Saturday, September 9, 2017

Emmeline Forrestal's "Creating Winning Characters through Costume Design" plus a PRIZE!

Emmeline Forestal excels at creating magical images with very limited color. Her illustrations are wonderfully detailed and filled with so much personality! When Emmeline told me that she had a degree in theatrical costume design, I jumped at the chance to learn more! Costume design is something that's important in almost every illustration. Emmeline is here to help you make great decisions in your character's costume design.

Emmeline's lovely illustration work can be found in Voices Across the Lakes, Great Lakes Stories and Songs by Anita Pinson, Miss Lucy Jane by Jane Willis Johnston, Ida May's Borrowed Trouble and Beasties both by Pat Hall.

Be sure to check the end of this post for a PRIZE from Emmeline!

Creating Winning Characters through Costume Design!

by Emmeline Forrestal

“Clothes make a statement, costumes tell a story”—Mason Cooley

I love this quote—what better way to introduce illustrators to costume design? Costume design is easily one of the most important components of illustration, but it tends to get lost in the kidlit shuffle. After working in professional theater (costume and wig department) and now illustration, I love that I can bridge the gap between both worlds. Let’s start by breaking down the costume design process. Then I’ll show you how easily it translates to illustration!

A costume designer has a number of tools in their toolbox right off the bat. They have a script, a cast list, and they’ve had a discussion with the director where they’ve nailed down the core concept of the production. The core concept is whatever angle the director wants to take the show (for example, ‘Alice in Wonderland’ set in summertime, in modern day rural Wisconsin). Having a clear concept established right away is crucial: it provides a concrete framework that all other design choices refer back to. With core concept in mind, the costume designer reads through the script. They’re looking for clues in the text that shed light on what the characters might look like. These include any/all of the following Character Clues:
  • gender
  • age
  • historic time/place the story takes place
  • time of year/season/weather
  • city, country, geographical location (rural or urban?)
  • socioeconomic status
  • emotional state
  • mental and/or physical health (including medical issues that might affect appearance)
  • role in society/family
  • cultural pride/identity
  • occupation
  • “specialty” garb such as sports uniforms, battle armor, etc.
  • specific garments or accessories mentioned in the text that have to be included because they’re important to the story

After gathering as much information as possible, the next step is (my personal favorite) RESEARCH. But what to research? Costume designers follow this basic formula:

Core Concept + Text Clues = Research Needs

Let’s plug in our ‘Alice in Wonderland’ example to see how that works:

‘Alice in Wonderland’ set in modern-day rural Wisconsin, summertime (core concept) + Alice, falling asleep outside (text clue) = research needs: what are girls in rural WI wearing these days? What’s the summer weather like? What’s her socioeconomic status—would she be wearing hand me downs or new clothes? Is she a tomboy or traditionally girly? Etc, etc.

Whoa, you’re saying, That’s a lot of questions for one outfit. Why would a costume designer need to figure this out? Remember, the designer is establishing a framework on which to base all subsequent design choices. There may be a lot of questions, but they’re not difficult ones—it’s a blast sorting these details out! One of the many reasons I love research—you get to create and solve a fun challenge.

Research takes time and requires a reliable method of organization and storage. Some designers like to have hard copies of all their research, and others are diehard Pinterest and digital fans. Personally, I don’t love the computer and prefer to keep everything in hard copy—but there’s no denying the amazing stuff you can find in seconds on the internet. Opportunities to study what designers need are everywhere: books, catalogues, old photos, vintage stores, the mall, websites, museums, direct observation at parks, out on the town, and the list goes on. Designers always have their eyes open for inspiration and information!

After the costume designer has assembled a research collection, it’s time to sketch. Ideas for each costume required are drawn out and shown to the director for approval. After any requested revisions and upon approval of the final sketches, the costume designer creates full color costume renderings. This is the ‘final art’ of the design phase. Renderings are color images that show each costume clearly from the front and, when necessary, the back and/or side. Any accompanying accessories are also included. Some designers work digitally, and others traditionally. Just as in kidlit, it’s artists’ choice!

Here’s a sample rendering I drew for a fictional production of—wait for it—‘Alice in Wonderland’. Notice the text that’s included on the rendering: name of show, theater, actor, character, act/scene in which the costume appears. The renderings are displayed in the costume shop while the actual costumes are being created. It’s so exciting to see the drawings come to life!

So how would you, a kidlit illustrator, benefit from costume design? Going through the process of articulating a core concept and committing to making illustration choices that reflect that core concept results in intelligent, consistent, exciting illustration. And who wouldn’t want that? Here’s how you can adapt the process:
  • Nail down the core concept
  • Treat the manuscript as a theatrical script—identify the characters and read through it looking for clues from the Character Clues list
  • Apply the research formula Core Concept + Text Clues = Research Needs
  • Gather research
  • Drink coffee
  • Sketch, refine, sketch some more
  • More coffee as needed
  • Create full color costume renderings of each character’s costume(s) and display them in your work space as you work on each spread. It’ll serve as a handy reference to check for consistency in the final art, and you’ll be able to keep an eye on harmony of color palette, texture, and line among all the characters.

But wait, you’re saying. How do you KNOW if a costume is successful? How do you know if you’ve got a great idea or just an ok one? Art, and in turn costume design, is always subjective. However, successful design in general can be described as careful and balanced.

Careful design stays true to the core concept, successfully addresses clues found in the manuscript, and tells a story about the character wearing it.  Who are your characters? What world do they live in? The reader should be able to learn something about them based solely on how they look. We might even learn something about them that isn’t mentioned in the text, but enhances the overall story. In careful design, clothing and accessories remain consistently rendered throughout the book.

Careless design doesn’t hinge around a core concept, or only partially adheres to one. Clues from the manuscript aren’t addressed, and/or the illustrator doesn’t take advantage of opportunities to tell a story about the character with the clothing. Clothing isn’t rendered consistently from spread to spread.

Balanced design is harmonious. Each costume piece has been carefully selected, and no character has been neglected. The characters look good together, as if they were the cast of the same show—there’s an attractive mix of color, texture, shape, and line. The overall level of detail is consistent across the board.

Unbalanced design is disharmonious. It’s either over designed or under designed. In over design, the concept is unnecessarily complicated, tortured, or gimmicky. The costumes try to tell too much. In writing, authors create backstory to develop their characters, but most of that backstory doesn't end up in the finished book. Likewise, an illustrator shouldn’t include all of their research (backstory) in a drawing.  We only need to see what’s relevant to or enhances the story. In over design, the final look can be cluttered, confusing, overworked, or lacking in quiet space. It lacks editing!

In under design, the opposite is true. (Spoiler alert: most illustrators tend to fall into this category.) There is either no core concept or the concept isn’t refined enough. For example, deciding to set a story in the 1800s is a good start, but it’s not a complete concept. We need to know where (geographically) its taking place, and we need a more specific time frame. The 1800s spans one hundred years—you’ll find huge differences in clothing from 1801 as compared to those from 1899. If the text doesn’t require a specific year, you can narrow it down to a certain decade and have the structure you need to move forward, with the added bonus of a little artistic flexibility. Additionally, under designed costumes don’t tell a story about their characters, and they risk looking boring or generic (not words we illustrators want to hear!).

A note about under design: if you have a simple style, don’t panic! You don’t need to compromise your esthetic to have great costume design. When you do choose to use costumes or accessories, just be sure to pick them wisely and adhere to the all-important core concept.

Are you still with me? Have I fried your brain yet? Are you sick of my ‘Alice in Wonderland’ examples? Don’t worry if costume design feels overwhelming at first. That’s a good thing—it means that creative doors are opening and opportunities await! The Greek philosopher Epictetus said “Know first who you are; and then adorn yourself accordingly.” I’m going to tweak that to “Know first who your characters are; and then adorn them accordingly.” That is the essence of costume design. Happy drawing!

For Further Reading

20,000 Years of Fashion - The History of Costume and Personal Adornment by Francois Boucher, published by Harry N. Abrams, Inc. 1987

The Anatomy of Costume by Robert Selbie, illustrated by Victor Ambrus, published by Crescent Books 1977 (the illustrations in this book are beautiful!)

Any of the Disney/Pixar ‘The Art of’ books (I love The Art of Brave, The Art of Zootopia, and The Art of Big Hero 6) Each book has a great section on how they designed the costumes for the movie. Lots of info that translates well into book illustration.

Dynamic Wrinkles and Drapery by Burne Hogarth, published by Watson-Guptill Publications, 1995

Force-Dynamic Life Drawing for Animators by Michael D. Mattesi, published by Focal Press, 2006. This is a figure drawing book, obviously, but really understanding how the body works is key to understanding how clothing drapes around it and moves with the body.

J.C. Leyendecker-American Imagist by Laurence S. Cutler and Judy Goffman Cutler, published by Abrams, 2008. Norman Rockwell took a lot of his inspiration from Leyendecker (and, many would argue, he even took his job.) Leyendecker was a master at drawing clothing!


Got 6 minutes? Here’s a short video about the power of costume design in film. It’s about movies rather than books (and not even specifically kid movies at that) but it has SUCH great examples of why particular costume choices were made that it’s a must watch! You can definitely apply this knowledge to illustration.

Follow Emmeline!

Emmeline Forrestal received a B.A. in Theatrical Costume Design from the University of Stevens Point, Wisconsin, in 2002. She also holds a B.A. in Spanish and has a barbering/cosmetology license. She has worked as a costumer, a theatrical wig maker at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, a bookseller, a barber, a seller of oats, and of course as an illustrator. She has many children and a feisty dog. She drinks a lot of coffee. 

You can find her work at 
or follow her on Twitter @boredcelery



Emmeline will be offering a portfolio critique with a special emphasis on the artist’s use of costume.

To win this prize you must:
-Complete your dummy this month
-Comment below to tell Emiline how much you like her post!


  1. What a powerful article! It totally makes sense and now I understand why some period piece picture books are so believeable while others are just lack luster dull. I'm on my way to the library/bookstore to check out the books you recommended. Thanks for taking the time to share with us.

  2. Emmaline, My favorite illustrator is Hillary Knight, of the Eloise books, he was a theatrical costume designer too! His book, The Circus is Coming, is loaded with elaborate costumes. Could not help thinking of his work when I read your post. Thanks for the timely reminder!

  3. How I love live theater and the costumes! Thanks for giving us insight about the designer's thought process and how it relates to illustrating, Emmeline. Wonderful!

  4. I always assume so much from costumes.Thanks for the article.

  5. Fantastic info and thank you for giving us a peek at your process !

  6. I am saving this post to refer to again and again! It's brilliant. Thank you, Emmeline!

  7. Wow, this post was so informative. Thank you! I'm working on character sketches right now and this perfect! Emmeline , your art is beautiful!

  8. So costum for concept is important. This actually might fix one of my issues I'm having with a character. Thank you! :3

  9. This is wonderful information about costume design Emmaline. Thank you for sharing your process. :)

  10. Such an informative post. What a powerful way to get involved with your story.

  11. Emmaline, Thank you for sharing how important costume is to the story telling process. I must admit I need to give it more thought than I have in the past. I have a better understanding of how to go about it now.

  12. Great article and something that I definetly need to take a better look at.

  13. Very interesting, Emmeline! I always thought of costumes as just a way to have a bit of fun with the drawing and colors. But of course it makes perfect sense that the costume choices are the perfect opportunity to express the character and story!

  14. Hi Emmeline, Thank you so much for this post. I missed it when you presented for MNSCBWI. I was shocked when you moved, but congratulations again on all your successes. Miss you here in MN! I'm going to print this and save it forever! Thanks again.

  15. This was such an awesome post. So informative and it gave me a lot to think about for fleshing out my characters, and having more fun with them! Thank you for this wealth of information. Your illustrations are astounding!