As soon as I read a story like The Selfish Giant my mind floods with imagery of the characters, places, and scenes depicted in the text. It’s important for me to get this early raw imagery down as quickly as I can, while it’s still fresh and clear, which is why I always carry a pocket sized sketch book with me wherever I go.
For the character of the giant I didn’t have to explore a lot of different treatments - I knew exactly what he looked like! But I did need to clarify how he would appear as he underwent his various transformations, both physically, as he grew older, and in terms of personality, as he changed from grumpy to cheerful, even loving, over time. Making sure a character is always clearly recognizable as "the same guy" while also showing the full range of emotions and poses, and being able to depict him from all different angles are critical factors if the character is to be as real to the audience as he is to me. Working this stuff out is what sketch books are for...
After getting the main character down, one of the first spreads I tackled was the scene that appears later in the story of the giant playing with the children - something that had become a regular and familiar event to him by this time. I knew it was going to be one of the more challenging illustrations for the book, featuring a lot of figures, all interacting with one another (well, all with the giant).
All illustrations start with a "thumbnail", and this was no exception. I explored two different approaches - the giant walking along with kids hanging from him, and the giant half sitting on the ground, being somewhat overwhelmed by kids (and joy). I chose the latter because it was something I personally could identify with, having spent much more than my fair share of time on the ground being tackled by my daughter’s friends and the neighborhood kids! Also I felt the walking idea made it look a bit like they were "going somewhere", while I wanted them to be clearly quite content rolling around in that magical garden.
Often I go directly from very rough thumbnail to paint, but with a complex scene like this it’s better for me to work out some things in pencil first - basic poses and costumes, for example. Often my best sketch work comes spontaneously and unexpected, when I find myself with a spare moment to jot down some ideas... waiting in line to pick up by daughter from school, at the dentist’s office, whatever. So again, I always keep my miniature sketch book at the ready.
After exploring some rough ideas with the figures, it’s time to lay these separate drawing on top of the (blown up) thumbnail, with a lot of twisting, flipping and resizing to pull it all together. The goal, as always, is to move the picture to the next level without losing that precious, elusive power that the little thumbnail magically delivers. The result is the rough sketch - you can see the thumbnail as a very rough and somewhat blurry pencil drawing behind the more detailed drawing.
Since the change of seasons plays such a specific role in other parts of the story, I chose to use weather and seasonal differences throughout the illustrations to underscore the various changes going on in the giant’s life and outlook, and with the kids’ situation as well. I chose to set this scene in the autumn, in part because that specific season is not used elsewhere in the book, but also because at this point the giant had entered his "autumn years." He’s getting older, and before long (in Wilde’s brief text), he’s going to be too old to do much but sit in his armchair watching the kids play.
The trick here, as always, is to capture that same gesture that the thumbnail exhibited, which becomes increasingly difficult to as the picture develops, and less and less is necessarily left to the viewer’s imagination. But in this the rough painting stage is critical, because not only the shapes and forms, but the actual colors must also contribute to this, and as new, more detailed elements are clarified, they, too, need to have their own little "gesture" and palette.
SETTING UP THE IMAGE
Once I have the rough painting in place I decide on how to structure the layers in my image. I don’t use a lot of layers, for example, to create effects, but I do prefer to have certain things on separate layers to facilitate more loose and fluid painting of elements that are behind other elements, and to allow me to moves things around without having to constantly retouch. For example, I typically put the sky on its own layer, on the very bottom, so that I can paint it using very large brushes and bold strokes, without having to simultaneously worry about painting around the figures and other foreground elements.
At this point I felt something wasn’t quite working in the visual space behind the giant and the boy on the left. This is one of those things that, for me, could not really be resolved in the pencil drawing. Once I had some color and value laid in, I realized it would be much stronger if this area were dark, rather than light, as this would contrast the giant’s white shirt, thus creating a a strong diagonal from his raised arm, across his shoulders to his other arm. The altered bushes now form a dark, triangular wedge that showcases the giant and also cuts him off from the castle, which, like his shirt, is also light. But, this created a problem whereby the dark haired boy on the left was no longer strongly silhouetted against the (now dark) background, so I placed a lighter bush just behind him. I also at this point felt the blonde haired girl’s cool blue dress was drawing too much attention and not fitting in well with the rest of the piece, so I changed it to orange and yellow.
With the image firmly established now, it’s time to paint, paint, paint. I use Corel Painter for all the mark making in my paintings, periodically dropping into Photoshop to make large scale adjustments to color and levels, or to move and resize areas of the painting. For me this is a constant and integral part of the process. For example, I tilted the red haired boy’s head up a bit, changed the blonde haired girl’s pose, and corrected the scale of the staircase.
Continuing to work the whole picture, I add more and more details such as the leaves on the ground, the giant’s hair, the flowers - even one in the blonde haired girl's hand. But even at this stage I will also make relatively drastic changes if necessary, such as shifting the upper part of the castle back so it is less imposing, less dominating over the giant and the central area of the picture in general.