It’s the same every year—shortly after Halloween, when Pumpkin Spice gets the boot in favor of Peppermint Mocha, my anxiety shoots through the roof. It’s November 3rd! It’s practically Christmas Eve! My love language is gifts, and my husband is gift-challenged, so the majority of holiday gift brainstorming, researching, purchasing, wrapping, and giving ultimately falls on me. I like it when I can come up with the perfect gift (like the 7-Eleven Tour de France bike jersey I got for my husband a few years ago), and I get stressed when I fall short (my brother’s wish list ranges from ‘airplane’ to ‘ski trip in Vermont,’ so I invariably end up getting him gift cards, which always makes me feel stupid).
Anyway, this year, I had a great gift idea for my youngest daughter. Before she was born, I wrote and illustrated a picture book for her sister called “Fairy for a Day.” It featured my eldest rescuing a fairy and being gifted wings and a fantastic floral wardrobe, replete with sparkles and friendly woodland creatures. Both my girls love reading it, and I figured it was high time my youngest had a picture book of her own.
The catch is, of course, that picture books take time. A lot of time. There’s a reason hiring an illustrator is so expensive, and it’s because nothing kills the look of a project more than it being rushed. Here’s a secret: I actually don’t like reading the Fairy for a Day book I wrote for my eldest. The writing is bad and the illustrations are bad, and it’s because I did it too fast, trying to whip it off with enough time to send to the printer before her birthday.
I’ve grown a lot as an illustrator since then. I dedicated most of 2016 to honing my ability to work efficiently. I’d set timers for digital paintings and make myself consider the piece done when the time was up. I participated in Inktober for the first time, which forced me to move on to a new piece each day. It’s not easy working like this—it’s a skill that has to be practiced. And of course, nothing tops the quality gained by a generous deadline. But sometimes we simply don’t have the time. I’m still not as efficient as I’d like to be, but I’m a lot better than I was when I created Fairy for a Day. So it was with more confidence that I set about creating my youngest’s Christmas present--Mermaid for a Day.
In this month’s blog post, I’m sharing some suggestions for how to create an appealing, dynamic piece while on a tight deadline. See them all below the jump!
1. Plan Ahead
Mermaid for a Day, like its predecessor, features my youngest helping a mermaid rescue her dolphin and earning a sparkly tail in gratitude. I use Shutterfly to print one-off books like this, so I knew I wanted it to be 8x8 and around 24 pages. That meant twelve square digital paintings. Right off the bat, I planned to make a few illustrations vignettes, and to keep the style cartoony to avoid complex shading.
Before I wrote the text, I thumbnailed the main characters and each illustration. I used them to direct the structure of the story, which kept things simple and visual. Thumbnailing is great for capturing the energy and basic composition of the piece before diving in to the full-sized canvas. Doing this ahead of time, as well as knowing the size and scope of your project, can save laborious revisions later on.
2. Keep Things Simple
I knew it was in my best interest to keep things from getting too complex. In the illustrations on the shore, I did this by using a soft brush and low-contrast colors to merely suggest a background. This let me keep the sometimes-tedious task of outlining to just the foreground characters.
Fortunately, the underwater environments were even simpler. To keep things from getting boring, I used gradients to suggest light and highlight certain characters.
3. Have a Palette Ready
During the thumbnailing stage, I thought about the color palette I wanted—classic mermaid jewel tones in a complementary green-blue-purple scheme, with my daughter in pink to make her stand out. I went ahead and defined the flat colors I’d use as a base on my two main characters for their skin, hair, fins, and accessories.
Since the other two mermaids only appear twice, I let their palettes complement the other two, using my Hue/Saturation tool to find the right shade. Hue/Saturation and Color Balance Tools are great because they let you tweak color quickly. If your pre-planned palette looks differently that it did in your mind, which often happens for me, the H/S and CB tools can right a lot of wrongs along the way.
4. Be Deliberate with Details
One thing I love about painting mermaids is taking inspiration from real fish and underwater environments. Fish have such a beautiful array of patterns, shapes, and fins, and underwater lighting is so complex.
Buuuut, those kinds of illustrations take a lot of time and effort. In the Rocky Mountain Mermaid picture above, I spent a long time researching native fish populations in Rocky Mountain National Park and then plotting how their coloring might translate to human skin. For the green eco-mermaid, I studied lots of images of kelp forests, working to get the beautiful, ethereal light just right.
Those approaches were too labor-intensive for this project, which is why I decided to go with a cartoon style from the outset. But working quickly doesn’t mean forgoing details altogether. You just have to be deliberate about them. This often means focusing on the things that highlight the narrative of the piece. For this project, that meant, in particular, highlighting the mermaid tails and underwater environment. So I added suggestions of scales and texture on their tails, some highlight to their fins, and some reflecting light.
4. Create Atmosphere
Technically, I could consider the piece more or less done at this stage. The characters are defined, there are some details, and there’s a suggestion of a background. If I only had 45 minutes to complete a piece, this is where I’d probably stop. But there are some easy things I could do to really make it pop and make it look like I spent a lot longer on it than I did, and it all has to do with atmosphere.
If 2016 was about working quickly, 2017 was about creating depth. I felt like my pieces were getting too flat and one-dimensional, so I set about learning how to inject a sense of space into my pieces. This meant studying how colors change as they get farther away, and how objects visually interact with each other.
Underwater environments are very atmospheric by nature—it would be easy to get carried away with shadowy kelp fading into the blue and ribbons of reflecting light. But I wanted something quick that could be replicated throughout the book. A great shortcut is to consider your characters not in the foreground of your piece, but the mid-ground. With a soft brush and darker shade, add suggestions of objects to your foreground. With a more muted shade, do the same to the background. Even in small quantities, this places your characters in a tangible space, like Legolas below.
For my mermaids, that meant adding some filtering light above them in a Screen layer, some hard-brush bubbles around them, suggestions of fish behind them, and colored shines coming off their tails and dispersing in the water around them.
My favorite illustration that really achieved good atmosphere is the one below—I used dispersed color amid the angelfish and jellyfish to suggest large groups without having to define each animal. I also used reflecting light behind the mermaids to suggest an ocean floor. This is the piece I ultimately used for the cover illustration.
6. Be Okay with Calling it Done
This is not the greatest group of mermaids I’ve ever painted. It’s not even my favorite illustration in the book. But it conveys the story, and it’s enjoyable to look at. It communicates the details I need it to communicate, and most of all, it’s something my 4-year-old is going to lose her mind over. Her mermaid friends are giving her a pearly flower crown! Honestly, what else matters?
All twelve illustrations were done quickly, each one under two hours. I took all kinds of shortcuts, duplicating backgrounds from picture to picture and taking every opportunity to merely suggest the action rather than paint it outright. None of them are anything I’d want to showcase or sell as a single print. But set alongside each other, they accomplish their part in the story and create a dynamic, cohesive body of work.
And I can pat myself on the back for a Christmas present checked off my list. This one is going to be a hit. My youngest loves mermaids. She loves books. And she loves adventures starring herself. Creative kids are a blast to think up presents for. Husbands and brothers are another thing entirely.
Maybe I’ll just make them mermaid books too.
November Art Roundup
Some Queen's Thief pieces because I'm weak, several double-page pen and ink illustrations in my sketchbook, a few character speedpaints, and a design for a client.
Emily B. Martin
Author and Illustrator