An Intoxication of Elements

(or Kill Your Darlings)

Poor dangling darlings

When I’m illustrating a page for a picture book, I sometimes find that I capture a mood that expresses the meaning of the text in a very rough form. It feels right, but it’s just a framework. When I work on the final art for that scene, I add layers of detail, making decisions as I go along, and at some point, the juxtaposition of colours and shapes becomes intoxicating.

Once intoxicated, I find myself off on my own little adventure, with my eyes open in wonder at all the pretty colours, textures and shiny things. And then at a certain point, (often when I place the image into the layout to check the flow of the narrative) I find I am hit with a bucket of cold water.

Sober up, Sister. All the shiny things are beautiful. But they don’t work on the page.

Or they don’t work with the text anymore, or they don’t work with the sequence of illustrations. The original truth has been lost under the shiny things. And then it’s time to kill off my darlings. That phrase applies to illustration just as much as writing.

For example, this week, I’ve been making a ghost ship for my current picture book project When You’re Older by Sofie Laguna. It’s my first ghost ship, in my first enchanted lagoon, with my first ghost pirate. The ship is fun. I’ll need to paint it again, because it isn’t there yet but I can see it’s going to work. Yay! Under the ghost ship, there is a mermaid swimming. Yay! And everything is all blue and green and wet and shimmery and deep looking. But to make it truly ghostly it needs some heavy weed and barnacles and stuff hanging from the hull in a dark, spooky but beautiful way, right? Of course, right.

This is where I got intoxicated.

Oh boy! You should see what happens when you start layering up seaweed under a black ship in a turquoise sea! You seriously can lose your head!

These were my building blocks.

I started with this.
Then I made some smaller embellishments. The wet one was key. I wasn’t so chuffed with the one on the right. But we’ll see. Mmmmm.
I’m looking for that HEAVY draped look. So heavy, the ship is just drifting slowly, groaning, becalmed.
Wait, I might want the weed to drape deeper, and and to curl forwards to enveloping the mermaid. So here are some wild and woolly tentacle-weeds.

Then I put them on the image, with the ship and a few mermaids. (This is a corner detail.)

There are already too many mermaids, but the weed is making me tipsy.
Deep dark squelchy, wet bits contrasting with hard, branchy drawn bits
Oooh, that purple is going crazy in there.

My psychedelic dream here came to an end. The page needed a rock or island in front of all this weed, in order to give a sense of the waterline, and to visually anchor the image on the page. With the weed visible in the bottom right hand corner of the spread, all the energy was leaking off the page. No, not leaking …pouring torrentially.

Besides this, was all this weed adding anything to the mood, the action or the experience of the main characters? No.

So I have killed some darlings. I’ve taken it all back to serene. Sorry. You can’t see that yet.

But I’ve added a skeleton. But not one of those up top. And some palm trees… Yay!

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