How “The Aviator Owls and Mina’s Garden” Came to Life


Aviator Owl Books co-founder Sarah Porcher is a young woman who has impressed me greatly with her creativity, generosity, ambition, and seemingly boundless energy. She first appeared on Frog on a Blog last summer and shared how she started Aviator Owl Books. She also said that the goal of Aviator Owl Books is to “inspire and educate children through print books, eBooks, online games, and apps”. And as if that isn’t enough, Sarah and her co-founder Chris Bill support charitable causes, such as First Book and the Make-a-Wish Foundation, through their book sales. You can read my interview with Sarah by clicking here.

Sarah is back to take us through her fascinating illustration process for her new book The Aviator Owls and Mina’s Garden. (As a writer, not an illustrator, I’m always intrigued by the art techniques that illustrators use for their books.) Take it away, Sarah! 

Hi everyone! I’m so happy to be able to share some of my illustration techniques for our new book The Aviator Owls and Mina’s Garden! I’ll start with a brief introduction. My name is Sarah and I’m co-founder of Aviator Owl Books Inc. where I write and illustrate the books under the pen name S. A. Porcher. Today I’m going to talk a little bit about how I illustrated our newest book The Aviator Owls and Mina’s Garden, which is to be launched April 24 (2015). 

So let’s get started! First, if you’ve seen any of our books before you’ll know that we have two different illustration styles: one using flat designs and vectors, and one with a digital painting technique. For any book with Aviator Owl characters, I use vector illustrations, so this post will be about that process.

I begin all of my illustrations with simple sketches on plain printer paper. I prefer to use ballpoint pens, but occasionally I’ll use pencil. The Aviator Owls were born on paper in 2009, so the basic character sketches have been finished for a long time. That made the illustration process for this book a little more streamlined.

After the character sketches are complete, I’ll sketch out extremely rough layouts for every spread in the book. And by “extremely rough” I mean that the only person on the planet who can understand them is me. Then I will organize them into a storyboard just to get a sense of the storyline. After this I have two options: 1. I scan in the rough layouts and add each one to a spread in Adobe InDesign (InDesign is my best friend) or 2. I use my Wacom Bamboo tablet and the pencil tool in InDesign to sketch the storyboard in by hand, using the physical sketches as a guide. Having the spreads in InDesign helps me a lot because as I fill in the illustrations I can scroll down and remind myself where I’m going next.



Rough Spread

Rough Spread

Next up is starting a spread. I don’t start at any one in particular, I just sort of randomly choose. Now, because I have been working with the Aviator Owls for a long time, I am usually able to adjust them in Illustrator without having to refine my sketches too much. With a new book with new characters, at this point in the process I would have to pull out a pen and paper and sketch out a much more refined spread to use as a guide. But not the owls. Usually at this point they tell me where they want to go (It’s quite nice. I barely do anything at this point)!

I open Illustrator and start a new document, which I will save immediately as “Mina’s Garden”. Then I’ll open any document that has the owls I already designed and copy them into the new document. I work in layers in Illustrator, so I’ll use the same document for the entire book, but every new page will be on a different layer. The tool I probably use the most is the pen tool, and I’ll create (using my Wacom tablet) all of the vectors that are needed for the page.

Mina Duplicates

Mina Duplicates in Illustrator

I pop over to Photoshop and start a new document with the correct dimensions for the book (Aviator Owl Books are all 8.5” x 8.5”) and copy in everything I need. I do touch-ups in Photoshop and then save the document. Unlike in Illustrator, in Photoshop every spread gets its own document. I try to keep these as organized as possible. Every book gets its own folder, and the Illustrator, InDesign and Photoshop documents are all dropped there. The Photoshop documents are named “MinaBook01” through “MinaBook14” so I can find it all later.

Spread in Photoshop

Spread in Photoshop

Then it’s into InDesign. Command + D lets me place the Photoshop documents into InDesign. This entire process – from Illustrator to InDesign can take several weeks – sometimes months – depending on the complexity of the book, the number of new characters/objects, and, of course, my schedule (I am still a full-time college student). I am generally a very impatient person, so as soon as I finish a spread in Photoshop, it goes into InDesign. Spread by spread, the rough sketches in InDesign turn into the Photoshop images.

Spread in InDesign

Spread in InDesign

When I’m coming close to the end of the illustrations, I’ll start to fill in text. At this point it’s easy because I’ll have been working on the manuscript since the illustrations began. I’ll use the text tool in InDesign and write directly on top of the images. If something doesn’t fit well, or the text seems too out of place or “just three pixels too far to the left” (yes, I am that kind of person), I’ll go back into Photoshop and adjust the image to better incorporate the text.

Multiple Spreads

Multiple Spreads

When it’s close to its final stage, I’ll export a low-res file and send it to the other co-founder of AO Books so he can look over it and bring a new perspective. Out of the entire process I think this is one of the most important parts. I am just one human, and after looking at the same project for several weeks it becomes very easy for me to miss things. Usually Chris will look over it and send back comments and we’ll go over them together. This back-and-forth will go on for as long as it’s needed. When it’s complete I’ll add the “book” information – ISBN (which I purchase from Bowker), the cover page, the pages dedicated to the charity we’re supporting through that book (for Mina’s book it is DIG), and then we send it out to CreateSpace for a proof copy.

DIG Logo

Click the Logo to learn more about DIG.

And that in a nutshell (okay, a very big nutshell) is my illustration process for vector illustrations. I hope you enjoyed learning about how I illustrate, but if you have any questions or comments, please feel free to ask them here, or contact me at And for more information on Aviator Owl Books, be sure to check out our website at where you can find free printable activities, all the books, and news about The Aviator Owls and Mina’s Garden, due out April 24th, 2015.

ThankYouOwlsLemonade (2)

Leave a Comment (I'd love to hear from you!)

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.