This beautiful, sunny Easter weekend was made even more enthralling when my illustrator sent me the complete set of thumbnails for Bertrand the Bashful Bumblebee—my next children’s book, on track to be released this late spring.
Many of you are already familiar with the phenomenon of illustration thumbnails, but I thought it worth sharing some helpful tidbits for any fellow creators (or curious readers):
They’re one of the steps between the storyboard and the final illustrations. I say “one of” because there is another, earlier step follows the storyboard: that is the character concept art.
Basically, the storyboard lays out the chronological order of events and determines what each picture will portray. The illustrator then uses the manuscript and the storyboard to design visual characters, giving them personality, texture, and shape. After the author and illustrator finalize the character concept art, the illustrator begins creating the thumbnail sketches that will be used for the final illustrations. These thumbnails are essentially a miniature, detailed blueprint of the pictures that will fill each page of the book.
All of this is pretty straightforward, but I want to give some pointers on how to make the most of the thumbnail creation process with your illustrator and take into account the logistics you will need to deal with later.
If you are like me, you might struggle to visualize exactly how you would like something to look. You just recognize when the illustrator’s work is or isn’t what you were hoping for. Assuming you’ve already committed to your particular illustrator, the quality of the book’s images will depend completely on your ability to articulate your vision and the illustrator’s ability to translate this vision into art—which means you must be very, very detailed in your communication. If you see something in the thumbnails you don’t like, ask yourself why. What is it that jumps out at you? Does something not fit? Are the characters not expressive enough? Chances are if you don’t like it as a three-inch thumbnail, you aren’t going to like it as a 11 x 8.5 book page. Show it to some other folks (ideally people you included in the manuscript revision process) and see what they think. While you are the communication touchpoint with your illustrator, you can certainly gather feedback from others in order to pinpoint exactly what needs changing in the pictures.
This is a critical step that I admittedly did not ace the first time around. Ideally, your illustrator and interior formatter should be in communication so that they can integrate the text and the pictures onto each page organically—minimizing white space and making sure everything fits. So much of the inside of a children’s book depends on its visual appeal that this part can really either attract or jar your readers. Put your illustrator and formatter in touch during the thumbnail process so that they can experiment with layout options early on, rather than try to squeeze everything together after the fact.
Remember that the number of pictures does not always match the number of pages. Some pages might have multiple pictures on them, depending on what a given section of text contains. Deciding in advance how many pictures will go on each page will help your illustrator plan for the size of each final illustration.
In any case, this part of the process has the potential to be both fun and helpful—just try to take into account as many of the logistics (size, formatting, page count, font size, text blocks, etc.) as possible. It can feel overwhelming, but it is much better to take it slowly and carefully while you can easily adapt things than to to rush to the final illustrations and realize everything is set in stone. Your hard work and attention to detail will pay off in the end!