Illustration Process: The Six Swans

This piece marks my first intentional dive into the world of graphite, sandpaper, and erasers

I found the narrative of this Brothers Grimm story intriguing and will attempt to relate the tale in segments as you track through the illustration's work-in-progress.


King gets lost in the woods. He encounters a witch who will show him the way out on one condition: he must marry her daughter. King agrees out of fear. 

Thumbnail exploration. 

Thumbnail exploration. 

King has six sons and one daughter from a previous marriage. Because he fears his witch-wife will hurt the children, he hides them away in a castle in the woods. He visits them as often as he can. 

Rough sketch. Establishing the structure.

Rough sketch. Establishing the structure.

Witch-wife finds the children's hiding place. The six sons run out thinking their father has come to visit. She curses the brothers, turning them into swans. She does not know, however, about the daughter who stayed inside.

Continuing to flesh out the structure. Establishing the focal point.

Continuing to flesh out the structure. Establishing the focal point.

Girl runs away and finds her brothers. They tell her the way to break the curse, although they believe the task too difficult: she must not speak or laugh for six years while sewing six shirts made of asters (nettles) for them.

Detailing the facial structures with layers of graphite.

Detailing the facial structures with layers of graphite.

Girl resolves to sew the shirts and begins gathering and stitching the nettles together. A group of huntsmen find her in a tree and take her to their king (different king) who marries her. The king's mother, however, hates the girl.

Working out the textures for the brother's cloak and the sister's hair.

Working out the textures for the brother's cloak and the sister's hair.

When the first child is born, the mother-in-law secretly hides it and makes the girl look like she had eaten it. The king does not believe his mother, but the girl is unable to defend herself.

This happens twice more with two more children until the building accusations force the king to sentence his wife to death by fire.

Plotting and filling in simple shapes for the background of swans. Less is more.

Plotting and filling in simple shapes for the background of swans. Less is more.

On the day of the sentencing, the girl finishes all the shirts, except for the left sleeve of the last one. The brothers return in time for her to throw the shirts over them, breaking the curse and allowing herself to speak.

I chose to keep the background simple, keeping the focus on the detailed foreground figures.

I chose to keep the background simple, keeping the focus on the detailed foreground figures.

The girl tells her husband what really happened, the mother-in-law is punished, and everyone lives "happily ever after".

Color is a muted complementary palette. Purple and yellow-orange. Trying to keep a feeling of calm.

Color is a muted complementary palette. Purple and yellow-orange. Trying to keep a feeling of calm.

Maybe the reason why this story isn't as well known is because it doesn't have the typical “happily-ever-after” ending. It left many unanswered questions, which interested me as I had free reign to imagine the possibilities.

  • What happened to her father and his witch-wife?

  • How did the siblings cope from the trauma of growing up in a severely dysfunctional family? 

I was intrigued by the youngest brother’s resulting predicament. How would he feel being stuck with a wing for an arm? After much thought I decided he would probably be fine with it, especially after seeing all the suffering his sister had gone through to break the curse. No laughing or speaking for six years, I mean come on, that’s rough. After six years of observing how far she had gotten, I wouldn’t have minded taking whatever I could get! 

The moment I chose to capture was after the story ended. I feel the wing is a reminder of all that the siblings went through and came out of together. The younger brother is finally able to be a source of comfort and protection instead of feeling helpless and distant. 


Thanks for taking the time to view my process. I hope you enjoyed it! Please feel free to subscribe so you don't miss out on my latest content. Cheers.