One of the best parts of my job (yes, it’s going to be one of those posts) is the opportunity to meet and work collaboratively with amazing, creative people to make a story come to life. And when those people are also incredibly hard-working and kind, the experience is off the charts. As soon as I saw the manuscript for It’s a Tiger! by author David LaRochelle, I was hooked. And then illustrator Jeremy Tankard sent his first character sketch—soft, orange and striped, a little snaggle-toothed, sweet but mischievous, with potential for a playful pounce or good-natured growl. And just like that, a tiger was born.
(left) first tiger sketch from Jeremy; (right) inspired correspondence from David. What a great team!
Of course I’m grossly simplifying the process. Any writer, illustrator, or book designer knows nothing happens “just like that.” (I had to listen for months to my kids asking, “When is that tiger book going to be ready?!”) Luckily, Jeremy was more than happy to give us a behind-the-scenes account of what really went into visually bringing this story to life:
I LOVED David LaRochelle’s text from my very first reading of it and knew right away that I had to illustrate this story. And I liked that David had made the book itself a character—the way it addresses the readers and takes them along for a ride (with some unexpected appearances from a tiger along the way). So, without any hesitation, I told my agent to please “sign me up!”
This initial reading was followed by a long period of waiting while I worked on other projects and practiced drawing tigers. Then, when we were ready to start work on It’s a Tiger!, I began my sketches, only to find myself completely thwarted by David’s delightful story! Oh, no! I loved the humor in the text so much but my initial drawings fell completely flat. What was I doing wrong? So I reread the manuscript a whole bunch of times and realized that the humor all revolved around the surprise appearances of the mysterious tiger. Every other spread needed to have a hilarious image of the tiger surprising the reader. But, of course, there are only so many ways to draw a tiger leaping out at you before the joke gets stale. That, and there was the problem that the TIGER pages had ALL the action and the interspersing pages had none at all. My pacing was terrible whereas David’s text was so beautifully paced.
Back to the drawing board! I realized that where I saw the humor was in the REACTION to the tiger’s appearance. And merely relying on the readers’ reaction wasn’t going to be enough—I needed the reader to SEE the reaction to the tiger for themselves. So I asked Melissa and Jennifer (my wonderfully patient editor and art director) about adding a new character to the book, “But don’t worry! It won’t affect the text!” I told them. I think they were a little dubious. And, to be honest, so was I. What would David think about me adding a character that he probably never intended to be in his book? But sometimes I just have to rely on intuition.
The end result is a book that challenged me at almost every turn of the page. David’s writing required me to draw some things that I had never had to draw before—like the ocean, a rocky outcrop, and a cave. The sketches presented some other challenges that I hadn’t foreseen, such as the huge diversity of backdrops. How to draw all of these different backdrops and keep the whole book stylistically coherent? The solution, after trying a few different approaches, was to do away with my love of photo-collage and dive more heavily into digital painting. I created a few new brushes in Photoshop that allowed me to build richly textured color fields that could tie all the differing backdrops together. This technique allowed me to quickly paint-in more complex scenes and slowly build-up the colors for scenes that were more sparse. The boy and the tiger were colored using Corel Painter then imported into Photoshop for finishing.
Creating the narrator was an interesting piece of the puzzle. I wanted a solid character but one who wouldn’t steal the show (it’s the TIGER’s book after all). He, or she, couldn’t have a huge personality, but had to be appealing enough that you’d want to follow him through the book. And, since he isn’t mentioned in the text, I didn’t want to be strong-arming attention away from the story that David had created. I have a huge respect for David’s text (and for his writing in general—he’s a very, very good writer). I needed a character with whom anyone could identify—someone with a simple, iconic face that could also convey all the emotion required to carry the humor when necessary.
Perhaps the biggest challenge was drawing the tiger himself. I hadn’t expected this at all! He had to be mean and scary, but not too mean and scary. He had to be cute and attractive, but not too much so. He had to have some real personality. And, of course, he had to have some good cat-like slinkiness! And I learned that cats are very, very difficult to draw. But I like the tiger. I think he turned out okay. And the drawing of him on the front cover might be one of my favorite drawings that I’ve ever done!
The end result of all this is art that I’m immensely proud of. I had to work hard for it, mind you. Sometimes there’s nothing like a huge challenge to make one put one’s best foot forward—and this book challenged me at almost every turn. I hope you enjoy this book as much as I do.
(left) the final cover; (right) The design director’s kids . . . patience rewarded at last.
Jennifer Tolo Pierce