This is the first in a series of features highlighting artwork from The Original Art, currently on display at the Society of Illustrators / Museum of American Illustration in New York City. We will share a cross section of works, right here at the Countdown, over the next several weeks.
We’ll get some back story on the art from surprise guests, and provide related links for further exploration. And you, dear reader, are invited to make comments here, 24/7.
Rosalyn Schanzer was the Gold Medal Winner for the provocative scratchboard illustrations accompanying her original text, for Witches! The Absolutely True Tale of Disaster in Salem.
Joy Chu: How did the idea come about to create a book about the Salem Witch trials? Not the typical topic you usually see in a nonfiction children’s title!
Nancy Laties Feresten: Choosing a book topic can be the hardest part of an author’s job. Roz had to find something that she’s passionately interested in; that is appropriate for the audience; that we at National Geographic think will sell well; and that she feels she can bring a fresh new perspective to.
In addition, Roz loves subjects where there are plenty of colorful primary source documents to work from. Putting this all together can be a pretty tall order.
The Salem Witch trials fit the bill, but there was one problem. Roz generally writes and illustrates books for kids 8-12, using a high-energy comic art style, and the Salem Witch Trials proved both too complex and too dark for the age group and the style.
So everything depended on Roz developing a whole new style — both for the writing and for the illustrations — that would appeal to a slightly older audience. I can’t tell you how thrilled we were to see it all come together.
JC: Was there a lot of fact checking? How long from initial proposal to final manuscript, ready for transmission? And how long for the illustrations, from concept sketches to final art?
NLF: We settled on the topic by fall of 2009. Roz finished the first draft in spring 2010. She revised throughout 2010 (overlapping with the creation of the art); and the manuscript was transmitted in early 2011. So, about 18 months.
Rosalyn Schanzer: Here’s a small sample of some of the research I did (left) in order to help make the people in my book look the way they really would have looked in 1692. These portraits were probably painted sometime close to that year because the age of the characters looks just about right. In my other books, I have usually found portraits painted in exactly the right year, but not this time, so I tried to come as close as possible. Of course I couldn’t find portraits of every single character in Witches!, so I studied up on the clothes they would have worn, figured out their ages during 1692, and read any descriptions I could find that might be helpful.
NLF: Roz delivered the first rough sketches in summer of 2010, and final art was transmitted in layout at the end of March 2011. The book was published in September 2011.
Rosalyn Schanzer: I always do my first set of sketches (see below) for a book on pieces of 8 ½” X 11” paper in storyboard fashion, so obviously the drawings are tiny and very rough.
That way I can see how the flow of the illustrations is proceeding throughout the entire book, and I don’t need to waste time doing more finished sketches that we might decide to toss out later on.
Then I write a description at the bottom of each thumbnail sketch because the art is so rough and the type isn’t there to explain the pictures yet.
This series (below) makes a good example because this 8 ½” X 11” piece includes 4 different spreads.
The spread on the upper left is fairly similar to the final art (below), except that I made the witches more stylized in the finish and showed them lined up in two rows drinking blood from little goblets.
The spread on the lower left (see thumbnail sketch, above) remained essentially the same as the one in the book. And we decided to change* the two pieces on the right entirely.
[* Nancy also refers to these art changes, a collaborative process , in her comments, below —JC]
JC: Was there a list of illustrations and spots agreed upon as a consensus? How many? Did the concepts for opening pages change drastically between roughs and the final versions? Rosalyn’s scratchboard style is highly interpretive — that is, in the style of the best editorial illustration — as opposed to narrative and literal, as in her full color books for younger readers. Did this approach evolve during the planning stages?
NLF: Roz proposed right up front that this art style would be different, more appropriate to the topic and the audience than her usual style would have been.
She choose scratchboard with red details. She also proposed the subjects of the illustrations, and we all (editors, art director, and design director) discussed them and made suggestions for alternatives where we felt there was a stronger option.
At the sketch stage, we also suggested changes, mostly to support Roz as she developed this new style, but also occasionally to suggest a change to the subject where we just weren’t seeing the strongest possible opening for the chapter.
Roz also made adjustments as she went along, basically for the same reasons. The group (Roz, editors, art directors) even made a couple of changes after the finishes were complete, with Roz doing new art to replace a piece that we all felt could be stronger.
JC: The jacket: Were several concepts worked up?
NLF: Roz came up with the basic concept of the half woman/ half witch very early, and it was pretty much tweaking from there.
“. . . I am easily bored, so I’ve tried out almost every media known to man and beast, except for oil paint, because it takes too long to dry. I change styles all the time, too (not a good way to be recognized as an artist).
As an aside, I’ve been using talk balloons in my illustrations for a good million years, give or take a few. Problem is, this means you can’t hang your paintings on a wall, because the words in the balloons are almost always set in type, so the balloons in the original art have to be empty. Talk balloons used to be frowned upon by everyone but me and the comics-addicts, but now they’re spoze to be cool.
If you want an actual list of mediums (abbreviated), I’ve painted entire books on wood veneer; and on rough canvas; and on various and sundry kinds of paper; with every possible texture (but mostly cold press Strathmore Bristol Board). I use gouache or acrylics; or acrylic gouaches; or concentrated analine ink dyes, like Luma, which they don’t make any more. Beware: They also fade. I do lots of outlining with various kinds of pens, or even archival magic markers (another bad thing I love). I add texture with colored pencils; or Cray-pas. I also use cut paper; and have done a few collages; and some fake woodcuts using, um, potatoes, among other stuff. . . “
Any comments to add?
NLF: All I’d add is that Roz’s flexibility is amazing and makes her incredibly fun to work with.
JC: I also see it’s her first YA book with you. The trim size is 5 x 7″ — more of a middle grade shape — and 144 pages total. This is as opposed to the larger, full-color format of her previous NGS titles, all picture books of 32-to-48 pages. “What Darwin Saw” was 10 x 11″; “George vs. George” and others were 8 x 10″.
NLF: I don’t know what’s next for Roz at National Geographic. We’ll just have to wait and see what comes from her always-fertile brain.
JC: I love the overall design of “Witches”! The choice of Caslon Antique for the text font, with its ‘grunge‘ look (this font was designed decades before garage type became fashionable), and reversing-out the black for the front matter (the pages preceding the main story section).
I also love the customized initial caps, and the combination of chiseled texture around the chapter numbers, hand-lettered chapter titles, plus illustrated chapter headings. Truly illuminated!
Was this printed as a two-color book with a spot custom color for the red, or via four-color process? On white or cream stock, — I’ve only seen this book on-line so far — coated, uncoated, textured or smooth stock? Was this choice based on what looked best with the art?
NLF: The book was printed in 3 colors, not 4. The red was a Pantone (a custom-mixed color), not process color, and there were two black plates (to make sure the black would be super-saturated). There was no varnish.
The paper is uncoated with some tooth. The edges of the book block was left untrimmed to suggest a deckled edge* [*also known in the bookmaking industry as ‘a rough front and foot’ — JC].
The small trim was chosen in order to enhance the emotional impact of the book in a way that was appropriate to the story.
The jacket was laminated on the back of the sheet rather than on the front so we could have an uncoated feel with the strength of lamination.* [* The lamination gives both reinforced firmness plus a luxurious touch to the jacket paper stock. — JC]
Roz chose where the red would appear, and David* applied the red on the computer. [*Art director David Seager was out of town at the time of this interview—JC]
I.N.K. : Interesting Nonfiction for Kids (a fabulous collaborative of nonfiction writers who do picture books — including Roz!)
A SPECIAL NOTE: Launching our series today is auspicious since November is picture book month!
Share a picture book with someone you love!