I'll show you my process for creating an illustration series. From learning new skills, bumps in the road and some unexpected successes, I'll walk you through the whole process from start to finish so you can learn how an artist puts together an illustration series. The creative process is never straightforward. You can have the best laid plans, but rarely is that how the project progresses. You never know what you're going to get. Surprises can be fun or frustrating, but usually a bit of both.
I was working on an ink drawing of a hare and meadow plants when I learned about Richard Adams' passing. The timing felt a bit eerie, but it struck me that I could very well be working on a "Watership Down" rabbit as I drew the sketch. I hadn't read the book in ages, but suddenly I felt inspired. I love drawing animals and plants and since most of the rabbits in the book have botanical namesakes, the idea of drawing a series with each rabbit surrounded by their namesake plant inspired me. However, this wasn't the only idea floating around in my head at the time.
But I didn't want to start rolling out random drawings. I needed a plan, and in order to form one, I needed to do some research. Normally I do drawings one at a time, but I decided this would make a grea series. I decided I would draw thirty rabbits Thirty day challenges are big these days and I could easily find thirty rabbits, then I would post my drawings one a day for thirty days on social media to share them with the world. It was an plan.
I re-read Watership Down, taking notes as I went about each rabbit. I didn't know which ones would make it into the final roster, so I took notes on all of them. Of course, the main heroes stand out (and the villains) and there are plenty of them, but after the main characters things got fuzzy. Were the hutch rabbits more important than some of the Effrafans? Who deserved to make the cut? My list ran long and out of the rabbits on the bottom I couldn't decide who would make it into the thirty. I decided to make my cuts during the next phase of development where, hopefully, I'd have a clearer picture of things.
There were still a few technical things to decide on: format, materials, distribution. I really enjoy square format for drawings. That decision was easy, but I still needed to pick a size and went with 7x7 on 9x9 sheets on paper to give the drawings a large border. For materials though, I grew ambitious. I had been watching a lot of brush pen videos online and thought that the brush pen was something I'd like to learn. I've always stuck with technical (fixed width) pens or nibs, but imagine the results I could get with a brush pen! It would be a challenge to learn how to use a new tool in the middle of this project and yet, it would be the perfect opportunity. Talk about trial by fire.
One last constraint I made for the series was that I wanted soft borders. Essentially, the mass of the drawing would be it's own border using the organic shapes of the rabbits and plants to create the edge of the drawing. Each rabbit had to touch the border on at least one side (more if I could position it that way) and the flora would fill in the rest. Constraints are what give a series consistency and a distinct look. I hoped all my decisions would pull the series together into a cohesive body of work.
With my self-imposed rules in place it was time to start brainstorming what each drawing would look like. I traced a bunch of squares onto newsprint and sketched out thumbnails of my ideas. Some rabbits I had a clear image for right away, but others took several attempts. This is how I planned the series for the most part, deciding which rabbit would be in what pose and where the plants would go in each square. I also tried to make things balanced so I didn't have a bunch of drawings that looked the same. At least in theory. It was hard to find unique poses for thirty rabbits. One blessing of doing the thumbnails though was that my list of characters became finalized. Of the rabbits on the bottom, some just had a better composition or more interesting plants to draw. I picked the thirty rabbits I would draw and completed a rough outline for each drawing. The cut was made. Sorry Boxwood and Haystack.
As one last effort at organization, I chose the best thumbnail for each rabbit and made a very rough value sketch for each one. I hoped that this would help in the final drawings to show me where I needed more line work or to make more darks and also to prevent me from filling in areas that should be left light. I was excited to see everything shaping up, but not all of my preparation would prove useful, as I would soon find out.
Thumbnails in hand and reference photos picked, I was ready to start drawing. I was excited to start but nervous as well. What if this project didn't turn out? Well, I had lots of time to get the pencil drawings right before I started inking. No problem. I started with Hazel and he took me a few hours. I fussed a lot over him, redrawing the sketch several times, but I was fairly happy with it when I was done. The other rabbits went by much quicker as I got used to drawing the sketches.
After I completed several pencil drawings, I decided to lay them out on the floor to get a better look at them. This was one of the best things I did because I noticed patterns in the drawings. The poses of the rabbits were naturally coming out in groups of three, or at least some of them were. I didn't want to repeat myself, but it seemed inevitable in doing thirty drawings of the same subject. However, after noticing the groups of three, I realized I could have ten groups with slight variations on a single pose and they looked good together.
The only problem was that I would need to re-work some of my sketches for this new idea to balance. It meant changing or outright scrapping some of my thumbnails. It was extra work, but I knew the results would be that much better for it and the finished body of work would look that much more cohesive. I decided to go with the new idea and I spent a couple of days reorganizing my work and making decisions. In the end I'm glad I did. I felt a lot more confident about the direction of the project and my enthusiasm for the project went up, keeping my momentum going right to the end of the sketches. By the time I had all thirty pencil drawings done, I felt pretty good about the project.
I decided to start by inking Hazel. Everything starts with Hazel. He was the first thumbnail I sketched and the first drawing I laboured over. It made sense that he would be the first drawing to be inked, but should I really start with our hero? This is where doubt crept in about learning a new skill over the course of this project. Maybe I shouldn't have tried to learn the brush pen on this project. Who was I to be drawing such iconic characters? I felt unworthy and I was constantly questioning my skill set. Throw in learning a new inking tool and my self-doubt started to reach critical mass. I must have held the pen above Hazel's sketch for a good long while, wondering how badly I was about to screw up. Then again, I told myself if I did that badly I could just trace out another drawing on a new sheet of paper and start over (since I transfer my sketches and don't draw on them). That reassured me a little and I started inking.
It took hours for the first drawing and I didn't improve very quickly. My lines were shaky and unsure on the first few drawings. The brush pen was unruly but ended up being far more like a brush than a pen. Once I figured that out, my lines began to loosen up and flow more freely. It took about 8-10 drawings before I started to feel like I was getting the hang of the brush pen, but on the bright side, after doing thirty drawings, I've now had enough practice that I'm starting to feel comfortable with it. I'm not a master by any stretch of the imagination, but I'm not struggling like I was at the beginning. Brush pen skill +1!
I'd learned a lot about working on a project this size, about line, composition and process as well. All things I could take with me to the next project. I hope that there are a few people out there who will like what I've done and will be glad that I crossed the finish line. The last thing I did was digitize my drawings by scanning them and cleaning them up in Photoshop. You can see all the finished drawings here! I've also writen an article about how to ink an individual drawing which you can read here.