Picture Book Illustration – The Process of Illustrating “Hagga’s Last Vattiegirl” Pt. 1

Picture Book Illustration - The Process of Illustrating "Hagga's Last Vattiegirl" Pt. 1

“Hagga’s Last Vattiegirl” was my first picture book illustration project. It was also my most rewarding and my most challenging. Read on to see my work process from shaky beginning to glorious end.

How I Got (and Almost Lost) “Hagga”

My Final Year Show exhibition at Edna Manley College was in June 2012. Two-three days in, I got the offer to work on “Hagga’s Last Vattiegirl”. Being my first post-graduate project, “Hagga’s Last Vattiegirl” presented a tremendous career opportunity. It also presented me with a nasty case of Imposter Syndrome. Performance anxiety, stress, self-doubt, depression – it had me ragged. Financial difficulties piled on the pressure since 2012-2013 was a *rough* period. To top it all off, I almost lost the project quite a few times while battling all that mess.
Back at Castle Osun, the remaining girls are sick with worry.
This best depicts my mood during the bulk of the project.

Gentle people, I’m not about to sugar coat things. The pressure to succeed froze me in my seat and almost cost me the entire project. But I powered through to the end. It also helped a great deal that the client had the patience of Job. In the end, the finished pieces exceeded the client’s expectations (Thank
GOD!) and I had portfolio-worthy work to share. “Hagga’s Last Vattiegirl” was basic training, pretty much. Tackling it was what forged me into a true professional illustrator, not my degree. I had to earn my place through real world experience, through stumbling and growth – and stumble and grow I did.

 

Daphne is embraced by her jubilant house sisters.
Almost exactly how I felt after the book was 100% done, except for the cheering crowd.

“Hagga’s Last Vattiegirl” – A Summary

“Hagga’s Last Vattiegirl” had a lot going for it:
 
  • a Caribbean-based modern fairy tale with Afro-Caribbean characters
  • an angry ogress and a benevolent sorceress, and
  • a small often-dismissed character on a wild and wondrous heroine’s journey.
With all those elements, what’s not to love? Check out the book’s blurb for yourself:

Only girls live at Castle Osun. On the way home from school, one of the girls, Zona, is stolen away from the group and forced into the bush. The girls are frantic and don’t know where to turn. What will happen to Zona?

Amidst the confusion. the nature-bound Daphne sets off on a mission to find the missing girl and bring her back to Castle Osun. Just in time, the good witch Minona appears, and warns of the evil ogress Hagga who abducts girls and will turn Zona into a faceless & handless Vattiegirl. Hagga must be stopped!

In a race against Hagga’s posse of wayward boys and the terrifying spectre of Hagga herself, Daphne must first overcome many obstacles in her path. As she learns the veiled tasks and magical chants from Minona, can Daphne save Zona and herself before it’s too late…and they are both lost forever?

The icing on the cake that made me go, “Yes, please! I”m in!” was that the client planned to dedicate and donate the book to a girls’ home on Jamaica’s North coast. Also, this is why I haven’t put a purchasing link to the book. Sorry about that.
 
My first step for “Hagga’s Last Vattiegirl” was to read the client’s manuscript. I noted all the character’s names, genders, and ages. I also wrote down where they lived and what they did, and examined how the story flowed from beginning to end. Doing that gave me a mental rough to start with once I was ready to work.

Thumbnails

After I read the story, I started thumb-nailing the scenes for the entire book. My thumbnails tend to fall under one of two umbrellas:
  • super rough drawings, or
  • scribbling while drunk on cough syrup
 
Either way, thumbnails help me to get as many composition ideas possible down on paper. That way, the client can pick, choose, and even mix-match until the best option emerges. At this stage, I could get away with stick figures and explaination notes for each scene.
 
Remember “Ala and Her Wards” from the portfolio? This is the very first version of how that scene looked, straight from my sketch book.

 

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Remember “Ala and Her Wards” from the portfolio? This is the very first version of how that scene looked, straight from my sketch book.

 

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The first time we see the remaining girls as they flee from danger. No hair, no uniforms, but rapid butt-hauling.

 

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Who knew there were so many ways to look glum about your missing house sisters?

 

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Hagga sure had her gang of boys on a very strict diet in the early days.

 

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Compared to the final illustration, my thumbnail wasn’t dynamic in the least.

 

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If you compare my notes on this to the final, you can tell which idea I nixed come drawing time.

Character Sketches

It’s rare that I get a piece right when my pencil touches paper, or my stylus touches tablet. I haven’t been that self-confident in my every pencil scratch since I was a very young child. ‘Hagga’ was no exception. From character designs to scene layouts, everything was in flux. Not even my final drawings were safe. Many went through minute to major changes before they felt right to me.

The Adults

For instance, I had pictured Ala the Den Mother as a slender woman and Minona the Witch as full-figured. However, the client wanted the body types reversed.

 

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Here’s what Ala looked like in the very, very beginning.

 

Image: Ala and her some of her young wards standing smiling in front of Castle Osun.
And here’s what she looks like as of Final Save.

 

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This is how I initially imagined Minona, with more round features

 

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And here’s Minona in her final form. This piece wasn’t used in the portfolio, but I wanted you all to see what she looks like.

Hagga the Ogress also underwent serious cosmetic changes between sketch and final drawing. For one thing, she looked more like a Lord of The Rings trilogy extra than a Caribbean monster. I also drew her far too bony.

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The very first appearance of Hagga. As I said – too LOTR and too bony.

 

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I redesigned Hagga’s face and body following the client’s feedback. As for that skinny little girl with Hagga? I’ll explain her later.
Image: Crouched behind some bushes, a determined Daphne watches as Hagga and the Boys retreat to their cave for the night. Once they're asleep, her work begins.
Hagga, in the form we all know and love (or loathe, whichever way your wind blows).

 


Our Little Heroine

Daphne was one of the trickiest characters to design. One, she was the main character and very important to the story so I couldn’t afford to muck her up. Two, she was the smallest girl in spite of her age and was human-passing with latent magic abilities. Inspired by her ‘nature magic’ qualities, I first gave Daphne a pixie-like appearance. I must have pulled inspiration from ‘Herself the Elf’, because I drew Daphne far too thin. I mean, look, she was a Bobblehead! In the end, Daphne emerged as a small and cute child who’d be relatable to readers. Plus, her final design would be faster and easier to draw in a many-paged picture book.

 

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I don’t know why I thought making Daphne into an emaciated Bobblehead was a good idea.

 

Other Characters & School Uniforms

In the manuscript, Daphne and Zona were the only girls with given names. The client also never specified how many girls were Ala’s wards, so I kept the number manageable. Except for Daphne, Zona and the other Castle Osun girls had no specific descriptions. With all that freedom, I went a bit nuts with hair styles and body types. Looking back, I defaulted to ‘slender/average’ in my final drawings. It’s unfortunate, but I promise to do better in future projects. As long as I have that leeway, that is.

 

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Zona, with her original hairstyle – which would have been great, in hindsight. Also, the various girl characters I sketched to figure out the remaining wards at Castle Osun.

 

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The official Caribbean-suited school uniforms for the girls of Castle Osun! The text never mentioned a name for their school, only that it wasn’t at the castle and it was quite far away.

 

And this is where I’ll leave you for now. I’ll pick up from where I left off next week in Part Two, showing you how I tackled and completed “Hagga”. Until then, tell me in the comments below what you thought about Part One, or if you just have some questions that you’d like to ask.

See you on Part Two!


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Peta-Ann Smith

Head Cook and Bottle Washer at Langi Lala Studios
Peta-Ann is a chocoholic nut who loves to draw, and loves to make a living by loving to draw. She's also recently began learning to animate, and is a long-time closet writer.