Beginning Illustration

May 15, 2016

very story has to begin somewhere, and my journey to (hopefully) creating professional illustrations began this past fall.

Of course, the story began long ago when I learned to read, became a voracious Book Reading Monster, and filled sketchbooks with doodles of characters (and some empty pages so that I could finish each book faster and feel very accomplished). And I have been in college studying the arts for over two years now. However, due to the organization of my program, I didn't take any specialized illustration classes until junior year. The first class (last semester, fall 2015) was called Materials and Techniques in Illustration and it certainly lived up to its name. I spent more money on supplies for this one class than I had spent on the textbooks for all of my gen-eds of the year, combined.

Each project was focused on learning a new medium; several of which I had never tried my hand at before. Our assignments were relatively straightforward, but the research, documentary PDFs, critiques, and revisions fairly well drowned us by the end of the semester.

Nevdroonia by Shaylynn Rackers. Please do not remove signature or watermark.
The month after fourth grade, I told my little brother a story.

It was summer, the day was hot, and the air was languid. My brother and I were curled up in hammock swings because Dad told us to go outside, and it was that day that we first visited Nevdroonia. That afternoon, a "Once Upon a Time" turned into a daring adventure of swordfights, royalty, pirates, fairies, and dungeonous castles with chocolate doors. The name of our magic country was Nevdroonia-- from Neverland, Droon, and Narnia-- and after a while we invited our siblings and all of our friends to join in the adventure.

Conceptually, this was by far my favorite piece. We began with a writing assignment describing a story from our childhood. Some of my classmates told humorous stories, others heartbreaking, and one drew herself having a tea party with skeletons. I described the Adventures of Nevdroonia. 

(Yes, longtime readers, this is the same world that inspired my first-- and so far, only--NaNoWriMo novel in all one hundred and fifty pages of its awful preteen glory).

Figuring out how to make the cloak less "plastic"

The adventure that inspired this illustration was from the day that my brothers and I dressed in costume (I was, of course, in my trusty white cloak) and went questing to save the lost prince and princess who were trapped in a wizard's tower. As I remember, the tower only appeared if you learned the magic words. It grew out of the R--'s house inch by inch. When the mist cleared, we shouted at one another that there was a shape, an awful shape, no it can't be, IT'S A DRAGON! Ben charged at it with the battle cry of "PANCAKES," much to my chagrin. Will and I had the much more valiant cry of "For Nevdroonia!" Nick sat on the ground and ate a popsicle.

Working on the preliminary in my sketchbook
Childhood adventures turn out to be difficult to draw in a coherent way, and my professor encouraged me to take a less literal route than I had in my initial sketches.

The entire piece was created with washes of india ink on bristol board, on top of a drawing inked with a dip pen. My calligraphy G-nib doubles as the best drawing nib ever! Although I sometimes dislike how much our instructors complain about the use of technical pens like my handy Microns, I'm starting to agree that using dip pens with good nibs creates way more interesting lines.

You can't just get into Nevdroonia by walking there. We balanced precariously on the fenced verge of our neighbor's garden and flung ourselves at the tree-swing. This is why you have to be barefoot in Nevdroonia; you can't grip the swing with your toes if you are wearing shoes. At the tree roots, my brother had used a shovel and sandbucket to dig a pit (he told Mom he was studying erosion but she didn't buy it for a minute), and we swung over these Deep Cliffs Between the Worlds to land, stumbling and laughing, in our land.

After the inkwash project, we created portraits of famous illustrators ("your idol") using scratchboard. I would really like to blog about this, since I loved working with scratchboard so much and I long for the chance to do so again.

However, those portraits of our "idols" were assigned and mine was an illustrator whose editorial pieces portrayed women poorly or not at all and whose Playboy illustrations were, well, Playboy illustrations. Me being me, I took a stance against this illustrator's messages in my sketches. My professor wasn't happy with the sketches, and the final result was a compromise. And so, moving along...


Portrait as Old Master by Shaylynn Rackers
There are few mediums that make your hands as sore as good old waxy colored pencil. And yet I love it. Every inch of this thing represents a few hours of constant re-working and pushing into the paper with all the strength I had left.

The assignment was to create a self-portrait (focusing on the face) of yourself as an Old Master. After much digging, I found this gorgeous self-portrait by French Neoclassical painter Marie Gabrielle Capet.

My piece looks so much less impressive when I show you the original...

Marie Gabrielle Capet was a fascinating individual. She lived in eighteenth-century France and at age twenty-one was admitted into the Academy (the Royal Academy of Art was responsible for training the best and brightest in the Neoclassical/Rococo style, and had a monopoly on official practices). This is even more remarkable because she was a woman, and the Academy only allowed four women to study at a time! There are some reasons why I'm glad I live in the twenty-first century...

Photoshop magic. It looks so much less creepy with a shorter neck...

I spent nearly two hours working on angles and lighting to take the best reference picture. Bit ridiculous, yeah. My duct-taped tripod and I are very good friends now. Some Photoshop magic later, and I was ready for the long haul.

Did I mention that colored pencil takes a long time?

Colored pencil takes a long time. On the upside, by the time I finished I was just starting to grasp how to properly draw bunched-up silks.

Portrait as Lumberjack by Shaylynn Rackers

Assigned prompts. You can't avoid them, and sometimes you get truly interesting results. Such as when you have to draw yourself as a lumberjack, because that is the word that you drew from the pile.

It's actually kind of awesome.

But my roommate said it looks like an axe-murderer.

It was handy that I went home the weekend I had to work on this piece, because my dad had a heyday loaning me all of his safety equipment and taking reference pictures. Most of them turned out like this:

In my defense, it was really sunny.

Some imagination later (and what I now recognize as a poorly chosen reference photo for the hatchet), I was ready to go. I really wanted to do an awesome Dr. Suess style background with an angled frame, but the professor didn't like that idea. So we compromised again, and this time it made the piece much better.

I'm not a big fan of chalk pastel. It gets in everything, makes a grinding noise on the paper, and refuses to come out of the grooves of your fingerprints.

Unfortunately the original drawing suffered some damage at my school's art gallery. I had sprayed it really well, but the completely illogical way that they display pieces in that building ensures that something will get mildly damaged. Mine was one of the unlucky ones. Thankfully, I was able to disguise the magnet dents and erase the smudges from the border, but I'm glad that I documented it before bringing it to the gallery.

Umbridge by Shaylynn Rackers
"Draw someone you hate. Ink and watercolor."

Challenge accepted.

There are few people I hate so much as Dolores Umbridge, and never mind that she's a fictional character. She's the sickly pink cream of the crop, and I'd be darned if I didn't get a chance to show her in her most evilist.

I imagine that right before taking a sip of that sugary tea, she was using her equally sugary frog voice to tell Harry to take lines. I must not tell lies.

Each half of the face is a different expression; two versions of the evil evil Umbridge smirk
My professor was a bit nonplussed about suddenly being presented with a fictional character, but approved my sketches and then pushed me to add greater value contrast (every single class). I really do need to work on this; when I use vibrant watercolors its so easy to let the hues speak for themselves and forget the grayscale "foundation."

Our final project came in two parts: a 3D illustration and an acrylic painting. We drew names out of a stack, and (after a possibly illegal trade with a classmate who had Shakespeare and wanted my Darwin) I got Shakespeare! The assignment was to create a portrait of the assigned famous person.

The Bard's Muse by Shaylynn Rackers

One of the joys (and trials) of a classical high school education was reading a lot of The Bard. I was a little excited. And my nerdy knowledge clearly overtook any sensibilities of time management. I just had to reference my favorite works. Once the sketch was there (among several far simpler sketches...) the idea just wouldn't go away.

I didn't get to relax over Thanksgiving break, since it was the week before the deadline for this final project and I was in way over my head. Sadly, Thanksgiving was also the only break of the entire semester. Even without going overkill on projects, I was pulling sixteen-plus hour workdays. Aside from the sense of accomplishment at learning so much in this class (and a couple others), last semester was really difficult.

But with Thanksgiving (and Christmas) break in the past now, I can separate these pieces from the sinking feeling of finals-induced anxiety.

The acrylic painting features eleven references; can you catch them all? And just look at my period-correct "S"s!

(I'm excited to take Painting I next year; my painting skills need some developing to allow me to create the images as I see them in the mind's eye).

Slam Poetry Shakespeare by Shaylynn Rackers
Slam Poetry Shakespeare, above, was inspired by the "Epic Rap Battles of History" (<-- language warning) and the slam poetry that has been circulating my facebook feed. We all know that Shakespeare would have been a great slam poet. I began working on the sculpture during our workshop with a visiting artist, the amazing Liz Lomax. The last time I really made art with clay was the diorama of the Last Supper for 3rd grade religion class.

The sculpture is made out of Sculpey clay, wood, fabric, 3D printed components, LED lights, lace, oils, acrylics, and more.

I will be doing an entire blog post on this piece soon. This medium is so much fun and I am very excited about the final piece. It's so different from anything I've tried recently.

The drop cap featured on this post is by designer Jessica Hische. She has made these drop caps freely available to bloggers, but I wanted to put in a shout-out because you really should check out the whole collection. I recently discovered it and am completely, utterly, head-over-heels in love with it.

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  1. Nice job! :) Thanks for sharing! I really like the dragon and flowy cape picture, the bunched up silk portrait, and the Shakespeare sculpture. :)

  2. SHAYLYNN YOU'RE AMAZING. Ugh, you put me to shame... lol.

    Also, Nevdroonia? You're like the only person that I've ever "met" who read Droon. I loved Droon. Droon was awesome. lol.

    Can I pin some of these, or would you rather I didn't?

    *Scrolls back up* Ugh, so good.

  3. @Kerry Thank you!
    @Treskie Awww :) And yes of course you may pin the pictures; just don't remove the signatures or watermarks (which I know you wouldn't anyway!)
    DROON IS SO GOOD! Nobody seems to know about it, but two of my brothers and I were obsessed when we were little. My youngest siblings aren't into them, though, which is sorta heartbreaking!


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