In addition to being an incredibly talented book creator, Dana Sullivan is also a great dancer. We cemented our friendship on the dance floor several summers back at the International SCBWI conference in LA; we also share a love of rhubarb pie. He is unwaveringly generous, creating fun illustrations to celebrate his friends’ books at the drop of a hat. And he’s a wonderful teacher, as his post today about what goes in to illustrating others’ stories proves.

Writing and illustrating my own books has been my dream come true, but I also love to illustrate the writing of other authors. Digger and Daisy Go Camping, released this month by Sleeping Bear Press, is the seventh book in this series by Judy Young and, as always, was a lot of fun to draw. Digger is usually the one full of mischief, but on this camping trip he is afraid of running into a bear, so I got to explore his more emotional side.

My job as an illustrator is to bring more to the story than is in the text, by pushing what’s going on with the words or even bringing completely new elements to the tale, or tail, as the case might be. Sounds and sights that round out the story, foreshadowing, “dog-ifying” their world – these are all fun challenges for me.

When I get the assignment to illustrate Digger and Daisy, Sleeping Bear sends me a pdf of the complete book broken out by two-page spreads, with the text in place and big blue squares where my pictures will be.

I start out by reading the whole book a few times, thinking about how I can add to the story or what could make it funnier. Then I start sketching very loose and fast with my blue pencil, trying to keep moving and not getting bogged down in detail or worrying about how well (or terribly) I’m drawing. They’re called sketches for a reason. I don’t want to agonize over a drawing at this stage, because the art director might have a different idea or edits to my sketches. The less I’m invested in this part of the process, the more open I will be to edits.

I then use InDesign to combine the text and my sketches into a proof, or dummy, which I send to my art director. The AD is my contact and conduit for all art and editorial comments and she sends me the combined editorial team’s notes. It’s a collaborative process, so we might have some email  backing and forthing about how to best present the story.

Many folks are surprised to learn that the author is usually NOT part of the proofing process. There is generally no contact between the author and illustrator of a picture book, unless the author is some big deal, like Madonna or Kirby Larson, who gets to pick their illustrator. My first contact with Judy Young was at a conference after our fourth book together. (She’s very nice!)

When I get edits back, I make the revision and re-submit. They usually approve that second round of sketches, giving me the go-ahead to proceed with final art.

Again, I will get out my blue pencil and sketch, loosely at first to make sure there’s life in the illustration, then tighter and more detailed. When I’m happy with the blue sketch, I use my black colored pencil to draw over the blue lines. I work much slower this time, with more attention to detail and line quality.

The reason for all this blue pencil malarkey is that I can now scan my illustration and delete all the blue pencil in Photoshop, leaving only the black line. The black line I keep on a top layer of its own. I make other layers below the black for color. Each character or component of an illustration gets at least one color layer, and sometimes more. It can get confusing and I’ve drawn on the wrong layer more than once and had to sort it out. I evidently learn by making the same mistake a lot.

Something else that surprises people is that the cover is usually the last thing illustrators draw. By then I’ve been immersed in the story and am, frankly, better at drawing the characters after so much practice. A cover needs to tease the story without giving anything away. I submitted 12 cover ideas, all of which are brilliant, of course.

The finished illustrations are delivered to the publisher and I make a new dummy. There may be a few tweaks, but then it’s up to the AD to put it all together. I get a final pdf for proofing, then it’s off to the printer! I’m always excited when my box of author copies arrives. The kids and I pull books out of the box and give them a knock, just to make sure they’re real. Tail wags all around!

Dana Sullivan has written and illustrated his own books and illustrated a bunch more, including the Digger and Daisy early reader series. His first graphic novel Dead Max Comix is due out January 2019 and he is currently behind schedule on Dead Max 2: Drawn To Death. Dana lives in Port Townsend with his lovely wife, Vicki, and barky dog, Bennie, when he’s not drawing, writing or visiting schools. Dana’s favorite color is dog and his favorite vegetable is peanut butter. To learn more, please see his website.