How to Make an Editorial Illustration in One Day
The stressful yet rewarding process of drawing some owls for the New York Times
Happy June! The sun is out and the heat is officially back, along with some unforeseen air pollution to boot. I had finished a big book deadline on the 1st, so I believed that the following few weeks would be a nice chance to relax. BUT, I forgot I also do editorial illustration, and when an art director emails you with a cool project, you hop on it, even if the deadline is tomorrow. So, I thought it would fun for you, my lovely little sketchbugs, to see how I went about tackling this insane deadline and my thought process behind the final image.
It was around 2AM on a Tuesday and I was up catching up on video game I had saved to play post book deadline when Sam Whitney, an art director at the New York Times Opinion Section, emailed me with a cool story. The story was an essay excerpt from Jennifer Ackerman’s upcoming book What an Owl Knows: The New Science of the World’s Most Enigmatic Birds. The piece detailed the wondrous ways owls have mystified scientists and the public alike with their silent flight and their incredible camouflage. Ackerman also went into depth into how owl feathers allow for their silent flight and how humans have been inspired by the feather design when creating machines like turbines and the Shinkansen. You can see the full article and my illustration HERE
It was an exciting project but, the deadline was tomorrow, Tuesday at 5pm, with sketches being due that morning. It was technically already Tuesday morning so…..let’s just say I went into excited, but anxious mode real fast.
The sketch phase is where I do the most thinking. It’s like solving a puzzle with limited clues (the clues being the article and the blurbs the art director might give). I normally note down the words, phrases or paragraphs that really stand out to me as the messages I want my illustration to include/ convey. I normally do these notes and the thumbnails that come from them on a scrap piece of paper I have around the studio. There’s something about physically jotting down notes that gets my ideas flowing at a fast pace. (Every artist does this phase differently so my way is not the only way)
While I am not a fan of quick turnarounds, this article had all the trappings for something visually fun and engaging. Not only are owls cool to draw, they are made up of circles and curves that can be easily fit into various other shapes and compositions. I could almost see the thumbnails drawings come to life in my head because of the wealth of facts and passion Ackerman put into this book excerpt. Also owls are just super cool and I’ve always loved them since I was a child.
Two aspects of the composition that kept resonating with me were the birdwatcher looking through their binoculars and the idea of owls camouflaging with their surroundings. With those ideas brewing in the thumbnails, I went into Procreate to draw the sketches I would send to the art director. I ended up finishing these 4 sketches, sleeping for a bit, then sending them in at 8AM.
Editorial Fun Fact: Do not send in sketches that you do not want to draw. I had other ideas I could have drawn out but they did not spark joy. When you send in sketches that you hate, you might risk the art director picking those over the ones you want
Now the fun part about editorial is when you wait for the art director to get back to you. Normally, this is a pretty chill waiting period that can last a few hours to a few days depending on how many editors they have to consult. Since this deadline was literally at 5pm the same day, that chill time turned into recharge time, so I made breakfast/ lunch and charged my iPad for the upcoming relay race of inking, coloring and editing.
At around 12PM my art director came back to me with sketch 3. I was ecstatic, not only because I liked sketch 3 but also because it was the sketch that allowed me to use an amazing digital tool; THE SYMMETRY TOOL. This tool allowed me to work twice as fast because I only needed to draw one side of the canvas and the other side would autofill with the same mirrored image. I immediately went on to filling in the line art of the sketch, adding certain details here and there; specifically sorting out what owls would go where and the figuring out how to include the turbines and the trains.
This is also where I do the most reference research. Since time was not on my side, I googled the different owls featured in the article (like the great gray owl and the Eurasian eagle owl), images of the technology mentioned in the article I highlighted in my notes (turbines and the shinkansen), and stock photos of someone looking into binoculars.
One of the aspects that I saved for last was drawing the great gray owl heads camouflaged into the birdwatcher’s binoculars. Even in a rushed job I always find it important to savor the art making process some way or another, whether that be a fun subject to draw or textures you’re really excited to ink into life.
By 5pm I had most of the leg work of the piece done. The line work was finished and the base colors were applied. I could have turned it in and said I was finished but there are times when you know that the piece you’re working on can be ten times better. With my 4 years out of school working in the editorial field, the one thing I’ve come to learn is that if you advocate for yourself and have the chops to prove it, normally art directors will give you some leeway in terms of finishing work after the deadline.
So with an 80% finished piece, I went to my art director at 5PM and asked for a little more time, like 30 minutes to an hour more to take these owls to the next level. I also had to be prepared for a rejection to my proposal so I was waiting with baited breath.
After 3 minutes, he responded with saying “another hour was fine.”
Yay for advocating for your work! I didn’t have time to celebrate my small victory though, as I had to keep painting. The symmetry tool really came in clutch for me in the last few moments, as it made coloring faster and more efficient. I also wanted to accentuate some of the details in the owl fathers and the owl portraits while also showing the contrast between the yellow and browns of the figures to a dark, cold background. At the end of the fastest hour of my life, I sent the art director an email with the new, improved piece with two different background options.
After 15 minutes, he wrote back and said the final options looked great. I assumed he would pick the illustration he thought suited the article the best and happily closed my laptop after a whirlwind 16 hours. Gotta love editorial illustration!
The article and illustration were scheduled to be published early Wednesday morning. I woke up happy to see he picked the blue background. In the hours I got to rest and sleep, the striking blue backdrop seemed like the obvious choice.
And thus, I made an editorial illustration in one day. While the adrenaline died down after I got the approval email from my art director, the strange feeling of art making euphoria set in. I was very happy with how the piece turned out and apparently a lot of other people were too. I was also relieved to go to bed a a normal time that Wednesday night.
While I have my gripes with editorial deadlines, especially one day deadlines, there are cool things that can happen when your piece goes out to the world. One of the most unexpected things happened that Wednesday morning when the article went up. Jennifer Ackerman, the author herself, reached out to me with praise for the owls I had hustled to create the day before. It’s always nice to receive comments like these but even more so when it’s the author whose essay you illustrated for. We ended up doing a trade of sorts, where she got a signed limited edition print and I got an inscribed copy of her book.
I’m only a few pages in and am enthralled with her writing! Also who doesn’t love owls? Check out her book here: What an Owl Knows: The New Science of the World’s Most Enigmatic Birds
Amidst the grind of fast deadlines and the creative apathy capitalism encourages, here were two creatives brought together by the editorial hands of fate (Thank you AD Sam Whitney) and a love for owls. Exchanges like these are what make this, often times isolated job, feel connected to something bigger, something intrinsically human and utterly beautiful. Now that’s a hoot. Sorry, I had to.
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Want a limited edition signed owl print? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org for more details! There are only a few left!
Like natural illustrations with a funky twist? I love the work of ERNST HAECKEL and MARIA SIBYLLA MERIAN. The way they bring the animals to life on the page with dynamic compositions always spark joy.
Did you know that owl was my first word? My mom and dad would always read Martin Waddell and Patrick Benson’s Owl Babies to me as a child and it got me hooked on them early. Let’s just say this whole experience made my inner child smile.