Almost a year ago I finished work on the chapter book "Hot Pursuit: Murder in Mississippi" for Kar-Ben Publishing. This true story is written by Stacia Deutsch & Rhody Cohon and I was lucky enough to complete the 31 individual paintings.
Here is the description of the book provided by the publisher:
"It was the Freedom Summer of 1964. Civil rights workers Mickey Schwerner, Andrew Goodman, and James Chaney were driving through rural Mississippi. When a police cruiser flashed its lights behind them, they hesitated. Were these law-abiding officers or members of the Ku Klux Klan? Should they pull over or try to outrun their pursuers? The last day in the lives of these courageous young men is relived in this gripping story."
Being that I was born in 1971 I did not know a lot about this event in the Civil Rights Movement. I had seen the 1988 movie "Mississippi Burning" that recounts the investigation of their disappearance but nothing is shown about the work they did before their tragic deaths. The time seemed right for an illustrated book for kids telling their story so I jumped at the chance to illustrate it.
As an illustrator, research always comes before pencil hits paper so I found lots of books and images on the internet to help familiarize me with the three main characters. I also read through several books about the civil rights movement and their story specifically. Usually I am looking for images that will help me to make my illustrations more accurate but reading the text provides me with important details not available in photos.
I had difficulty finding many photos of Mickey, Andrew and James. Below are about the only images I could find.
In my research I learned that Mickey, the leader of the three civil rights workers, being from New York City was a fan of the NYC Mets baseball team and was seen most times wearing a baseball hat. That was a detail I had to include.
Since I didn't have a lot of photos of them to help me my next step was to take the photos I had and translate them into sketches which would help me later when painting them at various angles.
Two other characters important to the story are the law enforcement officers of Neshoba County Mississippi that arrest and jail the civil rights workers. I mostly show them in the shadows but these photos were helpful nonetheless.
Also in my research I learned that during the days before their disappearance in Mississippi they were driving around in a blue 1964 Ford station wagon. There were going to be lots of scenes of them in the car so I wanted to have some good photos of the inside and out of that kind of car. One day I decided to look on craigslist for similar cars for sale and amazingly enough found someone near Seattle was selling a car of that exact description. He was nice enough to let me take photos of his car. It wasn't blue but it was a great find nonetheless! Here is a photo of the real car from the story and photos I took of the similar one.
After all my research I was ready to start the paintings! Again I had 31 individual paintings to do when typically I only have about 15-20 to do for a book. Early on it was decided that this book should have a graphic novel feel which would mean there would sometimes be several illustrations on a page showing the action from different angles. This was a new challenge for me but I loved thinking of compositions in a new way.
Now it was time to start drawing! I will be showing you the steps I took to illustrate the scene from pgs 20-21 in the book. It's one of the scenes showing the main characters being chased by the local sheriff. The story jumps several times from past to present showing them being chased by the sheriff and the hard decision Mickey has to make.
With any illustration I start with small thumbnail sketches. I liked to explore lots of ideas. Theses are the ones I came up with for that scene.
Eventually I get an idea I like and a larger sketch is made.
I liked this one because in two illustrations it captured both the dramatic chase between the cars as well as the fear felt by the young men. All my larger sketches for the whole book were then reviewed by my publisher, some changes were requested, and then I was ready to complete the final paintings!
As my work is pretty realistic I like to have reference photos of models to paint from. For this book I was mostly able to use my self as a model then later made them look like the real life people I was depicting. Here are a few photos for that illustration. Note Mickey's Mets baseball cap.
Next I do a final line drawing for myself based on my research and model photos.
I use a projector to transfer this small drawing to my final larger surface and can now finally start painting!
For these paintings I used oil paint on smooth illustration board. Oil allows me to rework a painting while still wet and I love the painterly look I can achieve with it. After a few days of painting this is the final page as it appears in the book!
As you can see there are a lot of steps when completing an illustration, especially throughout a book like "Hot Pursuit". One of the pleasures for me was depicting details from the 1960's: a favorite decade for me with its great music, fun fashion and design, even if I did miss being a part of it by a couple of years! This book was a challenge for me in many ways but I felt lucky to be a part of sharing this important story with young readers. "Hot Pursuit: Murder in Mississippi" is released in January 2010.