By Frans Vischer
My first day at school in America was a doozy. My family immigrated from Holland when I was eleven years old. I was shy, and didn’t speak English, and I needed to use the restroom. The entire class got involved, guessing what I tried to tell the teacher. Out of desperation, I made a drawing of a kid on the toilet, which to my dismay, the teacher shared with the class, before taking me to the restroom.
I grew up drawing and reading European comic books — Asterix and Obelix, Lucky Luke, Tin Tin, and Prince Valiant were my favorites. I loved sitting alone in a corner, losing myself in the adventures. My drawings were a hit with my sixth grade classmates, which boosted my confidence. But while they read novels like Charlotte’s Web, I read Dr. Seuss. I repeated the sixth grade, but by middle school I was reading the same books as the other kids. A few years later my accent vanished all together.
Eventually I became an animator at the Disney studio. I’ve worked in the animation industry for over thirty years, and bringing it all back to Dr. Seuss, I’m currently animation supervisor on a wonderful Netflix show, Green Eggs And Ham.
As Fall is upon us, I thought I’d use a Halloween theme to discuss my illustration process and how drawing is an excellent communication medium. I always start out doodling, playing with shapes, poses and attitudes, while I ponder a character’s personality. Knowing your character helps define their look, so I imagine situations for my characters to help me form a mental image.
I began drawing scary animal characters, creepy clowns, and fantasy creatures. Then I hit upon a scarecrow. In books and movies, I always liked villains that didn’t necessarily appear scary — it was their behavior that was frightening. Scarecrows are fairly ordinary, but they could be presented in a menacing way. I tried several faces, a pumpkin head, even a silly scarecrow. I ultimately opted for a dramatic image.
At Disney, they taught us to observe the world around us, and to base our characters on real things so the audience could relate to the characters. Then we caricatured certain aspects for emphasis. I always keep a sketchbook nearby, but I work mainly digitally these days, using Photoshop and Sketchbook Pro. I love the immediacy the computer offers. I work over drawings again and again, questioning not just the pose and attitude, but the angle/composition of the image. As in film, a character can look sinister just by the placement of the “camera.”
So here I’ve found my scarecrow pose. Drawn with Sketchbook Pro, the next step is to import the image into Photoshop, where I’ll paint it. Using the layers, I experiment with colors, adding a dark, foggy background, until I’m happy with the final image.
My illustration ultimately communicates more through atmosphere than character personality — a jack-o’-lantern scarecrow that looks just realistic enough so readers could imagine encountering him on a dark, eerie night. It all starts with a drawing, and deciding what and how you want to communicate.
What do you think my illustration communicates? Or how would you alter the idea? Let me know in the comments!
HALLOWEEN ILLUSTRATION PROMPT: WHISPERS. Readers, share your image with us on Twitter, Facebook, and/or Instagram with #KTIllustrators and comment on others’ images with what you think they are communicating and why! Tag Frans (@fransvischer) if you’d like him to chime in!
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Frans Vischer wrote and illustrated Jimmy Dabble, a middle grade novel, and the picture books Fuddles, A Very Fuddles Christmas, and Fuddles and Puddles. His film credits include Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, The Road To El Dorado, The Princess and the Frog, and most recently Mary Poppins Returns. He can be found at his website, fransvischer.com, his blog pamperedfatcat.wordpress.com, and on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, and Tumbler.
Images provided (and illustrations copyrighted) by Frans Vischer.