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Monday, May 7, 2012

Guest post - Aaron Zenz introduces #PBDummy Step 6: Creating Final Art Samples

Aaron Zenz is the illustrator of 22 books for children, five of which he authored as well.  He also helps his own kids blog about their favorite stories at the unique family review site Bookie Woogie

When I was asked to address the topic of creating Sample Art, initially I didn't know what I could share.  Personally, when I reach this stage in crafting a book... I wing it.  Every time.  I don't have a system.  It's a different experience for each and every book.

But perhaps that's a valuable piece of advice in itself.  Sample-making is NOT formulaic.  It can't be.  It should be different from project to project, depending on the needs of the individual book at hand.

The most important piece of art instruction I ever received came from one of my college professors: "Form Follows Function."  In other words, first you determine what the project needs, and then you design around it.  You'd think this would be obvious.  Ohhh, yes, you'd think so.  You'd be wrong.  An example:  I used to create educational software for kids, and the creative director was constantly telling people, "Just throw some buttons down there in the corner of the interface... we'll figure out what they do later."  Those products would ALWAYS be the worst.  There should be a reason WHY that button is located precisely where it is.  There should be a purpose behind that lever looking the way it does.  The best artists, illustrators, designers all have a reason for every artistic element they include (or exclude).

So I can't tell you what ought to go into making your piece of Sample Art.  I can't give you a checklist.  It's not a formula.  Story comes first; Art follows, and art takes into account the needs presented by the story.

But as illustrators, we're storytellers, right?  So while I can't share a formula, I can share... stories.  I can share stories about some of the Sample Art I've made, and I can let you know what was going through my mind at the time, and we can look at what changes took place between Sample Art and Final Art.

 The Hiccupotamus, sample art:

What I was thinking: This is for a fun, crazy nonsense story with lots of slapstick action.  So I figured the colors should be really bright.  This was my first book, so I really wanted to create the illustrations in colored pencil - my great love.

Art direction: Initially, I had the whole book laid out in rigid panels, almost like a comic book.  The one piece of art direction I received was to turn some of the illustrations into pieces of spot art.  The book would be less boxy and the story would be able to "breathe."  On my own, I also changed the character design.  The story would involve lots of running for the hippo character, so I realized he needed some legs above those chubby feet.  I also gave him a face that could be more expressive.

The Hiccupotamus, final art:


Nascar ABC and 123, sample art:

What I was thinking:  Cars.  Lots of cars.  If I did this in colored pencil, it was going to kill me.  "The Hiccupotamus" was full of naked purple hippos running through organic jungle settings - freehand drawing made sense.  But cars and trucks and racetracks... all that geometry, all those angles.  I knew I'd need to create the art digitally so I could push and pull the forms around.  So I developed a completely new style just for this book.  I attempted a cut-paper look, working in Photoshop with tools I'd never tried before.

Art direction:  They loved the style.  They wanted humans instead of animals though.

Nascar ABC and 123, final art:


Howie: I Can Read, sample art:

What I was thinking: At first, all I knew from the publisher was that the stories starred a cute little puppy named Howie.  So I thought I'd provide 3 sample illustrations in 3 different styles -- I hoped they would take to one of them.

Art direction:  Of course, they wanted a combo...  rendered like #1, but more cartoony like #3.  And I was now told the author had a Bichon Frise puppy in mind.  Could I accommodate?  Why yes, I could.  My only concern was making sure I drew in such a way that the white dog would show up well against lots of white backgrounds... so I kept that in mind with my next test:

Howie: I Can Read, final sample:


Nugget on the Flight Deck, sample art:

What I was thinking:  This book was a detailed look at life aboard an aircraft carrier.  The publisher wanted realistic art, so I knew I couldn't use my cut paper style.  I figured the heavy load would be manageable if I created all the art at half-size and then scanned it at 200%.

Art direction:  The publisher flipped out.  They hated the sample.  The whole project came to a screeching halt.  To this day, I'm not sure what the real problem was.  I think the editor (not an artist but doing her own art direction) felt it looked too realistic.  Too many folds in the clothing.  And she said she didn't like how much gray and blue was in the picture  (um... this IS about an aircraft carrier in the middle of the ocean...)

Nugget on the Flight Deck, sample number 2:

Sooo... I got rid of the gray and blue.  She really hated this one too.  Now it was not realistic enough.  All the direction I got: "Somewhere between the two."

Nugget on the Flight Deck, sample number 3:

ding, ding ding!  Winner!

Skeleton Meets the Mummy, sample art:

What I was thinking:  Having just come off a really trying project, I needed a break from colored pencil.  So I was already thinking about working digitally.  Plus, this story takes place at night, so I was thinking shadows would make lots of fun shapes.  I wanted to experiment with something very stylized, very shape driven.  Circle forms for the skeleton, squares for the mummy.

Art Direction:  I went a little too stylized.  They liked the look of the flat colors, but the skeleton couldn't just have a big oval head -- it needed to be skull-like... but still cute.  And they wanted him to have joints - elbows, knees.  And have fingers.  And toes.  And ribs.  And the mummy couldn't be square.

Skeleton Meets the Mummy, final art:


Chuckling Ducklings and Baby Animal Friends, sample art:

What I was thinking:  I had been shopping this manuscript around for years and had received feedback more than once saying the dummy sketches were too cartoony.  So these new art samples were an attempt to move away from cartoony to cute.

Art direction:  The publisher loved the story.  Loved the art samples.  But they didn't think the two matched in terms of age level.  They felt the story was for older kids, and the art looked too young.  I needed to try to gear the art older.

My plan: Create 5 to 7 new images of ducklings in completely different styles, give them all to the publisher at once, and let the publisher pick the one they thought matched best.

Chuckling Ducklings, new sample 1:

Chuckling Ducklings, new sample 2:

WAIT!!!!   Man - I loved those ducks!  Not only did I love them, they were my favorite thing I'd drawn up to that point in my life.  I decided I couldn't risk it -- I couldn't draw 5 more styles and take the chance that the publisher would pick a different look.  So I sent off the two new samples.  The publisher loved the same one I did, and the project was greenlit.  Here are the four cubs in the new style:


Hopefully this little trip down Sample Lane has proved insightful.  Granted, you won't find any answers or blatant instruction.  But maybe there are some lessons hiding in here...  For instance, you'd NEVER want to create sample illustrations for the WHOLE book.  As you can see, I've never had a sample approved exactly as it is.  One sample image, possibly two would be sufficient.

I'm sure there are lots of other little lessons hiding in "stories behind the stories."  I can't wait for yours!


  1. Thanks so much for sharing this insightful behind the scenes look at sample and final book art.

  2. Great look behind the scenes on what happens with art direction and visual character development! Thanks for letting us come with you on the trip down sample lane.

  3. WOW so many different styles. All of them wonderful. Nice to know you don't have to be pigeonholed.

  4. Great trip down Sample Lane. I also enjoyed the "What I was thinking" side trips. Thank you.

  5. This was a great insight into the whole sample process. I'm surprised at how different your styles have been too. I've been reluctant to submit to apply to some places thinking my "style" is not well defined enough.

  6. Really enjoyed this post, especially your positive attitude about dealing with "tough" art directors...


  7. This is really helpful. Even though I'm late in reading this, got the tip from Wendy that these posts still might be up and all I've read so far has been FANTASTIC!!! Thank you so much for posting.