illustrator chat: diane degroat on charlie the ranch dog

Charlie, overwrought with excitement

Well, flap my jowls and tickle my ears! 

Have you ever seen a more lovable dog? Yep, it’s Charlie, easily the most famous basset hound in America. He lives with Ree Drummond, the Pioneer Woman herself, and his new picture book, Charlie the Ranch Dog (HarperCollins, 2011), has been on the New York Times Bestseller List for the past 6 weeks! Doggone awesome!

Is that bacon I smell on his breath?

Anyway, just in case you’re not familiar with the book (where on the wide prairie have you been?), it chronicles a typical day on the cattle ranch from Charlie’s point of view. Along with his best friend Suzie (a spunky Jack Russell terrier), he gets up too early every morning and works so hard (wink, wink) fixing fences, gardening, keeping cows and other critters in check, fishing, and rounding up cattle.

A dog this busy certainly deserves oodles of bacon a good meal and endless naps a little rest now and then just to keep his strength up. Why, if not for Charlie’s steady vigilance, Daisy the cow could have destroyed the garden! Personally, I happen to admire those who’ve perfected the fine art of napping and bacon nipping, and I know exactly how Charlie feels: a dog’s work is never done. ☺

Recently, Ree blogged about the experience of writing about Charlie (her first children’s book), and I thought it would be fun to get the illustrator’s side of the story. Of course I’m talking about the brilliant and talented award-winning author/illustrator Diane deGroat, who’s visited with us before, and is known far and wide for the 120+ books she’s illustrated (most notably her beloved self-illustrated Gilbert series). 

I sent Diane a few questions and she came back with some right chewy answers and lots of photos. She’s done an outstanding job with the pictures in this book, and I think you’ll enjoy learning more about how she created them. How did she manage to perfectly capture Charlie’s ranch-roving, bacon-loving ways, and extend Ree’s trademark wry humor? Grab a biscuit, tap your boot heels together, sit and stay. Roll over if you like, but do read on. (No need to beg.)

Congratulations on the great success of Charlie the Ranch Dog! How did you get this gig, and what did you like most about doing it?

It’s true that when one door closes, another opens. I had just learned that my Gilbert series at HarperCollins was ending. I anticipated using this time to work on a proposal for a whole new series when I received an email (from a different Harper department) asking me if I’d be interested in submitting some art samples for Ree’s book. I was not familiar with her blog, and wasn’t sure if I wanted to spend the time illustrating a book that I hadn’t written, but I gave it a shot. A manuscript wasn’t available yet, so I used photos from to see what Charlie looked like. This was my first interpretation of Charlie:

The editors felt it was too realistic and that the style should be more playful. I was given another chance. Eventually, I was able to fine tune Charlie until he became the character we see in the book. Here are some other attempts:

Nope. Still too realistic.

Nope. Not there yet.

Finally Charlie and Suzie became the characters we see in the final version:


What did I like most about doing it?

1) It was a challenge that got me out of my comfort zone. After 16 years of writing and illustrating Gilbert books, I had the opportunity to think and draw differently.

2) I was able to work in a digital and watercolor combo — a direction I had been heading in with Gilbert.

3) Charlie became #1 on the NY Times Bestseller list.

Have you ever worked on a similar project, where the author had lots of input from the get-go?

Charlie was different in that I collaborated with Ree more than I usually do with authors. There was much discussion, and I had to be open to changes and revisions at all stages of the project. The biggest challenge was illustrating Ree’s art specs with just a few images. Her blog format allows her to use many images and scenes to illustrate one episode. In a book, I have just one page or two to show the action. So either the text/action had to be pared down, or we needed a much longer book to show everything she listed in the art specs. I think we all made a good compromise in the end.

In her blog process post, Ree mentions sending you photographs. Did you take any liberties with any of the details, or did you concentrate on portraying the setting as realistically as possible?

Ree provided lots of photographs, but for most of my reference, I searched through her photographs on that were linked to her website. All 35,000 of them! I could find most of what I needed (Charlie, Suzie, the grounds, etc.), but couldn’t find just the right pics for the house that appears in many of the illustrations. The editors said it didn’t have to really look like her place. The best I could find was:

I used this, but downsized it a bit. OK — a lot. But unbeknownst to me, this was the back of the house! I used it for all the art inside the book, but the cover was supposed to be the front of the house. Again, I didn’t have any photo reference for the front. Ree mentioned it had a bright red door and sent this photo. (I love the red door!)

I added the rocker (Google images) and the red boots, which were from a photo I took at a friend’s house. (She collects cowboy boots.)

Ree sent a photo of her own boots:

I reversed the colors so they would show up better on the cover. She asked that “PW” be carved into the leather. (For Pioneer Woman, not Publisher’s Weekly!)

The veggies were a combo of Google images and my own imagination. Ree wanted more ranch porch stuff, so I surfed the web again for lariats and dinner bells.

Before computers, we illustrators had books and picture files to use as reference. Now it’s all there on the web. I printed out some of the images to have in front of me as I painted:

When it came time to draw the family, I had to stick a little closer to reality — right ages for the kids, right horses, and right clothing for Ree!

FYI: The cover went through a lot of changes. Here are some earlier versions:

How did you get the idea for the chipmunk?

It wasn’t my idea. In one of the art specs, Ree thought it would be cute to have a chipmunk sleeping under Charlie’s ear. I had to think of a way to incorporate him. Where did he come from? Why was he under Charlie’s ear? So in my sketches, I introduced the chipmunk when Charlie is sniffing the steps and Suzie is chasing critters. The chipmunk sees that Charlie is the harmless one, and maybe he wouldn’t mind sharing his dinner. Then I added him in later drawings. The editors and Ree liked the chipmunk so much, they asked that he be in every pic for the kids to find. I guess someone who has cows walking across their porch doesn’t mind a critter in the kitchen!

Here’s what I used for reference. Yes, I have a taxidermied chipmunk!

As far as I know, there aren’t any dogs living with you at the moment. How do you explain your knack for capturing canine expressions, postures, and emotions?

No dogs. No pets. I treated Charlie the same way I would have drawn an opossum. A smile and expressive eyes go a long way to make animals anthropormorphic. And Charlie is a great character even without my help!

What’s your favorite spread and why? Could you please take us through its creation, step-by-step, from rough sketch to finished art?

My favorite spread is the barn scene where Charlie realizes that everyone has left without him.

The thumbnail design for this art was originally just the left hand page. The right side was a different scene.

When we added 8 pages to the book, I had room to spread out the barn scene to a full spread.

The actual barn was pretty drab . . . (sorry, Ree!). The editors said I could change it.

I started from scratch. Gathering reference material from the web, I assembled a collage in Photoshop, trying different things.

I found some nice window frames on the web, but I wanted the view outside to be authentic to Ree’s prairie. On her site, I found this pic of the prairie behind Charlie. But Charlie was in the way.

I cloned him out . . .

and placed the background behind the glass. The “glass” filter in Photoshop gives it that frosted look.

More research. I shot some pics at a friend’s barn. I loved the lighting and color palette.

Once I got all the material together I sketched over it (digitally) and played with the lighting and added details: tack, shovels, bags, dog food, cooler, hose, bucket, boots, etc.

This is what I sent to the editors for approval.

In Photoshop, I added realistic layers and “painted” in the details and textures until I had a color comp. This is where I can make any final changes to make it work just the way I want it. Normally I wouldn’t do such complete color comps, but I wanted to play with the shading, lighting, and color scheme. The good thing about Photoshop is you can’t mess it up!

I lightened the comp and printed the images onto Arches 140 lb. hot press watercolor paper with my Epson 3880. The ink is actually pigment, so I can paint right on top of it.

With watercolor, I added all the final details, washes, shading, and line work. All the hard work had been done digitally, so now I could enjoy the fun part — the finishing touches. The finish is a combination of digital and watercolor art. From start to finish the painting took about four or five days. It’s not really faster on the computer, as the same steps are there that you would do with pencil and paint. It’s just more flexible.

Finally, have you ever been on a ranch, and how do you feel about bacon?

I don’t think I’ve been on a real cattle ranch like Ree’s, but there’s a stable just a short walk up my street, a llama farm down the road, and a herd of bison on the way out of town. Does that count?

Bacon. Yuuuummmmmmm.

Thanks so much, Diane! You really nailed those expressive eyes, and it was fascinating hearing about how you blended all the elements for the barn spread. Your depictions of Charlie and Suzie are warm, endearing and adorable, and even readers who don’t know them from Ree’s blog can’t help but love them.

Here are a couple more of my favorite spreads:

**One more thing: The book includes The Pioneer Woman’s (and Charlie’s) Favorite Lasagna recipe. You might want to try it sometime, that is, as soon as you’re done eating your bacon. AAARRROOOOOO!

♥ Diane deGroat’s official website.

Cute video featuring Ree introducing Charlie. Listen to Ree read the book at Barnes & Noble Online Storytime.

♥ The Pioneer Woman website/blog. Don’t miss the Charlie archives and the detailed post where Ree provides backstory about the book, “Twenty Steps to Writing a Children’s Book.” Interesting comments, too!

Till next time,


*Spreads posted by permission, text copyright © 2011 Ree Drummond, illustrations © 2011 Diane deGroat, published by HarperCollins. All rights reserved.

**Unless otherwise noted, all photos, sketches, collages, etc., copyright © 2011 Diane deGroat. All rights reserved.

***Charlie headshot, porch, barn, boots & bacon from The Pioneer Woman’s flickr photostream.

Copyright © 2011 Jama Rattigan of jama rattigan’s alphabet soup. All rights reserved.

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