The Unicorn in the Barn
What are the hardest things to draw? HORSES. I drew a horse in fifth grade with pastel and it was so difficult, I almost gave up on my dreams then and there. (Where is that drawing now? Probably in the trash).
So, when I got the invitation from Kate, my editor at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt to illustrate The Unicorn in the Barn, the sweetest and most magical story by Jaqueline K. Ogburn about a Unicorn (read: horned HORSE) I was nervous but thrilled. Seriously, first page and I was hooked - the book is set in what feels like real life, but only if there are magical creatures in your definition of real. (You know how much I love everyday magic and bending the line between real and fantasy ever so slightly) The characters are warm and dynamic and it's set in the South, which is where I currently reside. Win win! It was my first time working on a book that wasn't a re-edition and that was so exciting! As usual, I overcomplicated the process, and that mixed with my uncanny ability to screw up horse drawings, meant there was a rather large learning curve. But learn I did, and I'm so happy to share the process with you.
Right off the bat, I dedicated an entire sketchbook to the project - this helped me keep everything on track. This was where I took notes, wrote down illustration ideas, and kept sketches. I've learned that it's immensely helpful to write down details as you read, instead of having to revert back to the pages when you're creating your finals.
Then it was time to research. One of my favorites parts of the process!
I visited barns, taking photos of the exteriors and the details. I also stayed on a horse ranch (as part of a women's group - lucky for me, it totally played into my research!) There, I got to photograph some wide expanses of land with horses and barns in the distance. There was also a very friendly white cat at the ranch...which was a happy coincidence because I needed to draw a white cat for the book! They also had a great barn stool which made its way into the illustrations.
My friend Pat then invited me to take photos and draw on her farm. It was a gold mine for visual references, and her very sweet dog and cat followed me all over the property. There, I drew farm equipment, her horses, and an awesome tree fort (which made its way into the book as well!)
After visiting Pat's farm, she connected me with a horse trainer, Angela, who was so generous is showing me around her place. She shared grooming and feeding tools and I got to hang out with a couple of beautiful horses. White horses, nonetheless, not very different from pearly white unicorns.
After gathering references, it was time to tackle drawing horses. I feel like a fraud, but here goes: I grabbed a 'How to Draw Horses' book from the library, some tracing paper and traced the images until I could fully understand the shapes. I studied the heads, the eyes, how they communicate emotion through body and ear movement. Their legs also have a specific way of moving, which I wanted to get right. Eventually I was able to take the technical aspect of what I learned and transform it into my own drawing style, to create a Unicorn in my own visual language. To do this, I usually draw from the reference, put that reference away and draw from the drawing, then I'll put the first drawing away and keep repeating until I'm far away from the original reference.
Now it was time for the characters. Since I never properly learned character development, it's been a challenging but rewarding feat. One thing I'm navigating is the consistency of the characters. Since my drawing style is simple, each detail is important - the way the hair falls, the thickness of the eyebrows, the shapes of the eyes and nose.
Throughout my career, it's become clear to me that the task of an illustrator goes well beyond the immediate interactions between characters. You become the costume and wardrobe designer (for this book, I created folders with wardrobe items for each character) the interior designer, the architect, and the landscaper, not to mention a historical researcher when you're doing a time period. Taking information from reality and translating it through your own visual language can take time and exploration. Don't even get me started on lighting and shadows (I make them up!) In the end, I simplified, but I wanted every detail to be thoroughly executed. Once I nailed down the the visual world, it was time for me to lay in the content.
In my sketchbook, I laid out all the chapters, adding notes, illustration ideas and placements for the final page designs. Since I was creating an illustration + header for every chapter, I found that I needed to layout the entire book to make sure there was enough variation between spots, full pages, and spreads. Also I just like drawing tiny things.
To send along the sketches to the editor and the designer, Rebecca, I created fake pages to show where the illustrations would be laid out. Once those sketches were approved, I created the finals on bristol paper in gouache and colored pencil.
The next thing on my list was the cover! Very important part of the project of course, and I did a number of sketches to show the editor and designer. I did some with a close up of Eric and the Unicorn and some from far away. We decided this was the best one, and after a couple rounds, I finally found my footing on the final painting. I painted it in gouache and colored pencil on wood.
Here are just a few of the final pieces...
I cannot wait for you guys to read this book - you're going to love it. It's so charming and magical and sweet, and I feel immensely lucky to have been able to illustrate it. It was a dream job for sure, and I learned so much working on it. Huge thank you to Kate, Jackie, Rebecca, Pat and Angela. Check with your local bookstore to pre-order - the book comes out July 4! (The author is doing a giveaway next month too so be sure to check her out!)
Thanks for reading this ridiculously long post!
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