The Story I’ll Paint: Part 3 – Devil’s in the Details

Eventually there comes a time when the artist must figure out all the things that are happily ignored during the thumbnail phase: perspective, anatomy, facial expression, and the nitty-gritty details that fill the world of the picture book. This can seem daunting, but there are plenty of steps one can take in order to make this easier.

1. Reference images

I’ve found that it’s well worth my time to make reference photos or sketches for the poses of my characters. Sometimes I had to be pretty creative to get the right angle and pose. For the balloon page, I needed to draw the mother from above, running and dropping firewood at the same time. I put on a dress, bought some firewood, and made my husband photograph me from the second story of our house. It took quite a few tries and a lot of yelling through the window before we got it right. I’m sure the neighbors thought I was crazy.

Yes, I'm wearing jeans under the dress. But it was snowing.

Yes, I'm wearing jeans under the dress. But it was snowing.

Models are another useful tool. They can be elaborate or simple. Sometimes a bit of modeling clay and a scrap of cloth was enough to get the right position:

balloon-baby clay model and final drawing

Fabric scrap + modeling clay + bowl = hot air balloon baby. Please pardon my dirty window in the background.

2. Perspective

If you’re working with perspective, it’s important to get it right. A few errors can throw the whole illustration off. I often find that my vanishing points are inconveniently distant. There are more traditional ways to deal with this problem, but since I’m a modern gal I’ve taken to using Adobe Illustrator to figure it all out.

The simple and quick method is to open the rough sketch and draw lines for your horizon and vanishing points manually with the line tool. If you have something fancy going on like a wacky three-point perspective or lots of round objects, you can take advantage of the built in perspective tool. I used this for my balloon page, making sure that all the round objects were correctly proportioned:

Perspective drawing for hot air balloon illustration

It looks chaotic, but somehow made sense at the time.

3. Putting it all together

With the perspective lines overlaid on the rough sketch, I projected the whole thing onto a larger piece of paper as my guide for the final drawing, keeping the other reference images nearby. Here you can see the transition from thumbnail to final drawing to final art:

thumbnail, drawing and final illustration of hot air balloon

As you can see, the cat transformed into dad at some point along the way.

For more on this subject, I recommend the wonderful reference book by Dinotopia artist James Gurney, Imaginative Realism. If you’re not familiar with Gurney’s work, he is truly a master of his craft. The book worth a read for everyone, but is especially useful for illustrators working in more realistic styles. (No, I’m not cool enough to actually know Gurney personally and he did not ask me to promote his book. It’s just one of my favorite references.)

Coming up next: Color Magic – Adding color and light!
Other posts in the series:
The Story I'll Paint: Part 4 - Color Magic, Plus a Giveaway
The Story I'll Paint: Part 2 - Finding Harmony


  1. by Nancy Tandon on October 15, 2015  4:49 pm Reply

    Gorgeous illustrations! Very fun for this non-artist to see your process. Wow!

    • by Jess on October 20, 2015  6:50 pm Reply

      Thanks, Nancy! I'm so glad you find it interesting.

  2. Pingback : Jessica Lanan Illustration » Pictures and Words » The Story I’ll Paint: Part 5 – Painting with Guts

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