Almost two months into my mentorship, and Elton’s Ears is taking shape in new ways that I’d never anticipated. The story is just about resolved at last: Raven is merely hinting at a way that Elton might find his way home, allowing Elton to do all the thinking for himself. So the next stage is to make sure the characters are consistent. In the process of developing the layout I ended up with some very sketchy drawings and some more finished ones, so I needed to get them all looking as though they belonged to the same book. The image above was my first sketch for Elton trying to stand up for the first time. The image below is the more refined version. I’ve lost some of the spontaneity on the way, but Brian reassured me that that happens to him too! Especially once the colour is added, children (and some adults) will need a more finished image in order to ‘read’ the action. Plus, in the process of transforming the drawings, I decided to give Elton a triumphant expression in the last picture.
I’d already gathered all the deer drawings together and started to compare them, noticing that in some, Elton looked much bigger next to his Mum than in others, and after studying Mule Deer a little more closely I made Dad a whole lot chunkier and Mum became a little more streamlined.
Brian still pointed out that the antlers don’t look quite in perspective – I may have to construct a model out of pipe cleaners!
I now have to think carefully about the repeated images of Elton in various stages of surprise and panic. He needs to look and act like a mule deer but at the same time he has to appeal to children, so his emotions have to be recognisably similar to human emotions.
In his first encounter with loud noises, he began as a little too exaggerated:
His eyes are just a bit too human, he has teeth like a horse and a neck like a giraffe! Notice also that the text is in front of the drawing. Publishers hate that! So I needed to move the text outside his ears, plus a member of my critique group pointed out that ‘croak’ is the sound that frogs make. After a discussion between friends about the relative noises made by Australian and American ravens (we refer to them all as ‘crows’ in Australia, but in fact most Australian ‘crows’ are ravens) I decided that ‘Karrk’ was the best compromise for a sound made by both species.
So here I’ve adjusted his face so it’s more realistic, but Brian thinks it’s still in that ‘uncanny valley’ which falls between ‘not quite animal’ and ‘not quite human’. I need to make his eyes more deer-like, and less human. I’ve also made his ears smaller, because the story is not about his ears being abnormally large, it’s about the fear induced by the sudden amplification of noises.
I’m still working on varying Elton’s posture, to express panic and fear, speed, delight and relief.
Brian has given me a useful tip: he says if I print out all the ‘Elton’ faces, I can compare them and analyse whether they all look like the same character from different angles. He traces one face and overlays it on the others to compare relative proportions, in the same way as an animator would do.
All this preparation – long before I embark on the final illustrations! But it’s well worth it. I learned from another mentor, the water colourist Alan Ramachandran, that your picture will be 10 times better for every hour you put into preparing beforehand. Next time you pick up a picture book, consider that each picture may have taken between 4 and 40 hours to complete: and that’s only after all that previous preparation undertaken by both writer and illustrator, not to mention the editor and the designer!