Making the “ROSA” Art: Character Design

Some ‘Behind-the-scenes’ art-making for ‘What Rosa Brought’ (releasing in UK bookstores March 2024)…

In the earliest stages of making art for books I tend to focus on characters first (especially in the case of non-fiction books). Rosa is based on author Jacob Sager Weinstein’s mother as a child, and her parents and grandma are 3 other key characters in the book.

Jacob shared these beautiful family photographs below, which lived pinned over my drawing table for the full year that I worked on the book, watching over the project. I looked into their eyes on a daily basis. On the right is the happy family a few years before the Nazi invasion, the above are the passport photos (which are especially haunting and charged with emotion, don’t you think?), and below is a photo of slightly older Rosa with mom after they reached America.  

I collect a ridiculous quantity of reference photos (below is fraction it), which help me connect with the time period. A helpful thing about working on a book that takes place in the 20th century is the amount of photographs and footage available. (Included on the top left is my agent Jen Rofe’s family photo, mentioned in this previous post.)

I do lots of experimenting with character sketches…in search of our story’s Rosa character. I tailor the look of the art, and which materials I’ll use, to each individual book I work on. This character sketching stage is when I’m starting to figure out my visual approach to the whole story.

Here’s a close-up on a note, asking myself where to balance the style as real life vs. a cartoony look…what will kids relate to? I felt that if it was too overly stylized or cartoony, it wouldn’t feel real enough. But if the style was too real-looking it would feel too adult for the kid viewers.

Happy messy drawing table, surrounded by art inspiration, paints, reference photos:

Refining the sketches, honing in on the final characters:

Rosa and family’s finished looks:

Before capturing the characters the art feels nebulous and elusive, but once I’ve captured the characters I feel confident in my ability to move forward and make the rest of the art, which will take another 7-8 months.
(Yiddish hand-lettering in the below image by Gabriel Wolff)

More ‘Behind-the-Book’ shares to come…