It's Not A Woodcut: Inventing a Technique

Many times I am asked if I created the art for my book, "PEEK-A WHO?" with woodcuts. I did not. I love wood and linoleum and I've used those techniques in the past. I was also very into scratchboard at different stages in my life. When I came up with the idea for "PEEK-A WHO?" I did some art samples in gouache, but they just seemed ordinary and rather lifeless to me. I loved the vibration and edginess that wood, linocuts and scratchboard achieved, but they were problematic: I had a die-cut which needed an exact registration. Wood and lino can be very tricky to work with and I didn't want to have to cut over again if I screwed up. Scratchboard was not simple to add color to...

So completely by accident- or perhaps it wasn't an accident- I experimented with faking a woodcut style. To my delight and surprise it worked better than I expected. I loved painting this way. Even though the art and colors were bright and simple, the art had texture and movement. Was it a success? I'll say! "PEEK-A WHO?" came out in 2000. It has now sold almost a million copies. I know it's not only the technique I created- it is so much more... but as I'm in the middle of creating two more books like "PEEK-A WHO?" which will publish in Spring '14, I thought I'd share my technique here.

I truly believe that artists should share their discoveries. We all have our own styles, our own voices. Everyone brings their own individual DNA to whatever we do. So, in doing this, I'm not saying, "go copy me," I'm saying "if you want to play with this- go have fun, and take it in your own direction."

Of course I start with a sketch, an approved sketch if it is going in a book. I'm not going to show the sketch here. We have other fish... or frogs to fry.

In advance, I take my Arches hot press watercolor paper and I paint the live art area black. I use Holbein Acryla Gouache for my paint. It has characteristics of both gouache and acrylic.

Once the background is dry I transfer my drawing using white chalk. Plain old blackboard chalk on a sheet of tracing paper placed under the sketch which is properly lined up, of course.

I will always keep a folded sheet of tracing paper under my right hand as I work on my illustration so that I don't make a mess of things. That was a lesson I learned when I was working with charcoal and pastels.

Next, I choose my color palette, and using a very fine brush, I go in and outline where the color block areas will be, leaving a funky black outline in between the color. This is actually working both the positive and the negative space at the same time. My brain loves things like this.

I also fill in a few of the lighter colors as I go. I don't have a sink in my old city studio- I have to go outside and into the house in order to change my brush water- so I've learned to work from lighter to darker colors so that I don't corrupt my paint, but when I am working on color block areas, I change my paint water for each color.

My new studio (which I hope to move into in June) has a huge work sink. (some of my friends have dubbed it "the wet bar.")

This next step is small, but so necessary. I get a clean cup of water, and using a wide flat brush, I clean off all of the chalk residue on the whole piece.

Now I can see my outlines clearly.

Now the fun begins: I start filling in color areas, but using my brush strokes, I leave little "nick marks" that remain black. This gives the art a woodcut look and makes things look like they vibrate, or move.

I try to keep a nice balance of marks so that areas don't look too busy.

Then I start adding in the background, again, not concentrating the little marks in any one spot, but using areas around the frog in a more accentuated way as to give some action- especially around his arms where he is playing the banjo.

With the background in place, if you look closely you will see that the colors are not quite opaque enough. So now I paint everything over again! Yes. A second layer of the same colors.

It may seem tedious, but this is when I really get to choose which nick marks stay and which ones get covered over. At this point it is wise to have some excellent music playing on your music player so you can just get in the zone and paint.

It's looking better, but I'm still not done.

One last very important detail: I go back in with the original black paint and clean up every single black line to make them pop. (not the nick marks... don't worry- I don't repaint them.)

And here he is: a frog playing a banjo with a tadpole audience.

Very simple, but very fun.
I hope you enjoyed this!

With Love, 


  1. Thanks! Great process with fun results. Love this frog and tadpoles.

  2. Thanks, Dana! It's great when work is fun...

  3. Just love this post, fascinating to see the process!!

  4. I am going to try your process, that sounds so fun. What a delightful frog you created. That light turquoise was the perfect color to bring it all together. A stroke of genius, no question.

    1. Thanks, Roxane. Enjoy the process and have fun!


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