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The Making of The Mermaid's Gift: My Illustration Process

Updated: Apr 1

A behind the scenes look at the making of a picture book

Since May is the month of #Mermay, I thought it fitting that my first post on this new blog is a behind the scenes look at my illustration process through The Mermaid’s Gift written by Claudia Cangilla McAdams and published by Pelican Publishing.

After illustrating eight picture books and creating five dummies for my own manuscripts, each a bit of an experiment, I’m happy to say that I finally feel like I have a pretty good system worked out.

Quick read through

This quick read through opens my mind to the world of the story. I then let my imagination explore the possibilities without any limitations to specific pages or scenes. The process from first contact to contract takes a long time, so this story had a long time to percolate.

Reference research

Pinterest is a ton of fun for this. I set up folders for each project and collect images for reference and inspiration. In this case, colorful Burano, Italy (look it up on Google. If you’re feeling blue, this place will perk you right up); lace, lots and lots of lace research; historical photos of Burano and the lace museum there. I even used Google Earth to walk around the island.

Character sketches

I work out clothes, hair styles, facial features, culture, and age. I sketch the main characters from a variety of angles, different facial expressions, moods, emotions, keeping mind the need to keep the main characters consistent throughout with the same clothes, hairstyle, facial features, eye colors, etc.

Text Dummy

I print out the manuscript and break it up into 16 sections. I fold 9 sheets of legal or ledger paper in half and staple them in the middle with a special stapler I bought years ago for this purpose. I cut up the text and tape each section in its spread roughly where I think it might go, telling the story with the text — one chunk for the entire spread, or broken up with some on the left and some on the right. Since Mermaid is a retelling and set in the 1800s, I decided to go with a classic feel, keeping the text in blocks, but incorporating them into the illustrations. I played around with borders and copy blocks, but dropped that in the final sketch stage.

Brainstorm Scenes

Blue sky thinking with my husband bouncing around ideas about the overall look, world, setting, perspectives, angles, pov, lighting. Playing with the best way to illustrate each scene adding to the story in unique ways. For this book I really wanted drama, which I achieved with lighting, angles, and unique perspectives.

“I love your boldness in composing the pages. Many illustrators are timid about the interplay between form and function, and your work is like a breath of fresh air.” ~ Johanna Rotondo-McCord, Artist.

More reference research

This stage is pretty much ongoing and so much easier now days. I remember the days of having to go up to the reference library on 42nd street to get images. For this project, I did a lot of lace research — patterns, tutorials, various types of lace, designs, styles, materials, etc. I think that all paid off since I have had many people ask how I created the lace, and have complimented me on the beauty and realistic feel of the lace.

Traci Van Wagoner pencil sketch for The Mermaid's Gift
Interior sketch for The Mermaid's Gift


With sketchbook and ballpoint pen, I roughly block out the scenes I have bubbling in my imagination after the brainstorming session. With this project, I established a sort of zig-zag pattern through the spreads, leading the eye through the story with a variety of spots, full spreads and text placement that would keep the eye moving how I wanted.

Sketch Dummy

Sketch and explore scenes building on initial rough thumbnails. My ink sketches are rough at this stage. I scan those, clean them up a bit and print each spread as close to actual size as I can. With marker paper, several good ol’ #2 pencils, and a kneaded eraser, I set to work creating the final detailed pencil sketches. Marker paper is see-through without needing a light box, but not as smeary as tracing paper. I scanned those sketches and put them together back in their spreads. I cleaned them up, made pngs which I made into a pdf and emailed it to the AD. He came back to me with only a few revisions.

Value and Color Thumbnails

I made a contact sheet in Photoshop of the sketches on an 11x17 document. I added a layer with my paper in a gray tone, creating an overall stormy feel. A second layer for value, establishing mood, and a third layer for color studies. I created a limited palette, keeping in mind the stormy feel of the story and moving to a light and happy feeling in the end.

“You have perfectly captured the moods of the various scenes, giving the story "life" in your depictions of the throwing of the fishing net, the ferociousness of the storm at sea, the mermaid's creation of the lace, and so on.” ~ Claudia Cangilla McAdam

Final Painting Begins

I paint in Photoshop with my own brushes, textured papers, and color palettes, plus a ton of layers. I could do a whole-nother post about the ups and downs of finishing a full book. There were days I thought I was brilliant, and days when I felt like a total fraud with no right to get to draw and paint for a living. Every book has this stage no matter how much I’ve learned and grown and figured out what I’m doing.

Traci Van Wagoner interior illustration for The Mermaid's Gift
Final color for interior spread

Finish the Dang Thing Already

And then comes the finishing. This may be the hardest of all stages for me. I have a resistance to finishing things. I don’t know why. That’s just the crazy way I am. One night my husband told me to sit and finish one at a time. I had the final highlights and finishing touches and fixes and whatnots to do. When I finished one I’d shout it out. I was reward with a DING-DING-DING and a compliment of some encouraging sort. Then it was back to the next one.

Traci Van Wagoner interior illustration for The Mermaid's Gift
Final interior illustration for The Mermaid's Gift

I finally finished them and sent them off to the Art Director. The end result: A love fest with my art, and an offer for another book. Cody and Grandpa’s Christmas Tradition written by Gary Metivier.

Thanks for reading my long ramble.

Live, laugh, and learn!

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