mermaid - library poster artwork CSLP

Last week, the flying monkeys at Duncan Long Studios wrapped up the illustrations I’d been hired to create for the US Collaborative Summer Library Program (CSLP) 2013 program.

Talk about a dream come true!

As a kid I can remember summer outings to the cool indoors of our tiny brick library where I searched dusty shelves for mystery, science fiction, and adventure stories to read. Those were treasured days and I consumed everything from Robert Heinlein to dog-eared copies of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ pulps, to the many Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys mysteries that librarians across the nation seemed to view as essential reading. Biographies (P. T. Barnum to Alexander the Great) and science books rounded out my adventures.

So when I was hired to create some artwork for the CSLP, from the onset I wanted the artwork to reflect some of my childhood adventures. The whole project a joyful journey down memory lane — with being paid becoming the frosting on that cake.

But it wasn’t all fun and games.

The pressure mounted as I realized my illustrations would be appearing in thousands of public libraries across the USA, with potentially millions of children and adults who participate in the program viewing (for better or worse) my artwork.

Adding to the pressure was the impressive illustrators in whose footsteps I’d be walking: Christian Fuenfhausen. Rafael Lopez, David Shannon, Svetlana Chmakova, and Ursula Vernon among others.

And the process was a little stressful as well. Each proposal went to a committee whose members were spread across the US, each potentially feeding suggestions and changes back to the art director. Fortunately for me, the art director on this project was Heidi Green; she did a fantastic job in sifting through the suggestions, summarizing them, and then adding some suggestions of her own.

Little by little we advanced until finally the finishing touches were more or less put on the final poster, book mark, and ten pieces of spot art that comprised the project.

But there were detours.

Of course when starting down the path of creating an original piece of artwork, the first question is: Where to begin?

Since this project was all about books (and I won’t reveal the actual theme for 2013 — I’ll let the CSLP handle that), I started by creating an illustration of an old book:

CSLP - Summer reading poster illustration book

The illustration looked old and interesting — but not so magical. So next I added some special glow and a few magical spheres rising from its pages:

Summer reading poster illustration magical book

This seemed like a good building element for the poster. And it might have made a great poster by itself (and did later become the bookmark for the project — more on that in an upcoming post). Did I mention detours?

The biggest one was all my fault. When I started my work, my “mind’s eye” idea was to put elements from fantasy, science fiction, history, action-adventure, and science onto the cover — basically the reading I most enjoyed in my youth. Something like the little pigeonhole calenders children play with before Christmas, opening up a new picture for each day in the countdown to that special day.

To serve this purpose, I devised a bridge-like structure with different scenes peeping out from each archway. Here’s one of the more polished early results:

early book poster illustration for the summer reading program

Now in a perfect story of creativity, I would have submitted this poster illustration first thing, it would have been accepted, and I would have been on schedule, my poor art director would have spent little time pulling out great handfuls of hair, and I would have gone on to other things (I can say this with confidence since this is very nearly the design we eventually settled on for the final poster).

However at the time I created it, the artwork seemed way too cluttered. And the flying monkeys agreed. So instead of sending this version to the art director, I went back to the single book with the magic fog rising from it and added reduced elements from the illustration I should have submitted:

summer reading book poster artwork - version 5

Not surprisingly, the committee (likely a bit terrified by what they saw) suggested adding faces and/or characters to the poster so young viewers could more easily identify with it.

This led to what I call the “Angry Fairy Underground” poster (and, no, I don’t abuse drugs — I’m just warped). This quite possibly is the worst idea ever submitted to the committee:

angry fairy poster illustration 6k

Understandably the Angry Fairy Underground met with a cool reception. This was followed by what I call the “Our Gang” poster:

our gang poster illustration 7d faces

At this point, I could tell everyone was getting a bit worried if not panicked, though they were kind enough not to avoid disparaging remarks about those who had hired me for the work (I did here some muttering about a firing squad).

Going through the files I’d done thus far with the hope of determining where things had derailed, I discovered the original bridges version of the poster I’d done (but never submitted). Separated from it by a few weeks now, I found it looked a whole lot better than I’d first thought.

So with desperate hope, I submitted it:

final poster illustration 4 Z11

The committee liked it, the art director liked it, and I liked it. Finally we had our poster.

This final version has many of the elements I wanted in the poster, from mythology to science. And as I polished the scene, I was able to add a lot of tiny details and surprises for those willing to spend a little extra time studying it, including some crows, a hidden face, a ghost (inside the arch to the left of the sword), a “lady in white” looking at a “Secret Garden” in the central panel, a white tiger (down in the lower left – a character from one of my unpublished novels), vines, a starfish, a WWII “Flying Fortress” and a more modern B-52 bomber flying alongside the spaceship. (I’m hoping the final print will show these smaller details– though the inks used for printing and the resolution of the print may scuttle a few of these features.)

The only thing up in the air right now is the mermaid. Some on the committee seem opposed to her and others okay with her. She’s modest as mermaids go, but possibly a bit too risqué for the public library. And I’m okay with having her removed if they so decide; after all, I’m not anxious to have irate folks burning my posters in some backwoods part of our nation.

When not stirring up trouble in the backwoods, Duncan Long works as a professional book illustrator. See his book illustration portfolio at: