When I was in high school, dreaming of being an illustrator, and even while at RISD on my way to that goal, I really had no idea how many drafts it could take to get a drawing right. A couple of thumbnails, a color sketch, and WHAM BAM KABLAM, make the final art, right? Finger painting in kindergarten was fun—isn’t that what being an illustrator is, all the time?
Wrong. Wrong wrong wrong. And especially wrong when working in sequence, where every page spread within your book has to be written and visually composed in a way that compliments the spreads that come before and after it.
Since I’m feeling a little indulgent (and admittedly whimpering to myself a bit about how long just one spread can take me), let’s take a look at all the attempts I’ve made to find the right direction for the very first spread in How To Be An Elephant. The sketches that follow are in chronological order (to the best of my memory), and they end with what I think will be the actual opening for the book. (At least, it better be, because the thought of reworking this spread again is enough to send me running for a Tylenol!) Please note that these sketches and drawings are done with whatever tools are in front of me when I draw—graph paper and pen, watercolor and pencil, marker on paper, digital sketches, or even swiping from my own reference photos to try something quickly. Whatever works!
SKETCHES FOR PAGE SPREAD 2 – 3:
Here we have my very first attempt at this spread, which is an aerial view of a vast savannah with a herd of elephants walking, complete with birds flying overhead and perhaps even a sunset. (I’m sure you can tell all of that from this doodle!) The idea was that this would be the rainy season, which is the best time for baby elephants to be born (because there’s plenty to eat):
Let’s move in a little closer on the herd, shall we? Now we’re looking straight down from above:
Maybe it should be dry season after all? Would that increase the drama?
Or maybe one elephant is lagging behind, heavy with the 220-pound baby that she’s about to give birth too?
I like seeing the pregnant elephant, but not this close. This angle isn’t really working:
What if the herd is marching toward us? Maybe something like this:
Or maybe they’re marching away from us. Would it be possible to make one of them visibly pregnant?
I like the idea of hinting at just a little bit of danger, that life is hard here. Maybe I could include some elephant bones:
Or show a confrontation with lions:
Or perhaps have the herd being stalked by hyenas. The lack of green shows a lack of rain—hard times for a baby. I love the color and composition here, but perhaps this is a little too dramatic for the start of a book about how to be a baby elephant:
Back to that aerial idea, but modified, from a hilltop, overlooking a valley:
And now with some lions?
Or maybe at sunset? Again, maybe too much drama:
Sigh. Not working. Well, let’s get back to the marching idea. What if we shift the camera downward, and emphasize the mom-to-be?
And let’s get back to rainy season again, and try to show one elephant a little more visibly thick in the middle. Ah-ha! I like this. It feels a little like the beginning of a documentary or something, a little cinematic in its approach:
And finally—since at last I know what the next few pages will be, and births usually happen at night—this scene should probably be at dusk or nightfall if I’m going to draw the baby’s birth happening at sunrise:
Notice that through all these attempts, the content of the sketches–a walking herd, a pregnant elephant, a hint of season—hasn’t changed all that much, but from one version to the next the clues shift a bit, and hint at what could be a completely different story.
Is this last composition done? Are the figures exactly right? Does the large elephant on the right look obviously pregnant? Not yet! But I think I’m on the right track at last to stick with the story I want to tell. I mourn for quite a few of the darlings I’ve had to kill (especially the spread with the hyenas) but birth is dramatic enough without lions or sunsets. Make way for a new baby elephant!