The Illustrator's Practice: Shawn Harris
Courtesy Photo

Courtesy Photo


Shawn Harris is an artist and musician who lives and works in Morongo Valley, California. He began doing record and poster art for his own band the Matches in 2003, moving on to illustrate for bigger musicians such as Adele, Snoop Dogg, and 311. His first picture book "Her Right Foot", written by Dave Eggers, was the recipient of six starred reviews. Shawn and Eggers have a follow-up picture book slated for Fall 2018, entitled "What Can a Citizen Do?" 

Here he talks us through his illustration process.

I work in the Mojave desert, in a hole underground, where I keep cool and hide, like the rest of the animals out here.


My art studio doubles as my music recording studio, so when I’m making art, I have an audience of tape machines and speakers. Notice the retired ladder that functions as my overhead lighting and camera rig.


My final medium is usually cut paper and ink…


but I start with a thumbnail and then a sketch in graphite.


Then I do a Photoshop color study with my Wacom Intuos 3 tablet, where I figure out how many pieces of paper I’ll be using. I like to limit my palette as much as possible, to imitate a sort of cut paper version of a spot color print.


I often think that I could stop here, and get away with a simpler process, but when I cut out my paper shapes, and photograph them, with my Canon Mark III, it makes the digital mock-up look like a basketball without air, or a deer lying by the side of a road, and I’m glad I didn’t settle on my process.


For Dave Eggers’ latest non-fiction hardcover, I did stop at the digital drawing stage, because the debossing, embossing, and foil stamping added that tactile finish to the cover.


You can see how much the beautiful printing and chosen materials add to my submitted file, which looks lifeless on screen, compared to the object we created


Dave wanted his true story of a young Yemeni American man, raised in San Francisco, who dreams of resurrecting the ancient art of Yemeni coffee, but finds himself trapped in Sana'a by civil war, to jump off of the shelf like a classic Jules Verne adventure novel, so I went and found some classic Vernes, and infused the look with contemporary images of San Francisco, the Yemeni countryside, AK-47s, and added some ornamental work inspired by photos of architectural filigree in Sana'a.

Here's my first sketch:


When working in cut paper, I always photograph my finished work, as opposed to scanning it, because I like accentuating shadows by moving my lights around my overhead camera rig (an out-of-use ladder that now lives above my desk.) Here are a few pieces that accentuate that extra dimension, from my newest picture book with Dave, called “What Can A Citizen Do?” (pub date Sept 11, 2018, Chronicle Books)


Having an overhead rig is also handy if I feel like doing a bit of stop-motion, or capturing time-lapse video of my process [for Her Right Foot]:


Design Editor, Painter, Designer, Lifelong bibliophile.