These books present nature in living color

Illustrating children's books can be hard work. But the beautiful results are worth the effort.

Everyone knows that books have authors. But kids' picture books also need an artist to bring the writer's words to life. That's what artist Sylvia Long does. "An Egg Is Quiet" was a collaboration with author Dianna Hutts Aston. Open its pages, and speckled wonders burst forth.

Ms. Long used her skills with watercolor and ink to let readers take a peek at different eggs – from their shell color to the shape and size of each one.

As the book relates the journey of an egg from yolk to freshly hatched critter, readers learn about birds and other oviparous (or egg-laying) creatures such as crabs, turtles, and even crickets.

The first pages of this book feature dozens of eggs – mottled, speckled, brightly colored, and more. In a fun twist, the last two pages show the creatures that will hatch from each of the eggs, giving readers the opportunity to match egg to critter. So many people were enthralled by "An Egg Is Quiet" that in 2006 it received the first Children's and Young Adult Bloggers' Literary Award for best nonfiction picture book.

In all, Ms. Long has illustrated 17 books. She did her first book in 1991 just for fun with a friend (author Virginia Grossman). So she was surprised when she got a letter from Chronicle Books saying that the company wanted to publish "Ten Little Rabbits," a counting book that celebrates native American cultures. "I went hollering and leaping down the street to tell a friend," she says. "That was a real high point for me." Since then, opportunities to illustrate have kept coming.

After hatching "An Egg Is Quiet," Ms. Long and Ms. Aston worked together to create another book that was released earlier this year. "A Seed Is Sleepy" is filled with more watercolors of the natural world.

This book relates the journey of various seeds as they float and fly to new ground, where they flower, fruit, and grow into mature plants or trees.

Readers enjoy the illustrations in Ms. Long's books, but few realize that the work on each project starts long before her first brush stroke.

"I love taking walks in all sorts of places, picking up seeds, rocks, feathers, bleached animal bones, snake sheds, shells...." she says. It's these found items that inspire her artwork.

Once she has researched her topic sufficiently, she starts with a pencil sketch – and erases a lot!

When the first drawing is complete, she enlarges it to full size, adding details and making sure there's enough room for the text that will accompany it.

She then transfers the sketch to good watercolor paper in light pencil and completes the final drawing in ink.

Now it's time to add the vivid watercolors that make the images come alive.

And she goes through this process over and over for every page in the book! It's no wonder that it took her nearly a year to research and paint all of the pictures for "An Egg Is Quiet."

Ms. Long hopes that her books inspire children to get outside. "More and more, it seems that children's education takes place only in the classroom, online, or on TV," she says. "To get excited about nature, they have to be out in it – with someone who has passion for it and knowledge about it."

When kids are out there, they should pay attention, she says. "Once they focus, they'll see that it's so amazing."

All of that amazing natural beauty is what keeps Ms. Long painting. She plans to do more books in this series with Ms. Aston.

Think you'd like to be an illustrator someday, too? Then spend time outdoors and sketch a lot, Ms. Long advises. "It does take practice."

Watercolor techniques for kids to try

Want to try your hand at watercolor? These methods use different techniques to create a variety of textures. You'll need watercolor paper and either cake or liquid watercolors. See if you can use these methods to paint an egg or a seed of your own.

Wet on wet watercolor

Use a spray bottle to wet the surface of the paper. Use a clean, damp sponge to remove any excess water. The paper should be saturated, but not shiny. Paint your picture with a brush and notice that the colors bleed a bit as you put them on the paper, blending colors and creating a soft edge.

Splatter texture

To add random speckles and dots to your painting, get out an old toothbrush that isn't being used anymore. Dip the toothbrush into the desired color and dab off any excess with a paper towel. Quickly run a toothpick over the bristles. If you vary the speed of the toothpick, or the distance that you hold the brush from the paper, you'll see a difference in the pattern. It will also look different on wet paper than it does on dry paper.

Plastic wrap

With this texture, you can create a background for a more detailed picture or just an abstract piece of art. Cover a piece of watercolor paper with paint. While the paint is still wet, place a piece of plastic wrap on the paper, crinkling it in some areas. Leave the plastic wrap in place while the paint dries. When you remove the plastic wrap, it will leave a random pattern of lines and color.

Salted art

Sprinkle a completed – but still wet – painting with coarse sea salt. (Table salt works, too, but it's less dramatic.) Allow the painting to dry, and then use a paper towel to brush away the salt. The salt absorbs some of the color as the paint dries, leaving a mottled finish on the picture.

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