This feature article by Louise B. Hafesh on Beth Krommes originally appeared in the November 2011 issue of The Artist’s Magazine.
“What I love about illustration is that it makes art accessible and affordable,” says Beth Krommes, who’s been providing artwork for children’s books for more than a decade. “While working on my fine arts degree in painting at Syracuse University, I wasn’t at all interested in commercial art until a friend who was majoring in illustration drew to my attention that thousands, maybe millions, of people can see an artist’s work in print as opposed to a much smaller number of people viewing an original work in a gallery. And while I love the museum and gallery world of fine arts, great art comes out of the publishing world, too.”
Through her distinctive technique that combines scratchboard and watercolor, Beth Krommes has done her part to elevate picture book illustration to a fine art form. Her work in The House in the Night by Susan Marie Swanson (see illustration below) not only holds its own with vintage Japanese woodblock prints but, in 2009, it also earned Krommes the picture book industry’s top honor for illustrators, the Randolph Caldecott Medal.
Creating a scratchboard drawing requires a scratching tool plus a cardboard or hardboard panel covered first with a thin layer of white clay and then with a smooth coating of India ink. The draws an image by working negatively, scratching through the black ink to reveal lines and areas of white clay. “The clay coating under the ink allows the sharp point of the scratching tool to remove the ink easily without tearing the board support,” says Beth Krommes, “and the more lines that are drawn, the brighter the picture becomes.” By using techniques such as stippling and cross-hatching, the artist can create a wide assortment of textures and a full range of values with which to create the illusion of form, depth and perspective.
“I found my way to this medium through my interest in wood engraving,” says Krommes, who was working as an art director for a computer magazine when she began creating commercial art of her own. “Back in 1982, I happened to attend an exhibition called ‘Three New Hampshire Wood Engravers: Nora Unwin, Herbert Waters, and Randy Miller’ at the Sharon Arts Center in New Hampshire. Soon afterward I took up wood engraving and was juried into the League of New Hampshire Craftsmen.”
While working as a magazine art director, Beth Krommes had frequently hired photographers and illustrators. She loved creating concepts for articles and usually gave the artists specific ideas about what she wanted. She eventually realized that what she really wanted was to create the final art.
Cutting back her hours at the publishing company more and more each year, she built a base of illustration clients until she was able to work as a full-time freelance illustrator. All the while, Krommes was perfecting her wood engraving technique, incorporating it into her commercial art. Then she discovered that scratchboard had the same look but was faster and more forgiving. She now uses it for all of her illustration work.
Today, working with plenty of natural light in a small office on a balcony overlooking her living room, the celebrated illustrator enjoys the freedom of a home studio. “I do have another larger space—a former garage on the basement level of the house—for storage, printing, painting and framing,” she says, “but my upstairs workspace includes a drawing table with a magnifying light and a second lamp, both on stands, on either side of my table. The best feature is the long wall to the left of my desk where I can tape all the pencil roughs for a book project and see how the pictures look in sequence. I think a wall like that—along with good lighting—is essential for a picture book illustrator.”
Scratching Out the Light
The beginning stages of picture book creation are the same for Beth Krommes as they are for most illustrators: (1) read the manuscript, (2) create thumbnails for a storyboard, (3) create a dummy (mock-up) of the book, (4) create detailed roughs for each illustration. For Krommes, these planning stages can take as long as six months. Up to this point, she works in pencil, but with the roughs fully approved by her editor, the art director and the book’s author, she’s ready to break out the scratchboard.
Beth Krommes likes to get all the scratchboard pictures going at once. By keeping the illustrations at the same level of completion, she attains a sense of continuity in the completed work.
First she photocopies each pencil rough, blackens the back with graphite and then transfers the sketch by taping the copy to a scratchboard and tracing the major components of the picture. “I use a dried-up, fine-point ballpoint pen to trace the lines,” explains the artist, “and it’s important not to press too hard. Although the scratchboard is totally black, I’m still able to see the light graphite marks left on the board.”
She next scratches in the white areas throughout the picture, using a shovel (curved) scratchboard knife tip inserted into a plastic penholder for most of her work and an arrow (straight) knife tip for fine detail. “I move back and forth across the picture,” says Beth Krommes, “working on whatever strikes my fancy as the drawing becomes brighter and brighter.” She achieves most of her tonal variations with cross-hatching. “Sometimes I rely on that too much,” she says, “so I refer to my many books on wood engraving to explore the different textures that can be used to make a picture richer.”
Working with negative imagery is inherent in scratchboard artistry, but Beth Krommes sometimes takes the mental game a step further, giving some sections of an element a dark background and others a white background. She points out: “I like to challenge myself by drawing both positive and negative sections in a scratchboard picture or a wood engraving (see detail from Butterfly Eyes and Other Secrets of the Meadow, above). This also gives the picture more interest and depth.”
Ironically, a lessening in the sharpness of her vision helped Beth Krommes find the key to creating more intricate work. “When I compare my most recent book to my first children’s book, Grandmother Winter (see image below), I notice my work has become more finely detailed,” she says. “I think this came about several years ago when I began using a magnifying light because I was having trouble seeing the work clearly enough.”
Working meticulously, Beth Krommes gradually makes an image appear. She saves the tiny details for last and then hangs a photocopy of the completed scratchboard picture on a wall to consider changes. “I’ll think I’m done but, given a fresh perspective the next day, I always find that the picture is still too dark,” she says, “so I go back and scratch out a little more to brighten it up.”
How Beth Krommes Colors the Image
Once the black-and-white scratchboard drawings are complete, Beth Krommes makes photocopies and mails them to the publisher for approval. If small changes need to be made, she can re-ink and rescratch the boards. But corrections should be minimal.
As a case in point, she recalls a particularly challenging illustration she did for the book The Lamp, the Ice, and the Boat Called Fish (Houghton Mifflin Books for Children, 2001) by Jacqueline Briggs Martin. “It was a picture of a walrus on an ice floe with an Iñupiaq man paddling in his kayak. I did six versions of the final scratchboard art, each with different degrees of cross-hatching for the texture of the water,” says Beth Krommes. “The water always ended up looking like snow. Then I realized that I needed to keep the water very black with few white lines—which I did for the seventh and last version. If you’ve done a lot of cross-hatching on the scratchboard, you really can’t re-ink and get a good-looking, clean white line. The surface is just too damaged.”
Once editor, art director and author—not to mention Beth Krommes herself—are in agreement about the scratchboard drawings, the artist moves on to the next step—adding color.
Watercolor can’t be painted directly onto the scratchboard picture, so when all the decision makers have accepted the work, she photocopies it again, this time on 80-lb., acid-free paper. “Watercolor paper is thick and jams the photocopy machines available in my area,” says Beth Krommes, “so I use Astrolite made by Monodnock Paper Mills, which takes watercolor well enough.” She then adheres the photocopied drawing onto acid-free bristol board with a dry-mount machine. This way the paper won’t buckle when she applies watercolor to complete the final art.
As confident as Beth Krommes is with her black-and-white scratchboard work, she admits to feeling less comfortable with color. “I struggle with the color schemes for the pictures,” she says, “so I also make lots of photocopies of each scratchboard picture on cheap paper and spend weeks painting them in various color schemes before starting my final art. I hang the samples on my office wall so I can study how the colors work from page to page.”
Beth Krommes’s Work Rewarded
All in all, from start to finish, a book can take anywhere from a year to 18 months. One would think that when such a major assignment is behind her, the artist would take time to rest on her laurels before jumping into the next book. Not so, claims Beth Krommes: “In this day, a successful freelance artist needs to spend about 50 percent of his or her time on marketing. Children’s book illustrators visit schools and libraries and speak to the public about their books and the field of children’s book publishing. Spending so much time away from the drawing table can be frustrating, and finding the proper balance can be challenging, particularly when raising a family. But then, meeting face-to-face the people who appreciate your work—especially the children—is also rejuvenating and exciting.”
- Step-by-step scratchboard and watercolor demonstration by Beth Krommes – free online article
- “Steps to illustrating a picture book” by Beth Krommes – free online artcile
- Drawing in Pen and Ink – How-to book by Claudia Nice
- Linda Kemp’s Negative Painting Techniques – View the free preview of this DVD!
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