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  • Writer's pictureDiane deGroat

Robo-Kid: Combining Charcoal and digital art

Updated: Apr 12, 2023

My latest book, The Adventures of Robo-Kid was a whole new format­­­­­­­­­ for me—a crossover between a picture book and a graphic novel. I like to call it a graphic picture book.

As shown in the previous post, I drew the rough sketches on the computer, making a digital layout. The book called for two different styles of art—one realistic and one cartoony—to represent the two different "worlds" of our main characters.

I approached the realistic part of the story like I usually do. I photographed a real kid as a model—in this case my grandson Max when he was seven. This was the final sketch for the scene with Henry in the locker room:

I later decided to make the character of Henry look more “generic,” rather than look like a specific kid. (Sorry Max.) It was the first time I went in this direction, but I imagined readers might find it more relatable. I started by making a head out of Sculpey clay to use as my reference so Henry would look the same throughout. This makes it so much easier than trying to imagine each position for the character.

PS: The eyes are slices of black crayon.

PS#2: I like big ears on characters.

Here’s the dummy sketch revised with the “generic” Henry head. I still used Max’s photo reference for the body.

My agent thought we should have some samples of the finished color art to include in the dummy pitch to publishers, and I agreed. In the past, I’ve used watercolor paint to render realistic art, but I wanted to try something new. Lately I have been using charcoal in my life drawing group, and I really love the medium.

Was there any way I could use charcoal for children’s book illustration? Worth a try. Using a lightbox, I traced a printout of the digital sketch very lightly with a pencil onto 140lb Arches hot press watercolor paper. (Mainly because that’s what I had in the studio.) I tightened it up as I lightly sketched. Then I drew over the graphite pencil with a General’s 4B charcoal pencil. The paper worked well with charcoal because it was smooth, but with a slight texture. I like charcoal better than graphite because it makes a richer black and is easier to “smudge” to get a lot of different tones. Here's the finished charcoal drawing:

I sprayed the drawing lightly with fixative, then scanned it into Photoshop and added the color digitally:

The benefit of using Photoshop is that you can try different things without messing it up. (With watercolor, you can’t undo it!)

To get the mottled look on the lockers, I added a texture on a transparent layer. I have a whole digital file of textures I’ve collected from the web or from my own photos. Without it, the olive color on the lockers looked really flat:

Once the realistic art was done, the comic part below it needed to look completely different. I’m not really a cartoonist, so I just made up some line art in Photoshop that looked cartoon-y to me:

At this point I also tweaked Henry’s face because the editors didn’t like the “button” eyes. I preferred the button eyes, but the editor’s opinion gets veto power over the illustrator’s. This is the final version that appears in the book:

If you look carefully, you might see that I substituted a dark sepia color for the line art in the comic part on the bottom. I thought it looked a bit harsh when I used the black line, and the sepia softens it.

Here's another sample I completed. The charcoal drawing:

The color added digitally:

Something wasn't quite right, and I finally figured out that the boy’s legs had the wrong perspective when compared to the dog. I used Photoshop again to change it. I also changed the wall color and the dog’s position a little. The final art:

Now the dummy book was ready to show (digitally), along with the two color pieces. I think showing the color art samples helped to sell the book!

Today's quiz: Can you can guess which of my book characters these clay models represent?

PS- Answers in the next post.

PS#2- I still like big ears on my characters!

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