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Picture Book Illustration: Dealing with mistakes

A question from a reader:

What happens if you make a watercolor mistake, how do you determine if it is still ok, or you fix it as much as you can, do you still show the publisher? Especially if it is a piece you have put in long hours, a lot of people say only the artist can see the mistake as we are the most critical; still, the publisher may be even more so. In my own painting, some cupcakes did not turn out as I’d hoped, but I wonder could they be photoshopped later by the publisher, if the artist doesnt have photoshop? My main question is, do you re do the whole thing for one little area of a large painting or see if it can be salvaged via photoshop first?

They say that the difference between an amateur and a professional is that the professional knows how to fix mistakes. That is true to some degree, but not entirely. Even professionals have to start over at times.

In my watercolor illustrations, I improve my chances for fixing mistakes by using a good quality 300 lb paper that can take a good deal of reworking. So, if I make a mistake or don’t like a color, I can usually lift it out with a sponge or a felt nib. This has to be done gently so as not to tear the paper fibers. Most colors will lift out fairly easily. Some pigments, however will stain the paper. At that point, if the stain is very light, I may still be able to repaint over it. If it’s too dark and a large area,  I will most likely have to redo the entire painting.

Sometimes I will use gouache to paint over  small areas with remaining stain. It’s more opaque and covers better.  This has to be reserved for spots that aren’t too obvious and it has to blend in with the rest of the painting. Watercolor pencils come in handy too for small spots that need a fix.

I have also fixed small spots where stain remained by letting the painting dry completely then scratched out  the stain with an Exacto knife and then used some fine grit sandpaper to smooth it out. This, of course, changed the texture of the paper, but it was not an obvious spot and the end result was acceptable. I knew that it would reproduce well.

Conversely, I have drawers filled with paintings I have started and abandoned. This complex scene from Jingle Bells took me 55 hours to paint.

Jingle Bells Phillipines

I had started several paintings of this scene and had almost finished one (50 hours or so) when I decided the colors were muddy because  I had overworked it by adding too many layers of paint.  It wasn’t just a part of the picture that didn’t turn out as I’d hoped, but the entire image. Even if I used  photoshop, it would not have helped in this instance. (This is a photo of the original painting. The lighter green area on lower right is where the text was placed.)

Yes, we artists are our own worst critics, but that is what keeps us improving. I never send my art to the publisher unless I feel I have done my best at the time. I do not use Photoshop to fix mistakes. Yes, it would make my life a lot easier if I had a big scanner and was able to manipulate my art in Photoshop. But I’ll leave that up to the experts for now. My art directors do the high res scanning of my paintings and they do a beautiful job of getting the images very close to the originals. They even look better! They do not like to alter my images in Photoshop. If they feel something has to be redone, they’ll send the painting back to me. I once had to redo a tiny ladybug in flight because I did not paint the wings right! I have learned since that its outer shell splits to reveal the wings. It was an easy fix because I could lift out the color and paint over it.

mulberry ladybug

 from Here We Go ‘Round the Mulberry Bush

Some final tips:

Work lightly to build up to the darker colors. That way you can see the image take shape and see if the colors are working. Be careful not to build up too many layers and risk muddying the colors.

Choose non-staining pigments. You can do a test of all the colors you have by painting a small sample swatch, letting it dry completely and then seeing how it lifts out with a soft sponge.

Choose good quality paper.

Do color studies prior to the final painting to work out the colors.

When you are ready to start the final, work on the hardest part first, (For me it’s the faces, especially people’s.)

Happy  illustrating!

Questions are always welcome. I will answer them in a post like this.

About the author

Iza Trapani I am a children's book author and illustrator, fan of Mother Goose and Dr. Seuss, lover of big dogs, aspiring yodeler. When not in my studio, I spend time outdoors and have climbed over many a mountain to see what I could see.

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15 Responses to Picture Book Illustration: Dealing with mistakes

  1. CG says:

    Thank you sooo much for this post, it will be a life saver! So glad about the non use of photoshop, as I dont have the program, i’d rather get it right the first time. One question to add though, and I may have to re do this particular painting, is it possible to use the backside of it? It’s pretty thick paper and very durable, and expensive, so thats why I ask if the back can be used. I usually dont use a lot of water in my paints, its sort of a dry watercolor technique, or drier than normal, so there is nothing soaked through in the back.

  2. What a fantastic and revealing post, Iza! 300 lb. paper, WOW.

    But what is a felt nib? You wrote that you use it to lift a mistake, or a color.

    Back when I used to illustrate with watercolor, if I made a mistake, I went over it with pastel and colored pencil and ink! My illos always ended up being multi-media. And if the mistake was too awful to fix–I actually cut out a new piece of paper and glued it onto the part that had been ruined! When it was photographed, no one could tell the difference.

    If I may ask, what brand of watercolor do you use? Tube or pan? And which colors are your favorites? (Or would that be giving too much away?)

    • Iza Trapani says:

      Helen, here’s a lil to the nib: And yes, I use primarily 300 lb Arches or Fabriano paper. I buy it in 22×30 sheets in packs of 25 from Daniel Smith. They have good prices.

      Yes, I have gone over mistakes with pastels, colored pencils and ink as well. And I have cut out unfixable sections and put in a patch, but that was back when I was using 140lb paper (which I still do use on occasion.) But with the thicker paper the cut out and glue option doesn’t work very well, unless the shadows and glued edges are cleaned up in photoshop. Even with the thinner paper it would need some clean-up. Since my art directors do the scans, I have no control over that. It sure would make my life easier if I did!

      As for brands and colors: I always use tubes and used to work exclusively in Winsor Newton Artists watercolors.Then I discovered Daniel Smith watercolors. They come in nice fat, juicy tubes and the colors are delicious! Recently I have discovered some great colors in Holbein Artist’s watercolors (also come in fat tubes.) Some of my favorite colors are cobalt blue, cobalt violet, vermillion, cadmium yellow deep, Rose Dore (winsor newton), cobalt blue teal and phtalo yellow green (Daniel smith), and some new colors that I have recently come across from Holbein and really love: Lavender ( I used it for Miss Muffet’s dress), cobalt violet light, bright violet, bright rose and compose green.

      Oh, and a fellow illustrator just turned me onto acryla gouaches (Holbein) and I am loving them. Unlike regular gouache, they dry exactly as you paint them, and they are less chalky. Plus once they dry, you can’t remove them, but you can glaze over them for nice effects. They are like acrylics, but silkier and I think the colors are richer. I love them! I am starting to combine them with my watercolors and am liking the effect- plus it’s another way to cover up mistakes!

      How about you? What paints and colors do you love?

      • Ooh, I love Rose Dore! I used to use Winsor & Newton tubes, too. Among my favorite colors were Payne’s Gray, Hooker’s Green, French Ultramarine. I used to use Naples Yellow and Vermillion for flesh tones. Payne’s Gray was my favorite for shadows. I also used Alizarin Brown Madder a lot.

        The paper was 140 lb. Fabrizio Especiale–I remember it used to cost $8.00 a sheet. I don’t even know if they still make it. But the brushes were Winsor and Newton Red Sable, Series 7. They keep them behind glass these days because they’re so expensive!

        Having said all that–I wasn’t very good at watercolor. I don’t know how you do it, Iza! You are a master!

        • Iza Trapani says:

          Ooh, I am glad to know of your combo for flesh tones! And yes Rose Dore is a beautiful color, as is French ultramarine. I have so many colors that I need a bunch of different palates- two large ones (one with cool colors and the other with warm. Plus some smaller palates for yellows and other select colors. They still all end up all messy and mixed up, but there isn’t a palate large enough to fit them all. I may not use all of the colors in a painting, but I still want them there! I also used to use Payne’s Gray for shadows- and still do sometimes- but Daniel Smith has a wonderful warmer gray called Shadow Violet which is very transparent and works nicely. And yes, I have some good expensive Kolinsky sable brushes, though I find those best for large washes. So much of my work is small details and I find a cheaper, stiffer brush does the job better. Thanks for the kind words, but I am hardly a master. Holly Hobbie is. Are you familiar with her work? Toot and Puddle- the two piglets? Her winter scenes are magnificent. My goal is to stay loose, to lay down the paint and let it do it’s thing. But I have a hard time leaving it alone. I need an assistant to tie my hands!

  3. BBF, how I loved reading this. That Jingle Bells painting is gorgeous! I can see the detail and I believe it took 55 hours. It looks like it took days and days. Simply beautiful! I love seeing your work. All the little details you add are amazing. You could do classes on illustrating. (If you could find the time!) 🙂 Wonderful learning the process. But how I wish I could paint!


  4. I shall never look at a flying ladybug the same way ever again! 😉

  5. Iza, another super post! Love your illustrations. 🙂

  6. Cenara says:

    I’m not trying to be a grammar Nazi but I though you might want to know;
    in the paragraph just above the last image I noticed two errors
    “…if I had a big scanner and was apple to manipulate my art in photooshop.”

    “apple” I believe is meant to be “able”
    The misspelling of “Photoshop” which should also have a capital letter.

    Love the article BTW 🙂

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