Friday, October 9, 2015

STEAM ENGINES

This is one of the double-page spreads I created for "The Cats In Krasinski Square", written by Karen Hesse, and published in 2004. It's a large piece, 24" wide, and executed in pencil, watercolor, and ink. The story was challenging to illustrate, set as it was in Warsaw, Poland, during WWII, and dealing with the hardships of Jews, both in and out of the Warsaw Ghetto.
Since the story was historical fiction, I relied heavily on photographs to construct my illustrations. When I had roughed out this composition, using xeroxes of photos and my own very rough figure sketches, I showed it to my dad, Aldren A Watson, the well-known illustrator who was my professional mentor until his death. Dad looked at my compostion for several minutes, clearly uncomfortable about SOMETHING. Finally he said, "You've got an American steam engine here, not a European steam engine." 
 As it happened, my father was not only a terrific artist, but an expert on old trains. (And just a note: I learned that American steam engines had cowcatchers at the front end; European engines had bumpers.) He sent me sketches, photos, and books of European steam engines, as well as historical information about the manufacturers of steam engines, indicating which kind of engine was likely to have been in Warsaw in 1940. Thank goodness he caught this mistake---I'm not sure if anyone else would have seen it until it was too late.
I began to revise my sketch. It was hard to find photos clear enough for me to see all the details of wheels, drive shafts, and other mechanical parts. "Just add a lot of steam" my Dad said. We artists know about "adding steam". Sometimes that's a cop-out; other times it's a practical solution. As my son always said about film and the stage (and equally applicable to illustration): "We're creating an illusion of reality, not reality itself."
On a separate transparent layer I next worked out very carefully the arrangement of the clouds and steam behind the engine.The separate layer avoids messing up any drawing on other sections of the compositions.
Next came the figures of the pursuers...
...and of the pursued.
I combined all these layers into my master sketch. I carry out this process with transparent vellum, but the process is exactly the same if one is doing it on a computer.
And voila (after 4 days of painting and inking)---the finished illustration. 

15 comments:

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    1. Thank you! I find it interesting myself...the research process is one of the best parts of illustrating, I always think. Like a fascinating treasure hunt.

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  2. I love that book ... Your insight makes it even more endearing.

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  3. That is fascinating, Wendy. How fortunate you were to have such an excellent role model. Thank you for showing this process so gracefully. Your figures have such a fleshy solidity. I just love the way you draw.

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  4. so beautiful. so illuminating. so luminous.
    i'm so grateful.

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  5. I keep coming back to that book. Your description reminds me of my younger daughter walking me through the steps of making a linked-figurine bracelet when she was at Tyler. So many steps to get the image/figure you want. Thank you!

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    1. And thank you, Anne! I'm so glad that people are enjoying this post.

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  6. What an amazing story, Wendy! A tribute to your father AND to your own skill and dedication as an illustrator. (Also: it's a wonderful book.) I will show this to my husband, who loves and knows trains.

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  7. I did not realize this post would elicit so much interest. Makes me want to make more posts about how an image was created.

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  8. Such a great story about your illustration process, Wendy! I also love this book!

    Steam engines are my favorite, I love the sound they make when the whistle blows! I vividly recall the few steam trains that passed our house in Putney--the end of an era back then--and going for a ride on one in Steam Town. What fun, apart from the cinders blowing back in my eyes when I leaned out the window!

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    1. I, too, remember the steam locomotives. So exciting, almost as if they were alive!

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