For a graphic artist who has done posters, covers, and spot illustrations, illustrating a book should be a piece of cake, right? Not necessarily. “When I do a cover or a poster, it’s often a big figure or object that’s centered on the page,” Christopher Silas Neal says. “I hadn’t created many environments where characters were moving through space.” He was delighted when Chronicle gave him the job of illustrating Kate Messner’s Over and Under the Snow (Chronicle, Oct.). He loved Messner’s evocative descriptions of animal life beneath the snow, and he’d been wanting to try illustrating a picture book. But he wasn’t immediately clear about how best to represent the winter world Messner had written about.

The solution lay in the snow. “Because it’s set in winter and there’s all this snow,” he remembers thinking, “I can have some blank space. I can use the snow to create objects. If I put a little bit of blue on the top of the page, it implies sky. And the shapes that I create with the bottom of the sky can suggest a hill or a path.”

Neal hit it off with art director Amelia Mack right away, and she gave him valuable suggestions as he worked out where the page breaks would go: “When you get the text for a picture book it isn’t obvious at all; it’s just a Microsoft Word document that’s one or two pages long.” He and Mack saw eye-to-eye on typography, too—he hoped she would choose something “simple and classic, almost nostalgic,” and her choice—Jannon Antiqua—was spot on, he felt. Editor Melissa Manlove handled the science side. “Her role was to be the ‘fact police,’ ” Neal says. “She made sure that I was accurately portraying the animals and their environment. I would do things that I thought looked great and she would say, ‘Well, actually, a fox doesn’t do that underground.’ We made a detailed chart of what animals did above ground, or below ground, or when they were buried in the snow.”

Artists often remember drawing for hours as children, and Neal does, too. (His first success was a drawing of a ladybug on a blade of grass. It won a prize at a shopping mall art fair. He was “maybe six or seven.”) By the time he reached high school, though, he’d fallen in love with music. He dreamed of becoming a jazz drummer and won a scholarship to the University of Colorado to study music.

Yet by the end of his undergraduate career, Neal found that focusing on music wasn’t quite as satisfying as he’d hoped. He switched his major to mass communication, circling back around to art again. Michael Signorella, an instructor in a graphic design course, spotted Neal’s talent in a class full of print journalism majors. He offered Neal a job in his own graphic design studio, and Neal reported for work the day after he graduated. “I pretty much owe everything I know to that first job,” he says. “I learned how to think visually. I learned how to use color and composition and design—all things I use in my art work now. And I learned how to talk to clients and how to run a business.”

After three years, Neal took off for New York with the hope of landing with a larger firm. He spent short stints at a couple of companies, but realized it wasn’t the right fit. “At a design firm,” he says, “the goal is to communicate the objectives of the business or the organization. I wanted to create work that was more personal.” Neal then looked for work as an illustrator; having the New Yorker publish some of his drawings convinced him that he was headed in the right direction. Chronicle had already given him small assignments—hence the call for Over and Under the Snow.

With that book completed, Neal has happily signed on for another project with Chronicle, illustrating Lola Schaeffer’s Lifetime, due out in fall 2013. Neal is quick to name the particular pleasures of picture book making. “Prior to this,” he says, “a lot of the work I did had been commissioned by other people. My art was supplemental to someone else’s writing. This feels more like I actually created a narrative and created a story. It’s more personal. Even though Kate [Messner] wrote the story, I take just as much ownership of it and feel just as involved with it. That’s really satisfying.”