Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Behind the Books: The Art and Science of Illustrations

This week I’m finishing up the next manuscript in my A Place for Animals series. Right now, the book, A Place for Bats, is schedule for publication in 2012.The text is pretty much done so I’m pulling together reference materials to help the book’s illustrator, Higgins Bond, get started on her sketches.

Because these are science books, everything in the art needs to be 100 percent accurate—from the anatomy of the animals to the kind of vegetation shown in each environment. For each spread, I indicate the time of year and the time of day, and I suggest where the habitat is located. Sometimes I list other animals (besides the featured one) that might be included in a painting. I frequently send along photos that I’ve taken myself or that scientists have sent me.

For example, when we were working on A Place for Birds, Higgins used photos I took of the grasslands at Westover Air Force Base in Chicopee, MA along with various images of grasshopper sparrows to create a lovely painting of the bird in its natural setting.

Once Higgins receives the materials I’ve compiled and instructions from our art director, she starts her own research. She decides what she’d like to show, the perspective of each piece, the position of the featured animal(s), etc. Then she adds to my materials with many more hours of research.

For each sketch, she needs to make sure the right flowers are in bloom, that the animal behaviors shown are accurate, and so forth. When I review the sketches, she provides scientific names of the plant and animal species she’s included, so I can double check them for accuracy.

Since so much effort is involved in this process, you might wonder why we don’t just use photos to illustrate the book. There are a few reasons. Many of the creatures featured in these books are rare, so the photos we need would be hard to find. In fact, they may not exist at all. In addition, most of the animals are fairly small and the background landscapes are huge. It would be impossible to show both in one photograph. One big advantage to paintings is that everything can be perfectly in focus simultaneously.

The longer Higgins and I have worked on this series, the more we have gotten to know one another. And so by now, we each know how we can assist the other person to create to most beautiful, most interesting, and most accurate books possible. I can't wait to see her sketches for Bats.

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