, bottles, crates, bins, barrels, machines, buildings, wagons, etc… were all based on photos and diagrams from research within the 1900 to 1910 time frame of the story.
above 3 images: The top image is my initial tiny rough thumbnail sketch of Edwin with his arm draped on Harold Smith’s shoulder, who was his cousin and business partner.
The middle image is a period reference photo that I located, of two unknown workers posing for a candid photo. It immediately caught my attention because it was almost identical to the pose I had already devised in my initial thumbnail sketch, so I referred to this wonderful photo when developing the sketches and final illustration of Edwin and Harold standing together.
The bottom image is a cropped detail view of the refined large sketch. You can see how I used the photo as direct reference for their pose together. Edwin and his business partner and cousin Harold Smith are standing in front of the their chemical works factory which produced only black inks, black dyes and black pigments for industrial uses… until Edwin came up with the idea for color crayons just for kids. Edwin was the chemist, inventor and manufacturer, while his cousin Harold was the company salesman, which is why in the sketch he’s seen next to his travel trunk with labels from around America and the world.
STEPS CREATING THE FINAL ILLUSTRATIONS
As I described earlier in the post, the final illustrations are created first by drawing the characters and objects in the scene. I do this by taking the B&W version of the final sketch, placing it on top of my light box and then placing a sheet of fine-textured cotton rag paper on top of the sketch and using the illuminated sketch underneath as my guide for creating the final drawing(s) using a dark sepia compressed charcoal pencil as well as a dark sepia crayon pencil, and making further refinements to the characters and objects as I draw. These drawings as well as my gouache painted background textures are then scanned into Photoshop where all these various elements are composed in a hierarchy of individual layers, including layers of digital color, to complete the final look of the illustration.
BELOW are some of the final charcoal & crayon drawings created for the opening illustration appearing in the book -which depicts Edwin Binney outside his home in the flower garden appreciating the very colorful world in which he lives, with a red Cardinal flying by against the blue sky. It was his colorful world that inspired the creation of Crayola Crayons. These drawings are then scanned into Photoshop along with painted textures, where I then begin the elaborate steps of creating the completed look of the final illustration.
NOTE: below is the sequential progression for completing the final illustration (once the charcoal drawings seen above have been scanned into Photoshop). This particular illustration eventually was comprised of about 25 individual total layers to make the completed scene. But for sake of brevity in this blog post, I’ve condensed these 25 layers down to just 7 layer groupings. This abbreviated version still allows you to understand the essential process in creating the final illustration.
TIME INVOLVED ILLUSTRATING THE CRAYON MAN
To illustrate this kind of historical non-fiction picture book story I purposely choose to create the illustrations in a decidedly more realistic style (compared to the more whimsical and stylized look of the many fiction picture books I’ve illustrated). Therefore I must accurately portray the likenesses of the real life people in the story as well as accurately render the period fashions, objects, and places. So sketching and rendering these accurate style illustrations (plus conducting all the photo reference research at the start) demands a tremendous amount of time to complete… much more time than completing illustrations for a picture book where I create the characters in a more simplistic, whimsical, stylized manner.
To complete one of the double-page spread final illustrations took about 7 to 10 days, depending on the complexity of the particular scene. The Crayon Man required 17 double-page spread final illustrations for the inside of the book… plus of course, also the front cover art, back cover art, and endpapers art, too.
For The Crayon Man, to conduct the photo reference research and to complete all the sketch stages took me about 3 months. Then once I got full approval of my final sketches from the publisher it then took me almost 4 months to complete all the inside final illustrations, then another few weeks to complete the final cover illustration and conclude minor revisions and tweaks to the interior illustrations. So completing the entire project took me about seven and a half months, working full time.
Hopefully this post gives the viewer a clear impression of the many steps I went through in creating the illustrations for the non-fiction picture book, The Crayon Man. Any questions, please contact me via email. Or just leave a comment on this post.
View many more of my popular picture books for kids on my web site stevensalerno.com
In 2018 I had 3 picture books released:
PRIDE -The Story of Harvey Milk and the Rainbow Flag (Random House, 2018) written by Rob Sanders & illustrated by Steven Salerno
PASS GO and Collect $200 -The Real Story of How MONOPOLY was Invented (Christy Ottaviano Books/Henry Holt, 2018) written by Tanya Lee Stone & illustrated by Steven Salerno
Tim’s Goodbye (Farrar Straus Giroux, 2018) written & illustrated by Steven Salerno
And in 2019 also look for:
above is the cover of Wild Horse Annie -Friend of the Mustangs (Farrar Straus Giroux, 2019) written by Tracey Fern & illustrated by Steven Salerno