It's Raining Bats & Frogs: laying out the pages

Part 2
Once I felt I had a decent handle on the witches' character designs and at least some idea of what kind of world they lived in, I moved on to layouts. Because the book is about a parade, I chose a horizontal format for the pages. Then I thought about how all of the movement and momentum in the book is very processional. I wanted the layout structure to convey a feeling of progression, so I decided that for this book it was going to make sense to start with wireframes. This would allow me to get an idea of how things might work without putting a lot of "sweat equity" into sketches that might never be used. 

I wasn't quite ready to invest any drawing time, so I started blocking things out with a series of rectangle shapes to represent the positions of the storm clouds (dark green) and Delia (orange). This is what the opening sequence looked like: 

Kind of boring to look at, but this really helped me start thinking about how the book should flow.

Next I swapped out the orange boxes with rough poses of Delia to help give me a better sense of where to place the rest of the witches in each spread. As with Delia, I used simple boxes to show placement at first. Once I began creating spaces for all of the primary characters I discovered that I needed more room for everything to breathe. So I stretched out the page format a bit more, allowing each spread a longer horizontal space. Around this time I began thinking of the story as if it were playing out on a wide theater stage with a huge scrolling background. 

Note that in this sequence I've also shifted the text forward to allow the page break to occur after "The witches were first." Turning a page creates a longer pause than punctuation, and I always try to take advantage of this for the best dramatic effect. Of course, moving the text around can create a domino effect throughout the rest of the book, and getting everything to break just right can be a real head-scratcher.

Once I blocked out the entire book like this, it was time to combine the concept sketches (see Part 1) with my layouts.
For these sketches I used a 0.7 Pentel mechanical pencil on Bienfang 360 marker paper. After I scanned the sketches I added some digital watercolor as a very basic value study.

It's Raining Bats & Frogs: early concept art

Part 1
Since it just came out, I thought I'd do a few posts on the illustrations for It's Raining Bats & Frogs. I'll start with my early rough sketches and follow up with a couple of other posts outlining my approach to the layouts and some of the production techniques and tools. 

I loved the humor and wit of Rebecca Colby's story the first time I read it. The situations and the pacing perfectly frame the "be careful what you wish for" messaging, and right away I started imagining what the characters might look like - starting with the main character of Delia.

At first I drew her like this:

Next I wondered how many witches should be in the parade. The book never really says. I decided to keep the group smallish, partly in order to give each witch a little bit of personality, and partly because I wanted to finish the book in my lifetime. 

After I sketched out a series of seven dancing witches, I said to myself "Well, this looks fun... but it's kind of hard to tell Delia apart from the others." I realized that, while it might be easy to assume that Delia is the lead witch here, it would be harder to pick her out in some of the busier scenes of the book. So I decided to make her smaller - the littlest witch. I hoped that this might also make her a little more relatable to kids. After talking with Liz and Rich at Feiwel & Friends, we decided to soften the look of all of the witches a bit as well.

Later on I would define the characters and their costumes even further. I ended up tacking this guide up near my drawing board so I could keep track of everyone:

I thought some more about what a young Delia might look like...

... and I decided she needed a sidekick. A pet crow seemed about right for a little witch.

Once I began to get a handle on what these characters might look like, I turned my attention to the world they lived in. I grew up in the foothills of the Cascade mountains where it rained a lot, so naturally I thought a rainy mountaintop village would be perfect. 

Mushrooms huts and treehouses gave the scenes fairy tale vibe that seemed to work. A fantastic parade seemed to want a fantastic stage. Which, incidentally, is how I began to imagine this book: as a play on a stage with a giant scrolling background. I think it was the processional nature of a parade that suggested this. 
Mixed with these landscapes you can see that I was beginning to work out some page layout ideas.

Next: Layouts & color

Isolating scanned drawings

Almost all of the work I do is created with a mix of real and digital media. I prefer the organic feel of real media tools for my drawings, but I use digital paint tools for adding color. I've found that if the principle artwork is done on real paper with real charcoal or ink, adding digital color doesn't usually detract much (if any) from the warmth of the original drawing. On-screen coloring allows more experimentation and is so much easier to edit when I get revision requests from my publishers. 

The Ella books used charcoal and water on Rives BFK paper, which is most of what you see in the final illustrations. The color is there too, of course, but it's really not what the eye sees first. I used customized charcoal tools in Corel Painter to add color to the original Ella drawings. Not terribly sophisticated color - but for this art style it didn't need to be.

In the early days, I used to use Photoshop's "Multiply" blending mode on my scanned artwork layer in order to add digital color underneath. That technique worked well with some things, but for some applications I found it rather limiting. What I really wanted to do was lift the original  artwork off the paper and isolate it without losing any detail. First I tried simply selecting the artwork and deleting the paper, but that still left a lot of white 'paper' behind. Using the Magic Wand and the Magic Eraser didn't work too well either. Finally I figured out a way to preserve all of the drawing detail by using Channels. Some of my illustrator friends have expressed interest in learning more about the process, so I thought I'd share a step-by-step here.

1. Scan your artwork into Photoshop as usual.

At this point it's a good idea to clean up the drawing and adjust the levels (Command-L) so that all of the areas you want to remove are white. This usually means brightening things up a bit, particularly if you want to remove paper texture, etc. 
It's a good idea to get your levels set before extraction, by the way. Once all white is removed from the image you will not be able to make further changes to the levels.


2. Open the Channels tab.


3. Place your cursor over the RGB layer thumbnail and Command-click (or right-click) to select the artwork.
(Note: I usually work in RGB, select 'CMYK' if you're in the CMYK space.) 


4. Now return to your Layers tab and select 'Inverse'.


5. Turn off your drawing layer and create a new layer.


6. Use the Paint Bucket tool to fill your selection.


7. Deselect. Your artwork should be completely intact, sans paper background.

I've turned on the white background layer here to show the final detail. You may notice that using a pure black fill will sometimes create a slightly darker image than the original. If this is a problem, try experimenting with lighter fill shades.