Salamander Sky, Part 2: Methods & Materials

Happy #SalamanderSaturday! Today I thought I would explain the start-to-finish process of how I illustrated my favorite double page spread, that I call “Emergence.” Katy Farber’s words describe the homes of spotted salamanders — “under layers of earth, snug among the roots” — and how the salamanders must wait for the right spring conditions to come out and migrate to vernal pools.

I started with preliminary sketches. (I filled a page with about 15 little thumbnails, but it’s missing now, so I can only post the one I chose.) Next I just worked up a full-size pencil drawing. The most important visual references I used here were videos on YouTube of salamanders swimming together in vernal pools. It was important for me to show how they move around each other, swaying and diving, and coming up for air. ▼

night scene

The pencil drawing had enough detail to be my guide for the painting. I transferred the drawing by tracing the outlines onto a new sheet of watercolor paper (Fabriano soft press). Then to stretch this paper, I soaked it in water (<5 min) and stapled it to my board. When it is completely dry I can start painting. ▼

soaking paper

In the meantime, I tested materials for achieving yellow spots. The winner was the good ol’ yellow crayon! ▼


The painting involved layers and layers of ink (I like Dr. Ph. Martin’s Bombay inks), which I applied with watercolor brushes. I used ink rather than watercolor because it’s permanent. Once a layer dries, the next won’t bleed into it. Some subtle textural effects were made with Derwent watersoluble pencils, although they are hard to see in these photos. Anything I wanted to leave bright white, was painted over with blue masking fluid. I peeled it off at the end to expose the white paper. ▼

salamanders in vp

All 4 components (tree roots, salamander close-up, vernal pool swimming, and the blue-green border) of this spread were painted separately, scanned, and assembled in Photoshop. Rain and other details were added, and corrections were made with Photoshop brushes. Text was later placed by the editor in InDesign. ▼

night scene final