For my latest picture book The Stolen Button, I worked with illustrator Leila Honari. For today’s guest post, I asked her to discuss aspects of her creative works. - RockOnKitty

Thanks for having me on the blog! I thought I’d go through the process I used when I created Mei Ling, the main character for The Stolen Button. As a character and environment design lecturer for animation and games students, there is no set formula to designing a character for a story. It depends on the artist’s approach and the nature of the story. Also, I should say, artists have different methods in creating characters for an animated project compared to a story book. Some begin the design process by sketching to find the initial designs. Others create some concept art to find the storybeats, then they go through designing/illustrating the characters.

I divide the character design process into three main stages:

Stage 1: Research, observation, references, gathering visual data

Stage 2: Concept, character concepts, design development, style

Stage 3: Final design, clean-up

The first step of the research stage is to read the story carefully. I take notes of the story beats that need to be illustrated, and identify the main action poses and expressions of the main character. Getting to know the character that is going to be designed before putting the pencil to paper is essential. You can see how I broke down The Stolen Button when I first saw the text. I translated it to Persian as it’s easier for me to visualise this way but this step is optional!

(On a side note, I love that the two major elements of this story are Bazaar and Caravan. These words are derived from the Persian language and were introduced to Latin/ English around the time of the Silk Road. When I translated the story to Persian, it was so much more personal reading my Mother language.)

I ask the writer plenty of questions: What is the character’s age? Gender? Nationality? Culture? Physical traits? What clothes/ costumes/ props will they wear to reflect their personality, status, the time and place they live in? Sketching some ideas based on this information can help to prepare material to get to the concept stage. Below, are my first attempts at Mei Ling. The first image is more of a gestural, cartoon-y style whereas the second image is a more realistic rendering.

Every character in a story has a journey and shows a transformation which we call ‘character arc’.  Met Ling’s character arc changes from rich to poor and powerful to powerless. I had to identify the emotional arc and express these dramatic changes in the illustration. Below is my first concept art trying to capture the essence of the story. Mei Ling transforms from wealth, safe inside of the circle with the cord to weak and powerless on the floor.

After identifying the character, it’s time to pick the sketches you want to develop conceptually. I draw the character from different angles and in key poses based on the story line. Actually drawing children is really difficult to catch their body language, proportions and facial expressions. If you are working as an illustrator, you need to practice drawing kids.

When I am happy with the character design, I create a colour palate. Studying the colour relationship between the character to his/her environment is important to create a unified image for each page as well as the whole book. In this case I used my skill in Persian painting, which is similar to Chinese painting. I found this technique close to the spirit of this story. At first I wanted to paint all the pages using black Chinese ink, then I realised that I like to show Mei Ling in a golden cheung-sum against a colourful background, so I used watercolour as the main medium.

Finally, I scanned the images, and made corrections and effects in Photoshop. Working in Photoshop allowed me to separate the elements of the page onto different layers. I can tweak the final design to create the best composition.  This final stage is all about the clean-up. It is about fixing the final colour version and reviewing the quality of lines, and if appropriate add lights and  shadows, textures and effects. For example, I created the visual effects of the belly button’s energy sucked out by Fang Fei, by using smoke effects in Photoshop. I also added the background texture that I created using ink on paper, and plays with the opacity and gradient to achieve the final look.

I hope this description show you more about what happens behind the scene of illustrating a picture book 🙂 Feel free to ask questions in the comments section and I’ll do my best to answer.

Thanks for dropping by! Leila is currently teaching at Griffith University where she is also finishing her PhD exploring Persian narratives in animation. You can find out more about Leila's work here