A Pen & Oink Guest Post Starring Melissa Guion

A guest post? Is Pen & Oink getting lazy? No, we are just excited to share with you first time author/illustrator Melissa Guion. She and I had a very Brooklyn meet up. We drank intriguing sodas, sitting on stools in a chilly window looking out onto Flatbush Avenue. She made me laugh a lot! We compared stories of having Sergio Ruzzier as an illustration teacher; she tried to convince me about chiffonading (?) kale and eating it raw; and most importantly I got to check out her adorable new book Baby Penguins Everywhere!

Hands together now…please welcome our very first Guest Poster: Melissa Guion!

Thanks for having me over to Pen & Oink! I’d like to share the experience of creating my first picture book, which I won’t call my “process,” because that would be an insult to processes everywhere.


Melissa Guion’s workspace or “mess” (as she named the photo)

I should say that before I ever got a book contract, I had a general understanding of what goes into a picture book: the story, its size and shape, the materials, the flow of text and art. I’d taken the same class as you ladies did, with Sergio Ruzzier, at School of Visual Arts. I’d read Uri Shulevitz’s Writing with Pictures.

When it came time to write and illustrate my own book, it was amazing how that understanding evaporated. I felt like I had a hundred decisions to make and no basis for making any of them. So I began the way I’d been told to begin, by making thumbnails and rough dummies. Of course, I started them even before the text was nailed down. Don’t do that! There are literally 25 versions of Baby Penguins Everywhere! in a box in my house.



While I wrestled with the structure of the book, I wondered about my materials. I used to ink my drawings, but I had not inked the art that landed me the job. I thought I’d better stick with what had gotten me hired. Still, pencil felt boring, and this was going to be a real published book, so I decided to make some exciting experiments with charcoal and pastel. Because when in doubt, introduce more variables.



Charcoal and pastel were certainly soft. And messy. Good grief, what was I thinking? I don’t use pastels! I shouldn’t even have pastels in my house, for exactly this reason. I put them away and got out my good old, boring, trusty pencils.

penguins in pencil

penguins in pencil

Around this time, I had coffee with an illustrator friend who gave me a bunch of helpful advice. He asked what paper I was using for the book. I didn’t know, but I realized I should know. I went to Blick and bought a sheet of the stuff he uses. I took it home and discovered I couldn’t paint on it at all.

I went back to Blick and found a nice, bright cold-press paper. My art director had cautioned me about using rough paper because it can cause problems when it comes time to scan and reproduce the art. She also said the most important thing was for me to love my materials, and I really love this paper. It’s tricky to draw on, and forget erasing, but it takes paint beautifully.

I started making color experiments on the paper, thinking about how to render the snow and ice world of the book:



These were lovely and interesting, but again, I was making things hard for myself. I let my blank paper be the snow and used a single shade of blue for ice and water. My art director had suggested I avoid a certain blue, if possible. I think that’s the one I used.

Then there were the penguins! I spent a lot of time working on their form. Here’s my first sketch, compared to where I ended up.

first sketch!

first sketch!

Where she ended up.

Where she ended up.

When I put the penguins into their wintery environment, I painted them casting blue shadows on the snow, as things do. It looked wrong, like things that are technically correct sometimes do. I chose a warm color instead. That’s when I felt things were coming together.


The last thing to deal with was the hat the baby penguins spring from. I had actually found an old, child-sized top hat in a thrift store in France, which I brought home as a talisman and a model.

testing hat colors

testing hat colors

melissa-guion-orderIt’s black, of course, and black is the color of the mother penguin. I didn’t want the hat to blend in with her, so I made it dark blue instead. The blue is a combination of several colors, and I need to find my notes on it so I can reproduce it in the second penguin book. I have to write everything down when I work, I can’t remember anything.

With materials sorted out, and the dummy finally coming together, my art director asked to see a finish. I took a sketch I was happy with and tightened it up to make it look, you know, “professional.”

I showed it to her. “It’s very tight,” she said.

penguins done tight

penguins done tight

I was relieved to hear that, because making it had not been a happy experience. I let the final art be almost as loose as my sketches. I didn’t trace, even though it meant doing certain things over and over. Some flaws I left alone, hoping they’d be interesting. Some pictures I probably should have redone, but I ran out of time.


a wall of penguins

I was quite anxious when I turned the book in. I thought it wasn’t enough. Several months before my pub date, my editor called to tell me it been chosen for the 2012 Original Art show at the Society of Illustrators. I was very happy. It was just one jury’s opinion…but it made the insanity seem worthwhile. Some of it, anyway.



P.S. I want to share a closing story because it’s Sergio-related AND pig-related!! When I took Sergio’s SVA class, many years ago, one of our assignments was to come up with an alphabet book concept. I decided letters would be buildings. I made S a sausage factory, with a very business-like pig going in one end and a sausage coming out the other.


Sergio looked at it and said, “Shouldn’t the sausage go in, and the pig come out?” I’ll never forget that. I wouldn’t want Sergio teaching a class on meat processing, but in a certain respect, he is a genius.

Thanks, Melissa!

PSST! You can find Melissa Guion here and @MelissaGuion!

  1. Liz said:

    This made me laugh. A lot. But what I *really* want to know is–which shade of blue?!?


  2. (I’ve heard all blues are tricky, but blues that are closer to green might be hardest because of the way RGB translates to CMYK for printing.)


  3. Thanks for the entertaining and informative post! … Melissa I came across your work for the first time at the Original Art Exhibit, so fun! I brought a class of High School students with me and they were glued to your piece. Love hearing about your process, all the steps involved in working things out, all the trial and error involved. The book is great, very sweet and playful,so fun to get caught up in! FYI…saw it prominently displayed at Strand the other day with a big #1 next to it. Something like #1 cutest picture book!


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