Posted by: Kathy Temean | May 21, 2011

Illustrator Saturday – Brian Lies

I thought I would start with Brian Lies latest book cover, which recently won Brian the Crystal Kite Award.  I figured one look and you would see why his book won that award and too many others to list.

Brian Lies is a native of Princeton, NJ, who graduated from Brown University in 1985 with a degree in British and American Literature. He attended the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston for two and a half years, and began doing editorial page illustrations for numerous publications, including the Boston Globe, Chicago Tribune and Christian Science Monitor. He illustrated his first children’s book for Houghton Mifflin Co. in 1989, and has since illustrated twenty others, including his New York Times bestsellers Bats at the Library (2008) and Bats at the Beach (2006), as well as Hamlet and the Enormous Chinese Dragon Kite (1994) and Hamlet and the Magnificent Sandcastle (2001), which he also wrote. Brian is a frequent contributor to Cricket, Spider, and Ladybug magazines, has shown his work in galleries around the country, and enjoys visiting schools to talk with students about writing and illustrating stories. He and his wife, Laurel, live in Duxbury, MA with their daughter, a cat and a hamster.

I love how Brian shows us his process. Here’s Brian:

In setting up a scene, I draw from imagination, but bring in research. For Bats at the Library, I wanted the setting to be my favorite library building, the Riverside (IL) Public Library, in the town where my Dad grew up. I live in Massachusetts, and hadn’t seen the library in the 28 years since my grandparents died, so I flew to Chicago and spent three days in the library, taking over 300 photos, doing detailed drawings of the building, and working on revisions, with an eye to having the feel of the building infuse the writing. I’m not slavish about copying from reference photos—I don’t set up a complete scene and then just copy it. But I like to get details right—that helps readers slip into the world I’m trying to create—and so lots of different elements I’ve seen will find themselves in a drawing I do after the research. When I visit schools, I talk about using unusual, specific details in both writing and artwork to create a feeling of reality within a story. A car in the driveway is dull; a blood-red convertible with ivory seats and a broken headlight awakens the brain and draws you into the storyteller’s voice.

Brian’s final sketch. When I’m working on a book, I get feedback on my sketches from the art director. He may have some production concern I’m unaware of, and has a fresh eye and can point out inconsistencies or weaknesses in storytelling I can’t see because I’ve been too close to the story. My editor also comments on the pictures as well as the story, and between the two of them, I’ve got a great team to help steer the story to its strongest self. 

The transfer. When I’m painting one of my pictures, the first step is to transfer a copy of the finished drawing to the paper on which I’ll be painting, most often Strathmore Series 400 or 500 vellum surface paper. I use a transfer paper such as graphite paper to transfer the drawing. Recently, in painting on dark, handmade papers for my next book, I’ve had to make my own transfer paper from tracing paper and various colors of pastel so that the transfer shows up on the dark surface. 

Darks laid in. When I’ve got the drawing transferred to the painting surface, I go back in with pencil and strengthen the drawing, making any final changes and correcting lines which didn’t transfer well. Then I go over the entire drawing again with thinned pthalo blue acrylic paint and a fine-tipped brush, so that the outlines of shapes will show up when I start glazing the picture with color. 

Adds Sienna Glaze. I paint with a variety of acrylic brands (Golden, Winsor & Newton, Lascaux), depending on the working characteristics of the different colors. Some are more opaque, some have a more workable texture, etc. My first step in painting is to kill the white of the paper with a transparent glaze, usually of a burnt sienna/ burnt umber mix. This gives me a middle tone I can bounce off of, pushing areas darker and lighter, and it binds all of the colors within the painting. Sometimes before I glaze, I’ll paint in all of the absolute blacks in the picture, with a Mars black / pthalo blue mix. 

Continues adding seinna glaze. After that, it’s a process of pushing and pulling—working the dark areas of the painting darker, and the light areas lighter. I’m really interested in light and what it does within a scene, and I’ll often design pages around one or more strong light sources. Finally, I’ll work on the minute details in a “moment” within a piece—a cluster of bats, a bookshelf, etc. When the overall lighting situation has been set up in a strong way, it becomes a lot easier to paint details so that they look right and enhance the effect of whatever light source is there. The eye sees things that are “wrong,” and it’s not difficult to bring them back into the overall lighting situation. 

Adds some whites.  Because I like including lots of details in my work, my paintings aren’t quick. A typical two-page spread will take between three and nine days to complete, after two or three days of drawing. But I like to create scenes which feel real, through shadows and light, and am really happy when students in schools I’m visiting ask me if bats really do the things that are in my books.

Adds to the darks.

While I’m working, I’ll tape completed paintings onto the walls of my studio in the order they appear in the book. I’ll look at them during the weeks and months I’m completing the rest of the pictures, and can see them in a variety of situations—night lighting, strong daylight sun, etc. This lets me see the progression of colors and light through the book, and helps me notice things that need to be tweaked before the book goes in. It brings out inconsistencies (i.e., this picture has a coffee mug on the table with its handle turned toward the window, but in the next one, the handle is turned toward the door). One great benefit is the sudden glance—catching one of my pictures out of the corner of my eye and realizing that the highlights on this mouse’s nose need to be just a little bit brighter to make the picture really work.

Darken walls.

Adds more dark to walls.

Final Painting.   Once I’m finished with the entire book’s worth of art (usually 17 to 30 paintings) I send it all in to the publisher. I don’t get many requests for corrections nowadays—probably because I do very detailed sketches and there aren’t many surprises for the publisher once the finishes go in. But occasionally my editor and the art director will find something which got by me, or a change which would help strengthen the story. I don’t mind that—we’re all working to make the story as strong as possible, and I’d much rather get things right than regret not going that extra step once the book has been published.

Cover for Cricket Magazine.

You can see more of Brian’s Books and illustration by visiting

Here’s his book trailer:

Talk tomorrow,



  1. WOO-HOO! I LOVE Brian! Met him at the Princeton Children’s Book Festival last fall. He’s uber-brilliant, and a heck of a nice guy. Congrats, Brian!


  2. Very impressive detail!


  3. Stunning stuff! I love it. Thanks for my weekly fix of terrific art.


  4. I love bats! These illustrations are awesome! I like how you show each step of how the picture was created.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


<span>%d</span> bloggers like this: