Sherry: I met Susan Detwiler at the New York SCBWI Conference this year. She is an illustrator that works in watercolor with pastels and has illustrated several picture books. I asked her if she would mind telling me a bit about her process on illustrating the book “Big Cat Little Kitty” written by Scotti Cohn and published by Sylvan Dell.
Susan: Once I am contacted by an editor and agree to take a picture book assignment, I receive the following: 1) the manuscript, 2) the contract, including scheduled deadlines, 3) guidelines and specifications, and in the case of Sylvan Dell 4) a rough layout. The rough layout is very helpful because the manuscript has been divided by the editor so that I have specific scenes to illustrate, and it shows approximately how much space the type will take up on each 2-page spread (although I am allowed to change its position). With other publishers I have had assignments for which I had to decide page breaks and type size.
Then I start to work. I study the manuscript and keep notes on my visual impressions. I gather research material including clippings I have on file, books at home and from the library, and photos from the internet. This part can be time-consuming but I try not to rush it because as I read and search I am learning about my subject in depth. I keep notes on all the photo references (i.e., sleeping, eating, seen from above) so that I can find them again easily.
The thumbnail sketches come next. I reduce the size of the rough layout to fit all the spreads on one page and print it; I sketch right on that print and compose the book in storyboard fashion. From my tiny thumbnail sketches I make more detailed sketches at about one third the finished size and these are scanned and sent to the editor for approval. I make revisions and submit a new sketch if necessary, then proceed to final art.
Using an overhead projector, I transfer the sketch to illustration board in pencil at finished size (17” x 10”) and then apply the color. Big Cat, Little Kitty was done in watercolor, and over that I applied soft pastel details. For this book, I kept in mind the art of Paul Gauguin, and thought in terms of large areas of color and compositions that bled off the page. I attempted to make the comparative spreads similar to each other in palette and composition in order to reinforce the theme. My illustration board is Strathmore 500 Series Heavyweight coldpress — I like it because it is 100% cotton rag and it is double-sided. My watercolors are Yarka St. Petersburg pan colors, and I use various brands of soft pastels, including Derwent and Faber-Castell — I love pastel pencils the best; they can be sharpened to a point! I always scan my artwork when it is finished even though my consumer-sized scanner requires that I have to scan the art in sections and piece them together in Photoshop. My scans were used to print the book, which gives me control of the color. The whole picture book illustration process takes me eight to nine months.
Sherry: Susan’s Book is beautifully illustrated. The cover is nicely designed with the tiger and the little kitty. Her illustrations have a nice softness that defines the cats. One of my favorite illustrations is on the inside where the “Little kitty gets wet.” It is a great wet cat and drips with fun detail. The book captures the interest of young children but also has educational material about cats of the world and cat senses and adaptations which would be great for kids in elementary school. Thank you Susan for this great information. More about Susan Detwiler can be found at her web site www.susandetwiler.com