The Art of ‘The Storyteller’: Behind the Scenes, Part 2

Posted by on Sep 1, 2016 in The Art of 'The Storyteller', The Art of 'The Storyteller' | 4 comments

So, you would like to hear the story of how

THE STORYTELLER became a book?

Ah yes, well, not so long ago…

After I figured out the story I wanted to tell, I created a pagination of small thumbnails to decide how I wanted to tell that story in pictures.


This helps figure out what images and symbols are important and how to emphasize them throughout the story. Even in the early thumbnails, you can see that the water/bird/yarn/stories were all blue and stood out against the rest of the palette.


Along with the pagination, I did many small thumbnail sketches to figure out how the final art and characters might look.


And I went through each of the different nested stories…


…to start playing with how the style might change or stay the same…


…between each story.


Once the lovely people at Atheneum/Simon & Schuster gave me the green light (yay!), I worked with my editor Reka Simonsen and my art director Ann Bobco to figure out the best way to tell the story in words and pictures, and really make it feel like a complete book.


I did more and more thumbnails and sketches, looking at different artistic influences and trying different things, to see if I could land on the best way for the art to project the story. The pagination above was based on looking at a lot of the art of Gustav Klimt (You can read more about the influences HERE).


While working on the book, I became aware of a resurgence in Moroccan storytelling at a place called Cafe Clock in Marrakech. There was a group of young Moroccans who had decided to learn these stories from a master storyteller, and continue passing them on and keeping the tradition alive. I was so excited, it felt like the story had really come to life! So I figured out a way to book a trip to Morocco.


Left: Drawings of Hajj Ahmed Ezzarghani; Right: Sketches for The Storyteller

It was an incredible research trip, and each place I visited and person I met became the missing pieces to make the book real. I met one of the last master storytellers in Morocco, Hajj Ahmed Ezzarghani, who inspired the storyteller in the book.


Left: Drawings of Mehdi El Ghaly; Right: Sketches for the boy in The Storyteller

I met and spoke with Mehdi El Ghaly and a few of the other apprentice storytellers, and they inspired the design of the boy in The Storyteller. (You can read a letter from Mehdi about his own journey to being a storyteller HERE)


I visited the incredible UNESCO site Aït-Ben-Haddou, an enormous mud kasbah in the dry south…


…which became the walls of the city the boy and his stories must protect.


I met weavers in the village of Anzal, and spent the day with them hearing them chat and watching them create beautiful carpets. (You can read more about the weavers and my trip to Anzal HERE)


They became the weavers in the story of the “Glorious Blue Waterbird” and the “Miraculous Yarn.”


Testing a painting held over the flame. I think this one may have been cooked a little too long…

And finally, while in the kasbah of Aït-Ben-Haddou, I met artists who were creating beautiful invisible paintings that appeared magically when held over a flame. When I told them I was an artist, they sat me down and showed me how to use the sugared tea to create the effect. I bought several paintings, and we shared a pot of tea. This technique became a large part of the way the final illustrations were created. (You can watch a video of me demonstrating this technique HERE)


One of the artists even gave me a small rock of indigo which I used to create the swirling blue water and stories in the illustrations.


Once I was back home, I began playing around with the techniques I had tried spontaneously on-location to use in the final illustrations. I ended up using all of the same inks, crayons, and pencils I had used in Morocco to give it the same feeling and energy as the drawings I did there.


As I settled on the final style for the book, I made more tiny painting thumbnails…


…to figure out how the style and color would change with each story.


The final color pagination is very close to what the final illustrations ended up looking like. Each story has it’s own style and color palette.


The overarching story, “The Sandstorm and the Storyteller”, takes place in modern times, so it is the most “naturalistic”. Since it is about sand and water, it’s main color is golden yellow, with indigo blue becoming more and more prominent as the story progresses.


The first tale, “The Endless Drought,” is slightly more graphic, with green and black as the predominant colors and border.


The second tale, “The Glorious Blue Waterbird,” is much more geometric and patterned, to mimic the geometric carpets of the weavers. It’s main color is brown.


The third story, “The Miraculous Yarn,” is the most stylized and geometric, showing that it is the oldest, deepest story of the bunch. It looks the most like a Moroccan carpet. It begins entirely in black and white, but then bursts into color as the princess weaves on her loom.


From these final thumbnails, it was just a hop, skip, and a jump to the final artwork and the book was done! This image shows the many iterations each image had between initial thumbnail and the final art.


The last step was the cover, which came out of this thumbnail.

All those stories boiled down to a storyteller, someone to listen, and a story.


For Part 1 of The Art of ‘The Storyteller’ click HERE


  1. Beautiful and magical. Thank you so much for generously sharing your process! I’m going to reread it several times.

    • Thank you for reading, Eva, I’m glad you enjoyed it!

  2. Very interesting indeed. Thank you for sharing it. Great drawings. I´m going to buy your book right away.

    • Thank you so much, Fran, I’m so glad you enjoyed the post!

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