|Above you can see the thumbnail and subsequent pencil rough for p. 62 of Big City Otto. I'm constantly referring to my original sketch in order to capture the spontaneity and energy as I work on my finished pencils.|
In my on-going education and elucidation, I can say, unequivocally, that elephants do not have thumbnails. Toenails, yes, and lovely ones at that, but the lack of thumbnails is inexorably hinged to the lack of thumbs which creates no end of troubles for an illustrator who needs his elephant to, well, hold things. But that remains for a future post – the visual pitfalls of anthropomorphism!
In talking about storyboarding, or thumbnails, I’m really reaching into the vault here, as this was a process started over two years ago. Much of the original storyboarding for Big City Otto (book one of Elephants Never Forget) was done on a trip to the Azores, my partner Esperança’s birth place, in the summer of 2008. It was a memorable trip for the fact that most of my two-week stay on those beautiful islands was spent in the hospital waiting room, while Esperança attended to her mother who had become quite ill a few days after our arrival. Fortunately I had the Otto manuscript and my sketchbook in hand, and the visual story just poured forth over that time and the weeks following when I returned home. I remember it as a golden summer spent sitting and drawing on my back porch while the weather held. It was a very creative time, working with nothing more than pencil and sketchbook, liberated from art table and computer screen, and really just letting the creative juices flow. It was the cliché of the artist’s life and so far from the reality of what it usually takes to make a living as an illustrator.
The months of work spent on those thumbnails was all speculative work, something that is familiar to the writer but less so to the illustrator who usually has contract in hand before pencil goes to paper. But the fruit of those days’ labour was a fully-realized manuscript complete with sketches, and I honestly believe that this lead to the subsequent acceptance of the story for publication.
When I speak of thumbnails here I’m really referring to the art of storyboarding, or getting the story down in small simple quick sketches. It is at this stage that I’m working out points of view, lights and darks, where the text will likely fall and how the action will be communicated over how many panels of storytelling. The thumbnailing is always the most creative part, in my view, of the entire process, a chance to tackle the bare bones of the visual narrative without getting hung up searching for references or fine-tuning the drawings. That all comes later, once I settle into the pencil roughs, many of which I’ve reproduced previously here in the posts of this blog.
But the thumbnails are really the heart of the whole thing. It is where I get my hands deep into the clay of storytelling, and in those thumbnails lies the energy and compositions for my later drawings. I refer constantly to these small sketches as I work on my pencil roughs. When I stray too far from those original imaginings the picture starts to loose its energy, gestures become wrong, angles of view too acute. So I constantly find myself returning to those very first spontaneous sketches to bring myself back on track, to those sketches that will serve as a road map for the months and months of hard work that still lie ahead.