Yesterday marked the one-year anniversary of the publication of Crocodile Hungry, written by Eija Sumner, illustrated by me, and published by Tundra Books. To celebrate I thought I’d share with you a bit of how the crocodile sausage is made.
But first! I’m very excited to announce that this October the book will be included in Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library. This literacy initiative distributes free books to more than 1,000,000 children each month, and I’m thrilled that Croc will be featured in the Canadian DPIL program.
I mean, it’s Dolly!
And not to overshadow Dolly, but here’s something truly remarkable — check out this carved wooden Croc that Eija sent me!
Are you kidding me? He’s perfect! His little arm moves, the pizza has a tiny magnet in it… a true work of art! It was sculpted by Jana Vrtelova Holbert, a maker of hand-carved marionettes and jewelry.
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The Aforementioned Crocodile Sausage
The year is 2020. I’m washing my groceries. Things are going great.
I’m contracted to illustrate this book, I have Eija’s manuscript, the early thumbnail roughs are due soon, and I have been procrastinating long enough.
The first thing I do is try to map out the shape of the book.
Before I draw anything, I write out every little important beat of the story onto little sticky notes, and then I move them around on some little blank picture book spreads I printed out until the rhythm and pacing feel right.
It’s a puzzle that allows me to feel things out and see a bird’s-eye-view of a story and its pacing.
It’s at this earliest stage where I realize that this proposed 32-page book would benefit from being a 40-page book. When Crocodile contemplates entering a grocery store and then causes chaos once he does, for example, rather than squeeze these two moments onto a single spread, wouldn’t it be nice if there was a page turn in between these two events to give the reader a little suspense?
Adding 8 additional pages to the book means more work for me, but a more satisfying experience for the reader. You win again, reader!
Using the same little blank templates, and this 40-page map, I then begin to sketch out the illustrations in thumbnail form. I’m not very precious about any of it. The drawings are super rough, and barely legible — only enough for me to visualize what could be on the page.
Like I did with the sticky notes, I cut these little templates apart, I tape them to my wall. I move pages around, and I easily swap out lesser ideas for better ones. I do this until I think I have successfully mapped out the shape of the book and how to tell the story using images.
For anyone looking to get into picture books, I regret to inform you that it’s all downhill from here. Uphill? Whichever one is worse.
This early stage is my favourite part of the process, and the peak of my enjoyment. The rush of dopamine that I get from figuring out this puzzle is unmatched by any other part of making a book for me. Sure, I like drawing, but from here on out it’s all physical labour and fighting the clock.
Okay, there’s still some fun to be had… but I do love finishing a good puzzle.
Next, I create the rough sketches for the book. A little tighter than the thumbnails, but not by much. Let’s use the grocery store as an example.
I start with this:
And create this:
I build the book directly in InDesign, and do my roughs in Photoshop. This lets me easily organize my files, consistently adjust typography, export the pages as a PDF, and to see the book, as a whole, gradually take shape.
Once the whole book is roughed out, and I feel a sense of relief that I managed to hit my deadlines while working a full-time job during the height of exhaustion during 2020’s COVID lockdown, I send it all off to the book’s editor, Samantha Swenson, who kindly informs me that I was using the wrong version of the manuscript this entire time (my fault!) and could I take another stab at it?
Once I finish swearing and banging my head against the wall, I realize that much of what I have done is salvageable, and it will only require some minor tweaks to get back on track. And see, it’s a good thing my roughs are so rough. It takes the sting out of having to abandon any drawings in order to start over.
We get back on track. I adjust the roughs to fit the proper manuscript. The editor is happy. The author is happy. The art director, who happens to be me in this case, is happy, and the illustrator (also me) is happy too. It’s time for final art!
I tighten up the rough sketch, and then print it out to the size at which I want to create the final art, which I’ll trace using a light box.
Now, typically I’d create the original art larger than it will appear in print, and then shrink it down to fit the trim of the book. But for Crocodile Hungry I decide to try something different — I print out my roughs smaller than print size, and then blow up the final art, which has the effect of emphasizing the texture of the line work and the wobbly imperfections of my drawings.
I struggle with wanting my work to appear loose and effortless, while simultaneously agonizing over every little detail and mark, and this technique allows me to lean in to my imperfections and forces me to be (a little) less fussy.
And you can see I’m not using fancy materials either — just a cheap sketchbook. If I’m not using expensive paper that I’m afraid to ruin, then I’m freer to make mistakes.
Another way to be less fussy, is to not worry about inking the entire image all in one perfect go. I ink in pieces, knowing I can assemble the different parts later in Photoshop. I might ink the same bit several times, as you can see, or ink parts of different illustrations all on the same page.
Here’s the linework all assembled in Photoshop and ready for colour:
I usually work exclusively in Photoshop. I know the shortcut keys and how to quickly adjust layers and move pieces about. I’ve been using Photoshop for over 25 years, so at this point I’m like Tom Cruise in Minority Report.
But I decide to give Procreate on the iPad a try — my home studio is now doubling as my work-from-home office, and for my own sanity it seems like it might be good to have a means of working on the book in another part of my home. And while Procreate does allow me to finish the art on the couch in my sweatpants, I find everything about working in it to be slower — I miss whizzing around with those keyboard shortcuts. And getting images on and off of the iPad and back into InDesign takes an excruciating number of tedious steps. So, never again. I’m sorry I doubted you, Photoshop.
Anyway, here’s the finished piece:
Repeat this for every page, and before you know it, you’ve got a book in your hands, a carved wooden crocodile on your desk, and Dolly Parton won’t stop calling.
If you haven’t picked up a copy of Crocodile Hungry, well, I sure would appreciate it if you’d reconsider your life choices.
Thanks for reading! And thank you, Eija, Sam, and everyone and Tundra.
Until next time!
So fun to see your process! Do you decide on the aspect ratio of the pages when doing the thumbnails or is that already decided beforehand?
I had the same experience with Procreate/Photoshop! Procreate was so slow for me, even though I liked the results. Have you tried using Artboards in Photoshop? It's an easier way to export a PDF and move pages around! :D