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My Process for Creating Children’s Books

As a children's book illustrator, Denise has many things to say about the process, her struggles, and children's books on the market today.

J is for Jasper Who Herded Hares

J is for Jasper Who Herded Hares

Questions About My Process

Since I was asked a few questions about my children’s book process, I thought it would be a good idea to be more specific. The things I think are elementary may be a real mystery to the novice.

The scissors and jar of rubber cement give an idea of the size of this paper

The scissors and jar of rubber cement give an idea of the size of this paper

Size of Paper

I was asked about the size of the paper I use on my collage pages for The FairyTale Alphabet Book (one and two). For a book that will be in the finished publication 8.5” x 11”, I usually double that and work twice as big. This means an 8.5" x 11" book, working double-page spreads (11" x 17") plus an added 1/2 inch bleed all around makes my finished illustration page 12" x 18" and my collage paper is twice that (24" x 36") Sometimes when I haven't the room, I work at 1.5 times instead of double making my paper about 18" x 27". That seems reasonable to me and fits better on my artboard. A bleed is where they make the image larger than the finished product needs to be so that the printers can cut off the excess and there won't be any white offset. The reason for working larger is that you can get better details and don't have to struggle with such small pieces of paper. That's just me. Eric Carle always worked on his collage, The Very Hungry Caterpillar, on the exact size that it would be in the book. I wouldn't recommend working smaller though.

The boy collage used for The Emperor's New Clothes

The boy collage used for The Emperor's New Clothes

Transfer the Collage to Digital

Once I have finished my collage, I photograph the finished piece and upload the digital image to Adobe Photoshop. I take several photos of the same piece to be sure my hand isn’t shaking, and I get a good crisp image. The details must be clear and sharp.

With the best image in Photoshop, I then straighten the edges by cropping the image. With the Quick Selection tool, I select all the white paper background, and using a mask, I hide it all. The eraser tool would do the same, but it takes too much time, and it is destructive. Anything you "erase" cannot be brought back but the mask is non-destructive. I can change my mind and bring back anything I have masked if I should want to. I save all that and since I masked out the background, I can then put a gradient layer under it or a solid color or anything I wish. Also, I can select and move parts of the collage around in Photoshop. Because of this, I don’t have to make the collage on the artboard perfectly match the finished page. I am then able to use a smaller more manageable piece of paper for the collage and still work almost double that way. I've gotten to where I don't even think about explaining any of this anymore. I figured it would be boring to most people and they wouldn't be interested to know more.

If my paper were smaller, I might have considered scanning the collage image but since it is so large taking a photograph is the best method.

Doing what you love is the cornerstone of having abundance in your life.

— Wayne Dyer

Typesetting

I never put the type directly on my original image anymore. When I was very young, I tried this once and had to redo many watercolor pages because I spelled a word wrong or smudged the lettering. I find it is the best practice to put the type on digitally after the image is perfect.

To do this I take all the images I have created for the book and load them into Adobe InDesign where I arrange the pages, add type, a table of contents, title page, dedication page, copyright page, and end credits or resources. I write up everything using Microsoft Word and then transferring that to InDesign as well. InDesign is perfect for this. Once it is all arranged, I save it in an InDesign format so that I could make changes later if needed and I save it as a pdf so that it can be loaded in the publication site I have chosen. The pdf files flatten everything so that they will not move or be split among the pages. For a picture book, this is the best method.

Having each of the elements, text saved in Word, images saved in Photoshop, complete composition saved in InDesign, means that if any of the process goes wrong, like one of the programs losing everything, you have it backed up elsewhere. There is nothing worse than losing all your work because of a program crash or a computer crash. I have my images and work saved on an external drive as well. Backups are good practice.

Backgrounds

As many have seen, I do the main image in my children’s books and leave white space for a flat digital background or none at all. To be honest, my first idea was to create the whole double-page spread in collage including the background. This is what I presented as part of my thesis project when working toward my master's degree in children's book illustration. The panel of instructors reviewing my work said that it was unique and original but that it was "too cluttered" for children, and I should consider leaving the background blank so they could concentrate on the focal point or main subject better. I decided to take their advice because other than the background issue they gushed about my work. For myself and for wall art, I do the backgrounds in collage as well. But for children’s books, I leave the background blank or with the slightest color gradient. So far everyone has loved it though.

The girl I used for Red Riding Hood with a collage background.

The girl I used for Red Riding Hood with a collage background.

Finishing

I was asked if I put any product on top of my finished work. Actually, I have thought about using Mod Podge to seal my collage work but so far, I haven’t. It is just as it is. I’ve sold several pieces and when they are framed, they are framed with a matte to prevent the collage paper from touching the glass. If the paper should touch the glass, it will discolor and turn dark over time. Having it sealed behind glass with a matte spacer is the best thing for collage.

My cousin Jessie

My cousin Jessie

Copyright Issues

As you can see, I use colored pages from magazines, circulars, old wall calendars, and catalogs. What about copyright? The reason I am not worried about copyright issues is that I work double size as I said before so that when it is reduced the text is too hard to see or read. I also cut or tear the paper into very small pieces, so the text is obscured in its entirety. Some photos would be recognizable, so I try to steer clear of those. For example, I found this little Betty Boop image that fit perfectly into one collage but decided not to use it because it is copyrighted and is too recognizable. There are things to consider when using recycled published paper. So far, I have had no issues. But as always, these are things you must be careful about and be aware that there is a fine line there. Still, I love that I'm using paper that would otherwise be lining a birdcage or rotting in some landfill somewhere. Most of the magazines and wall calendars I use are at least a decade old. That doesn't mean they are no longer copyrighted; it just means that they would be less likely to be recognized for what they are in the small pieces I have torn them into.

T is for The Last of the Thunderbirds

T is for The Last of the Thunderbirds

Final Thoughts

What do you think of my method? Do you have burning questions about the production of children’s books I can help with? I’d love to read your thoughts and concerns in the comments below.

Comments

Lora Hollings on July 20, 2021:

A wonderful article, Denise, about your unique creative process and everything that you put into in your fanciful illustrations resulting in your enchanting books. I not only enjoyed reading it but learned much from it too.

Thank you!

Mary Norton from Ontario, Canada on July 20, 2021:

It is interesting how you go about your creative production. Thank you for sharing the process with us. I learn many good tips from it

Denise McGill (author) from Fresno CA on July 20, 2021:

Linda Lum,

Really? I would have thought that part very boring. I actually do have a system for storing the paper that is already cut or torn from magazines. I have a plastic storage box with file folders sorted by color. The flesh colors and the blues are the largest because there are so many tones and shades of blue and flesh colors. Most of the paper I leave in the magazines because it would just be too much to tear it all up and file. So before each project I spend an hour or two just going through my files and my magazines to find just the right colors and values I think I need. Any I don't use, I file in my plastic box for the next project. Does that make sense? Thanks for commenting.

Blessings,

Denise

Denise McGill (author) from Fresno CA on July 20, 2021:

Linda Crampton,

I'm glad you think this is useful information. Thanks for commenting.

Blessings,

Denise

Denise McGill (author) from Fresno CA on July 20, 2021:

Peggy Woods,

There is a lot there from beginning to end but it's all necessary to the process. Thanks for commenting.

Blessings,

Denise

Linda Lum from Washington State, USA on July 20, 2021:

Denise, thank you for taking the time to explain your process for creating your collage art. I wondered how you handled such tiny bits of paper--now I get it. I'm glad you have a system for managing your files so that (if something bad happens to your computer) your work is not lost.

One thing you didn't cover is how do you organize the paper you use for your collages. Do you sort it and store it by color, or perhaps you don't tear any of it apart until you begin a specific piece of art. I'd love to know more.

Denise McGill (author) from Fresno CA on July 20, 2021:

Abby,

I'm always so happy when you stop by to check out what I'm doing. I'm glad you like my stories. Thanks for commenting.

Blessings,

Denise

Denise McGill (author) from Fresno CA on July 20, 2021:

From Abby Slutsky,

I loved the story, and it was a treat to hear you telling it on the video. The pictures were delightful too.

Linda Crampton from British Columbia, Canada on July 19, 2021:

You've created an informative and useful article, Denise. I enjoyed learning about your work.

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on July 19, 2021:

Thanks for sharing your methods of how you create children's books using your collages. It is quite a project from beginning to end!

Denise McGill (author) from Fresno CA on July 19, 2021:

Rosina S Khan,

Yes, the photography works best for these large pages. I'm glad you liked looking in on my process. Thanks for commenting.

Blessings,

Denise

Denise McGill (author) from Fresno CA on July 19, 2021:

Pamela Oglesby,

I'm glad you found it interesting. I remember a couple of decades or more ago when I was starting out, I would have given anything if only someone would have explained to me how to get started and the basics. Thanks for commenting.

Blessings,

Denise

Denise McGill (author) from Fresno CA on July 19, 2021:

Dora Weithers,

Well, you are very kind to say so. I love to read what you share as well. There is a place for all of us, isn't there? He didn't create any clones. We all have a different voice to share. I love that. Thanks for commenting.

Blessings,

Denise

Denise McGill (author) from Fresno CA on July 19, 2021:

L M Reid,

I'm glad you found this helpful. I try to share what I know.

Thanks for commenting.

Blessings,

Denise

Denise McGill (author) from Fresno CA on July 19, 2021:

Bill Holland,

Thanks, Bill. I guess I worry about being boring and giving such elementary information but then there are those who haven't gotten to the place I have and don't know how to begin. I love being about to help when I can. Thanks for commenting.

Blessings,

Denise

Rosina S Khan on July 19, 2021:

This is an intriguing step-by-step method for creating children's books. Since the size of the paper you use for collages is large, I do think it's best to photograph them and then upload them onto Adobe Photoshop. I also think it is always a good idea to backup your work.

Thank you, Denise, for letting us know the details of your creative craftwork. I enjoyed going through the process.

Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on July 19, 2021:

That is an amazing process, Denise. I think you have an excellent method for these children books. You obviously put a lot of thought and time into these books. I found this article to be very interesting.

Dora Weithers from The Caribbean on July 19, 2021:

The process seems complicated to a creatively challenged like me, but it also seems that you have mastered the art. Thank you for allowing us to appreciate the details of the beautiful craft you produce.

L M Reid from Ireland on July 19, 2021:

Very interesting and helpful article, thank you.

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on July 19, 2021:

Articles like this one are very helpful. I think those of us who create often take for granted the things we do without thought, things which baffle the beginner. It's good to go back to the basics every now and then, so others can learn from our expertise. Anyway, enough from me. Well done, you!

And blessings always!

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