Animal Magnetism: Making O'Reilly Animals

by Lori Houston

The animals on the covers of O'Reilly books are a hallmark of the brand, making them instantly recognizable on bookshelves throughout the world. Over the years, countless readers have sent O'Reilly questions about the animals:

"What kind of animal is that on the cover of ...?"

"Is that a lemur or a tarsier on your Web site?"

"Does the animal on the cover relate to the book's contents?"

"Have you considered selling your cover images as posters?"

"How do you do those animal drawings? Are they computer generated?"

"Why do you put animals on books about computer languages?"

How animals ended up on our books

The last question touches on a bit of early O'Reilly history. Edie Freedman (now O'Reilly's Creative Director) was hired to design the first book covers. She thought the books had the strangest titles--sed and awk?--that evoked images of the popular fantasy game, "Dungeons and Dragons."

While looking for imagery, she came across the Dover Pictorial Archives, a series of books (and now CD-ROMs) containing copyright-free collections of 18th- and 19th-century wood and copperplate engravings of animals. She encountered a pair of slender lorises and had an epiphany. "That's sed and awk!"

She scanned several animals from the archive and placed them on mock-up covers, which she then presented to everyone at O'Reilly. O'Reilly had ten or so employees at the time, and people wondered if the animals were appropriate. But Edie convinced them to follow her instincts. Customers wound up loving the covers, and a brand was born.

Read Edie Freedman's account of how the animals ended up on O'Reilly books.

Those first animals appear on some of O'Reilly's classic titles: the slender lorises on sed & awk; the potto on Managing Projects with make; and the tarsier, known as the "vi guy," on Learning the vi Editor. (That's also the tarsier blinking at you from the top of the O'Reilly home page.)

Things have changed a lot at O'Reilly since those first archive images were scanned. An increasing number of the animal images are now drawn by hand.

One of the artists behind our animals

One of our prolific artists is Lorrie LeJeune. Officially, Lorrie is an editor in the O'Reilly Cambridge, Massachusetts, office, but she's also a freelance artist on the side. She designs and makes her own jewelry, plays the mandolin and violin, and takes a wide variety of art classes. "Looking back, I probably should have gone to art school," Lorrie muses. "My degree in animal science only gets used for telling funny stories about cows and chickens."

A five-year veteran of O'Reilly, Lorrie was actually first hired to do corporate sales, "a job I never actually did." Instead, she became O'Reilly's very first product manager, brokering book information between the editorial and sales and marketing groups. "It was," she says, "like being an air traffic controller for books." After discovering she was more passionate about making books than selling them, Lorrie switched to her present editorial position.

At one point, some casual tinkering with sketches led to her taking on the lion on the cover of AOL in a Nutshell. From there her involvement escalated. To date, she's drawn the animals on the covers of some twenty O'Reilly titles, with another five in progress.

Lorrie with a few of her creations
Lorrie with a few of her creations.

Hatching an idea

During the writing and editing process, O'Reilly book designers usually approach Lorrie with a firm idea about the animal they want on the cover of a book. The designer requests sketches, often with a very specific pose to fit the book's cover design.

Once in a while, Lorrie offers her own ideas about which animal should be on the cover of a book. When the designer was at a loss, Lorrie suggested African wild dogs for the cover of Managing IMAP (~September 2000) because she realized the animal's splotchy coat resembled a map. It was also Lorrie who championed the blue-footed boobies on Zero Administration for Windows.

Sketching in the details

Lorrie begins each assignment by researching multiple sources to produce preliminary sketches. (She also regularly visits the Peabody Museum at Harvard University and the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History to view animal exhibits.) Sometimes Lorrie is able to do a straightforward re-creation of a Dover engraving. Other times she must refer to multiple sources because individual drawings don't show the complete animal, or aren't entirely accurate, or the animal is depicted in a less than desirable pose. She may have to develop a composite image, as in the case of the black-tailed prairie dog for Open Source--kurz & gut Pocket Reference for O'Reilly Germany.

In this case, the designer asked Lorrie for a "fat prairie dog" to fill the cover space, but in her research, Lorrie could only find illustrations of long, skinny prairie dogs standing on their hindquarters. Finally, she stumbled across a magazine cover which featured a prairie dog in a hunkered down position, and she was then able to create an initial sketch. She also created the composite drawing of the meerkat for the O'Reilly Network's new open wire service.

Lorrie at work
Lorrie at work.

Lorrie does her rough sketches in pen-and-ink, depicting the animal in different poses. Even after the designer selects a particular sketch, Lorrie may need to re-draw it several times. Once a sketch is accepted, Lorrie then draws a more careful rendering to use as a model in the final process. This detailed sketch is often used for the O'Reilly catalog mock-ups. Since the catalogs are usually printed well in advance of a new title's actual production, it's common for the final book illustration to have a slightly different appearance than the catalog version.

Reverse engineering

For the next phase, Lorrie transfers the image to a medium called scratchboard, a thick piece of cardboard coated with white clay. She applies ink to the board, creating a silhouette of the animal. Then she begins rendering the animal in more detail by carefully scratching away the ink layer using a sharp tool called a scratch knife. Scratchboard brings the O'Reilly animal images into relief for an appearance much like the original Dover engravings.

The challenge is that scratchboard requires Lorrie to use her drawing techniques in reverse. "I am literally working backwards," she explains. "Instead of drawing in the shadows, I am scratching out the highlights. The lighter the detail, the more work I have to do."

She typically begins with the animal's eyes, the pivotal feature of the entire image to Lorrie's way of thinking. Once she gets the eyes right, the rest of the drawing begins to fall into place. For the panther on Java Foundation Classes, she worked particularly long and hard at giving the animal an intense stare.

Don't miss the step-by-step making of an O'Reilly animal.

Her first round of scratching yields a basic line drawing. Then she establishes lighter and darker tones as she begins to add detail. If she makes an error, she can patch the ink and re-scratch, but she can't make major changes. Since the scratchboard surface can accommodate only one or two revisions, Lorrie says that she tries to have a complete understanding of what she's going to do and not make any mistakes.

She likens this process to watching a photographic image emerge in developing fluid. Moreover, Lorrie must recognize when the scratchboard image is "finished." After going over her work with an eraser to clean off excess ink and dust, Lorrie creates a high-resolution digital scan.

A question of style

Lorrie tries to imbue her illustrations with the historical, somewhat less-than-accurate style of the old Dover engravings. Her technique has evolved with each project's demands and through trial and error. Each animal presents its own unique complexities. She was recently commissioned to draw a dragon for an O'Reilly retail bookstore promotion. This was her first illustration of a mythical creature. She pored over Asian art books for anything with images of dragons--lacquer boxes, kimonos, silk screens--to help her draw samples.

When she tackled the walking tiger for the recent O'Reilly Conference on Java, she realized she had to capture both the pattern and surface characteristics of the tiger's coat. Besides the graphical pattern of the stripes, she also had to show the underlying nap of the fur. Replicating fur, feather, and scale patterns remains one of Lorrie's greatest challenges. "That's when having a background in animal science helps!"

From start to finish, an O'Reilly animal requires anywhere from 8 to 20 hours of manual labor. And for reasons no one can fully explain, hand-drawn animals on high-tech computer books became a wild success.