Feb 21 2016
When I was contacted by Charlesbridge about possibly illustrating a nonfiction book about the legendary samurai Yoshitsune Minamoto, I jumped at the chance. The timing was great, as I was in transition between Macbeth and Poe, I’d been wanting to work with the Charlesbridge crew, and the subject matter is an intense interest of mine. I had done some karate and aikido as a kid, studied Japanese culture and language during high school and college, and spent a summer in Japan in 1990. On that trip I met lots of great people, tried kendo, got to visit a famous Japanese swordmaker, watched hours and hours of anime and sumo wrestling on TV, and learned what real jet-lag feels like. Later I took up aikido in a more serious way, and I’ve been practicing that art for over 15 years now. I also did an illustration project in college about Yoshitsune, so I knew the basics of his story — though at the time I was focused more on the legends about his early life than the real details of his military exploits. Anyway, I was quite excited to illustrate this book, especially once I had read the manuscript, which I found vivid, compelling, and action-packed. The author, Pamela Turner, has written lots of excellent nonfiction, lived in Japan, and practices kendo, and she brings all of that background plus a clever modern sensibility to the story.
The scope of the assignment was a cover plus an illustration for each of the 15 chapters, plus a title page spread and 4 maps, all to be painted in a loose brush-and-ink style.
I started filling up a sketchbook with rough pencil sketches for each chapter. I tried to keep these loose and focus on interesting silhouettes and compositions. I wasn’t sure yet whether these would be half-page or full-page illustrations, or exactly what the page size would be. I did 4-8 sketches for each chapter, and maybe 15 or 20 for the cover.
I discussed the sketches with my editor Alyssa Pusey and art director Susan Sherman. Once we narrowed down which ones we all liked the most, I did larger sketches digitally. We decided to go full-page, so many of the compositions had to be adjusted to fit the page size, and then tested opposite a chapter opening. Author Pam then checked the illustrations for historical accuracy. She researched this book so thoroughly, we all wanted to make sure I didn’t mess anything up.
In order to do a loose brush painting, I actually needed to work out a fairly precise drawing, often with more information in it than the finished illustration would have. Then I put the drawing on a light table and painted over it, laying down the solid blacks first, then the grey tones. I used some carefully distressed, bristly brushes I’ve cultivated over the years (a good inking brush, as it ages, tends to lose its ability to keep a sharp point, but sometimes gains other magical qualities!).
We decided to do a wraparound cover, and Susan mocked up the type with our favorite sketch. I worked out the composition for the wraparound, then drew in more precise details. I tend to find horses a bit challenging to get right, so in addition to a lot of photo reference I also used a plastic horse that I bought on eBay and hung over my drawing table.
I did use digital techniques in a few places. Most notably, I replaced the ink wash sky in the original art with a color gradient and white clouds made by reversing black ink strokes I did separately. Then I added a layer of digital red and gold as accent colors.
I also got to help pick out the colors of the endpapers, the red ink of the cover type, the stamp and the paper for the casewrap, and even the striped pattern for the headband and footband.
Here’s one of the maps. It’s a brush painting with a grey wash digitally inserted behind it for the ocean. Labels added by the publisher.
Charlesbridge has been wonderful to work with, and the book has been getting a great critical response. It’s on sale now, and I hope you’ll check it out. Thanks for reading!