A New Look at ‘Reinvented’ Inventors in Honor of Black History Month
Many authors I work with would like to create their own story characters and scenes, but, like me, have limited or no formal art training. In this article, I explain how you can illustrate your own stories using digital techniques — even if you can’t draw — and I’ll show examples from a new children’s book I’m illustrating about African American inventors.
Creating the book’s characters was a huge challenge. Because the inventors’ photos were either too old, faded, or non-existent, I had to reconstruct them all from imagination. In this post I describe the steps I took to build realistic likenesses in Photoshop. I hope you’ll find the article’s 5 tips an encouraging starting point for how to illustrate your own stories — even if you can’t draw!
In Book 2 of her series, Just Imagine – What if There Were No Black People In The World?, author Tamara Shiloh takes a new look at Black History in honor of Black History Month. The story follows 2 young teenage boys as they venture into town. Using his grandmother’s magic necklace, Jaxon conjures up black scientists whose groundbreaking inventions changed our world. The boys can see and interact with all the inventors as their journey with the magic necklace unfolds. In the scene below, Jaxon (white shirt) and his cousin Kevin (blue shirt) meet inventors of the pressure cooker, biscuit cutter, digital toaster, egg beater, rolling pin, and the kitchen table designed with shelves.
They are real kids posed in advance in a studio setting, but the 6 inventors are photo-realistic images I created digitally using Adobe Photoshop and Adobe Illustrator. Read more to learn how you can illustrate your own stories — even if you can’t draw!
How to Illustrate Your Own Stories
TIP #1: Where to Find High Quality Photos and Graphics
When creating your own illustrations from scratch, work only with high resolution images, ideally 150-300 dpi (dots per inch). It’s tempting to cut and paste from Internet searches, but you may run into poor quality images that are hard — if not impossible — to fix, not to mention copyright issues. Here are several of my favorite sources for high resolution image assets in JPEG, AI, PNG, vector (EPS), MOV, templates, and 3D file formats. Each offers several individual and commercial pricing options.
- Shutterstock: Huge selection of royalty-free images available in standard and commercial license applications.
- Adobe Stock: Thousands of royalty-free images curated for licensing.
- PixelSquid: Amazing collection of over 30,000 3D-ready images (PNG and PSD layered files) easy to manipulate using the free Photoshop plugin app.
- Unsplash: Beautiful photographs free to download.
- Pngtree: Primarily transparent (PNG) graphics.
Remember to keep copyright issues in mind when downloading background scenes, character images, clothing pieces, and other digital assets from the Internet. Incorporating copyrighted material without a purchase license is strictly prohibited and could cost you healthy fines. All images in this post are copyright protected, as indicated, using Photoshop’s free Digimarc plugin.
TIP #2: Modifying and Customizing Graphics
Let’s take the woman on the far right as an example. She represents Judy Reed — inventor of the rolling pin (patented in 1884).I searched but could not find a photographic record of her, so I had to ‘reinvent’ an authentic likeness. I created all of this scene’s inventors using the same basic steps:
First, I downloaded the dress below in JPEG file format from Pinterest.com. It would have been the style of day dress worn in the 1880s. Then I isolated it using Photoshop’s Select Subject Tool. From Shutterstock, I licensed a woman’s image and isolated it using the same technique. From Pixelsquid, I added shoes (objects are already isolated). I created all the inventors in the scene with these 3 steps.
Now let’s look at the inventor on the far left. He represents Maurice Lee — inventor of the pressure cooker (patented in 1923).
I licensed and downloaded the middle fashion illustration image from Adobe Stock and isolated the man’s dress coat, a style that would have been worn in the early 1920s. Then I applied several pattern layers to the coat to give it depth and color. Finally, I licensed and downloaded the photo of an African American man, also from Adobe Stock, to complete the figure.
I really enjoy modifying graphics to create story characters. With Photoshop, I’m able to construct photo-realistic people and scenes that complement story narratives.
TIP #3: Using the Puppet Warp Tool to Transform Image Shapes
Without Photoshop’s Puppet Warp Tool, I’d be lost. This easy-to-use tool allows you to transform, reshape, bend, and distort objects. In the scene below, Jaxon tests whether his magic necklace can make Kevin 7 feet tall. I puppet-warped Kevin 3 times to mimic how he grew.
TIP #4: Working with Background Scenes
To construct the background scene, I licensed and downloaded this Adobe Stock image in the file format that enables individual object editing within the Adobe Illustrator software program.
To begin, I eliminated objects not consistent with the story context — for example, the Tattoo sign and wall mural. Then I opened the edited image in Photoshop and added graphics from Pixelsquid — for example, the cat, tree, trash can. leaves on the ground, and the crow.
TIP #5: Using Filters to Enhance Images
There are hundreds of creative ways to alter objects and scenes with photo editing filters, including Topaz Labs, Nik Collection, On1, and Alien Skin/Exposure Software. I wanted to create a vintage/retro appearance for the image above, consistent with the historical aspect of the inventors and their patents. Topaz Labs’s 1950s Print filter was perfect for achieving this effect.
If you’d like to learn more about digital illustrating and how to make your own story characters from scratch, don’t hesitate to contact me with questions. If you’re interested in taking one-on-one lessons, I offer online teaching sessions via Skype. I’d be happy to share my secret techniques and shortcuts!