Process: Birds & Botanicals

My first coloring book, Birds & Botanicals, is coming out this April and I thought I'd share some of the process of making the book. The project began in September, when I got a call from an editor at Taunton Press asking if I was interested in making a coloring book for grown-ups. I said yes immediately, my agent worked out the details, and I got started on the illustrations. We planned on 40 illustrations of birds.

The first step was to start sketching. I'm sort of compulsive about sketches. I like to basically finish the underdrawing before showing anyone so I have a clear sense of what an illustration will look like. For inspiration, I looked to old scientific drawings like Audubon's birds, bird books, and various searches on Wikimedia. I planned on having all of the sketches completed just before Christmas and the final, inked pages by the end of January. In other words, I planned to make 40 detailed illustrations in three months (we started in late October) with other projects in between, which was, shall we say, aspirational. Because I tend to think I can do all the things always, I said yes. After handing in the first half of sketches, my editor asked me to expand out from birds so I started to think about flowers and a few insects.

The picture above is the stack of fifty drawings or so. About ten of them were not so good and I ended up throwing them out (e.g. the vulture I thought was awesome was actually just very, very ugly). Typically I use Canson Marker Paper for sketching but for this project I used regular copy paper because the trim size of the book was the same (thus I wouldn't have to measure anything). And I always use mechanical pencils.

On to inking! Once [most of] the sketches were approved, I started inking. My publisher was concerned with too many lines and small spaces but I pointed them to Johanna Basford's work. Plus, I tend toward detail and maximalism so I don't think these illustrations could've turned out any other way. Inking was meditative, probably the part of the process I love most, watching black lines glide across the page. For tools: I used a Koh-I-Noor Rapidograph pen (0.35) and Canson Vellum paper. Then I scanned into Photoshop and made small edits. I subscribed to Audible for the project and listened to several books while drawing. My three favorites were Stephen King's On Writing, Helen MacDonald's H is for Hawk, and Elizabeth McCracken's An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination

I finished the illustrations a mere two weeks late. The last thing I worked on was the cover and I whipped up a title in about an hour with the help of Christian, who had in the first place wanted all the birds to be magical creatures. "But why are there no hippogriffs?" he lamented. In retrospect, the cover and title were probably the two elements I should've spent the most time on. Live and learn, I suppose. Overall I'm happy with the illustrations and the book itself, which is still at the printer. (I'll post pictures when it arrives.) One thing I love about the book is that every page is perforated so you can color the picture then hang it up on your wall if you like. I had this in mind throughout the project and tried to focus on images that I'd want to hang on my own walls.

Over the last few weeks I colored in a few of the pictures myself to see what they'd look like. I used markers on some and watercolors on others and the process is thoroughly relaxing. I'm going to keep playing around with them in between projects for the sheer delight in it. I'm putting the ones I like for sale in my shop.

My friend Susan, also an illustrator, always tells her students to "make ten more." Whatever they present to her, she urges them to make more of the same thing to see what an image or idea can turn into. This project was the largest series of images I've ever worked on before (aside from my illustrated essays) and it actually feels like a body of work to me, rather than a single, isolated drawing. As I worked, I got more ideas and had to try new things. For instance, I learned how to make repeating, seamless patterns because I had an image in my mind of framed pieces of wallpaper. This idea of repetition calls to mind the various Hundred Days projects floating around the web or projects like Penelope Dullaghan's daily patterns last year. I recommend that any illustrator sit down to draw 10 or 40 or 100 images of a single subject and see what happens. Anyway, illustrating this book was a total blast and I hope you love it as much as I loved making it!