A Sneak Peek into John Manders’s Brain

h1 June 30th, 2010 by jules

As I’ve made clear before (when he stopped by for coffee and cigars), you 7-Imp readers know I love me some John-Manders art somethin’ fierce. Early this month, Clarion released Mary Nethery’s The Famous Nini: A Mostly True Story of How a Plain White Cat Became a Star, which John illustrated. The story is set in Venice in the 1890s. Nonna Framboni, a caffé owner, serves “strong coffee and sweet treats” (my kind of place), but “the caffé was so small, people passed by it as if it didn’t exist.” One afternoon, Nonna takes in a stray cat she names Nini. The cat becomes a huge celebrity after she meows just the perfect note for which Giuseppe Verdi was looking, charming everyone from Verdi to the king and queen of Italy to the pope himself (and, therefore, making Nini and the caffé famous), and eventually helps the daughter of the emperor of Ethiopia overcome a particular sadness. But I won’t give it all away. (Or, er, maybe I just did.)

The Kirkus review notes the “gentle hyperbole” of Nethery’s writing in this tale — and how Manders’s illustrations complement it all so well. Indeed, I couldn’t imagine a better illustrator for such a story. And the colors! O! The colors (as you can see below)!

John’s here this morning to briefly provide us a good example of how illustrations for a picture book evolve, using Nini to do so. It’s always good to check in with him and see what he’s up to, and I thank him for stopping by.

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This story is about Nini, a cat who lives in a Venetian caffè, circa 1895. All kinds of famous people come to visit him.

I always begin with very rough drawings, and—as they got tightened up—the design/editorial team at Clarion was able to give me specific feedback on costumes and poses.

This is the spread where Nini the cat meets the king and queen of Italy. First, I drew a thumbnail sketch where Nini settles an argument about which is the better dessert to serve, and the king reacts with delight to Nini’s decision.

The thumbnail sketches are all about action and pacing the story — no detailed rendering of characters, costumes, or settings yet.

Senior Design Editor Kerry Martin gave me approval for the thumbnail sketch, so I got started on the tight sketch. First, I needed to find out what King Umberto and Queen Margherita looked like. I found these pictures:


Yes, the king’s mustachios really were that big! I wanted a dress for the queen that she could travel in — not the ballgown she wore in the photograph. I liked this one:

Here are the sketches:



Kerry thought the queen needed a crown, so the readers would know she’s the queen, so I ditched her hat and gave her her crown back. I’d drawn the king clenching his fist as a way to show tension, but it was felt the fist looked threatening to Nini, so I took it out.

Here is the final artwork:


The colors are inspired by the paintings John Singer Sargent created while living in Venice. I painted these images with Winsor & Newton designers’ gouache — opaque watercolor.

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THE FAMOUS NINI: A MOSTLY TRUE STORY OF HOW A PLAIN WHITE CAT BECAME A STAR. Copyright © 2010 by Mary Nethery. Illustration copyright © 2010 John Manders. Published by Clarion Books. All sketches and illustrations used with permission of the illustrator.





7 comments to “A Sneak Peek into John Manders’s Brain”

  1. wow, awesome! That is a great cat.


  2. Ah! I love this post! We have LOVED Henry and the Buckaneer Bunnies since it first came out. it’s FAVORITE at our house, and read weekly. This is so fantastic to see another book out, and to learn more about one of my favorite artists! Thanks so much!


  3. That is one awesome mustache.

    And I really can’t get enough of these preliminary sketches. I’m not an illustrator, but it’s always great to see the processes that different artists take to make their artwork just right.


  4. I am putting this on order as soon as I get back to work.


  5. I love these sorts of books, and will for sure be on the lookout for it!


  6. I loved this entry, all the details of taking an idea to final artwork. John Manders’s work is superb! I love how he chose the color palette. I need to pick this book up for the artwork alone! Thanks again to yet another great post…now I’m off to a late breakfast!


  7. His illustrations are so Disney! I would love to see this book made into a movie.


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