Pen-and-pencil art has a lot in common with the art of writing: a character is most convincingly portrayed when illustrated with movement and action. Emotion comes through with the hunch of the shoulders, the legs pressed together, the eyebrows raised.
I’ve been struggling for some time with illustrating Delilah, a sweet little mouse who visits the strange animal menagerie in my children’s book, The Mouse in the Menagerie. At first, I made her Disney-like:
But something about her wasn’t quite right, so I walked away for nearly six months. I wanted her to be girly, fluffy, sweet. She’s an innocent character, inquisitive and kind-hearted. It wouldn’t do to give her big dorky teeth (like most mouse and rat characters are illustrated), and the goofy clothes had a Fievel Goes West motif that I just wasn’t feeling.
When I returned to her, I returned to my basics. I sketched her core:
I focused the drawing on lines, on shapes. Contoured shapes give life to cartoons, the way heavy watercolor brush strokes give life to paintings of bamboo or Chinese ideograms. The same way the right words can give life to a character on the page.
So I dropped Delilah’s center of gravity to her hips to make her cute and innocent. I curled her shoulders and tipped her head up so she would appear small and mouse-like. I illustrated a page from the book, where Delilah is holding her entry fee to the menagerie and the ticket-taker is granting her children’s admission because of her size.
And voila! She comes to life.