Illustrating Lonnie Johnson’s story, Whoosh!

whoosh-cvr_largeSometime in the early 2000s, I received an email from writer Chris Barton inviting me to lunch. That meeting began a friendship that would last well into the future and result in the collaboration of two picture books.

Our first collaboration, The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch (Eerdmans, 2015), published last April, 2015. Today marks the publication of our second collaboration: Whoosh! Lonnie Johnson’s Super-Soaking Stream of Inventions (Charlesbridge). As of today, it has garnered two starred reviews, in addition to becoming a Junior Library Guild Selection.

I’ve illustrated many picture books and picture book biographies, but this book was different than others. For one, although I’ve illustrated digitally for more than 20 years for editorial and educational publishing, Whoosh! was my first fully digitally illustrated trade picture book. Secondly, unlike many other subjects I’ve written and/or illustrated about—Willie Mays, Effa Manley, George Moses Horton, John Roy Lynch—Lonnie Johnson is still living. He lives and works today in Atlanta, Georgia, at his company, Johnson Research & Development Co. For that reason, being just a phone call or email away, I thought illustrating his story would be easier. Well, it was. And it was not.

I begin all of the books I illustrate by creating thumbnail sketches. I use them to begin discussions with my editor and art director, they are my initial thoughts or plan for what will become the final book.

WHOOSH thumbnails

Following the thumbnail sketches, I begin to think about the style and medium I’ll use. Most illustrators take years to develop a look or two for their work, a trademark style. With Maurice Sendak, think dark, haunting, richly detailed ink and wash. With Kadir Nelson, think figurative, portraiture with dramatic lighting, he’s like a modern Renaissance guy. Me, I don’t really have a style. I like to change things up based upon the feel or appropriateness of the text, the subject, or, heck, the deadline presented.

The image above was my first attempt at developing a style for Whoosh! I like vector art, it has the feel of old-time tempera paint, clean, sharp, child-friendly. In addition, I was ready to break in my new Cintiq. But this sketch was rejected as too hard-edged, commercial looking. Ug!—I couldn’t think of anything more hard-edged and commercial than the Super Soaker water gun! But I lost that battle. 

Screen Shot 2014-09-19 at 12.23.41 PM

I continued to experiment—with digital art and with natural media. Each time, my art director preferred my natural media look, like how I illustrated Hope’s Gift. I wasn’t ready to give up though. I liked the freedom that digital art offered, that I could easily experiment without having to start over. Changes could easily be made. Below I experimented with hard lines and subtle texture. Rejected, rejected, rejected…


WHOOSH sketchcolor2

I created one more sample using Manga Studio, below, trying to match the look of Hope’s Gift. They loved it! And that’s when I sprang it on them that I’d created that sample digitally. I had the go-ahead to paint in Manga Studio.

Sample to Diane

At that point, I was ready to begin the research process. Author, Chris Barton, had conducted several telephone interviews with Lonnie Johnson and shared them with me—great! But as the illustrator, I wanted to talk to Johnson, too. I needed to know what things looked like. Did I imagine his childhood bamboo shooter accurately? And what did his early water gun prototypes look like? His house? The ages of his children at certain points in his life. Heck, the race of his first wife, since I’d need to picture his family—I didn’t want to guess. These visual details were not on the internet or in Barton’s interviews. I had so many questions, but for whatever reason, I could not make contact with Lonnie Johnson myself. Dilemma. Later this week, I’ll talk more about the research process.