Illustrating the Story, or Thoughts in Paint – Part 1

How about some background on how I did my work for the illustrations for Flash Fiction February at Fictive Dream? I’m going to write a few posts on topics related to the process. I hope they might give you some insight into how I approached the illustration of a collection of very different pieces of short fiction.

Flash Fiction February is in progress right now, by the way. Take a look!

Parameters of the project

Today I’ll address some of the technical aspects of doing the art for the project – meaning, all the things that had to be figured out before I painted a single picture. I learned from my previous illustration experiences for the September Slam 2018 at Fictive Dream that planning makes a big difference. Let’s get started!

Style: I’ll go into the process of how we agreed on the art style in a later post. For right now, it’s enough to know that the illustrations were paintings done in acrylics on watercolor paper.

28 days in February, so 28 stories, so 28 separate pieces of art. Editor Laura Black and I continued the practice we had followed for the Slam – I asked her to send me an unmarked copy of the each story along with another copy marked with her suggestions. In this way I was able to read the story and see what ideas occurred to me without outside influence and then to compare them with her take on the text. This method was really useful to me as it allowed me a lot of freedom and yet provided me with her guidance.

It was important for me to remember that in the end, the story was the star of each day and that my art was intended to support it.

Size: Laura needed the art to fit exact dimensions in order to appear correctly and there were two sets of measurements I needed to keep in mind.

  • the full illustration that appeared with the story – conforming to the dimensions of 1200 x 745 px in a landscape orientation.
  • the thumbnail that appears on the main page and elsewhere – it had to be sized at 800 x 400 px, also in a landscape orientation.

I could make the physical art piece in any size, but when I sent digital images to Laura, it had to be proportional to those numbers. And you might notice those two sets of numbers produce different aspect ratios (ratio of height to width). Oh no. How to deal with that?

Luckily, we had faced the issue of aspect ratios in the September Slam and solved the problem, so I will not go into the math calculations here. What it means is that it was necessary for me to figure out the common ground in the illustration that would show in both places. I had to make sure of two things:

  • the illustration was coherent and all important elements showed in each location
  • wording/text was placed so that it would appear in each location

As I said, I did all that math back in the fall! Fantastic. The real life dimensions of these illustrations was 11.5″ x 7.25 inches, based on the paper I was using. I did some calculations and understood that all important elements had to be fit into about the middle 5.25″ of each picture.

Every time I worked on a painting, I made small marks in the margin to guide me in my composition. (I then proceeded to forget about those marks, in quite a few cases, but I’ll tell you about it later on).

Workflow: Laura sent me stories over a period of about six weeks, more or less. I decided to work on each story, finish the art, and then move on to the next one. I did not mix my work on stories; it was too confusing with so many of them.

I also made at least two and sometimes more selections for each story – I know from past commission work that for me this method produces superior work than if I try to do one piece and make it perfect. (Theory being – throw things at the wall, something will stick.)

I kept extensive records to maintain control of the project. I will show you that aspect in a later post.

Designing the banner text: Each story needed a banner saying Flash Fiction February 2019.  I gave thought to what characteristics I felt flash fiction to have: edgy, sharp, quick to the punch; the story has to move to get its point across in such a short time.

I had incorporated handwriting in the banners for the September Slam, but I felt this event needed something different. I offered the idea of a “ransom note” look to Laura and she liked it. To create the banner, I cut out letters and pasted them on cards and scanned them:

original scan small

combined them:

flash fiction text in layers small


turned them black and white using PhotoShop Elements 15:

flash fiction text in layers bw small

and added a border, also using Elements:

title white 6 inches width small

I submitted some samples of artwork with various banner sizes for Laura to decide – once she did, I used the same banner on all the artwork, just changing its position using the Layers function in Elements. As a note, I also made a reversed color banner in case we needed it, but it was never used.

title black original version small

All right. Now I had all the technical aspects settled. Next I’ll talk about the art itself – settling on a style, a look, and a way of illustrating a diverse group of stories in a way that allowed them their individuality while maintaining a coherent look.



15 thoughts on “Illustrating the Story, or Thoughts in Paint – Part 1

    1. Claudia McGill Post author

      Thank you. I hope that people might be interested in how one person, me, went about such a process, and also, it allows me to reflect on what I did, when at the time I was just focused on each individual painting.

      1. Chela's Colchas y Mas

        I learn a lot from your posts. I also find your blog to be inspirational. Because of your posts, I signed up for a refresher clay hand-building course. I had been wanting to do this for some time, but just had not done anything about it. I try to write and sketch a bit each day.

        1. Claudia McGill Post author

          Thank you, that makes my day. I saw your elephant and I was impressed (and I love how you said she will grow into her trunk). I hope you enjoyed it – handbuilding is so versatile and then of course there is the glazing, and I could just go on and on. I look forward to seeing more of your work.

    1. Claudia McGill Post author

      Yes, we do, don’t we? I wanted to show how I did things because I think people might be interested in the idea of illustration and how one person goes about it, and also, it allows me to take in the whole experience and consolidate the lessons I learned. I’ve got plenty more to say on the topic, throughout the month!

    1. Claudia McGill Post author

      Thank you. I just wrote a very dry post which will come out in about 3 weeks detailing the record-keeping. But the thing is, I like keeping records. it’s soothing. You know where you are. And, I wanted to make sure I mentioned this aspect of the project, because people don’t think about how much goes on behind the scenes – it’s not just doing some paintings.

      1. memadtwo

        Not at all! the first thing that hit me was the immensity of the undertaking. Of course I used to do freelance work, so I know about doing multiple projects for people. I agree totally with giving them things to choose from. But it’s not a simple thing.

        1. Claudia McGill Post author

          Yes, it was a lot of artwork. But I work quickly, and this way of doing things is easier for me than stressing over making a perfect piece to submit, or – trying to choose which would be the piece that would do the best job for the story. I think the editor should have that say. I am ready to take a a little rest from painting, I will say that!

  1. Laura Black

    Hello, Claudia. There were a few things that had to be figured out at the very start and thankfully we already had the experience of September Slam. I was keen again to have a banner for the identity of Flash Fiction February and your idea of the ransom note style works very well. Your readers might like to know that I wondered if the banner should appear in the same location for every story and you explained that the composition would determine the best place for the banner. I also asked if it should have a cream background rather than white and you explained that wouldn’t be as effective and, in fact, the cream version you prepared didn’t look as good. It really does matter to sort everything out at the planning stage so that a project can progress smoothly.

    1. Claudia McGill Post author

      Yes, planning is the key. I can’t imagine the chaos of doing a project like this without a lot of upfront thought. And I always kept in mind that the art was just the side part of the event – that you had the stories themselves to read and review, that was your main job, so I tried to think ahead for the art, so as not to get in the way of that.

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