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Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Guest post: Mark G. Mitchell - Full Sized Dummy Sketches

Please welcome Mark Mitchell to KidLit Art. He is the author-illustrator of the Spur award winning book Raising La Bell. He illustrated for many years for the children's history
magazines Cobblestone and Appleseeds. He teaches an online course on illustrating children's books, Make Your Splashes – Make Your Marks! ( http://howtobeachildrensbookillustrator.com/NewCoursehome2/ ) Visit his blog http://HowToBeAChildrensBookIllustrator.WordPress.Com
From Scribble to Sketch

Now comes a critical stage for your illustration – turning your tiny thumbnail idea into a full scale drawing.

Your thumbnail was the “scribble sketch” inside the tiny frame you drew – hardly more than one line that expressed the energy, impulse or attitude of your characters and the scene that sprang to life in your mind's eye.

In dashing down the line you were carving up your picture space, riffing your composition. You were finding ways to link gestures together into one abstract linear shape that caught the action of your scene. (The shape itself was a gesture.)

(For information on gesture drawing, see Kimon Nicolaides landmark book The Natural Way to Draw.)

Now you must expand that gesture to fill your larger picture space. You start by trying to recreate your thumbnail – the actual experience of that first gesture scribble, with its impetus, spontaneity and energy.

Now you have to recreate that gestural thumbnail on the larger surface, along with the impetus, the spontaneous energy of your first thumbnail scribble.

But you'll flesh out your gestural lines with solid contour silhouettes and details that will make your picture elements recognizable and believable.

So here it helps to bring in your visual references.

A Google image hunt and freeze-frames from YouTube videos come in handy here, as do the old standby's such as photocopies from other book illustrations, your own photos and sketches, family photo albums, school year books and other peoples' photos in Flickr, and other photo sharing sites.

Remember you're not “copying” anything – you're looking for visual information and inspiration here, edges and contours, silhouette shapes for all of the different puzzle pieces you must fit together for your illustrations. It can be one of the most creative stages of your illustration process, so have fun and get inspired.

Now with your raw material spread out around you (your thumbnail scribble and your references) turn to your larger sheet. It can be tracing paper or copy paper.

Start by drawing your page border, then your picture's border as you think it would appear on the page. Give this perimeter the same “aspect ratio” as your thumbnail sketch.

Consider how you'll fill the space with positive and negative shapes – and
if you want to include a text block in your composition.

Consider the “Golden Section” point on the horizontal of your picture, about 62 percent of the way across. It's often a good place for your illustration's center of interest – the dominant character(s) or main action.

Now with a light pencil mark, draw the horizon or eye level line – a big horizontal across your entire picture surface. It's not a bad idea to let the line run off your illustration in both directions.

Now you've determined the “point of view” that you and your viewer will “come at” this scene from.

You may not need linear perspective for every illustration. But always mark in your horizon or eye level line. It lets your viewer know if she's looking down or up at your scene or “straight on” it.

Keeping the eye level in mind allows you to fit all of your picture's “puzzle pieces” into the space more believably.

Benchmarks in place, you're ready to sketch, block out your scene in one uninterrupted passage.

Start by recreating your experience of each gesture (from your thumbnail). As you draw, feel the poses, actions and interactions inside you as you get them down, left to right.

Try to interlock these gestures, if you can. Link up the impulses, energy, movement and interaction – connect the gestures into one unified line if you can, the way you did your thumbnail.

Carve up the space swiftly and loosely, as you did on your thumbnail, working left to right – until you have it all down in light pencil.

Don't spend more than a minute on this. Don't worry about what it looks like.

You're done blocking in your composition with gesture. You've captured the “inner” lines, the “frozen music” (to borrow Frank Lloyd Wright's definition of architecture) of your story scene.

Erase back some of these gesture lines if you want.

Now comes the stage where you assemble your mosaic of details. Pull your reference all around you so that it's handy and viewable.-- and go right back to express more of your layout, moving left to right as before.

Work on one picture element at a time – consulting your references, articulate, delineate contours, edge details as you move from left to right.

Keep a loose, relaxed, playful attitude. It's the same mindset you had when you riffed out your gesture thumbnail. Enjoy and celebrate these forms as you develop them a little more in their dimensional fullness, adding surface accents and detail.

Keep more attention on your references than your drawing. Don't worry about what your drawing looks like yet.

Don't be distracted, keep moving from left to right. Cover all of the picture space, the whole of it, before you go back to fiddle with a part.

Stay loose. Don't overdraw – or shade your forms. You're not creating your final art here, but the outline (the blueprint) for your painting.

And you'll be done before you know it – with what many feel is the hardest stage of illustration.


  1. Very helpful, Mark. Lots of great tips here. Thanks so much.

  2. Mark, this is a fantastic process breakdown . . . which is no surprise, coming from you!

    MANY thanks. :-)

  3. Wonderful! very helpful and love your drawings!! Thank you Mark.

  4. Thanks Mark, wonderful approach and very helpful. Love your pencil drawings.

  5. Nifty. I love the way you keep the whole thing going.

  6. Mark is a fabulous, generous teacher. I've enjoyed his classes tremendously and I feel like I've learnt more over the past few months about composition and illustration than I have in years. Great post.

  7. Nice Post!....so many great suggestions, instruction and tips. Thanks again Mark for all you do!!

  8. Wonderful detailed tips, thank you.

  9. I love this, art is in my heart and majored in HS but went on to become a nurse, and now want to get back into it . Love your tips. Thanks for sharing.

  10. Yes, Mark, this is the hardest part of illustration for me and you've given us all great sentence step by steps towards just doing it...thank you!

  11. What a great post! I love seeing process explained! Thank you.

  12. Practical and useful. Thanks for reminding me that I have the book by Nicolaides, "The Natural Way to Draw". It's always a good idea to get back to basic drawing!

  13. Thank you, everyone for your nice comments on the post. And Wendy and Bonnie, thank you for including me as a guest blogger in this year's series. It's a real honor to be here.
    Several of the "Marks and Splashes" gang are taking the 2012 Picture Book Dummy Challenge and have expressed how much they've gained already from the series posts and the tweet sessions. You provide a fabulous educational outreach with these!

  14. Thank you for the tips Mark, very informative!