lllustration Process for “On Duck Pond”, Part 1

Some readers familiar with “On Bird Hill”, the first book in Cornell Lab’s new imprint for young (2-6) children, might notice a different “feel” to the artwork in “On Duck Pond”. Kirkus Review put it this way in their very positive take on the book: “Marstall’s delicately colored paintings are less whimsical and more realistic than in the previous book.”  Here’s the story behind that shift:

When I first began working on “On Duck Pond”, shortly after finishing “On Bird Hill”, I was faced with a bit of a dilemma. Generally, everyone involved was happy with OBH and the warm reception it received – but we all knew that it was definitely a “one-off” kind of book, given that Jane Yolen wrote it based on one of my doodles, which then became the cover. It was my first fiction picture book, after a long career in nonfiction picture books. [For the full story, check out my website blog from last year on the making of “On Bird Hill”]

When it was decided that the book would become a series, it became part of a larger discussion about the direction of the new imprint. The consensus that emerged was that accuracy has always been the Cornell Lab’s main focus when it came to birds, and that the new imprint should be part of that mission. At the same time, it was acknowledged that the series would still be thought of as “fiction”.

I’ve been a nonfiction illustrator for most of my career, so illustrating accurate birds and animals was part of a normal day for me. What made it very interesting to me was the tension between the “species-specific birds and the made-up backgrounds – the task was to make the realistic birds feel as though they actually inhabited the wholly-invented environment I put them in.

When I first began, though, I was trying to think of ways to carry on the spirit of “On Bird Hill” in the new book, which meant pretty much making everything up. I spent some time searching for “a way into” this book and, during this period, I came across some postcards of 12th-century Japanese “manga” that I’d picked up when I visited Japan in 2007. One example:


Using a reference to this and other 12th-century artists, I did a number of quick sketches. For this one I added some made-up background:

ODP2After this preliminary noodling, it came time to develop the book as a whole via thumbnails:

Thumbnails for “On Duck Pond”  [fyi: each panel is 1”x2.5”]


Because I wasn’t yet thinking “species specific”, the thumbnails are quite fanciful and rooted in that 12th-century-frog approach – not to mention my own doodles, which kick-started the whole series. As a direct result of the shift toward more realism, many of the my initial visual concepts (as shown in the thumbnails) had changed considerably by the time the watercolor paintings were completed. The following sequence (p08-09) offers a good example of this evolution. Jane’s text for this spread reads:

Trout and turtles turned and scattered.

 An old frog leaped off lily pad,

Quite surprised and very mad.

 Detail of thumbnail for pages 08-09


First full-size sketch [9”x22”]  


Below: The finished pencil drawing (9”x22”), on Aches 300lb hot press watercolor paper. Once I get the drawing to the point where I understand the space, I use a kneaded eraser to remove all the heavier graphite, which creates a ghost-like image (the shaded-in areas disappear but the basic drawing remains – only now you have to look closely to see it).  Then it’s ready for watercolor!


The first step is to wet the paper briefly (I hold it in my shower for a few seconds on each side), then immediately staple it to a prepared board (I use homesote painted with acrylic gesso). Once it dries and tightens, I begin by “masking” the foreground areas (including water ripples) by painting them with liquid frisket, (which looks like translucent rubber when dry and then completely resists water).

To achieve the blending of the warm and cool watercolors, I coat the entire surface, including the impervious frisket, with many, many layers of watercolor with a large, flat brush that is loaded with water and very little pigment, which allows me to build up the color tones slowly, with a lot of control. FYI: it’s important to allow the paper to dry flat between layers. I begin with a warm color at the top and a full, watery brush, which has much less pigment by the time I get to the middle. The process is then repeated with the cool colors, working from the bottom up, with the two colors blending smoothly together in the middle.


Once everything is dry and I’m happy with the color range and the blending of the background, I remove the frisket simply by peeling it off, leaving those areas perfectly white with the drawing still visible. I then gradually build up the tones and colors on the foreground figures with many different layers – and never again have to touch the background.


Illustration Process for “On Duck Pond”, Part 2

My entire process for illustrating pages 22-23 of “On Duck Pond” 

Jane Yolen’s text for this two-page spread:

The heron left her nest and limb,       Trout returned to quiet pools,

Turtles found new routes to swim.     Their fingerlings in careful schools.

Thumbnail (1”x2.5”) for pages 22-23


Thumbnail sketching forces the artist to be quick and concise – no room for detail, just get the visual concept down! It’s also critical for quickly establishing the overall “flow” of the book. It’s like a 100-page storyboard for a movie – except for a 32-page picture book, it’s all on one page.  In this example, my initial response was to feature the turtle and the fish in the foreground and, in the middle-distance, show a heron flying in from the left.

1st full-size (9”x22”) sketch


By the time I got around to doing this full-size sketch (above), I had done several others – and a better sense of the “feel” of the book had emerged. This led to a number of changes to many of the thumbnails, including pages 22-23. There are still turtles and fish in the new version, and there is still a middle-distance – but besides adding the generic trees and the hills beyond them, the main change was moving the heron to the foreground and quadrupling its size, so that it now dominated the left page. The thumbnail version was OK but rather bland: everything was spread out pretty evenly; the new version felt more dramatic, with the heron now leading the viewer into the scene.

I became unhappy with the heron itself: it felt clunky, plus the reference was terrible (almost completely dark). Luckily, I found a couple of references that were livelier and a lot clearer, so I erased the first heron and drew this one in the same background. So far, so good…


A bit further down the road, the publisher asked for as many spreads with color as possible (for early-reviewer peeks). At that point, all the finished pencil drawings were already on good watercolor paper, ready to go, and I was able to, relatively quickly, complete four watercolor paintings. As it happened, I had a little extra time, so I decided to try to add color to one of the scanned spreads (pages 22-23) using Photoshop (which is the technique that I had used for all of “On Bird Hill”).  I began with the heron, as shown below – but, as it turned out, I didn’t have enough time to do the background.


To make the best of the situation, I added it to the pencil drawing, below, and off it went to the reviewers.


Below is the finished watercolor painting. The primary and secondary feathers had ended up being a little (ok, a lot) darker, relative to the rest of the wing and back feathers, than I (or nature) had intended, but I brilliantly rationalized that it was just a peculiarity of the early morning light. The bird experts at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology had the more righteous view, however: accuracy.

So… I could’ve conceivably fixed the problem by going back into the original painting and “lifting” the dark blue watercolor by repeatedly wetting and blotting just those areas – which took some time and might not work…


OR, given the pressing deadline, I could easily and quickly fix it by using the handy Photoshop overlay that, conveniently, already existed – and this is what ended up being used in the book:


I guess that the fix did the job, since the reviews were great and Booklist gave it a star. Off to a good start…

Illustration Process for “On Bird Hill”

Here’s another featured post from the recent blog tour celebrating the release of On Bird Hill. In this post, I show the progression of the cover and of two two-page spreads.

Doodle-to-Cover Sequence

This is the unfinished doodle that Jane made me make a print of before she left my studio on January 5th, 2012. The print was, no doubt, lying on her passenger-side car seat as she drove humming the tune from “The Green Grass Grows All Around” and writing the story in her mind. I can’t remember if we discussed where the egg-like shape was going, but her first draft, received two hours later, included a hen, an egg and a chick.


After Jane sent me the first draft, I finished the drawing under the influence of her story.


Later I made a few modifications, primarily the furrows that broke through the curved line to the left of the egg.


I added color to the drawing using Photoshop. From the start, this vignette was thought of as the cover image.  Hans Teensma designed the cover and found the perfect typefaces.



Pages 06-07 Process Sequence

This is my very first thumbnail (7/8” x 2”) for OBH, pages 06-07, done immediately after reading Jane’s draft for the first time. The concept of a child with a dog started here (the text doesn’t mention a dog), but the pair ended up in a very different landscape.


Soon after I completed the thumbnails, I began drawing what turned out to be first-round sketches, half-sized, starting with the thumbnail but soon re-imagining the entire scene.


Because several years passed between the thumbnails and 1st-round sketches and when Jane and I actually got contracts, I felt the need to re-think everything. I drew a full-sized 2nd-round of sketches. At 9”x22”, I could really get in there and wander around, discovering a new land.


This is the full-size pencil finish for pages 06-07 (though I did add a few details later), the one where I really started to understand and visualize the look and feel of Bird Hill. As with all my pencil finishes, I used a mechanical pencil with HB leads and worked on my favorite watercolor paper, Arches 300lb hot press (it has a luscious texture).


This is an early color draft, one of many. I added all the color for the entire book in Photoshop, which may sound easier to some than watercolors or oils but which probably takes the same amount of time and work as either. For the next book in this series, “On Duck Pond”, I’ve already decided to use watercolors first, then scan and tweak the colors in Photoshop, if needed.


The finished color for pages 06-07. If I had known how hard it would be to add color in Photoshop to things like the dozens of slender frond leaves, I definitely would have used watercolors first!



Pages 24-25 Process Sequence

Thumbnail (7/8”x2”) for the p 24-25 spread. This is one thumbnail where the essential idea – foreground egg, nest, limb and stretching chick – changed almost not at all, from the first few lines all the way through to the color finish. The background went through a number of changes but ended up disappearing entirely in the final art.

FYI: Thumbnails are the critical first step in developing a visual idea into a finished image. I try to complete each thumbnail very quickly, sometimes in under a minute. The idea is to just get the idea out there quickly – boom! – before the brain starts analyzing it. The best ones usually happen this way. But, if it doesn’t work – hey, it’s easy to quickly do another one with a completely different concept.


This is one of many versions with the same foreground but wildly different backgrounds (the canyon started out as a path that became a river, then deepened).


Back in 2012, I needed to complete one spread as a sample, and I finally decided on a background.


I added color with Photoshop CS5 and then finally had a sample that, along with the cover, captured the “look and feel” of the book and was used to show to prospective publishers.


So, suddenly it June, 2015 and Jane and I have contracts – and it’s time to re-visit my ideas and drawings from 2012. I read and re-read the now-much-revised story and realized that the nest, egg and chick were resting on a “twig”, not the limb that was “Straight and strong and long and slim” on which I had based the earlier sketches. In re-imagining the twig, I came up with the curvy, spiky, berry-bearing appendages (I was determined to avoid naturalistic leaves). I really liked them and they became a key part of the book (two reviewers referred to them as “Suessian”) – but they were a bear to draw and ultimately color, the biggest problem being that there ended up being a LOT of them!

At this point I opted for simplicity, feeling that a background, while interesting, distracted from the landscape inside the egg and the exuberant chick.

FYI: The egg is empty because I had drawn it several times and everyone already knew what would be inside. Deadlines do that to a person.


The pencil finish. At the last moment, I decided that the sticks in the nest were too realistic – what tree did they come from? – and I went with grass-like leaves that echoed the frond-like trees elsewhere.


The color finish for pages 24-25.


Q & A

To celebrate the release of my newest book, On Bird Hill written by Jane Yolen, blogs across the web recently featured posts from Jane, Brian Sockin (CEO and Publisher of Cornell Lab Publishing Group) and me. Here’s my Q&A post from one of the featured blogs:

What inspired your interest in art? Did you always want to be an artist?

My mother always encouraged me, in her own way, about my interest in art (no one else in the family was interested). The first drawing on my “doodles” page was done by 5-yr.-old Bobby, according to the note she wrote on it. She showed real promise as an artist when she was in her late teens and early twenties, before she married my father, had seven kids and stopped drawing for almost fifty years. To her credit, in her seventies she began painting in oils and spent many years happily copying her favorite Impressionists.

In elementary and high school, I was always sort of the unofficial “class artist”, and I majored in art in college. So yes, I think it’s fair to say that I’ve always wanted to be an artist – even though I’m still figuring out what that means, exactly.

How do you approach doing the illustrations when you receive the text for a picture book?

The first thing that I always do, after reading the text carefully and trying to mentally visualize the book as a whole, is to create thumbnails for the entire book. These little sketches are literally the size of my thumb, and the best ones are usually the ones that happen quickly, without much thought. More often than not, the finished art is a refined echo of that first visceral impulse.

FYI: In my next blog, I’ll show a series of drawings from OBH, from thumbnail through sketches to finished art, with running commentary

What was the hardest thing to draw for On Bird Hill?

For me, the act of drawing anything is almost always pleasurable. The single hardest thing about working on this book was my struggle to break free from my career-long “nonfiction” approach, which is primarily about observation and accuracy, and allow myself to “let go” and fully make the transition into a “fiction” mode, a state of mind where the impossible can easily happen and nothing is “wrong” – it only has to somehow work within its own context.

For me, doodles have always been one-offs, odd little things that somehow fell out of my head (or my gut) when I wasn’t paying much attention. I see them now as conduits to parts of myself that I couldn’t access otherwise.

Once Jane took my egg/bird/landscape drawing and sent me the text for OBH (see last blog entry), though, it became obvious that I had to create an entirely-new little world in which that particular doodle could exist. From the start, we thought of it (with color) as the jacket, and I began to visualize landscapes for the interior as if I were zooming in closely on the hills beyond the field on the bird’s back.

What is your favorite bird?

I’ve been an avid birder for over forty years, long before I even thought about illustrating children’s books, so picking a “favorite” bird among the hundreds of species I’ve observed all over the world (including McMurdo Station in Antarctica, Turkey, Germany, France, UK and all over Japan and the US) is a daunting task.

That said, if I have to pick one, I do have a particular fondness for the Carolina Wren. Over thirty years ago I reported the only individual sighted in Massachusetts during the annual Christmas bird count – now they are common throughout the region in all seasons (though their numbers dwindle in the north during particularly bad winters). I hear their cheerful “teakettle, teakettle!” everywhere around where I live in the Pioneer Valley, and it always makes me smile.

*check out my nonfiction book about crows, for Boyds Mills Press, from 2002 – and still in print.

Origins of “On Bird Hill”

For as far back as I can remember, I doodled. In elementary and high school I filled reams of blank paper and the margins of my textbooks with tiny little drawings, one-offs that sort of just fell from my brainpan and were soon forgotten (except perhaps by the next users of my textbooks). Only a handful survived.

In college, I very slowly learned how to draw, taking eight semesters of figure drawing and creating hundreds of still-lifes and landscapes. I continued to “doodle”, but two things happened:

1) My doodles became more self-conscious and complex, but were not very “realistic” – I simply allowed the pencil line to go wherever it wanted. This was almost the exact opposite of how I was being taught to draw—i.e., training my eyes to see what’s really there in front of me and training my hand to be able to draw it as accurately as possible. By definition, therefore, doodles weren’t “Art”, which created a major conflict.

2) I solved the problem by continuing to “doodle” – but kept the results hidden in a folder for most of my life. Several years ago, though, I finally realized that I wasn’t afraid of them anymore, and when my friend of thirty-five years, Jane Yolen, visited my studio, I worked up the courage to show her some “weird” drawings that were very different from my nonfiction work as a children’s book illustrator.

To my great surprise she not only loved them, but a few days later wrote a picture book for me titled “What If…?”, based on one of my doodles – a funny elephant with tiny wings (What if elephants could fly…; What if … etc.).

As I was working on the drawings for that book, I got stuck – as often happens (in this particular case, I’m still stuck years later). So I did what I usually do in that situation – I doodled. I found a blank piece of paper, an HB pencil and a kneaded eraser, cleared my mind, and started by drawing a curved line. This time, the curve happened to be pretty rounded and when I followed it, it became an egg which suggested a mother bird who quickly materialized around the egg. Her back, as it sloped away, reminded me of a favorite hill, which led to more hills, which led to a tiny house perched on top on one of them with a winding path leading down and a small figure walking along it. The curve of her tail followed the first curve and quite naturally arched over her back, thereby creating a self-contained little world. All of this occurred very quickly and with little thought – though I should add that winding paths and little houses on hilltops have sporadically appeared – unbidden – in various doodles over the years.

A few weeks later, Jane stopped by my studio to see how the “What If…” sketches were coming along. She saw my still-unfinished pencil drawing of an egg/bird/landscape and asked me to print a copy for her. On her drive home, it turned out, she was already composing a draft in her head for what became “On Bird Hill”. Less than two hours after she left my studio, I received this email from her:

“I was reciting lines over and over to myself as I drove home and halfway there I realized that it had to cycle all the way down again to the perfect ending. Attached is the first full draft.”

I prepared thumbnails and sketches, and then color sketches. As it happened, it took several more years to find just the right publisher – and it took Jane more than a dozen revisions to be happy with her text. Last year, happily, Cornell Lab of Ornithology was developing a brand-new imprint for young children and, as Jane and her family had a long association with the Lab, they approached her about submitting something. She sent them her text and I sent sketches and color samples – and they liked it all.

So that’s how “On Bird Hill” became the very first book – in fact, the only book – on Cornell Lab’s very first list for ages 2-6. And it has now become a series – I’m currently working on “On Duck Pond” (pub. date: spring ‘17), with “On Gull Beach” following not long after that.

FYI: If you follow the link to “some weird drawings” and view the slideshow, there is a seven-slide sequence in about the middle that shows the pencil drawing that became the “On Bird Hill” cover, plus several early color samples and close-ups.