In art school I was trained in both traditional and digital painting; however, I was primarily a sculptor. When I decided in 2007 to pursue children’s book illustration, I was drawn to digital painting for some of the same reasons I enjoyed sculpting, mainly the freedom to edit for extended periods of time. In the past I was an edit addict with significant commitment issues (self-diagnosed, of course). The ability to edit and tweak a sculpture for days and sometimes weeks before committing to completion was greatly appealing to me, as was the seemingly endless edits of digital painting. The problem was, I could never fully commit to finishing a painting. I always felt the need to go back and alter some minute detail because I could. The clay never dried. After about three years working in digital painting, I had illustrated a couple of books and had received a lot of positive recognition, but I didn’t really enjoy the creative process anymore. So many of my fellow illustrators who work digitally have been able to achieve this beautiful easiness, flow, and character to their work that has always eluded me in that medium. My illustrations felt tortured. I felt tortured. Clearly, Photoshop and I needed to break up.
It was at this time in 2010 that I switched over to watercolor painting. I immediately began to love illustrating again. Painting for me now is almost a compulsion. In addition to my paid work, I do warm up paintings almost daily: sometimes small, 20-minute illustrations in my sketchbook, or larger-scale paintings that I might work on over the course of a few days. I’m attracted to watercolor because I like letting the paint be paint. I try not to control it too much. I enjoy the way it bleeds and infects the paper. I do most of the heavy lifting with pencils or ink so that the paint has the freedom to do what it wants.
The first few steps of my process have remained the same from the start. First I lightly sketch in light blue Col-erase pencil and then in F pencil on Stonehenge 90lb watercolor paper. I try and work out all of my editing issues at this point so that I can enjoy the rest of the process. Next, I tighten up the drawing and start laying in values with a 602 Palomino Blackwing pencil. Then, depending on the illustration, I ink the lines and add stippling with a 005 black Micron pen to add further dimension.
In the past, when beginning a painting, I would stretch the watercolor paper first by quickly soaking it and then taping it to a wooden board. However, I’ve found that that process tends to make the illustrations crisper and sharper than I prefer. Luckily I don’t paint very heavy washes so I have had very little issue with the paper warping or buckling from the moisture. Once I have completed all the pencil and/or ink work, I apply a very thin even wash in yellow ochre over the entire illustration to give it a warm base. After letting this first layer dry a bit, I go back in and apply a second layer of yellow ochre to the shadowed areas to emphasize the values. Once that layer has mostly dried, I move on to the fun stage!
For the most part I try to keep a fairly restricted color palette, sticking to the same five to six colors. I prefer to let my paints mix on the paper verses pre-mixing them on my pallet. I’m always excited for the happy accidents during this phase of the painting. At times I still find it incredibly frustrating to not be able to go back and edit a piece after the paint has dried (especially when I’m on deadline and I have to start the illustration over from scratch). On some pieces I still can’t help myself from editing in Photoshop after I’ve finished the illustration—but I try to limit myself. Ultimately the forced lack-of-control I use when painting in watercolor has become my favorite part of the process.
Jennifer Gray Olson is a picture book author and illustrator in Corona, California. Ninja Bunny, her debut picture book as both the author and illustrator, releases in June 2015. To find out more about her, please visit www.JenniferGrayOlson.com.