Dexter The Dahu
In June of 2020, I received an email from a budding writer named Andrew Piccoli asking me if I’d like to illustrate a book he was writing. Having received many suspicious sounding or dubious emails of a similar nature in the past, I rolled my eyes and deleted the email. Two weeks later, I received a telephone call from a man of the the same name asking me if I’d received his email and if I was indeed interested. I remembered his name immediately and felt embarrassed for not realising he was legit.
Andrew had come across my profile on the Illustrators Australia website and upon seeing my illustration of three incompetent vikings in a leaky ship from three years earlier, felt my style suited the story he had written.
He gave me a rough manuscript to read. Entitled “Dexter The Dahu”, It was story about a young mythical Mountain Goat (a Dahu) living on the clifftops of the Swiss Alps who is sent away to a prestigious boarding school - the St Nikolaus Alpine School for Dahu. Dexter has quite a journey ahead of him, with many characters lurking around each corner, as well as dangerous scenarios to navigate around. An entire series of books was tentatively planned, each book representing one year in the life of Dexter at this boarding school. The book we were to work on was just the start of his story, his journey to this school. Andrew had even started writing the second book by the time he approached me.
A retired marketing man, Andrew considered this book as his own small, personal contribution to children’s literature. He was entirely self funding the project and handling all aspects of it’s production. As a philanthropic gesture, he was to donate nearly two and a half thousand copies of the book to Victorian primary schools and public libraries.
I’d always loved the Swiss alps as a child, and had fond memories of visiting this part of Europe when I was ten, so straight away for me there was a connection. The manuscript seemed to be at an advanced stage and was a well written adventure. When we met up to discuss the book further, I was taken aback at how Andrew had planned every aspect of this endeavour down to minute detail. From the choice of printer, the approaching of bookstores for potential retail sale of the book, visiting both schools and libraries to gain interest in stocking the title, through to the marketing strategy upon it’s release.
With this being his first published book, and for me my first potential published illustrated work, I liked how our paths aligned.
Andrew had employed a project manager of sorts - Barbara - to work with me on the illustrations. Knowing the manuscript inside out, she would be my primary contact, and a mediator of sorts between Andrew and I while he busied himself with the marketing and logistical challenges leading up to the publication date (made more difficult by last year’s lockdowns). With Barbara based in the US, our correspondence was mainly emails punctuated by the occasional Skype call.
The cover was the first finished piece of artwork, but the visual depiction of Dexter was the first task given to me. Drawing Dexter had it’s own specific challenges. The unique physical feature of the mythical Dahu goat is that the legs on the right side of his body are shorter than the left (perfect for climbing across a mountain, in one direction only of course). This became an albatross around my neck for the duration of this project, as it was something I had to take into consideration at all times. I distinctly remember being asked to simply flip Dexter in Photoshop in one drawing, before quickly realising that I had to redraw Dexter's legs to match (I’m glad I remembered this, as it had escaped Barbara’s attention!).
The front cover was a lot of fun to paint once the initial sketch was approved. This took many preliminary sketches - the cover was to be the main selling point so Andrew knew exactly what he wanted and would not approve until he had exactly the scene he had in mind.
Bright, vivid colours were needed here, not an easy thing with so much grey emanating from the rocks (most of this story is set above tree level, so it was important to show Dexter surrounded by the grey, quartz-like rock of the alps). We used the flowers and a bright blue sky to give the cover some much needed punch and I added dashes of a peach-like colour to the rocks, based on some reference photos Andrew had given me. Although Andrew didn't mind my handwritten sign, I hated the way the words looked, and requested if I could digitally place the text in for the final cover.
All the black and white pencil illustrations inside the book were created in chronological order, chapter by chapter, as they appear in the book, and from the initial concepts to the final finished illustration, this process took about 5 months to complete. I literally felt like I was there with Dexter taking the journey with him!
The first two internal illustrations I tackled are recurring images used throughout this book. The first one depicted a signpost pointing to the boarding school (again, with text added digitally) surrounded by a picturesque alpine backdrop. This featured at the beginning of the book and was dropped in at the end of some chapters. I would have loved to have created different versions of this picture, each showing a backdrop matching where the chapter had taken place, these being signposts that Dexter would come across on his journey. However, I can appreciate that we were working to a budget and this would push the amount of illustrations out to an unfeasible level. The second recurring image was a small mountain motif drawn simply to act as a graphic above the chapter number.
After this, we tackled the main illustrations that would be peppered throughout the story. Each of these was a lesson for me in collaboration. A mock-up of the book had been created for me, with blank areas reserved for each illustration, this way I would know how certain images would wrap around the text, and in some cases span across two pages. In addition to this were extensive notes written by Andrew for each illustration, highlighting key points. These included facial expressions, physical gestures, the emotional impact of the scene, the appearance of the background and so forth.
It was decided that I would first draw rough sketches for the entire book, drawing directly over the printed mock-up and thus giving myself an idea as to how the final illustrations, and the final book may look. This was emailed to Barbara, and from there she gave me written feedback from both herself and Andrew. This became the brief from which I would tackle each illustration. I may be asked to remove elements of a picture, perhaps crop or frame a specific part of it. Perhaps I got Dexter’s facial expression completely wrong, maybe there weren’t enough raindrops or the rocks weren’t jagged enough. This game of ping pong would carry on through anything up to 5 or 6 different sketches for each illustration, each one traced over the previous sketch, until we got to a sketch that met the brief. The buck usually stopped with Barbara, though Andrew would often become involved with the decision making process if something was getting both of us stumped, which happened progressively during this time. Andrew’s text described the appearance of the story's characters quite vividly, and I had to continuously refer to his manuscript to convey their features accurately.
A requirement for every one of these internal illustrations was to have the edges of the composition fade away through deconstructed elements of the background. A good example of this is the drawing of Mr Billy the postman paying Dexter a visit. The pathway along the cliff and some nearby rocks are the only part of the landscape we see, with the smaller rocks floating on the page.
This economical depiction of the landscape was in fact a really interesting and creative way to depict a scene, and really appealed to me.
Some illustrations started out more elaborate in their earlier sketches and were whittled down to their essence. The scene where Dexter is stumbling across a river of stones originally showed grassy banks on either sides of the river, but by the final approved sketch showed Dexter simply surrounded by a shower of rocks and boulders. Each rough sketch would trigger an idea for Barbara and it would evolve from there. It was never a static process.
Some illustrations went through quite an extensive process of refinement. In the case of the scene where Dexter is shown staggering along the side of a steep cliff in the middle of a storm, I re-drew the final illustration from scratch again, after sudden major changes to the illustration were requested quite later on. With that said, the final illustration in the book is one of my favourites.
The most troublesome illustration to produce was the scene of Dexter atop a steep ledge with rapids down below. Andrew's text describes a rainbow appearing from the mist from the water below, and he wanted to depict this. I couldn't see how a rainbow could be effectively shown in black and white, and an attempt to show it digitally proved unsuccessful, so I opted to draw it in the final version. The viewpoint for this scene also went through some changes, with Barbara preferring we show much more of the cliff face, to really emphasize the unforgiving steepness of the terrain. I felt we had a good composition (the middle sketch below) when Barbara decided we should show a plateau with trees above the cliff face, making the cliff face look far less steep, and then to change the rainbow from a small one emanating from the water condensation (as described in the book), to a massive one in the sky stretching across the entire width of the scene. I felt this didn't match the brief and was a compromise of sorts.
After I scanned each final illustration I tidied up any dust specks and bumped up the contrast in Photoshop. The illustration would then be emailed to Barbara, and a graphic designer in the US, Lisa, added the image to the book, reformatting the text to suit as each image was added. The deadline became pretty tight towards the end, but I’m happy to say that I managed to keep the same quality in each picture regardless of the time constraints.
The going for broke determination and D.I.Y nature of this project was a one off for Andrew. Understandably, he didn’t want to go through such an exhausting process again, and the likelihood of a second installment hitting the shelves rests entirely on the commercial success of this book. A second book could only happen if picked up by a publisher. Crossing paths with Andrew felt like a once in lifetime opportunity for me as an Illustrator, and I’m so glad I took part in this project. The book looks great and he was a happy client. If Andrew’s Dexter the Dahu series of books begins and ends with this one book, then I’m proud to have been there to have helped him visualise it.