Monday, September 28, 2015

The Making of The Mermaid's Gift: My Illustration Process

The Mermaid's Gift illustrated by Traci Van Wagoner A behind the scenes look at the making of a picture book

Color me excited! My new book, The Mermaid’s Gift written by Claudia Cangilla McAdams and published by Pelican Publishing is out and about in the real world. So I thought I'd share my illustration process for this book as a fun introduction for anyone who hasn't bought it yet. (Don't worry there are links at the end for where you can get your very own copy.)

A version of this post can be found on Dani Duck: Artist Obsure as part of Smart Dummies.

After illustrating eight picture books and creating five dummies for my own manuscripts, each a bit of an experiment, I’m happy to say that I finally feel like I have a pretty good system worked out.

Quick read through 

This quick read through opens my mind to the world of the story. I then let my imagination explore the possibilities without any limitations to specific pages or scenes. The process from first contact to contract takes a long time, so this story had a long time to percolate.

Reference research

Pinterest is a ton of fun for this. I set up folders for each project and collect images for reference and inspiration. In this case, colorful Burano, Italy (look it up on Google. If you’re feeling blue, this place will perk you right up); lace, lots and lots of lace research; historical photos of Burano and the lace museum there. I even used Google Earth to walk around the island.

Character sketches 

I work out clothes, hair styles, facial features, culture, and age. I sketch the main characters from a variety of angles, different facial expressions, moods, emotions, keeping mind the need to keep the main characters consistent throughout with the same clothes, hairstyle, facial features, eye colors, etc.

Text Dummy 

I print out the manuscript and break it up into 16 sections. I fold 9 sheets of legal or ledger paper in half and staple them in the middle with a special stapler I bought years ago for this purpose. I cut up the text and tape each section in its spread roughly where I think it might go, telling the story with the text — one chunk for the entire spread, or broken up with some on the left and some on the right. Since Mermaid is a retelling and set in the 1800s, I decided to go with a classic feel, keeping the text in blocks, but incorporating them into the illustrations. I played around with borders and copy blocks, but dropped that in the final sketch stage.

Brainstorm Scenes 

Blue sky thinking with my husband bouncing around ideas about the overall look, world, setting, perspectives, angles, pov, lighting. Playing with the best way to illustrate each scene adding to the story in unique ways. For this book I really wanted drama, which I achieved with lighting, angles, and unique perspectives.

“I love your boldness in composing the pages. Many illustrators are timid about the interplay between form and function, and your work is like a breath of fresh air.” ~ Johanna Rotondo-McCord, Artist.

More reference research 

This stage is pretty much ongoing and so much easier now days. I remember the days of having to go up to the reference library on 42nd street to get images. For this project, I did a lot of lace research — patterns, tutorials, various types of lace, designs, styles, materials, etc. I think that all paid off since I have had many people ask how I created the lace, and have complimented me on the beauty and realistic feel of the lace.

Sketches for The Mermaid's Gift illustrated by Traci Van Wagoner


With sketchbook and ballpoint pen, I roughly block out the scenes I have bubbling in my imagination after the brainstorming session. With this project, I established a sort of zig-zag pattern through the spreads, leading the eye through the story with a variety of spots, full spreads and text placement that would keep the eye moving how I wanted.

Sketch Dummy 

Sketch and explore scenes building on initial rough thumbnails. My ink sketches are rough at this stage. I scan those, clean them up a bit and print each spread as close to actual size as I can. With marker paper, several good ol’ #2 pencils, and a kneaded eraser, I set to work creating the final detailed pencil sketches. Marker paper is see-through without needing a light box, but not as smeary as tracing paper. I scanned those sketches and put them together back in their spreads. I cleaned them up, made pngs which I made into a pdf and emailed it to the AD. He came back to me with only a few revisions.
Sketches for The Mermaid's Gift illustrated by Traci Van Wagoner

Value and Color Thumbnails 

I made a contact sheet in Photoshop of the sketches on an 11x17 document. I added a layer with my paper in a gray tone, creating an overall stormy feel. A second layer for value, establishing mood, and a third layer for color studies. I created a limited palette, keeping in mind the stormy feel of the story and moving to a light and happy feeling in the end.

“You have perfectly captured the moods of the various scenes, giving the story "life" in your depictions of the throwing of the fishing net, the ferociousness of the storm at sea, the mermaid's creation of the lace, and so on.” ~ Claudia Cangilla McAdam

Final Painting Begins

I paint in Photoshop with my own brushes, textured papers, and color palettes, plus a ton of layers. I could do a whole-nother post about the ups and downs of finishing a full book. There were days I thought I was brilliant, and days when I felt like a total fraud with no right to get to draw and paint for a living. Every book has this stage no matter how much I’ve learned and grown and figured out what I’m doing.

Final interior illustration for The Mermaid's Gift illustrated by Traci Van Wagoner


Finish the Dang Thing Already 

And then comes the finishing. This may be the hardest of all stages for me. I have a resistance to finishing things. I don’t know why. That’s just the crazy way I am. One night my husband told me to sit and finish one at a time. I had the final highlights and finishing touches and fixes and whatnots to do. When I finished one I’d shout it out. I was reward with a DING-DING-DING and a compliment of some encouraging sort. Then it was back to the next one.
Final interior illustration for The Mermaid's Gift illustrated by Traci Van Wagoner

I finally finished them and sent them off to the Art Director. The end result: A love fest with my art, and an offer for another book. Cody and Grandpa’s Christmas Tradition written by Gary Metivier. Stay tuned for updates on that project.

Thanks for reading my long ramble.

Live, laugh, and learn!

Book Trailer

Now, as I promised, The Mermaid's Gift is available at:
Barnes and Noble
Pelican Publishing

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Illustration Friday -- Mermaid

What a great topic for me this week with Illustration Friday's Mermaid. I've been pretty submersed in mermaids over the last year (so to speak). This prompt gave me the perfect opportunity to finish a sketch I had created to get the job to illustrate The Mermaid's Gift by Claudia Cangilla McAdams and published by Pelican Publishing. I hope you enjoy!

Friday, September 18, 2015

Getting the Job

Since my picture book, The Mermaid's Gift written by Claudia Cangilla McAdams is hitting the shelves this month from Pelican Publishing, I thought I'd share a series of posts giving you some background to the book and how it came to be, starting with the interesting way I got the project in the first place. Well, I hope you think it's interesting anyway.

I have to admit I was hesitant at first (many years ago now) to join in the FB craze (as well as other social media), but I'm glad I did. One day as I was scrolling through different feeds with a variety of FB groups, and I came across a post in Children's Book Illustrations by Kevin Johnson, AD at Pelican Publishing, looking for an illustrator. I was like, oh, cool, a possible illustration job. I shared it on my timeline and then went back to the current project since I had spent up all my social media time for the morning.

An hour or so later, my husband was doing his morning read through on the iPad when he shouted up at me, "Hey, what's going on with this illustration job post?"

I responded with an, "Oh yeah, I saw that this morning, but I haven't done anything about it."

Frankly I was a bit jaded to the possibility of this being a real job since I've been working on Elance and most of the picture book jobs on there are a joke with the writer only wanting to pay $200 or so to illustrate a full book. But my husband urged me to get on it and send an email at least.

So I did. I introduced myself, giving my schpill about my experience and passion for children's books, a rundown of the way I work, links to my online portfolios, followed up with a closing paragraph about how excited I am about the title and the possibilities. I still wasn't holding out much hope of this being a real job. Like I said, a bit jaded.

I was happy that I finally finished a mermaid painting a short time before, so I sent that along with a few other samples.

He responded later that day with a very positive note and said he'd pass along my samples. Good news. Now, I was letting some excitement leak in. Hey, like my blog title says, celebrate the little things.

The next day I got another email saying the publisher liked some of my samples, but still wasn't sure I was right for this project. She wanted to see more natural colors and realism.

She likes the style that you use on the image of the mermaids on the rocks but she doesn’t want the whimsical colors for this book she want’s things to look natural. The sky blue, the mermaid’s hair a natural color, etc.

She asked if you could provide a sketch of two characters from the book since she wanted to see if you could do what she wanted. So, I was back to being a bit disappointed. That jaded part of me again since so many jobs I'd pitched on over the last year, they wanted free samples to prove I could do what I said I could do. That's what a portfolio is for, dang it! But I did understood since they wanted to make sure I could do a bit more realistic than many of the samples I'd sent which leaned to more stylized characters. I emailed that I would try to fit in the time to do some sketches over the weekend and also expressed my concern in doing this and hoping it would put me on short list. Kevin assured me it would and that he really wanted me to work on this book.

So, I did, and this is what I sent on Monday morning.

I crossed my fingers and went back to work on another project with a tight deadline. I tried not to think about, but you know how that goes. Every few seconds Oooh, maybe I'll get that mermaid book. How fun would that be?
 Wednesday afternoon I got an email back. "You're in!"

Yay! Happy dancing.
TVW Dancing Dog

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is how I got the job for The Mermaid's Gift, written by Claudia Cangilla McAdams. Thanks for listening.

For your convenience, I've included links to where you can buy my book online and also a link to the really cool book trailer.

Available at:
Barnes and Noble
Pelican Publishing

Book Trailer


Friday, September 4, 2015

Happy Friday!

Summertime Reading by Traci Van Wagoner
Another week has zoomed by and now we have a nice long weekend ahead. This time of year always comes with a bittersweet feeling. I love summer, but I also am getting tired of being hot. That's why I love the seasons. I will miss summer though with the roof garden and pool, shorts, flip flops and not having to bundle up to go outside. It's been a wonderful summer.

I hope you all have some good books to read over the long reading weekend.
Enjoy your Labor Day weekend!

Sunday, August 30, 2015

The Mermaid's Gift

I'm so happy to be able to share this amazing book trailer for The Mermaid's Gift created by the author Claudia Cangilla McAdams with the expert help of brother, Chris Cangilla. I think it's amazing. Enjoy!

Monday, August 24, 2015

Hard Lessons Learned

I'm taking a nice breather after finishing the illustrations and design for Nelson Beats the Odds by Ronnie Sidney II and thought I'd share a few hard lessons I learned along the way.

I got the job to illustrate and design the book along with my husband and business partner, Kurt Keller. The author, Ronnie is passionate about this project and had imagery and symbolism he wanted represented along with a characters that related to himself and his friends. After a couple read-throughs of the manuscript, I knew this had to be set in a graphic novel format to get the idea across. Crazy, yes. I had never done a comic strip, graphic novel, or anything similar to this before. I do like a challenge. Ronnie was thrilled with the idea. This is what he wanted, but he wasn't sure from seeing my portfolio if I did this kind of work.

So, with the contract signed,  I set to work trying to figure out what in the hell I'm doing. You're a fraud! kept running through my head. You have no idea what you're doing. So I researched, and read, and googled, and studied, and sketched, and researched some more.

Every project is a new challenge for me and I love to try new things, but I was afraid I had bit off more than I could chew on this one. One step at a time. I researched what others have done, studied many graphic novels and the illustrators websites. A couple I found particularly helpful were Dani Jones' My Sister the Freak and Dan Santat's Sidekicks. With more knowledge and inspiration under my belt I started plugging away, knowing that I have the skills and ability to do this.

Thumbnails and sketches for Nelson Beats the Odds
I created a text dummy where I broke up the text into chunks and placed on page in rough spots they'd go. This is a fun exploratory stage where I feel out how the story will unfold through the 32 page format. And then came the sketching.

There were so many illustrations with this format, I felt overwhelmed through much of the project. The final sketch dummy had many finished and established sketches, but many that were still very rough and scribbly. I got a bit lazy and the deadline was looming, so I sent it along this way. I got approval to move to the final illustrations with some notes and reference from the author of hairstyles and clothing he'd like to incorporate into the characters. Great, I was good to go.

First hard lesson learned:  I tried to skip the step of finalizing all the sketches and having them well established before starting on the final colors. In the long-term this was not a good idea, and I'm here to tell you that cheating at this stage really came around to bite me in the ass later. I had to redo several of the illustrations since the character wasn't quite right and the pose felt clunky. If I had sketched everything out properly, the last stage would have been much smoother with less hair pulling and frustration and redoing.
Nelson in progress

My second mistake and hard lesson learned: I didn't fully decide on the final style of illustration before diving in, which lead to a lot of experimenting and redoing along the way. There is always some amount of experimenting and trial and error when illustrating a full book (at least for me), but it didn't need to be as much. The lesson here is to not get lazy and impatient on the early steps of the process. You cannot cheat the process and get away with it if you want to send out something good. Nope, nope, nope.

What lessons have you learned the hard way in your creative endeavors? I'd love to know I'm not the only one getting bit in the ass.

About the book:
Nelson use to think school was all about playing around and talking with his friends. When he learns that he’s been placed in special education, he fears being teased so he keeps his learning disability and ADHD diagnosis a secret. With the encouragement of his parents and assistance from Mrs. T., his special education teacher, Nelson pushes the boundaries and discovers his potential. His hard work pays off when he graduates from college with his social work degree.

Nelson Beats the Odds is an inspiring story that celebrates friendship, resilience and empowerment. The striking illustrations give life to Nelson Beats The Odds while the author’s story is perfect for students diagnosed with learning disabilities or mental health disorders. Imagine That! Design provided the illustration, layout & design and formatting services. The company is located in New York City. 

The book will be available in September. You can pre-order at Creative Medicine here:
Or at Amazon

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Good News -- The Mermaid's Gift

I am thrilled to share the news that I have been contracted by Pelican Publishing to illustrate a new picture book, The Mermaid's Gift by Claudia Cangilla McAdams. I'm very excited to be involved in helping to bring this story to life. Here is a sneak peek for you.

The Mermaid's Gift is a legend of a hungry village who received the gift of lace from a mermaid.

The woman of the village of Burano use the mermaid's gift as a pattern to create their famous and beautiful lace.

I've really enjoyed picking up a pencil again to sketch out this book. I usually sketch in ink, but for this book, I want a more realistic feel with moody undertones and pencil worked best. I am looking forward to painting. I will be painting these in Photoshop with my own paper, textures, and brushes. I love being able to use my traditional media training to paint on the computer. Stay tuned to see the progress of this book which is due out in the fall of 2015.