A few years ago, Tom Marien got in touch with me to ask if I wanted to illustrate a picture book about a headstrong little slug—a story he had originally written for his daughter, who has a fondness for all things crawly in the garden, including gardener’s nemesis and ugly duckling relatives of the much more lovable snails: slugs.
It tells the tale of a little slug who goes through life in a straight line, never once straying from his path, even if this greatly inconveniences him and others around him. But along his long, long journey, Slug has some unexpected and colourful encounters that shed new light on the way he sees himself and the world around him.
“I wanted to invite children to experience the book in a more tactile way—a way to actively and literally be able to follow the adventures of Slug with their fingers.”
One morning, I went out to my vegetable garden to discover the remnants of what must have been a veritable ‘slug party’ in the salad patch. But my initial horror soon turned into amazement when I saw how the morning sun reflected almost iridescently on the zig-zagging chaos of slimy slug trails. And even though I lost some salads, what did grow abundantly was a childlike joy of following along these otherwise nearly invisible trails, wondering what adventures these curious creatures had the night before.
This experience turned out to be an essential inspiration for the picture book. I wanted to invite children to experience the book in a more tactile way—a way to actively and literally be able to follow the adventures of Slug with their fingers. Wanting to mimic the iridescent sheen and sticky sensation of the slime, the slimy trail left behind on each page by Slug has been printed using a spot varnish.
This leaves an invisible but tactile glossy trail for children to discover when held to the light and traceable with their fingers on every page, starting from the cover, where they can write out the letters of the title with their fingers by following the trail of Slug, all the way through his journey to the end of the book.
Creating the artwork
I started out with a storyboard that I sketched digitally in Affinity for iPad. These rough sketches were my guidelines for making full-scale refined sketches as a base for gouache painting.
As the book has pretty minimal shapes, I wanted to use a hand-painted base to give an extra dimension to those large areas of colour. So the main features on each page were hand painted in real size, then scanned for me to further refine and add the details digitally.
To ensure a seamless mix of the hand-painted base and the digital painting, I used my own digital brushes that I crafted over the years for the precise purpose of being able to maintain the feeling of my gouache work but with the speed and flexibility of digital painting. These brushes have since been bundled into a brush pack, which can be found on the Affinity Store.
Here’s a short video showing how I added some of the details and textures with my digital brushes:
Working with StudioLink
It was great working on this in Affinity Publisher. While working on the illustrations in Photo and Designer, I used Publisher as a constant source of overview to check how each change to the illustration would reflect on the progress of the book overall.
“The use of StudioLink enabled me to switch back and forth between my book layout and the individual illustrations effortlessly, and it really helped with getting the consistency of the illustrations and the visual story arch right.”
The use of StudioLink enabled me to switch back and forth between my book layout and the individual illustrations effortlessly, and it really helped with getting the consistency of the illustrations and the visual story arch right.
In the story, to mirror the emotional transformation of Slug, there is also a visual evolution where in the dark black and white illustrations there is a gradual introduction of colours, to end with a bright full colour finale.
“Being able to easily go back and forth between my overview and the individual illustrations to tweak hues and values proved invaluable to nail that gradual transformation.”
Being able to easily go back and forth between my overview and the individual illustrations to tweak hues and values proved invaluable to nail that gradual transformation. One great tool that helped with this, which I use on nearly all of my work to pin down colour schemes, is the Gradient Map adjustment. It’s just such a quick and versatile way of determining base colours once you’ve pinned down your light and dark values. I talk a little bit about how I use this adjustment in my work in the Affinity Creative Session I did a while back.
Here is another short video that shows the evolution of my storyboards to the final featured illustrations:
“Being able to now read the book as a bedtime story to my boy is a wonderful feeling.”
The journey to completion
Perhaps it’s no coincidence when working on a story about a Slug that likes to take things slow, the story of how the book got developed has a slower pace as well. While a busy schedule pushed back the production of this book quite a bit, the real challenge for completion turned out to be the birth of my first child. While in my mind, there is nothing more romantic than working on your first children’s picture book while pregnant with your first child, the reality of it turned out a little different. Delivery of the finals was scheduled just before my maternity leave was due. But a host of pregnancy complications and the premature birth of my boy forced me to quit work with the book only halfway finished, essentially delaying the book for a year.
Finishing the book with a very energetic baby boy in the house brought another set of challenges, but he did give me a boost of inspiration, and in the end, it all came together. Being able to now read the book as a bedtime story to my boy is a wonderful feeling.
In the future we hope that ‘De lange weg van Slak’ will be translated into other languages, but for now, the book is available in Dutch and can be ordered online or through your trusted bookshop.
You can also read our previous interview with Eleni, where she talks to us about winning a prestigious World Illustration Award and her tips and tricks for using the Eleni Debo illustration brush pack.