Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Illustrating nature

How do artists go about envisioning the natural world for their books? This month’s post again features some of my colleagues from the Picture Book Artists Association. To read the previous related post, please click here.

Author-illustrator Karen Patkau’s Creatures Yesterday and Today pairs prehistoric animals with their modern descendants. For a view of a spread that shows the vibrant artwork, visit Karen’s web site. As can be true of many ideas, it was easier said than done. She found that it became more like “The History of LIfe on Earth in 32 Pages”... a challenge indeed. For example, soft-bodied jellyfish did not much fossil evidence behind, so it was hard to find a reliable specimen to include (she chose Rhizostomites.) She consulted experts, who didn’t agree about whether Anomalocaris was truly a crustacean, which forced her to find a different animal. 

Other issues that arose included how to render the scales, feathers, or fur that a critter may have worn. Karen asks, “Did saber-toothed cat Smilodon have striped or spotted fur for camouflage? Did ‘terror bird’ Phorusrhacos blend in with the background or sport colorful plumage to attract a mate? Decisions to portray animal coverings in a certain way were a blend of research, common sense, and artistic license.” The settings were important, too, which required an education in paleobotany. Readers will certainly enjoy seeing how ancient creatures match up with their living relatives.

Speaking of Anomalocaris... crustacean or not, it makes an appearance in a recently-finished book of mine. Like Karen, I immersed myself in the prehistoric world for this project, digging through numerous resources to find just the right species to fit into the sequence of events. For example, here is an in-depth site about the “anomalous shrimp” by biologist Sam Gon lll, complete with the body plans of several species of this giant-for-its-time predator. My Teacher is a Dinosaur begins about 4.5 billions years ago with the formation of Earth, so there was quite a bit of ground to cover. To be released next fall, I’ll chat more about the book in a future post.

Ocean Soup: Tide Pool Poems was written by Stephen R. Swinburne and illustrated by Mary Peterson. She says, “Before I began illustrating, I visited every tide pool between Santa Barbara and San Diego. I needed to feel like I knew the habitat as well as my own living room. It’s a mysterious ecosystem and a rough one, so these creatures are strong, adaptive and clever, especially at hiding.” She dodged high tides, endured cold, wet weather, and climbed over slippery rocks while being careful not to step on her models. Reference photos and online resources were helpful, but she found that her on-location sketches were the most useful.

The book has fictional elements such as singing and dancing, which can be especially difficult to depict for animals without legs, arms, or eyes. She aimed to give the characters a degree of personality to suit the poems. Another consideration was the “gruesome factor” such as a crab that snips off a starfish’s arm in one poem. That kind of everyday fact of tide pool life is a challenge to illustrate for grades 1–3 without being gross, she explains.

Lastly, here is a glimpse of a work in progress written and illustrated by Stephen Aitken. This is a detail of a sketch for one of a 6-book series on climate change; Fever in the Oceans will explore the impact of climate change on the marine environment. The entire sketch plus several others with dolphins, sharks, whales, and more can be seen on Stephen’s blog

The sketch was drawn with pen and ink, then further developed in Adobe Photoshop and Corel Painter. Though it has no color yet, the artwork already promises to both attractive and effective in addressing such an important topic. The books are scheduled to be released in the fall of 2011 by ABDO Publishing. 

While putting in very long hours to research and illustrate the prehistoric life in my own project, one thought kept occurring to me... although it was a lot of work to create the artwork depicting these animals, it was also a great privilege to be able to do so. I’m certain that my fellow artists feel the same way.


Melissa Stewart said...

It's fascinating to learn more about the illustrator's process. There are so many things to consider when bringing the natural world--especially the prehistoric natural world--to life visually for young readers. Thanks for this post.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for such an informative insight into the world of the illustrator, of note Karen Patkau's work is particularly wonderful.