I just finished the fourth in a series of curriculum guides for a public education project called Builders, Bricks, Boards and Books, which is designed to introduce children to basic housing and environmental health concepts while supporting literacy development. The series is being developed by the Montana State University Extension Housing and Environmental Health program, in partnership with grant funders.

I signed on to do the layout and illustration for an initial pilot booklet back in 2007. I was hoping to get more youth oriented work, so I was thrilled to have an illustration project to practice on. Meanwhile, the client benefited from my developmental editing skills and a fire-sale bid.

I wanted to be able to do the art very quickly (i.e. cheaply for the client) in a style that looked friendly and hand-drawn. At that time I didn’t want the illustrations to look just like the art I was doing for another client, so I came up with these goofy peanut-headed characters. I think the first booklet was hand inked (or maybe hand drawn and digitally inked), then I colored overlays with Prismacolor, scanned them back in and added background fills in Photoshop. In retrospect, the peanut heads look pretty weird and that was kind of a crazy process!

A couple of years went by while my client developed the subsequent booklets. When he came back to me with a second booklet, I had moved on to drawing directly on the Cintiq display, but I still printed out the linework and rendered it on a tracing paper overlay with Prismacolors. Then I scanned the rendering back in and added fills in Photoshop. It was time consuming, but I liked the handmade look of the Prismacolor. (I toned down the peanut shaped heads a little on this one… What was I thinking on that first one?)

A little ancient history: Back in the day, I used to sketch a whole drawing on tracing paper (because you can erase like crazy on tracing paper without tearing it up). Then I’d transfer the finished linework to illustration board using home-made carbon paper (sheet of paper coated on the back with graphite). Then I’d ink the lines with India ink, add watercolor fills and render on top of that with Prismacolor. (Or did I do the ink last? I can’t remember.)

It took a little while for the copy for books 3 and 4 to come along, and in the mean time, I decided to try out a digital equivalent to Prismacolor. David found me some brush sets (here’s another) for Photoshop, and a color swatch palette that some energetic individual had developed to match Prismacolors. I’ve definitely lost some richness and the brushes don’t perfectly match real Prismacolor texture, but I thought it worked out okay for a first attempt, and it went quickly.

(I completely ditched the peanut shaped heads… I could beat myself up about being inconsistent, but all cartoonists refine their shapes over time. It just happened that there was a big time gap, and I realized that I didn’t like the peanut heads. By the way, this style of drawings is what I call my unresearched style or cutesy style. I don’t love it, but I can do it fast without looking at any reference materials, and it’s reasonably appealing to children and teachers.)

I’d like to be doing gorgeous hand-rendered labor of love drawings, but most clients who are doing curriculum development don’t have the budget to pay for them. This cutesy style might not be something I’m super proud to show off, but I think it does the job.