Bloom, Whirl, Leak, Swirl: The Making of Swatch, Part 3

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In this third and final making-of post, author/illustrator Julia Denos shares how her initial idea grew and changed until emerging as what we now know as the beautiful story of Swatch: The Girl Who Loved Color. For more, visit our All The Wonders of SWATCH feature.

“working with a story, not on a story”

Final Art! It’s a tightrope walk. A story cocoon. A mess. This is my home studio where I spent days and nights with Swatch for the next four months:

When I began, I didn’t feel prepared. I had more questions than answers. The dummy was a skeleton I could work from, but I still didn’t know how I would MAKE the wild colors. An added pressure was my deadline: I was given only four months to make the entire book, which is less time than I’d ever had before. It would already be a challenge to create final art that felt wild and alive, but could I do it on a tight deadline? I didn’t have time to figure anything out!

“Perfect,” said Yellowest Yellow from the crayon heap.

I could not indulge in planning, worry, or fear. I just had to start NOW. How? The answer was the same as it had been from the start: Not alone. “You are working WITH a story, not ON a story.”

So I optimized the days I had, the best way I could: practice getting out of the way faster, practice TRUSTING THE WILD without reservation, and accept how it showed up without much reworking. What had been a “cute lesson” in trusting the story, was now a survival skill. I had to actually RELY ON the wildness to show up daily and do its half of the job. The short deadline meant I would make Swatch in a more deliberate, raw, spontaneous way, which I think truly served the Wild in the end. I didn’t have the luxury of micromanaging paint swirls, which is what Swatch probably wanted.

The chaos and I were saddled up. GO! First question we had to answer: How would the color LOOK?

Goal: I wanted readers to recognize the color characters, to see Swatch’s color not as a mythical being, but as the paint they loved themselves in art class, coming out of the tube and coming to life.

I wanted the colors to feel ALIVE, WILD, and SENTIENT. To contain echoes of things they were sourced from: butterfly wings, flower petals, feathers.

I designed the color’s overall movement on each page, added drawing detail, and then stepped aside to let the paint do its thing.

The entire book was made this way: out of spills, leaks, swirls, and bleeds through paper fiber, onto my table, all over my hands, my keyboard, my cat, who then got paint on his paws, and stained our floor. Part me. Part Wild. You could say the book was built out of 100% knit-together mistakes we made together.

I stopped being precious with my paper, brushes, and technique too. The final image was the priority, no matter how I got there. Example: I started on fancy paper (Arches Hot Press), but ended up painting 90% of Swatch on huge stacks of cheap, legal-sized printer paper, scrap bristol board, and wax palette paper. These papers were plentiful, and available, so I gave them a shot. I discovered they helped the color express movement, dye lines, and personality in ways fancy paper controlled too much. I smashed my brushes down and dragged paint in a way that would have made steam whistle from my college professor’s ears (sorry, Tom). I did rounds of BLOOMS AND WHIRLS AND LEAKS AND SWIRLS. It all went into the scanner.

To make Rumble-Tumble Pink fly through the sky, I twisted an acrylic-loaded paintbrush across Bristol board. This allowed shadows of the paint chunks to show up, and make the color appear to be moving. Piece by piece, I took the scanned bits and collaged the drawings and paintings together in Photoshop, where I pushed the colors further.

After a few spreads, I started to move between all of them at once to achieve continuity. I was in the thick of it. Final art is an intense, intimate time alone with a book. It’s always a huge learning curve for me, and probably always will be.

It’s also a state that’s difficult to explain. I go rusty with words. By necessity, visual language replaces verbal. In my mind I’m speaking and listening in hue/saturation/texture and the push forward/pull backward of values. And this doesn’t stop, even while I sleep and eat and do laundry. If you talk to an unwashed illustrator on a tight deadline (I’m sorry): pardon the smell and the broken sentences, and keep in mind they are still working on their art even while they are talking to you! It’s just a mess, no way around it. You go into the mess, your family goes into the mess, your REM sleep and your house do, too.

My cat LOVES IT.

In the eleventh hour, I trashed the entire final masterpiece spread. I didn’t sleep a few nights, but it was worth it. The image just wasn’t right. Thanks to courage provided by my friend Emily.

It went from this:

To this:

Four months later, we finished, this book and I. My house looked like a cyclone. I needed a shower. Badly. But we’d done it.

Every time I do this, I feel lucky. Every time I make a book, I arrive on the other side a changed human. You could say I made this book, but really, this book made me.

The day I handed Swatch in, I looked up and it was Yellow outside.

Yellowest Yellow had the first word and the last.

That night I cleaned my desk. The relief was unspeakable. Even the Windex went wild:

Months later, I went through a few rounds of revisions, and worked on the cover.

Then the proofs came in mysterious brown paper.

And then Spring came, and while Bravest Green was shooting up through the snow, a box of books came to the house.

Swatch was ALIVE.

So we threw a little party at Porter Square Books (with face paint of course).

My studiomate JHill, her husband Dave, and colortamer Charley

The day of the book launch, there were rainbows! No joke.

This one formed right over the bookstore roof. My little sister pulled me outside to see just before it faded. Customers lined the sidewalks taking pictures. I think that was the moment Swatch’s story went back to the Wild.

“It’s a sign! She’s free!” said a friend of Swatch. I stood before the rainbow, and felt indescribable things, but I did not feel surprise. All along the Wild had reminded me that creating is a TOGETHER thing. Co-creation between what is seen and unseen. Nature operates this way, and stories, ideas, children with books open in their laps. Even rainbows. That same week I came across this quote:

A rainbow is the outcome of the sun, the raindrops, and your own vision.” –Owen Barfield.

I can’t wait to see what you make with YOUR wild, because you are the whole point of this long story.

I hope Swatch is happy. I hope she’s somewhere Wild and free.

Credit: Rebecca Zarazan Dunn, Sturdy for Common Things

Credit: Rebecca Zarazan Dunn, Sturdy for Common Things

I think she is.

Swatch’s azalea bush:

Thanks, Julia!

Be sure to check out our ALL THE WONDERS of Swatch page for much more, including a look inside the book, a podcast interview with Julia Denos, coloring sheets, a face paint guide, and an original Color Tamer game created by our team.

Julia loves words and pictures, making a mess, and cleaning up. She has worked in a variety of creative industries as an author, illustrator, and designer. Watercolor is her favorite medium because it’s the wildest. She lives near the ocean just outside of historic Boston, a good place for a time-traveling Piscean. Visit her online at and on Twitter at @JuliaDraw.

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