How I made the illustrations
Once I had decided the size of my book, I was ready (and excited) to start drawing. But there were a few technical bits and pieces that I needed to know before I started. With no art director or publisher to guide me along, I turned to Google for advice. Luckily, there were some illustrator interviews I found online that gave me an understanding of the basics.
I started planning my illustrations with a series of thumnail sketches of the whole book, page-by-page. It gave me a good idea about how I should space my text across the book. Mine was largely a picture book with very little text (1-2 lines per page). So most of the planning was around which lines would look the best when illustrated across two pages and which ones were going to take just a single page. My thumbnail sketches were very basic but they really helped bring the entire book together in my mind.
Size of the illustration - 'Trim size' and 'Bleed'
Next, I had to decide the dimensions of my illustrations. My entire book was going to have full page, full color illustrations. And this meant that I had to consider things like 'bleed' and 'trim size' before I started drawing and painting. On the printing press, a book is printed on large sheets of paper, with several pages to a single sheet. The sheet is then trimmed down to create the individual pages. The size of the final page is called the trim size. If the illustration is exactly the same size as the page, any misalignment of paper while trimming would result in a strip of white showing on one or more sides of the page where there should have been artwork. This will completely ruin the look of the final book. So when creating full page illustrations, you have to add in a bleed - the additional area that runs off the sides of the page.
It is advisable to have at least a 1/8" bleed on all sides - this means if the intended book page is 8 x 10", the size of the artwork should be at least 8.25x10.25". The industry norm is 1/4" to be on the safe side. With half-baked knowledge when I started, I ended up with a bleed of something in between 1/4" and 1/8" but it worked out fine. Since my intended book was 24cm x 24cm, I made my single page artwork 25cm x 25cm and my double page spread 25cm x 49cm leaving an extra 0.5cm (0.2") on each side. I had to make sure that I didn't place important aspects of the illustration too close to the outer edges and while working on the double page spread, away from the centre line. The centre line is where the book gets bound and you lose a bit of the illustration there. While I did have this in mind when I started out, I did not seriously adhere to it in practise for a couple of my illustrations and that's something I would like to change in future editions of the book.
Most illustrators probably start with the inner pages and get to the cover last but for me it all started with the cover design. I had this idea of a little boy wearing the iconic Statue of Liberty costume with equally iconic New York City skyscrapers standing tall all around him. I distinctly remember a point during my drawing, after I had finalised his eyes, smile and hair, when I got a warm and fuzzy feeling about it. I took it as my gut telling me that I was on the right track. Now I try to reach this point in every children's illustration I make - the point where something inside me goes "aww" at my own work.
Finalising the sketches
From here started a whole journey of getting the inner illustrations good enough so they satisfied my own standard. This took several iterations of each sketch and sometimes of small sections of each sketch. As a fine artist I rarely had to draw the same thing in the same way. Each painting was a fresh piece with no connection to any other if I so wanted. But as an illustrator I had to make sure that my main character looks the same throughout the book. I had to draw him in different angles and sizes and with different expressions - something that is basic for all illustrators but it was a new challenge for me.
Tracing and transfer
I create my paintings through several layers of watercolor where each layer is extremely light and any unwanted pencil lines or smudges clearly show through. So in order to keep my watercolor paper as clean as I can, I do all my sketches and drawings on regular sketch paper first and then transfer them to watercolor paper only once they are finalised. Since I was working on a block of watercolor paper I couldn't use a Lightpad for tracing. I used traditional tracing paper and transfer paper. This meant that after I finalised my sketch, I had to trace each drawing twice more - first from the sketch paper to the tracing paper and then from the tracing paper to the watercolor paper. One of my objectives as I move further along this journey is to find ways to streamline this process. I am hoping to come across a solution that works for me as I start exploring digital tools.
Once the entire image was transferred onto the watercolor paper, it was time for my favourite activity of all. Filling in layers and layers of glorious watercolor. I love this process so much - it's the magic of watercolor that finally gave me the strength to quit my job after spending a decade in investment banking. I love the way a miniscule amount of paint can create a dramatic effect or how the paint spreads only in the area where the water has travelled before and how different effects get created depending on the amount of water or paint you have on your brush and on how damp or dry the paper, or even the air around you, is. I am generally in bliss during this stage of the process, gradually seeing my work come alive with color. And if I felt that warm and fuzzy feeling at the end of an artwork, that was an added bonus!
For drawing, I used loose sheets from a Daler Rowney sketch pad which conveniently measured 25cm x 25cm (Since moving to the US, I sadly discovered there are no sketch pads available in these dimensions in the US). I usually use a 2B pencil for most of my sketching and a kneaded eraser for drawing. If you have never heard of a kneaded eraser (I hadn't till I took my first art class at 29), it is an eraser that you can manipulate like clay. It is soft on the paper and most importantly, doesn't leave any eraser 'shavings' behind.
For tracing I used both, a lightpad and traditional tracing paper depending on the size of the illustration (my lightpad wasn't big enough to cover a double page spread). For transferring I mainly used Saral graphite transfer paper but at times I also just made my own transfer paper by rendering on the back of my finished sketch with an 8B pencil.
For painting, I always use the pre-stretched blocks of Arches cold pressed 140lb watercolor paper. The choice of paper makes a huge difference to any paper based artwork and this is especially true in case of watercolors. My paints are generally from the Winsor & Newton Artist Quality range and I use the Ashley brand of watercolor brushes which I bought in Singapore. I also used black ink (Sakura Micron 005) for outlining many of my illustrations, something I don't generally do with my paintings.
Learnings and the way forward
As I mentioned before, I am still learning a lot as I move ahead on this self-publishing journey. My greatest takeaway from my illustration process was that at several points I wished there was an 'Undo' button or even a 'Copy + Paste'. This has made me increasingly convinced that I should explore digital art creation tools. While I still love the physical act of creating my watercolors, I am guessing that digital tools might help me through the planning and sketching phases of my process more efficiently. I am hoping to explore that over the coming year.