The Making of a Children’s Book Illustration


If you were wondering how to draw a roomful of elves…it’s your lucky day.

In September 2006, my first picture book, Elfis, was published. Here is a behind-the-scenes look behind one of the illustrations.

This is the opening scene from the book, set in Santa’s workshop on Christmas Eve. Here, I was supposed to show a roomful of happy elves rushing to finish their toys in time for the Big Night.

First Sketch

I started off this project by making a bunch of messy thumbnails. I always think it’s funny to go back and look at these because I am working so quickly at this stage that you can barely make out the picture behind all my scribbles.

Elves01 Elves02

If you can’t tell, those are little elves lined up at a workshop table, sorting through kids’ letters and putting them into piles. That freaky-looking thing on the right is the “Toyometer” that’s supposed to gauge how well the elves are working.

In my head, I’m trying to figure out the general idea and flow of the piece, and how it works with the rest of the book. Notice that I wrote small notes to myself underneath the sketch to remind myself what should be included in the illustration – “letters piling”, “Spiffy, Fluffy, Zippy, and Miltie” (names of elves in the book), “Toyometer”, and “Elves working hard” – in case you were wondering.

After a little refining and tweaking, I turned it into this:


Notice that I changed the perspective slightly so the composition was less flat, and I gave the elves more individuality and character. Overall, I liked how this illustration was turning out, and I could tell it was going to be fun to paint.

But I wasn’t quite there yet. The designer who worked on this project suggested that the room didn’t look quite as “hectic” as the text indicated. So I went back to the drawing board…

Sketch Revision

The first thing I decided to do was change the direction of the tables so you could see them better, and fit more elves. I knew this was going to be a pretty complicated illustration, so I kept things simple at first. I drew basic outlines of my tables, and indicated the general placement of the elves.


Next, I concentrated on creating the characters. To make it easier, I worked on it in pieces.

This is the middle table:


For the table on the right, I drew each elf individually. My favorite is the welder.


The finished sketch, stitched together in Photoshop:


Whew! That’s a lot of elves!

Color and Final Painting

For me, getting the drawing done is the hardest part of the process. With all the composition, design, and character problems figured out, I’m ready to put down some color. I plan it all out first with a color comp.


After that, I’m set to paint. This illustration was painted digitally in Photoshop. Here’s a step-by-step look:




The finished illustration:


Just for Fun

I drew a lot of my family and friends into the book as elves. For example…

…my dad, who loves to build model airplanes.


…my mom, who makes flower arrangements and wreaths and sells them at craft fairs. Beside her is her best friend, Jen.


…my grandmother, who loves to knit.