The illustrations and inspirations behind Rebel Geniuses
Michael Dante DiMartino, co-creator of TV’s Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra, is back with his anticipated sequel to his 2016 novel Rebel Genius. The new installment, Warrior Genius, continues the epic adventure story of 12-year-old Giacomo and features plenty of gorgeous original art. Exclusive to EW, DiMartino has provided a window into his process, giving his own original commentary on the how nine illustrations in both books came to be. Read on for all of DiMartino’s thoughts, and purchase Warrior Genius here.
Giacomo’s self-portrait, Rebel Genius
“My Rebel Geniuses series revolves around the adventures of a young artist named Giacomo who lives in a fantasy version of Renaissance Italy. During the development process, I looked at Da Vinci’s sketchbooks for inspiration and decided to incorporate illustrations into the novels.
“But I didn’t want the drawings in my books to be typical spot illustrations created by an omniscient artist. I’m a big fan of Brian Selznick’s books like The Invention of Hugo Cabret, and I admire how he uses the illustrations in concert with prose to tell his stories. I was inspired by Selznick’s storytelling to do something a little different with my illustrations. I decided I would have the images come from Giacomo’s sketchbook, drawn in his hand.”
— Michael Dante DiMartino
Ugalino and Ciro, Rebel Genius
“Because I was evoking Renaissance artists, I tried to keep the images loose and sketchy. I knew I couldn’t draw as good as Da Vinci, but I figured I could convincingly adopt the style of a very talented 12-year-old artist.
“My background is as a storyboard artist for animation, so it’s natural for me to draw detailed scenes with environments and characters in various poses. But for this project, I had to approach my drawings a different way. I hit a few stumbling blocks while illustrating the first book. Some of my initial sketches looked too much like animation drawings, rather than sketchbook renderings. I went through a fairly extensive revision process for Rebel Genius’ illustration, and I revised several of the images between the galley and the final book.
“One other element I used to remind the reader that the illustrations are part of Giacomo’s sketchbook is the paper textures I added to many of the drawings.”
Construction of a square, Warrior Genius
“During the writing process, I gather visual inspiration to help me envision the world I’m creating and its characters. Sometimes I will sketch an idea for a person or location to help me describe someone or something in words. But for the most part, I save the intensive drawing for when the manuscript is in the final edits. Often scenes change significantly or get cut altogether, so I want the book to be as close to finished as possible before I start illustrating.
“But as I write, if there is a moment that naturally calls for a drawing, I’ll note it in the text to remind me for later. One example of this is the construction of the shapes. To explain the world’s sacred geometry-based magic system, I show step-by-step how the characters create various forms.”
Portrait of Niccolo, Warrior Genius
“Once the manuscript is complete, I go through it and compile a list of 40-50 drawings. These will vary from small, spot illustrations to larger, full-page renderings.
“In deciding what to illustrate, I had to take a few liberties. Many times, Giacomo’s sketch is an image he’s drawing during a scene in the book. But because the story is action-packed, it’s not believable to think that Giacomo would be sketching all the time. The way I explained it to myself is that, when Giacomo has some downtime, he draws from memory a particular person, creature, or location.
“One inspiration for this style was Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, by Ransom Riggs. I loved the different use of photography as an illustration. Sometimes, the photos depicted what the characters were seeing in that moment; other times, they elicited a particular mood or suggested what a scene might look like, even though it was impossible that someone would have taken a photograph of the moment.”
Giacomo and Mico, concept drawing
“Once I have my list of illustrations, it’s time to draw! Because I’m accustomed to drawing on the computer with a Cintiq [tablet], I stuck with that method. But the challenge was to find a way to make the pictures look like they were created with pencil or charcoal, not digitally.
“I experimented with various Photoshop brushes but wasn’t happy with the look I was getting. Then I discovered Kyle T. Webster’s brushes, which faithfully recreate all types of drawing media. I found a few that mimicked graphite and charcoal and set to work.
“My first test sketch shows Giacomo with the city of Virenzia behind him. Initially, I had wanted to do tinted drawings, but the cost proved to be too much, so I stuck with only black-and-white renderings. I ended up using the city backdrop as an illustration in the first book.”
Niccolo’s Villa, Warrior Genius
“I begin with a rough sketch to figure out composition and layout. I often used photographic reference, mainly when I drew the bird and horse-Geniuses, as drawing realistic animals is challenging for me. I do a lot of landscape photography, so I try to bring in that experience when drawing the scenic views.”
Rachanan warriors and archers ready for battle, Warrior Genius
“When I illustrated Rebel Genius, I was flying a bit blind, since I wasn’t even sure of the dimensions of the book. But for Warrior Genius, I was able to incorporate the drawings with the text in more exciting ways.”
Poggio Garrulous, Warrior Genius
“A few additional illustrations I did for Warrior Genius are supposed to be drawn by a famous explorer in the story named Poggio Garrulous. To set those apart from Giacomo’s drawings, I rendered them with an ink style, added a border, and aged them more. I was trying to emulate illuminated manuscripts from the Middle Ages.”
“One hallmark of fantasy novels are maps of that particular world, so I created two per book. These drawings are the most fun, but time-consuming to produce, which is why I leave them for last. The first map shows the empire that is the focus of that book, and the second depicts a detail of the journey, or in the case of Warrior Genius, Rachana’s fortress, where much of the action takes place.
“It has been challenging to wear both the author and artist hats on Rebel Geniuses, but since I create the drawings as I’m editing the book, it’s an enjoyable way to split my time between illustrating and doing the more intellectually intensive act of revising.”