WATERCOLOR DRY BRUSH
I have never used watercolors in the traditional manner of loose washes. Instead I use a technique called dry brush, in which you build up colors with layer upon layer of fine brushstrokes. I would always have a paper towel in my left hand to wipe excess paint off the brush. It isn’t really dry, of course, just not drippy wet.
I learned this technique in graduate school when I was studying medical illustration. I liked it because of the control it offered me. PETROSINELLA was the first book I did in watercolor dry brush. Others were THE CONVERSATION CLUB and A COUNTRY TALE.
PEN-AND-INK WITH PRE-SEPARATED OVERLAYS
I studied pen-and-ink in graduate school, too. We were taught a nineteenth-century engraving technique called “eyelashing,” in which you make a curved line that grows thicker in the middle, then tapers off to thin again. When you stack up lots of these curved lines, they gave a real sense of a rounded form, with a highlight, a shadow, and a reflected light. It was very, very difficult and I rarely do it anymore. But as with the watercolor dry brush, I love building up a complex design out of small, delicate, individual strokes.
I used pen-and-ink for LITTLE ORPHANT ANNIE and Jane Yolen’s SLEEPING UGLY, then put soft color over them through pre-separation. That means I did transparent overlays in black and white, one for each of the three printing colors: cyan, magenta, and yellow. (Actually, there’s a fourth color, black, but that didn’t require an overlay. It was the pen-and-ink drawing itself, called the “base plate.”) Depending on how light or dark each black and white overlay was (in this case I did it in pencil so it was all very soft and subtle), that’s how light or dark that particular color would be when it was printed.
Many books were done this way when I first started as an illustrator. Later, when full color printing became more affordable, it was no longer necessary. Nobody does pre-sep anymore.
INK RESIST WITH OVERLAYS
This one is a little hard to describe, so bear with me. The base plate, or main drawing, was done with ink resist on good quality watercolor paper. I would first lay out the design using non-photo blue pencil (which is invisible to a camera photographing in black and white). Once I was happy with my drawing, I painted all the negative space (the area where there wouldn’t be any lines) with a special kind of water-based white paint. When this was dry, I took a fat brush and covered everything with India ink and let it dry again.
Finally I took the whole thing over to the sink and ran water over it (this is why you need good quality watercolor paper). India ink, once dry, doesn’t wash away—but the parts that were sitting on top of the protective paint did. The resulting black line looked a bit like a woodcut—crude in a really nice way. Of course, there were always a few mistakes, areas that didn’t “take,” or areas where I wanted to add some detail, so I went in and did touch-ups with pen-and-ink.
So, that’s the base plate. Next I added color. And here’s where it gets complicated. (You thought it was already complicated?) I had three overlay sheets of very thick vellum for every illustration, and I painted them in shades of gray, using photo retouch paint. These paints come in numeric gradations from black to white and percentages in between. I had a chart of colors that I worked from showing, for example, that if you mix 60% yellow and 20% cyan, you get a nice spring green. So I’d put 60% retouch gray paint on the tree on the yellow overlay and 20% retouch gray on the cyan overlay. The overlays would then be photographed, made into printing plates, and printed in color. I only did this once, for HALF-A-BALL-OF-KENKI by Verna Aardema, but the results were wonderfully colorful and bright.
I love colored pencil, but I only used it as a primary book medium once, in BIRDSONG LULLABY. I bought the wrong kind of paper to work on—soft printmaking paper—and no matter how much I bore down with the pencils, I couldn’t get crisp, dark lines. This turned out to be a happy accident, because BIRDSONG LULLABY is a soft, dreamy story and the look was just right.
I did come in with some delicate little lines of colored inks, however, in places where I needed more definition.
I often use colored pencil in a mixed-media way, especially when I worked in watercolor—to add subtle detail on a face, to warm up the green on a hillside, that kind of thing. It’s a quick, easy fix.
My favorite. Gouache (pronounced goo-wash) is an opaque watercolor, sometimes called “designer’s colors.” It allows you to get a flat, even, brilliant color, and unlike transparent watercolors, you can paint light over dark. I did most of my biographies in gouache, as well as FORTUNE. (I used elements of collage in that book, too, mostly on the borders.
Later, as in LEONARDO DA VINCI, I combined transparent watercolor (for delicate things like faces) with gouache (for bold costumes, walls, floor patterns, etc.). It proved to be a great combination.
I only tried acrylics once, with JOAN OF ARC, but the medium didn’t suit me. The paint had an unpleasant texture and it dried too fast.
Ah, pastels. I used them only once, for THE TRUE ADVENTURE OF DANIEL HALL. How I loved the softness of the medium and the way I could smudge them with my fingers. And the colors are so rich and beautiful. But they made an unholy mess of my studio (and of the artist as well). Worse, pastels are terribly fragile; touch them at your peril. (That means you, Mr. Printer man in Hong Kong!) True, you can spray them with fixative, and that helps somewhat, but fixative tends to darken the colors and the surface can still be smudged. So I built a protective foam a core box for each illustration, to protect it during shipping. The resulting pile of boxes was over two feet high. When they came back from the publisher after the book was printed, I figured I’d either have to use them as a coffee table or give them away. They are now in the collection of the Mazza Museum at the University of Findlay, in Findlay Ohio. Thanks, Jerry. You have more space than I do.
Egg tempera (not to be confused with tempura, which is a Japanese batter for frying!) is one of the oldest painting techniques in history. The Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans used it, as did the artists of the early Renaissance, such as Leonardo da Vinci. But it quickly went out of fashion when oil paint became the rage. It’s been slowly been making a comeback since the nineteenth century.
I learned the technique through a lot of study and for several years it became my obsession. I went to England to work with an icon painter (icons are also done in tempera) and took numerous workshops with a wonderful teacher, Koo Schadler. I did the illustrations for MOZART: THE WONDER CHILD in egg tempera on gesso-treated Masonite.
I made my own paint every day by mixing fresh egg yolk with powdered color and grinding them together on a glass palette. The paint is then applied in glaze after glaze, giving a beautiful, transparent, delicate look and lots of control for detail. But it was an enormous amount of work for book art. And the boards for a 48-page book were so heavy I had to hand-carry them to New York in two suitcases. (I do seem to create these problems for myself, don’t I?) All the same, I think egg tempera is my all-time favorite medium.