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creating the art for: 


by Emma J. Virján

Amy’s lyrical poetry sang to me from the beginning and I feel honored to have been part of the team that put this book together. A huge thank you to you, Amy, for trusting in me, and to Rebecca and Barbara with Astra Books for Young Readers, for placing your faith in me and for helping fine-tune the illustrations. Lisa, thanks for your eagle eye proofreading of both the text and art.


The Art Process


My process for this book began with reading the poems. As I read, I jotted down notes about the mood the poem projected and I made a list of  images that came to mind. I spent a lot of time here, and read the poems daily so that I could become familiar with them.


The next step was researching all of the animals. I’m a naturalist at heart and this part of the journey was right up my alley. I took copious notes and jotted down main characteristics on the same page where I had listed the mood of the poem. (Take a look at the caribou note page.) I also bookmarked many nature sites and downloaded imagery so that I could have several drawing references.


My research took me to places beyond websites. I visited my local library and checked out books and also spent time with reference materials. I spoke to a park ranger in Connecticut who was an expert in newts. The Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center was a wealth of information on the monarch butterfly. (If you’re ever in Austin, Texas, be sure to visit.) The furthest I traveled, by phone anyway, was to Alaska, where I spoke with the owner of a reindeer farm. Everyone was passionate about the animals they care for and offered wonderful expertise and played a huge part in creating this book.


After the research, I moved into the layout phase. Amy’s poetry has a flow to it and I wanted to be sure the layout matched that flow. It helped to have an intro and closing poem to anchor the story. The little girl in the intro poem sees a bird outside the window and then that bird becomes the first poem. All the poems just sort of fell into place from there.


Thumbnail sketches were next. These sketches aren’t meant to be detailed. They are more about the big picture, yet they carry a lot of information. They work as a blueprint for the final sketches. I’m including one of the first thumbnail sketches I created for the book. They’re kind of loose and simple and include notes.


Looking at the thumbnail for caribou, which is my favorite poem and spread, you can see where noted I was thinking about having trees in the background. When I took this to final sketch, however, I eliminated the trees, as they were detracting from the expanse of the snow, which I wanted to be sure to capture.

I sketched a few rounds of thumbnails for internal use only and when I thought I had what I liked, I started final sketches, which I made with good, old-fashioned Dixon Ticonderoga #2 pencils, some thick, some thin, but all graphite.


I scanned the sketches and placed them into a document. In some cases, I added some vector art to the sketches for detail. For example, let’s go back to our caribou. I wanted the grass to be created with vector art, and not pencil, so I added it digitally to the sketch and it gave me a sense of how it would work in the final art. The document was saved as a PDF and sent off for approval.


Then I cleaned the studio. Art can get wonderfully messy.


Once the sketches were approved I moved into final art. I took out my trusty pencils again and drew the animals at 100%. My art consists of dark, black holding lines, so I cleaned up the scans in Photoshop and corrected any linework that I thought wasn’t working.


All the sketches/animals were then placed into an Adobe Illustrator file for painting. I developed a palette for each animal and then worked toward making sure the palettes worked both individually and as a group. This was definitely a trial and error phase, but it is always all part of the process.


When I was happy with the color, I created another PDF and sent if off for approval. (I’d like to give a shout out to my Epson R1900. It’s a workhorse and pulls excellent prints.)


Lisa, a science writer, who I mentioned at the beginning, checked the colors of the animals to make sure they were correct. She also checked that the animals were represented correctly. She noticed that the antlers on the caribou were too big to be those of a female. Males lose their antlers by December. Since it is a winter scene, the caribou shown would be female. (This also means Rudolph the Red-Nosed reindeer was likely female.) I edited the antlers and made them smaller, and somewhat irregular, to match those that would be found on a female. You can see the difference from the pencil sketch to the final art.


After all pages were approved, the files went to the publisher for finalizing and then off to the printer where printer magic happens.


Did I mention it takes a team to create a book? It does – writer, illustrator, editor, art director, publisher, copy editor, sales, marketing, printer, etc., – and this is all before the book even reaches the shelves. There are more team members who pick it up once it’s printed. They distribute it and help it reach the reader. This team includes teachers, librarians and parents.


I am grateful to have been part of the team that created If This Bird Had Pockets. I hope you enjoy it as much as I enjoyed drawing the illustrations.


Lastly, I’d like to mention that the bulk of the work for this book was done during lockdown. It meant the world to me to have beautiful poetry to wake up to every day. Creating the illustrations for this book was a fantastic challenge, a delight and a safe haven.





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