The Brilliant Deep: A Conversation with Illustrator Matt Forsythe

Picture books are magical collaborations, and there are so many exciting moments along the way to their publication. As an author, when I’m writing, I’m imagining the page turns and the art, but at that point, I have no idea who each book’s illustrator will be. I was thrilled when I learned that Matt Forsythe would be creating the art for THE BRILLIANT DEEP: REBUILDING THE WORLD’S CORAL REEFS, and even more enchanted as I watched his sketches evolve and saw the words and pictures come together.

This book, about the life and work of Coral Restoration Foundation founder Ken Nedimyer, earned a starred review from School Library Journal, which called it “A book that can be used in so many ways—a study in biography, science, conservation, and volunteerism. A must for nonfiction collections.”

Now that the book is out and making waves, I thought it might be fun to share a conversation with Matt about his process for creating the art!


Kate: Hi, Matt! I’m so excited to chat with you about your work illustrating The Brilliant Deep, but first, I have to tell you that when I originally saw the finished art for this book, it absolutely took my breath away. And it made me wonder how your vision for this project evolved from the day Chronicle touched base to ask if you’d be interested in illustrating. I know that illustrators have to pick and choose when it comes to projects. What was it that made you want to say yes to this one, and what was your first thought as to what your approach might be?

Matt: I was really excited to see your script because:

  1. It was so beautifully written
  2. It had an environmental message
  3. I knew your work with Chris Silas Neal, which I loved so much; so I was excited to get to work on my own nature book with you.

Before this project I had been working on an animated fiction TV show – which was great fun, but it was exciting to have the opportunity to work on a non-fiction project – about an issue that is so current and pressing.

That’s why it felt important for me to write, too. And I’m so glad you felt that connection because I can’t imagine more perfect art for this project. Could you talk a bit about your process for this book?

This was my first non-fiction book, so the visuals required much more research than previous projects.

I wanted to make sure I got Ken and his family right for each time period – even the scuba/snorkeling technology had to be right for each era – and I needed to ensure the waterlife was accurate or I knew that the fact-checkers at Chronicle would have my head!

To help me out, Ken, himself, sent me a bunch of photos of his family and his early years with the Coral Restoration Foundation. Also, the underwater life had to be specific to each location where Ken dove in the Florida reefs.

For example, at one point, I wanted to draw Manatees; but Ken said I couldn’t because manatees are actually much closer inland than his dive-spots.

So: no manatees.

Kate: I am sorry about the manatees. That would have been fun.

What media did you use for this project, or was it a mix? I know there were sketches early on, but I don’t think I ever saw the in-between stages, before final art. Can you talk a little about the steps you go through when you’re creating a piece for a book like this?

Matt: It was a mix. I always use watercolour, gouache, pencil and then gouache again – usually in that order.

The first step is a very quick, loose run of small sketches through the book to capture some energy and flow in thumbnails.

Then I enlarge those and tighten with pencil. Once we have a final sequence of images agreed upon with the editors, I might do a quick value test on the computer before I go in with a watercolour wash to establish a colour story. And then I will use gouache and pencil to get the values right.

I like the colours to move from warm to cool with the story, depending on the situations. This was a particular challenge, because the second act of the book is about dead reefs. Which are by definition, lifeless and – very visually unappealing. I tried to focus the images on Ken and his work for this part of the book; varying the angles to hopefully create more interest and movement.

Here are some examples of pencil sketches:

 Here is an example of trying to establish values before going in with paint:

More sketches:

And here’s some of the final art…

Kate: This is so interesting to see – thanks!! One last question… What are you working on now?

Matt: Right now, I’m designing a Netflix animated show called 12 Forever. It’s a really fun show about a girl who doesn’t want to grow up – so she sort of fights her fears and fantasies on this magical island. I’m getting to design a lot of the creatures on that island. It will be out in 2019.

I’m also writing and illustrating my own picture book which should be out in Fall 2019 from Simon & Schuster.

What are you working on? What’s your next picture book going to be about?

Kate: I have a few things in the works and am excited about all of them. Chris Silas Neal and I are doing a couple more books in our Over & Under the Snow series – one set in a Costa Rica rainforest and another set in the desert. And I also have an upcoming Chronicle picture book called Where’s the Next President? which I just learned is being  illustrated by Adam Rex.

Thanks again for taking time to talk process with me today! I’ll wrap up with a link to a feature about our book that was just posted on the wonderful blog, Brain Pickings, where Maria Popova sums up Ken’s work so beautifully“What began as one man’s labor of love in the Florida Keys — the locus of his childhood love of the ocean — has become a global model of hands-on resistance to the assault on nature.”

4 Replies on “The Brilliant Deep: A Conversation with Illustrator Matt Forsythe

  1. This was so interesting on many levels. I loved reading about the illustration process, and I’m imagining sharing it with some of the aspiring illustrators I taught (fifth graders). On another level, I’m amazed at the variety of your projects and find myself wondering how you manage your time…maybe another blog entry. I’m ordering this book right now. Thanks for a great first week of writing camp.

  2. Thanks for sharing this Kate and Matt. I have never really given much thought about the amount of work/time that goes into making book illustrations so this gave me an even greater appreciation for the work illustrators do. The pictures and text complement each other perfectly. I can’t wait to share this book with my students in the Fall.

    Jane 🙂

  3. Thanks for sharing your sketches and thinking that helped create these beautiful illustrations. I will be purchasing this text and sharing what I learned from this blog with students and a few colleagues!