Each illustration for Halo goes through multiple steps before a finished image is produced. The process starts with thumbnail sketches for the whole book and source imagery, including photos of my own White Shepherd, Koda, photos from her breeder, and photos of Eva, my model for Jessi. I will often create additional sketches from the photos.
A lot of people ask me how long an illustration takes, and honestly that's a question that doesn't have a clear answer. For some pages, I work on multiple detailed drawings to get something just right, and for others I dive right into the painting process and let the image evolve more organically. Sometimes a spark of inspiration turns into a whirlwind studio session and a piece seems to materialize out of thin air fairly quickly. Other illustrations take more time, and some don't come together so easily. There are a few pieces that went through multiple versions before I was happy with the result... and honestly, as an artist, I could probably continue tweaking or revising these images for the rest of my life, so a lot of the illustration process is about knowing when to let things be.
My paintings either start with watercolor directly on the Yupo paper (a perfectly smooth, synthetic surface), or sometimes elements will be drawn in pencil first and blocked out with paper or painter's tape. The watercolor wash doesn't immediately absorb into the paper, so it sits on top and I use a hair dryer (yes, very advanced artistic tools over here) to heat the wash, move the paint, and shrink the puddle. That's what gives the watercolor a sort of topographical feel. One of the most interesting things about this process is that you really need to understand pigment science for it to work effectively. Some pigments float, and therefore will mix with other floating pigments, which can easily create a muddy brown mess. Other pigments sink and stick very quickly to the paper, which means I may not get the exact colors I'm looking for. For example, I may expect a lovely green mix from using yellow and blue pigment, but the yellow may stick and the blue float, keeping the two colors separate. This scientific angle appeals to my nerdy side, and luckily I had already spent many years working with this process in my fine art, so I was already familiar before working on these illustrations.
After the watercolor wash, I work with different media to polish the painting, including colored pencil, ink, and oil paint. Before doing so, I need to spray the watercolor surface with a fixative, otherwise I can literally just wipe the paint off the paper. This works to my advantage, because I have the option of erasing some of the paint or further manipulating before I move forward with the design.
In some of the images, I allow the oil paint to create some three-dimensional texture on the surface, while others focus on a smoother, refined approach with more colored pencil. I also like allowing some areas to appear a little less polished, with sketches remaining visible and elements keeping a simple, linear form. With the subject matter of heaven, it was easy to let my imagination wander and work with etherial, watery, and non-realistic imagery.
Once I'm happy with the work, it needs to be properly photographed and color corrected, and I am able to make some last-minute adjustments digitally. The entire process is lengthy, so I have found myself jumping between images at different stages to make things feel less tedious. For example, the colored pencil tends to be a meticulous effort versus the watercolor wash, which is sort of loose and chaotic. I also need to make sure that once I commit to a layer of oil paint, I'm ready to set aside that image to dry for a long period of time and not touch it! This means that throughout this illustration process, I've created a constant mess... but I've had a blast doing it.