This story is about Jeb and Mattie, enslaved siblings who escape Harve de Grace, a plantation in Maryland, in 1861. Their route continues through Pennsylvania, where they travel by sea, to New Bedford, Massachusetts.
Since I already knew the route they were on, I was able to keep the bulk of the research to a specific area. I then focused on researching the dangers of being on the run, hiding, and the constant fear of capture.
I am grateful for the consults these scholars generously provided on the Underground Railroad: Ashley Jordan, the Executive Director for the Evansville African American Museum in Evansville, Kenneth S. Greenberg, Distinguished Professor, Department of History, Suffolk University, Boston, Massachusetts, and Herb Boyd who teaches at the City College of New York and the College of New Rochelle in the Bronx, and currently the managing editor of The Black World Today. I thank them not only for their consultation, but for their important scholarship.
Following are a few notes on the illustrations.
This illustration is where the blacksmith is following the slave catchers, along with the plantation owner himself, as they walk into the barn continuing their search for Jeb and Mattie. I felt this was missing the mark. It needed to be more active.
A very important part of a picture book is to carry the emotional connection throughout the story. This has that connection.
The next step is to draw the final pencil on watercolor paper before I start painting. Sometimes I pencil out the same image several times on separate pieces of paper. That way, if I don’t get what I want on the first watercolor, I can start again.
The final art. I pushed the tension by using the barn door opening to frame the slave catcher forcing the pitchfork into the hay.
For this illustration, there was a hidden compartment in this boxcar that was used to hide enslaved runaways. I liked this point of view (POV) but felt that we were too far away from the characters in the story.
By reversing the POV from inside the boxcar, we can now see the characters in action while casting shadows across the boxcar floor. We can also see the engines and smoke coming out of the funnels.
The final pencil.
I repeated the pattern of the smoke from the steam engine funnels and the shadows cast from the characters, to help unite the composition.
This thumbnail sketch was my first go at Jeb and Mattie stuck in the hold of the ship in a violent storm. I wanted to see fright on their faces.
Since we know, by reading Kay’s text that Jeb and Mattie are in the hold, I instead pulled back and changed the POV to show the ship in danger.
Not happy with that, I closed in to show the power of the storm with the deck getting hit by a huge surge of sea while the men are fixing the sails and clinging to their lives.
It was time to start painting.
I added atmosphere and movement of the ship not only with the triangular point of the bow, but also by contrasting the motion of the waves in the foreground with the overcast gray clouds. I then pushed the motion of the ship with the billowing smoke from the smokestacks.