Nothing beats live observation. Especially when you’ve got to always be coming up with new and interesting characters for illustrations.
Book illustration is a unique kind of animal ...
When I do portraits, I can use live models or work from photos. I combine those two and take lots of photos of my subject and use those for reference material. When I used to do a lot of nature art, I could do the same ... either work from live settings or from photos I had taken or from photos in books. But I was drawing only the one image.
To illustrate a whole picture book, you will end up with dozens of drawings of the same characters in different settings and lightings and clothing and circumstances. Characters and settings seen in multiple images need to look like the same characters and settings even if lighting and moods have changed, or if a character or a setting has aged or been altered in some way. And those characters and settings were all made up inside your head, so there’s no place to go and get a snapshot to draw from.
Just as important as developing your talent and skills, it’s imperative that you develop your mental and emotional abilities to “see” and “feel” the scenes and characters you’re drawing. The clearer the mental image in your head is, the easier and better you will be able to draw it.
This is what sketchbooks are all about ... making shorthand “drawing” notes. Sometimes you will be drawing on-the-spot live sketches, and they will be very loose and not very detailed. Other times you will be able to spend more time on a sketch and it will be more finished and very detailed. But all the time, it will be your eye, brain and hand all learning to work together to record a moment from real life. The fact that you are in the moment and something caught your attention enough to record it, will also mean your emotions are involved, which is always a plus.
Back in the studio, you can use your sketchbook to get some inspiration and fresh ideas for your characters and settings ... hair, clothing, backgrounds, etc.
Sometimes you can do it the other way around, and use your sketchbook to go record things you might need. Like if you were doing a story about a child’s day at the zoo, you could go spend an afternoon at the real zoo sketching, taking notes and feeling the atmosphere of a real zoo.
Of course, you can take pictures with a camera or your phone, and that’s helpful. Cameras are certainly useful, especially if you need closeups of very detailed subjects, but photos are very neutral and static. When you take the time to sketch and make notes about your impressions, all of your senses are engaged. Back in your studio the memory of those sensations will come through in your art. It may not have been a notable or emotionally charged event. You might not even consciously remember it. But it will come through your art.
It's a very abstract thing, and I’m probably not describing it well or convincing you that it actually happens ... but it absolutely does happen. And you certainly have experienced it if you’ve ever looked at an artwork that just fell flat.
It may have been expertly and skillfully rendered, but it simply didn’t “say” anything to you.
And then you look at another artwork – one that perhaps wasn’t so expertly nor skillfully rendered – but you can’t look away, because it’s so full of life and energy and you have an emotional reaction to it.
Because “copying” is not the same thing as making art.
And, like me, if you go too long and don’t get out and observe life, you can get stuck in a rut.
And you might find yourself just going through the motions rather than being fully engaged. Not making real art, but just copying what you’ve always done.
Bad covid monster! Interrupted life in all kinds of ways!
But warmer days are coming ... time to dust off that sketchbook and get back to what we started two years ago ...