Oh, there must be 1000 ways to write and illustrate a storybook. I’m here to share my method. Because I’m a great, talented, and experienced author, right? Uh. No. I’ve written a few stories, mostly for friends and family.
That’s the reason why my methods might help a person write a story just for fun. This isn’t Story Writing 101. More like ‘now I know my A-B-Cs’ and something most people can do without vast experience. I’m using a story I recently wrote and illustrated as an example. It was written to fit a certain watercolor sketchbook, and I hand-printed the text. Think gift, fun project, or something to entertain a child – not bestseller or even published book.
The example book – Diggory Wombat Gets Lost is an epic novel full of deathless prose … no wait. That’s the book I’m reading, not the one I wrote. Let’s start over. Diggory Wombat Gets Lost is a silly little 18-page story that I wrote and illustrated for a review of the new Hahnemühle ZigZag book. It was also meant to be a gift for my husband on our 37th wedding anniversary.
Diggory Wombat Gets Lost
Before we go any further, here’s the story.
Ideas For The Story
Where did I get my ideas? I used my life. For Diggory’s story, I came up with three things that were on my mind at the time.
- My husband claims the wombat is his spirit animal.
- I have a friend who is currently refurbishing a vintage carousel for a historical society.
- I had just managed to get glue on my good shirt. Dang it.
I had a Wombat, a carousel and glue. That seemed like a good start.
Where would I find a carousel? Fairgrounds, park, fast food restaurants. Fairgrounds seemed the most interesting. But glue. Glue. What to do with glue? I came up empty. But glue is sticky – what is sticky at a fairground? Ah! Cotton Candy! That I could work with.
So now I had a wombat, a carousel, cotton candy and fairgrounds. So many things a wombat can do at the fair!
At this point, I already had a good idea for this painting.
Are you aware of the five W’s (plus an H) of journalism? They are simple questions that can give you a structure that helps develop your story.
I knew I had 18 pages to work with and I planned to answer at least one of these questions on each page.
Using the W/H questions, I started an extremely rough outline in my Hahnemühle Sketch Diary. This book has ruled pages on one side and blank pages on the other.
This is about the 5th outline that I did, and I did end up making changes More about that later. Applying the W/H questions, I came up with these answers and popped them into the appropriate page lines.
- Who? the Wombat
- Why? because the Wombat likes to dig and it leads him to ‘Where’
- Where? the fairgrounds, then the carousel, the bubble machine, the cotton candy, back to his tunnel, back home
- What? he rides the carousel, gets sick, leading to the bubble machine, resulting in a flying bubble ride, leading him to the cotton candy which causes him to be chased, leading him back to his tunnel, which leads him home and he sleeps.
- How? my wombat is a digging machine, who knows you can ride carousels but is rather stupid otherwise, and this leads him through the ‘What’series of adventures.
- When? Not really important to this story – it could happen at any time.
The sketches I did are basically scribbles. I was trying to get a sense of what objects would be on the page and what poses the wombat would take. These helped me decide what I needed for references and what sketches I would practice. Eventually, those scribbles would lead to these poses.
Naming My Character
You can see that I considered different names for my wombat. I googled the different names and either found they were already used in a book, or had unsavory meanings attached. I really wanted something to do with digging – because in real life wombats dig.
I discovered that Diggory was a name of French origin, meaning lost. I already had the Wombat Gets Lost in mind for the title, so was this the perfect name or what?
Reference and Practice
There was quite a bit of work between the initial scribbles and the finished Wombat poses. I googled Wombats and started doing quick little sketches.
When I felt I had the basic idea of a wombat, I started developing my wombat’s overall look.
I looked for basic shapes, decided the minimum of details and worked out my proportions.
I played with different poses. At first, I used pencil, drawing rough shapes, then I moved to pen and kept going until I had pretty decent wombats every time. I did the same thing for the carousels, fairgrounds, cotton candy machines and so on.
Drawing and Painting the Story
Once confident with my wombat and fairground drawing skills, I started my initial pencil drawing in the book. If I went more than a day without working on the book, I went back and studied photos for a while, but except for the tiger, it all came out of my head.
A pencil drawing was done throughout the entire book before I moved to pen. I established the composition, and adjusted my story ideas. I found I wanted to give more space to the initial view of the fairgrounds and to the carousel. I decided to drop the popcorn, candied apple and the Ferris wheel. Drawing everything in pencil first gave me the chance to figure these things out.
Masking fluid pen was used to reserve areas of white. In some places, I used the masking fluid to outline just like I would use a pen.
I alternated between pages of drawing with pen and then painting them. This was so I could complete pages for the review. Otherwise, I would have done all the pen drawing and then all the painting. I used the pen to establish outlines, suggest values, and to add detail and texture.
I kept the painting simple, alternating between earth colors for wombat and his tunnels, and bright, bold colors for the fairgrounds. You can see some of this process in my review of the ZigZag book.
Given the number of pages I had, I wrote this at the level of a young child’s book. I stated the action simply. Diggory loved this, he did that, and then he did this. Occasionally, he had a thought, when I wanted to add an extra bit of whimsy or humor.
I’m sorry I didn’t get scans of my hand-printed text. I ran out of time, and my husband took the book to work before I could do so.
Since I was short on time, I printed out the text to the size that would fit the space available and used a light-box to help me mark off the spacing. I just used block lettering – nothing fancy.
I suspect that many of you are looking at my artwork, and either feeling you couldn’t do anything like that, or that you could do so much better. We do love to compare ourselves to others, for better or worse.
My story choices were based on what I felt was my artistic ability. I was also doing some testing for the review, as well as challenging myself to stretch a bit past my comfort zone. I’m not entirely happy with the cotton candy pages, but I am very satisfied with the book as a whole. I enjoyed the challenge of stretching myself just a bit and learning along the way.
Please don’t feel you have to compete or compare. If you decide to try a storybook, make choices based on your strengths – not mine! If you mostly paint doodle-y flowers and butterflies, write a story about flowers and butterflies. Don’t fear the stick figure. They can be quite charming. Collage, stamps and stencils are perfectly okay if you are making something fun for yourself or as a gift.
Fun is the operative word. Feel free to be outrageous – logic need not apply.
No art supplies were harmed in the making of this book, but plenty were used.
- Hahnemühle ZigZag Book
- Hahnemühle Sketch Diary A5 (8.3×5.8 inches) 120gsm 60 Sheet
- Hahnemühle Hand Lettering Block A5 (8.3×5.8 inches) 170gsm 25 Sheets
- Zebra Zensations Technical Pens
- Zebra Sarasa Fineliner Pens
- Da Vinci Watercolors
- Princeton Neptune Quill Size 4
- Princeton Velvetouch Long Round Size 6
- Molotow GRAFX Masking Fluid Pump Marker, 2mm
- Pebeo Drawing Gum High Precision Masking Fluid Marker Pen 0.7mm