Brian: When I’m writing and illustrating a story, it typically arrives as bursts of word and image fragments, which I’ll get down on paper. I collect words and images for a while, and then try to pull them together so they more or less read like a story. It’s a fairly messy process, in which I create a lot more stuff than can ever go into a picture book, and as with many authors, the story can change greatly as I work on it.
First rough sketch, Blue pencil. For content and composition.
Inking sketch: after I transfer a sketch to the paper I’ll paint on, I ink in the lines so they don’t disappear under my first wash of color, used to “kill” the white of the paper.
The books I’ve done in the last fifteen years or so have all been painted with acrylics on Strathmore Series 400 or 500 paper. What I love about the acrylics is that I can paint in layers and glazes to create deep shadows and bright areas in a way that makes the physical space in the illustrations convincing. I’m fascinated by how we can look at a 2D display of ink on paper in a published and get the illusion of 3D space.
Full-sized tight pencil sketch, tracing paper.
Brian: I think “Heart Art” has to be something that you’ve never seen before, so it’s possibly startling or arresting in some way. But it might also be a little mysterious, so not everything is spelled out literally, and leaves enough space for the viewer’s curiosity. Something magical happens when the viewer is allowed to fill some of that questioning space with her or his own feelings. If you’re not curious about something in an image, it’s very easy to look at it for a moment and turn the page. If you can create an image that arrests the reader, and perhaps elicits a reflexive “Oh. . .!”, then that’s “Heart Art.”
Brian: The Rough Patch grew out of a moment of wry reflection as I struggled with clearing weeds from my vegetable garden. I was getting tired of weeding the same patch of ground, and I thought: maybe I’m doing this wrong. This garden is determined to push out weeds, rather than the vegetables I’m trying to grow. What if I were to transplant these weeds into neat rows, and pretend I cared about them? What would grow up between my rows THEN? I’m not exactly sure when that concept—someone who cares for a garden of dark weeds—turned into a story of loss and hope. But I never intended to write a book on a tough subject, and I’m glad it started with the character and the story first, and then turned into a book about something serious.
The Garden: Here’s one view of my 30’ x 60’ vegetable garden. In the front, left to right, there’s green beans (starting their way up my bamboo trellises), kale, broccoli raab, artichokes and okra. In the back, cucumbers (climbing on lacrosse net), and several kinds of lettuces. Very back, pumpkins (I had to grow pumpkins this year!), and the fencing leading into my blueberry bushes area. To the right: weeds!
Brian: I don’t do a lot of advertising, apart from a presence on social media. When I have a new book coming out, my wife Laurel and I will put elements together for a book tour. In the past, that’s included elaborate props, such as a fully-functioning 13-note PVC pipe organ (think “Blue Man Group”) I built on top of our car for people to mess around with at our Bats in the Band book events. But it seems like book events have changed in the last decade—physical book events just aren’t as effective in selling large numbers of books as they were—and so we’re not planning to be quite as elaborate with our props and things as we have in the past. I’d rather spend three months working on a new book, rather than engineering a pipe organ that collapses for driving. So I’m looking more at social media presence—posting about things I think or see on Facebook, posting sketches on my Instagram, doing a little Tweeting and so on.
Pencil sketch has been transferred to Strathmore paper, and edges have been taped with a low-tack artist tape. Sienna/brown wash gives middle tone for all of the colors to push against, light and dark. Here, I’m beginning to paint the trees and sky in the background.
Brian: My favorite part has got to be the “bloodhound on the scent” part, where I’ve had a story idea for a while and it’s been worrying at me, but then suddenly I have a sense of where the story has to go and I start running in that direction with both words and sketches. That’s the part that’s the most full of curiosity and enthusiasm, the least worrying about “is this right?” That’s the phase where everything is a “yes!” Later, when I’m trying to work out sketches or onto the final paintings, it becomes much more workmanlike and serious (though there are still bouts of enthusiasm when a painting is going particularly well or I’ve discovered a combination in my color palette that wasn’t in my original plan for a piece.
I’ve finished the sky. Note Scotch tape, used to create a crisp line at the top of the fence.
Starting in on painting the fence. I could have just painted the whole fence as a single wash of color and then gone in to paint spaces between the “boards,” but I found that painting each one separately, masked off with Scotch tape, gave a much more convincing effect of real boards.
Brian: It’s useful to booksellers to categorize a story, put it into a simple “box” that might make it easy for prospective buyers to select a book. But that can get very restrictive—some buyers, for instance, have categorized my bat books as “Halloween books,” because. . . well, bats. But they couldn’t be any less Halloween-y! They’re really spring and summer books. I hope that THE ROUGH PATCH won’t be boxed in as a “useful story on a specific topic,” and will be seen more as the story of a fox in a difficult period of his life. I didn’t set out to write a book on a theme or on a difficult subject, so I’d hate for it to be just be seen as a “niche” book. I’d love it if readers could just go along with Evan as he takes his journey, and find it attaches in a meaningful way to some particular experience they’ve had in their own lives.
Closeup of Evan’s face. Starting to model the fur on his cheeks. I tend to paint eyes fairly early on, because they carry so much of the emotional weight of an illustration, and having the finished eyes directs much of the rest of the painting.
Brian: I have a number of stories in the works—one is a quixotic project that I’ve wanted to do for over a decade, that would involve very elaborate illustrations done in a variety of media, including carved bas relief, sculpture, oil paintings, etc. I’ve got some other things brewing as well, but they’re in that fragile stage where the slightest criticism could knock them over, so I’m being protective of them.
Fence and Evan are finished, working on modeling the light on the pumpkin (lighting is bad here—the image isn’t this dark in reality)
Brian: Does Evan, the main character in The Rough Patch, have a last name? Yes, he does, though his surname ended up getting cut from the story. His full name is Evan Faulstich (I honestly can’t say why—that’s the name that “arrived” when I first conceived of the character). During the editorial process, some people felt that last name was too unusual. They expected it to matter to the story arc somehow, and felt it left something unanswered when it turned out to be just a name. So though most readers will never know his full name, I can’t think of him just as “Evan,” because I’ve been mulling this story over in my head for fourteen years!
Laurel came in while I was painting, and snapped a photo without my knowing. I’m probably listening to Spotify or NPR on headphones, which suggests this is early morning.
the other side of my studio, with finished paintings from the book hanging up. The mess on the desk indicates that I’m very deep into the final paintings, and horizontal surfaces are being used for dumping things.
HarperCollins Children's Books