Every book passes through many hands before arriving at your local bookstore or library. We’ve developed a six-part series, How Does Publishing Work?, to shed light on a book’s journey to publication. From developing stories and characters, to editing and illustration, through to the publishing and marketing stage, this series takes a look at all the different people and processes involved in bringing your favourite stories to life.
In part three of our How Does Publishing Work? series, we explained the crucial role of editors in the publishing process. Now that we’ve reached part four, we’ll examine how the visual aspects of a book come together, whether it’s the cover art of your favourite novel or the dynamic art of a graphic novel!
Creating a Children’s Book
Children’s books rely on beautiful artwork to keep young readers (or not-yet-readers!) immersed in the story. To bring these stories to life, illustrators work in a two-part process: roughs and full artwork. We spoke to Natasha Donovan, who has created artwork for the Mothers of Xsan series as well as popular graphic novels like the Surviving the City series and This Place: 150 Years Retold, to find out what it’s like to illustrate books for kids.
The ‘roughs’ stage allows the illustrator to plan the art for each page, but even this early stage requires a fair amount of planning and research.
“Before I start working on roughs, I try to compile as many reference images as I can think of—for the environment, poses, faces, buildings, et cetera.” says Natasha.
By creating sketches or digital outlines, the illustrator can confirm that they’ve conveyed all the important events and details of the story. Ideally, the reader should be able to understand what’s happening throughout the story without reading the text, just by looking at the illustrations.
“Once the project starts, I’ll go through many stages of rough drafts, review, and revisions,” Natasha explains. “Usually, I start with character sketches and super-sketchy versions called thumbnails, and move on to a second draft simply called roughs.”
The editor and author review these roughs and suggest changes for the illustrator to incorporate in the full-colour artwork.
“Next step is the fun part, in my opinion—inks, and finally, colour!” says Natasha.
Once the roughs are complete and approved, the illustrator creates the full-colour version. In this final stage, the illustrator brings the artwork to life. Many children’s books are illustrated through physical mediums, such as watercolours, coloured pencils, or oil pastels, which can add a sense of texture and whimsy to the story. Others use digital illustration methods—it just depends on what suits the story and the author’s style.
“[When I was working on The Sockeye Mother], I had a lot more time on my hands, so I was able to ink traditionally,” Natasha recalls. “My work schedule now requires me to work digitally (which I honestly do love), but when I think about The Sockeye Mother, I can still feel my brush sliding across the paper, tracing the outline of a salmon or dotting hundreds of tiny leaves.”
Once the full-colour version of the artwork is finished, the editor and author review it one last time, and then it is ready for the designer.
Creating a Graphic Novel
While graphic novels and children’s books share some similarities, graphic novels undergo many more stages of development before reaching the reader. We spoke to PMP/HWP editor Sasha Bouché to get a sense of the development process, starting from the moment the manuscript, or “script,” is finalized.
- Character Design and Storyboard
Once the manuscript is ready for illustration, the artist will plan out the elements that will create scaffolding for the story: the characters, the depiction of different events, and the overall layout of each page. During character design, the artist will think about who each character is and how to represent them visually. For example, what kinds of clothing do they wear? How do they carry themselves? How might they wear their hair? All of these attributes communicate valuable information to the reader about who each character is.
Storyboarding (also called thumbnails) is the process of planning out each page and panel, and it’s similar to the blueprint of a house. The artist creates quick sketches to plan and communicate how the events of the story will be shown, which makes it easy to make changes before the more detailed work begins. Storyboards are often created at a much smaller size than the final artwork, as they only need to give a rough idea as to what each page will look like. The editor and author review the storyboards and suggest revisions before the artwork moves to the next stage.
After the character sketches and storyboards have been completed, the artist creates “roughs” or “pencils,” in which the events, characters, and panels are sketched out in more detail and at the appropriate size for the final artwork. This allows the artist, author, and editor to discuss the direction for the artwork and make any changes early in the process.
“The editor will ensure that these sketches properly reflect the events of the story and the author’s vision of how things will generally look,” Sasha says. “Once the author and editor approve the pencils, then the artist will get to work on the inks.”
The “inks” phase is when the artist adapts the pencils or roughs into the outlines of the final artwork, which is sometimes referred to as the line art. When an editor or author reviews inks, the art looks a bit like a colouring book that has yet to be filled in. This draft gives the author and editor a better sense of how the final art will look, and is the last stage before the colour is added.
“When the editor reviews the inks, their main task is to ensure that there are no continuity errors and that all necessary world-building elements are included,” says Sasha. “They’re also ensuring that there are no logical errors in the artwork, like a character accidentally being drawn with two right hands.”
The colours in a graphic novel are often added by a different artist, so the artwork may need to be revised a bit before it moves to the colouring stage.
Colours are an art form in their own right! Some artists, like Donovan Yaciuk, specialize in colours for graphic novels. Not only do colours bring the illustrations to life, but they convey energy, mood, and other emotional aspects of each scene.
Colour is also a powerful tool for drawing the reader’s eye to important elements of the page, while separating them from the background art. For instance, an object in a bright colour that stands out in the frame is likely something the reader is intended to notice and recall later.
Another extremely important aspect of colour is consistency. “This means ensuring characters’ skin tones are correct, clothes are consistently the same colour, shadows are in the right place, et cetera,” says Sasha.
Even the overall tones and colour palette must be consistent throughout the graphic novel to create the “world” where the story takes place. Take, for example, the gritty, grungy tones used throughout The Reckoner Rises series, which transport us to the dreary streets of Winnipeg, where the evil goons from Mihko Laboratories lurk in the shadows.
Once the artwork is complete, it’s passed on to a letterer. Letterers, as their name suggests, add the speech balloons and text captions to the page. There’s an art to lettering just as there is to colour; the letterer needs to format the captions to set the tone and pace of each frame while ensuring that the captions don’t conceal any important parts of the artwork. The size, shape, and even colours used in the captions all convey something important, from the volume of the speaker’s voice to how they’re feeling at that moment. In terms of the editing at this stage, “The author and editor will then review the final version to ensure that the speech balloons are attached to the correct characters and are spaced out in a readable way, as well as perform a typical copyedit of the dialogue,” adds Sasha.
Finally, after all the artwork and lettering is complete, the illustrations are passed on to the book designer where the final book is assembled and prepared for print.
What About a Book’s Cover Art?
Cover art is incredibly important! A book’s cover art serves as its first impression to the public; it needs to represent the contents of the book while appealing to the intended reader. To create cover art, the publisher commissions an artist to create multiple options, including different fonts, layouts, and colour schemes. For graphic novels and children’s books, this is typically the same artist who has created the illustrations inside, but for standard novels it’s generally an artist whose style complements the tone of the book.
“At Portage & Main Press/HighWater Press, cover art selection involves everyone in the office, not just our marketing and editorial teams. We all discuss what we like best and why, what the artwork reminds us of, if it makes us feel nostalgic for something—it’s pretty fun!” Sasha says. “We want artwork that not only reflects the overall feel of the story, but something that takes hold of the reader’s gaze, something that makes them think, ‘Hmm, this looks interesting!’”
Visual Editing as a Career
Visual editing is often one of the many responsibilities of an editor at a publishing company. However, the process of visual editing requires a different kind of literacy than copy editing!
“Imagery is a language, and visual editing requires a certain level of fluency in that language.” says Sasha.
To become an effective visual editor, it’s key to have a very keen eye for details combined with professional training and development.
Meet the Contributors
Natasha Donovan (she/her/hers) is a Métis illustrator originally from Vancouver, British Columbia. Her sequential work has been published in This Place: 150 Years Retold, and the Wonder Women of History anthology. She is the illustrator of the award-winning graphic novel series Surviving the City, as well as the award-winning Mothers of Xsan children’s book series, and the forthcoming picture book biography Classified: The Secret Career of Mary Golda Ross, Cherokee Aerospace Engineer. She lives by the Nooksack River in Washington State.
PMP/HWP: From your perspective, how does a graphic novel project compare to a children’s book project?
ND: In my experience, they’re pretty similar! The editorial process is basically the same—rough drafts, review, revisions, more drafts, final art. But for me, picture books feel like poetry—they’re sparse, words selected with great care. So compared to comics, picture books feel like a very contemplative process. I get to spend a lot more time with each page, trying to create something that will bring another dimension to the author’s words.
PMP/HWP: What was your favourite illustrated project to work on, and why?
ND: I still have a soft spot for my first picture book, The Sockeye Mother, written by the inimitable Hetxw’ms Gyetxw (Brett D. Huson). I had daydreamed about illustrating picture books for years at that point, and not only was that dream becoming a reality, but I could tell that I was going to get to work with someone who shared my passion for the connection between storytelling and science.
Sasha Bouché (he/him, they/them) has been an editor for Portage & Main Press since January 2019. Sasha is Métis from Treaty 1 Territory (Winnipeg, Manitoba). They hold a Bachelor of Arts (Hons.) in English from the University of Winnipeg. Their interests include comics studies and Indigenous literature.
PMP/HWP: What kinds of skills and/or qualifications should someone have in order to
become a visual editor?
SB: I think that in terms of qualifications, visual editing requires all the necessary training for any other kind of editing. I would also say that a background in comics studies, which is my wheelhouse, and/or a background in young people’s literature is especially pertinent. As far as skills, the most important thing I think is an attention to detail, or rather a fixation on detail, because that’s where the magic lies in any graphic or illustrated text.
PMP/HWP: Before someone seeks the necessary education and experience, what kinds of traits are good hints that one could excel at visual editing?
SB: Visual editing is more than just assessing the quality of the artwork; that’s mostly subjective anyway. Being skilled at visual editing requires an understanding of how imagery can be an extension of human experience, especially in the realm of graphic novels. The goal of visual editing is to make sure that each panel or sequence makes a lasting impression on the reader. You are a kind of conduit for the audience, and in that sense, it’s your responsibility to communicate to the author/illustrator what effect their work will have on the minds and hearts of that audience. That, and making sure the characters’ eyebrows don’t disappear.
In our next installment, we’ll find out how a book arrives at your local bookstore or library. Make sure to check back, or follow us on Twitter or Facebook to read part four of the How Does Publishing Work? series!