Monday, April 3, 2017

Researching the illustrations

~by Sue Heavenrich 

Susan Stockdale writes and illustrates wonderfully fun books for kids. They’ve got the look and feel of picture books but are filled with fun facts and amazing illustrations. You’ve probably seen her books: Spectacular Spots, Bring on the Birds, Fabulous Fishes. So you know her style is bold and bright.

But did you know that it’s 100 percent accurate?  Yup, a lot of research goes into each illustration before the paint hits the Bristol paper. And sometimes after.


Her new book, Fantastic Flowers, was just released, so I figured this would be the perfect excuse to give Susan a call and learn her research secrets.

“Nature is my muse,” Susan says. About seven years ago she was visiting the US Botanic Garden and saw monkey orchids. “I knew the minute I saw them that I had a book idea!” After finishing up other projects she began combing through botanical archives, talking with botanists, and thinking about what kinds of comparisons would be the most fun for kids. She looked at lots of photos and even consulted calendars to make sure that the seven kinds of flowers shown together on the last spread actually bloom at the same time.

Before she gets down to painting, Susan does a pencil drawing. “I send it to the botanists to make sure it’s accurate,” she says. The text may be imaginative (“Upside down pants” for Dutchman’s breeches) but the illustrations provide important factual information.

Then she traces the drawing on two-ply Bristol paper. Susan’s medium of choice is water-based acrylics because the paint dries quickly and she can work in layers. For her painting of “spiraling spoons” (African daisy) she started with the dark background. Then came the light lines “to outline,” she explains, and then she filled in the leaves with greens.

She mixes each color, saving them in small canisters labeled so she’ll know what page, what plant they go to. “At one point I had about 25 labeled canisters!”  

Illustrations get revised. The original drawing of daisies had included three butterflies, but Susan worried that they cluttered up the illustration. She took another illustration to her critique group (three wonderful author/illustrators) and one of them noticed that a petal looked like it could be a lifted leg. Susan incorporated that idea into her revised drawing.

“And sometimes I get something wrong,” she admits – though, given her careful research, it rarely happens. That happened with the spider flowers. When she sent a copy of the painting to the botanist-expert, he pointed out a few things that needed to be fixed for this particular species. So it was – literally – back to the drawing board.

Another technical thing Susan considers when she paints: placement of the text and the gutter – the part of the illustration that gets sucked into the binding. “I make sure nothing critical is near the center of a spread,” she says. “I might tilt a flower to one side or the other so the important parts show.”

Fantastic Flowers was released last month by Peachtree.


  1. Sue, Appreciations for providing us with this visit to the studio of not only a fabulous artist, but a meticulous researcher. I also like following the link to her site. Her design/art style makes me think of one of my favorite nature artists, the late Charley (or Charlie, can't remember at the moment!) Harper. I wonder if she feels a connection to his work. Have added this new book to My List.

  2. Wow! Thank you for an interesting post, Sue. These are such beautiful illustrations created by Susan. Thank you for sharing your process of research, drawing, and painting followed by a botanist expert check.
    ~Suzy Leopold

  3. As one whose artistic abilities don't go past stick figures, I certainly have admiration for those people who have this talent! When you savor an illustration, it's incredible the process(es) that must take place and I certainly have a new-found appreciation for all that talent. Thanks for sharing an interesting post, Sue, and thank you, Susan for sharing your remarkable talents!