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…