The Process of Illustrating a Book: 'They Call Me Strange'


So.....  It happened like this:

One evening, pretty much out of the blue, I got an incredible opportunity.  I was offered the chance to illustrate a BOOK.  As a teenage artist!  An actual book!  An actual book for children and young adults, written by someone right here in Georgia who happened to not be me!

When my mom came into my room and introduced it to me, my first action was to immediately (and enthusiastically) accept and call the author right away.  On the phone, I was met with an equally enthusiastic woman, Alexa Andres, the author of the book, who had heard of me through our shared hypnotherapist and was eager to begin working with me.  I was so naturally ecstatic that I could have sworn my soul was out of my body bouncing off the walls of my house.

We discussed the basic ideas, pricing, art style/medium, and other important things in this first phone call, and a couple phone calls later we arranged a place, day, and time to meet.  I did my first conceptual drawings for the book within a day or two.  I didn't know much about the fully fleshed out story of the book other than a basic concept (wolves, two characters meeting and conversing), but this was the first step in an educational and enriching process that would help me grow as an artist and a person.

 Young Rose + her fabulous red hood (left): We went with the design at the far left of the row of three for young Rose.  The hood in the book varies with the passage of time.

 Older Adam + Basket + random notes (right): We went with the face pictured in its own image for Adam, except with toned down ears, and the basket was pretty much the basket.

My blind concept sketches (above) To get my creative juices flowing...

Though the actual characters were pretty much nothing like the werewolfy creatures I drew right off the bat  based on some of the reference pictures she sent me, the author adored them, and the wolf (in the yellow-ish image) happened to completely fit her vision of Mr. Wolf, the not-so-big-or-bad wolf in her story.  

Our first meeting, like the rest of our meetings, took place in the cafe area of a supermarket (A Publix, if I remember correctly).  There, the author explained her vision and the story, and I received the manuscript of the book.  I was immediately charmed.  The story was inspired by her experiences with having Sensory Processing Disorder and General Anxiety Disorder, and having to grow up with her differentness and creativity being squashed or misunderstood by other people.   It follows a lonely, unusual little girl named Rose who has conversations with a friendly and compassionate wolf who keeps her company in the woods as she grows up.   It really struck a chord in me, since I have ADD and a tiny pinch of other stuff, and I've had to deal with being different from most of my peers my entire life.  My dedication to the story's meaning turned my motivation up to bursting.

Alongside the story itself and the format of the book, we also discussed character designs.  The author laid out the main features of each character, then endowed me with the creative liberty to interpret them in whatever way my artsy mind wished.  I told her I would do several different sketches for each one, send them to her, and get her feedback on which designs she preferred.  We set up a perpetual stream of ideas and communication by email that kept going throughout the rest of the illustration process.

Those we were pretty much cool on.  However, figuring out the design for older Rose proved to be more difficult.  

Now, my raw interpretation of older Rose was this:

I wanted to try and show Rose's trials and the things she managed to overcome through the design; a twenty-something year old woman in college, satisfied, strong, and sweet, but still with a lot of internal battle scars and insecurity-- a significantly older face, not your typical hollywood-pretty, but definitely beautiful.  However....  she looks really weary and kind of unhappy with those tired eyes and her sleepy expression.  She's a realistic human being, yes, but it looks a little... scary.  It looks a little too grown up.  'They Call Me Strange' isn't a super light or simple story, but the author needed a grown-up Rose that was a little more friendly and definitely happy with the decisions she made for herself.  

...So, with the author giving me feedback at each step, I started off erasing things and modifying little bits of the design, making older Rose a little more emotionally pretty.  However, things still weren't working quite right.  The dilemma was solved, though, at the next meeting.  The author was looking up a reference on what she wanted in the design, and I was sketching out another design on a piece of paper.  When we compared our ideas, it turned out that we'd had a genuinely serendipitous mind-merge!  My new design (the original sketch of which I unfortunately cannot find) was exactly what she was looking for.  So, look at the previous designs... and then look at something completely different! 

Older Rose's progressing design (left) in sketches and Older Rose's final design (above) in an illustration which was not in the published book.

We finally had older Rose's design down.  I was already a couple watercolor pieces into illustrating this book... I'll go ahead and talk about the actual illustrations now, but first, take a look at some storyboarding stuff...

These are just the big ones.  I did a ton of little sketches all over the manuscript, which I won't post here due to this being the actual manuscript of the children's book containing the actual words of the story.  It would deprive many people of an incentive to buy the book in print if I just put the manuscript up here, wouldn't it? (not to mention it would be kind of illegal)

When I started the illustrations, I started at a brisk pace.  I tried my best to get three done per week, with schoolwork and everything, but of course I couldn't maintain that without siphoning away my homework, personal, writing, and study time.  The author was completely understanding about it, since she knows what it takes to be a student.  

Nonetheless, crafting the illustrations (each an 8.5 x 11 watercolor piece) was a labor of love I worked relentlessly at.  I illustrated at home.  I illustrated in art class at school.  I illustrated in Physics class when we had free time in there.  I illustrated in waiting rooms.  One one occasion I illustrated sitting at a cast iron outdoor table in the Marietta Square while I was eating pizza with my sister, my mom, and a couple friends.  Heck, I even illustrated in the car and on the bus home from school.  Enjoy this little photo journey (below) in which I document my paints and brushes and illustrations and admiration of glittery sunlit water bottles.


I listened to a lot of music, too.  Being the kind of kid who creates playlists to fit their mood and certain tasks they're doing, I made a lot of little playlists to draw and paint to.  There's one album I listened to often-- Jónsi's Go.  I also listened to a lot of Elsiane, Fleet Foxes, and Sigur Rós while I illustrated.  

I picked out music that seemed to really fit the story or the particular scene I was illustrating, and these went above and beyond.  It helped me get in touch with the soul of the story, even when I had a rough day or a busy schedule; Music has always been important to my creative process, whether I'm listening to my soul jams or fiddling around in Mixcraft, my music composition software. 

The illustration process was thrillingly fun and filled with so much learning, and I'm so glad I got to have that experience.  It was beautiful to help a fellow creative person realize a narrative work and to really participate in bringing it to life.  I've also had an ambition to write and illustrate stories myself and, coming away from this, I feel more capable than ever of doing that.  I currently have two ideas for very picturey children's books brewing and an entire novel (young adult to adult range) in the works that I plan on incorporating my art into.  Illustrating someone else's story was great, and now I'm ready to start illustrating my own!

You can find Alexa Andres on TUMBLR here.  She has a published a fair amount of other books since we worked together on They Call Me Strange, and for each one she gives a section of the sales profits to charity.  I haven't read any yet at the moment, but I hope to.  You can find a list by clicking here.  Check them out if you have a chance.

You can get They Call Me Strange on AMAZON.COM and BARNES & NOBLE.  If you live in the Atlanta area, you also might be able to find it in certain malls; I've had a couple of my friends tell me they saw it.  It's also in a neat little New Age shop called "Forever And A Day" in Woodstock.  Thanks for reading, fellow humans!  I really appreciate it!


Last but not least... is a picture of the final, physical book!