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The Making of Ellie and Her Emotional Dragons

A behind the scenes look at my process of illustrating a children's picture book

The project begins:

* manuscript cut up into text dummy

* thumbnails and exploratory sketches

* Character development

* The painting splattering begins

After developing characters and getting approval I did this rough color sketch to establish my basic color palette. I didn’t end up using this spread, but it still holds a special place in my heart.

Ellie spread color sketch by Traci Van Wagoner @2018
First color study to establish my palette

"I am speechless.  And there are only a few times in my life where I remember being moved to tears (of joy). Marines usually have a tough time with showing emotions. This is PERFECT!  Exactly what I was going for. I have accomplished many interesting and challenging feats in my life but this has to be at the top for one of the most proud accomplishments.  Thank you for helping me make Ellie and her Emotional Dragons a reality!
~Joseph Goodrich, author

I tried a new painting process born from my experiences with #paintplay which I started when I got Procreate on my iPad Pro. I use the Apple pencil sometimes and my finger a lot too. Over the last couple years, I’ve been pushing my color palettes (#colour_collective) and loosening up my style. I finally had a chance to put this experimenting to the rigorous test of illustrating a full picture book.

I've always loved the idea of splatter painting, but never had the courage to let loose and do it. Until now. I love how paint splatters encourages the imagination and how shapes emerge and inspire the next step of painting. There’s such energy and playfulness. I loved breaking out of confines of my previous painting style. It helps also to have the freedom to paint on the couch, or comfy chair, in bed, or up on the roof in the garden — Even at my nephews graduation from High School. Shhh. (They announced like 1000 students. Yeah, huge.)

I worked on all of the spreads in stages. I couldn’t finish just one since I was still figuring out what finished was. It drove my business partner (who is also my husband) crazy that I didn’t finish at least one piece so he could see where I was going. I didn’t even touch the cover until I thought I was sort of, maybe, kind of, a little bit close to the final of one of the spreads. They’re never really done for me until I’ve sent the final file and the book is in print and even then I’m afraid to look at the printed book for fear of hating what I did.

I’m happy to say in this case that — well, in pretty all my picture books, I’ve never hated what I did. I always see ways and things I could have done better, but I think that’s a good thing. That means I’m growing, developing and always exploring and getting better — or at least different and hopefully … ugh, this word — marketable. I’m not a trend chaser, but I have been trying to freshen up my style.

I digress.

Meanwhile back on the drawing board...

Once I figured I was reasonably finished, I transferred the files to my big Magic Machine Mac and opened them all in Photoshop where I finalized details and cleaned up some of the splatter using my Cintiq. I did at least one or two more rounds (some spreads more than others) to finish and polish and make sure I had consistency with the characters (her hair butterfly), nose lines, clothes colors, etc. I had a long list I made sure to check off as well as character pages for quick reference.

I didn’t do the cover until the very end when I was satisfied with the style and knew what I was shooting for at the finished level. Originally I had a different cover in mind, but this image spoke to me and begged to be the cover, and then I had to add the neighbors (read to book to find out why) next to them on the back cover.

I was happy with the family, the houses, the neighbors and trees and turned in this one.

Ellie and Her Emotional Dragons cover art by Traci Van Wagoner @2018
Something is missing...

Can you see what’s missing from the final cover?

Ellie and Her Emotional Dragons cover art final by Traci Van Wagoner

Sometimes I think too literally, and I figured the dragons would be waiting for Ellie in her bedroom closet since that’s where they exist — they’re magical. I was going to have them out on the balconies and in the windows of the house, but that just didn’t work. I had to shake logic loose. These are dragons. They’re her friends. They should be front and center, same as the family.

The dragons added a fun pop of color to the front. Which the folks at Wisdom House took and ran with when designing the cover with the playful and colorful type to bring together an appealing cover that hopefully will draw attention and pull readers in to enjoy Ellie’s story in learning to deal with her emotions with the help of her colorful dragon friends.

"What an absolutely enchanting story! I fell in love with the artwork from the first page. The illustrations by Traci Van Wagoner are just fantastic, done in a style I have never seen before. The ink spatter style gives sweeping movements and is filled with energy, and I felt myself being carried along by the events. Young readers will be swept up into this tale by becoming visually engaged. There is so much to discover in each brightly colored panel, including subtle references to the colors of the little dragons."
~ Fiona Ingram for Readers' Favorite

I hope you enjoy this touching story. It was a joy to illustrate. I would love to hear what you think of my process or feel free to ask any questions.

If you'd like to hire me to illustrate your book, please check out my post on Hiring an Illustrator and please contact me.

Today is Ellie and Her Emotional Dragons official release date on Amazon.


Ellie and Nalie illustrated by Traci Van Wagoner
Ellie and Nali, @2018 Traci Van Wagoner

Buy it now :

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