Thursday, December 30, 2010


I know you will enjoy reading this entry by my guest blogger, award-winning illustrator, Craig Orback.  It has been my great fortune to have collaborated on four books with Craig.  Read about how the cover for our latest book was created by this talented artist.   

Pull up a chair, grab a drink, and be prepared for a long blog entry but also an interesting one I think. This past week I mailed off all of the art for my 18th book and I wanted to share my process of illustrating the cover. It was a bit unusual for me.

Over the summer (when not preparing for our wedding and month long honeymoon!) I was finishing the interior art for my book Clara Morgan and the Oregon Trail Journey. Usually cover ideas are finalized when the interior paintings are close to being done so even though we had decided on a cover concept, the actual painting of it had to wait till I got back from our trip.

Luckily for me our honeymoon was taking us on a road trip from Chicago back to Washington State so a stop in Nebraska where the book is set was on the agenda. Thanks Jess for your flexibility! Usually I don't get the opportunity to visit the places where my books are set before starting work so this was a real thrill. It would add some authenticity to the cover at least and stir my imagination!

I am now going to walk you through how I illustrated the cover step by step. I hope you enjoy this peek behind the curtain . . .

This is my early rough sketch of the cover that was approved before we left on the trip. It is part of a series of books called "Picture Books Plus Reader's Theater" covering different topics, hence the red curtain. At the back of each book kids get a script and are able to act out a scene from the book. Lots of fun!

This is a view of Scott's Bluff Nebraska where Clara's wagon train would have passed through in 1864 (as depicted on the book cover). Clara and her family are fictional, but their journey is based on the stories of real pioneers.

They had a great museum and some wagons on display. This is basically just like my original cover concept come to life! Only needed to add the family, oxen, dog and Clara.

A close up of the wagon.

Another view of the bluff from the cover. We even happened to be there late in the day just like I wanted for my painting. Perfect lighting!

Here is the view looking west. I told you we really went there!

I took some photos of my model once I was back from the trip. The only problem was I didn't have the dress we used from the first series of photos I took for the interior paintings. I made do with my existing photos.

This is the dress from the photos I took before leaving on the trip.

Here is my final drawing based on my reference photos. I projected this drawing onto my illustration board. The notes were done while I was painting the cover.

The board has two layers of gesso then I do a wash of transparent acrylic paint so that I am working on a colored surface. I hate painting on a white board and this helps to unify the whole painting as bits of this color will show through on the final. I dont paint the sky brown as that tends to pollute the vivid pure blue sky I am going for.

Now I begin working in oils. The sky is covered and the landscape begun. I prefer to paint all of the negative space around the main character first. Plopping them into a completed setting and solving issues of lighting and color first in the landscape always works best.

Here is my messy desk next to my easel in mid painting. I have my reference and some supplies there, as well as some of the completed interior paintings so I can match the cover correctly.

Most of the background is complete. I don't layer paint much. I prefer the immediacy of painting thick and completing an area and then moving on.

Pretty much done with this area. I will tweak it later once the whole painting is covered.

Only Clara is left!

Me sweating the details.

Her figure is now blocked in. Saved the hardest part for the end- the face!

I am tempted to leave it like this but I don't think the publisher would be happy! My original drawing tends to be pretty simple (as you can see). The realism happens as I am painting. I prefer the flexibility and challenge of working this way.

Almost done! Now just need to detail her dress and polish her face and the rest of the painting.

Still needs more work!

Now this is starting to look right!

And here is the completed painting!

This is just a rough version of what the final design will look like. They may end up going with white type and slightly darker grass to match other covers in the series. I should have copies of the completed book by the end of the year and it's officially released this spring! Keep an eye on this blog for details!


  1. What a fascinating story - loved seeing the development of the art!!!

  2. Absolutely beautiful artwork, it was interesting to see the process frtom start to finish.

  3. This is like a mini-lesson on an illustrator's journey! I appreciate his art more than ever!