The Night Before Christmas In Ski Country: The Book Process From Start To Finish

For those of you wondering or asking, "So, how did things turn out with that book project..." 

I can at long last say, I have good news! I am finally finished and the book has gone to print. I received my first copy a couple weeks ago and now copies have been sent out all over Colorado.

Book Teaser:

"On the Night before Christmas, in a charming ski town, the lifts had closed early, little snow could be found..." No snow in ski country for Christmas? Santa's ready to help until he discovers his magical Icicle Star has melted. He needs someone with a pure Christmas spirit to journey into the mountains to find a new one. Can little Andy find Santa's rare Icicle Star in time to give ski country a white Christmas?

Where To Buy A Book:

  • Several small bookstores along the front range as well as a few Colorado Barnes & Noble Bookstores will carry it.
  • I have some copies to sell to friends and family - please let me know if you are interested. If you get them from me, I can sign them right away (plus, I make a little bit more money on the sale). 
  • Please shop locally or buy from me, however if that is not possible you can always: Purchase The Night Before Christmas In Ski Country on Amazon

Upcoming Book Signing Events:

November 23rd (Saturday) from 2-5pm at Off The Beaten Path Bookstore in Steamboat Springs

November 30th (Saturday) from 1-3pm at Woody's Newsstand here in Greeley

About The Process (pictures, sketches & final paintings):

For me this whole venture began about a year ago at the annual Lines and Letters Fall SCBWI (Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators) Conference down in Denver. After seeing my portfolio, Suzanne Brown (the author) contacted me to find out if I would be interested in this project. Her manuscript had been accepted by Westcliffe/Big Earth Publishing in Boulder, however, Westcliffe said she would need to find a suitable illustrator in order to move forward. Typically, after acquiring a manuscript, it is the publisher who choses an illustrator to pair with the story. But in this case, because Westcliffe is quite small, they did not have a large archive of illustrators to pull from. So at that point, I sent Suzanne this sample sketch to see if my style worked with her vision: 

Initially, the ladies at Westcliffe wanted to make a much smaller black and white book but after seeing my sample drawings and my portfolio, they decided a full size (8.5x11") color picture book would be better. With the publisher's approval, Suzanne and I spent about a month learning about contracts and the various rights we would need to sell or retain. Finally when everything seemed fair, we signed with Westcliffe and my real work began... 

I started by deciding where to to put page breaks in the text and I created a storyboard. The storyboard is important because it provides an overview of the book and it helps give a sense of the flow. 

With the storyboard, I made sure that:

  • I set the scene 
  • the action continued to move from left to right (just like reading text). 
  • there was a balance between loud busy images and quite still ones. 
  • there was variety (in figure size and perspective).
  • there weren't any huge jumps in the story/the transitions weren't too jarring.

Here's my storyboard for the book:

This book was such a great resource especially when it came to creating the storyboard.

Next, I met with Suzanne to see what she thought. Again, typically, with a larger publisher, the author would have a lot less input on the illustrations. Though for us, I think the back and forth led to a better book in the end. She had several thoughts and questions that helped me hone my compositions. As you might notice, some of the final images are a little different from the small thumbnail sketches above. Likewise we were able to cut/alter some of her text too. Instead of having the text tell the reader that Andy decided to go out looking for the Icicle Star, she decided to just let the pictures show him doing so. And together we decided it would be best for Santa's dog Cocoa to go with Andy as a friendly protector.  

With the storyboard somewhat finalized, I asked friends and family to help me recreate some of the compositions so that I could have a resource to refer to when drawing. 
(Thanks Ethan for all of your help!)

Then with those pictures, I created full size rough-draft sketches of each spread (2 pages) leaving space for the text. I'm not sure if I will spend as much time in the future developing these types of rough draft sketches because with my other freelance work, it literally took months to finish them. For my next book I don't think they will be quite as complete or detailed. This time though, I felt like they helped Suzanne and the publisher envision the final product and I think the level of detail helped instill confidence in my ability since this is my first major project for print. 

I also relied heavily on resource images from the internet. I still don't know how people ever survived without Google image search.

This one's for you Blaise Holden and Mary Beth Galer - Fish Creek Falls!
(While working for the National Forest Service, we spent so much time there watering plants, walking trails, hauling trash, taking entrance fees, cleaning outhouses, weed-eating and literally chasing bears in 5052 -- the only automatic pick-up in the fleet...)

For some of the compositions I spent a long time planning/experimenting with the perspective.

Here's our real but tiny, apartment-sized, Christmas tree from last year. Recognize any ornaments? My very crafty/quilter grandma Enie made the yellow hot air balloon in front. We've had it since I was little and it has always been my favorite. She also made the felt-christmas-tree advent calendar hanging on the staircase behind Mom and Santa.

When I finally finished, I compiled the sketches to make a dummy book that Suzanne and I brought to the publisher for final approval. With a few suggested alterations, I then began transferring the drawings to my nice watercolor paper in order to paint the final images. 

Originally, I had planned on using graphite paper to transfer the drawings. It's like using carbon paper -  one side is covered in a thin film of graphite. I put the sketch on top of it with the graphite lined side facing down and the watercolor paper underneath. As I retraced the drawing, the pressure of the pencil rubbed/deposited the graphite on the watercolor paper. Unfortunately though, the process was taking a lot longer than I anticipated (and it was messy/less exact). So Steven helped me scan my sketches and digitally edit out the gray areas. Then we took the files to C&C Community Printers here in Greeley to have the line drawings faintly printed onto my nice paper. Thanks so much Ralph! He really is a printing hero with 20+ years in the business. (I highly recommend stopping by.)

So I know that seems like a lot of extra work to replicate the sketch - Why not just draw on the nice paper in the first place? There are a couple of reasons: 
  1. It is hard or very often impossible to erase mistakes -- even when I can get all of the graphite off, little groves are still left in the texture of the paper where the lines were. (I tend to draw really loosely to get the scale and proportions right. Then I erase lines as I refine my drawing.)
  2. The nice paper is a lot nicer -- I bought 40lb Arches cold press paper. "40lb" means it's thick -- that's the weight it can withstand. "Cold press" means it's fibers were not fused/ironed flat with heat so it has a bit of a texture (sometimes I wonder if there are little flecks of gold pressed in between the cotton). I spent about $80 on it.
I chose that kind of paper because my favorite how-to-book from the library (I had like 20 out at one point) said that the paper was actually the most important part. Cheap paper buckles and/or disintegrates when it gets too saturated with water. 

This book was so helpful. I highly recommend it for anyone wanting to try watercolor painting.

(Before this project, I had never painted so extensively with watercolor. I had never even taken a watercolor class. So painting alone was quite the learning experience. For the book I wrote and illustrated in college, I used mostly magazine collage with just a few watercolor washes in the background. Watercolor just seemed like the right medium for this project -- with all of the lovely landscapes and textures... So when Suzanne asked if it was possible I said yes then promptly googled it -- Murry would be so proud. Overall I know I still have a ton more to learn, but I definitely surprised myself.)

Anyway... once the faint sketches were transfered to the paper, I had to size/stretch the paper in order to keep it from buckling while I was painting.

Just like regular printer paper, watercolor paper still ripples when wet. In order to do this, I soaked the paper in a larger plastic bin in my bathroom.

Then when the paper was saturated and it's fibers limp and relaxed, I stapled it to my homemade luann/plywood drawing boards. As it dried, the cotton paper shrank slightly around the staples. So then when I wet the paper again with actual paint, the fibers would not be able to relax as much as they already had when the paper was completely soaked.

Once the paper dried, I then drew over the light printed lines with pencil to recreate my drawings.

After all that, I was at last able to paint. Sadly, in my mania to get things finished, I didn't take any pictures to document this phase. (Which I guess isn't so bad because my studio/apartment looked like a disaster area during much of this stage. Here is a picture of it clean and in order.)

Scanning the final paintings was a whole ordeal that I won't go into because it still makes me anxious just thinking about it. Suffice to say, I will be purchasing a nice scanner in the near future (and for future books, I will probably let publishers take care of the scanning).

Finally, when the paintings were scanned and edited, Steven helped me insert the text with InDesign. Usually for projects like this, the publisher would handle the layout. But since I was already scanning the images and I had graphic design connections, I thought it would be better this way. Even though it was extra work, I think it was a good experience. I'll definitely be more mindful of text layout when planning my illustrations in the future.

Final images from the book:

 Suzanne's son actually wrote this note to Santa one year.

The family photos are based on the pictures from the Christmas postcard Suzanne sent me last year.

Fish Creek Falls


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