Each month, we ask one distinguished author or illustrator to write an original post that reveals insights about their process and craft. Enjoy!
From Crayons to Computer-Generated Art
by Mélanie Watt
I’ve been writing and illustrating children’s books for over a decade now. Wow, how time flies! But people are often surprised to hear that I came to this profession unexpectedly. Just like Scaredy Squirrel (Kids Can 2006), who jumps out of his nut tree into the unknown, I leapt into the world of children’s books. It all started with an art project and a teacher who sent my Leon the Chameleon (Kids Can 2001) mock-up to a publisher.
As a kid, I loved to draw. My tool of choice: wax crayons. Later I upgraded to pencil crayons, then charcoal, ink, pastels, and acrylic paint. One day, I discovered the world of digital art.
I must admit that initially I was afraid of the new technology and chose to stay with my traditional method: drawing, erasing, drawing, erasing, and erasing some more. Computer-generated art seemed less artsy.
But, I’ve always loved to explore illustration techniques and styles. You may have noticed that my picture-book characters live in very different-looking worlds. Scaredy Squirrel resides in a flat world of black outlines, graphics, and lists; Chester (Kids Can 2007)inhabits a traditional, watercolor setting with the occasional red-marker scribbles added digitally. Augustine (Kids Can 2006) translates into a fuzzier, cozier style that in texture mirrors a baby penguin’s downy coat.
When sitting down in my studio, my objective is to create illustrations that embody the essence of the story and the characters as best as possible. So, when it came time to create a bunny with attitude for You’re Finally Here! (Hyperion 2011), my thought was to work out a style that put this animal’s facial expressions and mood swings center stage. Bunny’s huge head and lively eyes were my starting point when constructing the look of this title—my first attempt at creating 100-percent computer-generated art for a picture book.
Every piece of the bunny is a separate shape and each one started off as a simple circle, oval, or rectangle. I used an airbrush tool to add dimension and to create a 3-D effect. Working on the computer allows me to manipulate layers.Mélanie Watt’s cast of characters.For instance, the rabbit’s arm is one layer, his head is another, and his eyes are a third. In this way I can move forms around and create shadows between elements. A spread can include up to 35 different layers…onions have nothing on this bunny!
When I create an ear, I draw one and copy it to have two. (A math lesson from Mélanie Watt—who would have guessed?)
But, I know what you’re thinking: Mélanie, what do you mean when you say you “DRAW” if it’s a computer mouse you’re handling on a cushy mouse pad?
Excellent question. Well, here’s the thing; for You’re Finally Here! I drew by using tools that are programmed to make shapes. I controlled the size and angles and used airbrush tools to monitor the color and spray size. Finally, I positioned the shapes to resemble an annoyed bunny. It’s a bit like drawing with cut-out pieces of paper.
Oftentimes, I discover effects I didn’t know I could create. The computer offers so many options, such as transparency and lighting techniques. I can also scan my own textures. For example, the background in You’re Finally Here! is the same one that I used on the Chester cover. I flipped a small wood table over and scanned it. Layering allowed me to superimpose that texture against a flat color and get the result you see in those two titles.
Working digitally is really a question of exploring and experimenting and using the UNDO button if necessary. As an artist, I am always happy to experiment. Plus, at the end of the day, there are no paint spills to clean up or paintbrushes to wash.
It takes a while to get the hang of using the computer tools—but when the technique becomes second nature, you can create beyond imagination!
I can copy and paste the bunny and multiply him 150 times…. So, c’mon, how many ears would that make?
This material may not be used without the express written consent of Mélanie Watt. All images courtesy of Mélanie Watt, 2011 unless otherwise noted.