Sculptor and photographer Lauren Eldridge made her children’s debut in 2017 as the illustrator of Claymates by Dev Petty, a picture book starring two lumps of clay that transform themselves into a variety of wacky shapes. Eldridge is also the illustrator of Jonathan London’s forthcoming bedtime picture book, Sleep Train (Viking, Apr.). Here, she shares her process for creating the models that served as the basis for her photo-illustrations.

Jonathan London’s Sleep Train is a bedtime story and counting book for sleepy train lovers. It begins when a boy climbs into bed with his own book about trains and starts counting the train cars between the engine and caboose: “Ten sleepy cars going clickety-clack,” reads the refrain. As the boy counts cars and becomes sleepier, his room looks more and more like one of the train cars from his book—the sleeping car, naturally.

When I first read London’s manuscript, I knew most importantly I needed to create an appropriate mood with my illustrations: one that would reflect and enhance the rhythmic, magical text. I employed a variety of materials (cardboard, paper, wire, wood, paint, clay, cloth, found objects, etc.) as a dimensional illustrator in order to create physical models of characters and environments for my intended scenes. During the production of this project, I created the seemingly vast (yet actually rather small) environments in perspective, in front of the camera’s lens, in order to ensure proper proportions as well as a more realistic depth-of-field for the shot. Because my camera was tethered to a monitor, I was able to make instant adjustments to the models, lighting, and camera angle during the photography process.

In previous projects, including Claymates, I’ve built my characters and environments together, but in this case, that would have required making multiple trains for each environment it was passing through. With the level of detail I felt was necessary, that wouldn’t have been possible—the train would not have been consistent enough to the reader’s eye. So I needed to create a single train and place it in each of the environments I built. To do this, I employed the magic of Photoshop for the first time, putting the single train into each hand-constructed scene. The following are images documenting the train’s journey.

The train cars were made mostly out of cardboard glued to a thin wooden base.

The engine was made from a poster shipping tube and other cardboard glued to a thin wood/foam core base. It has a working headlamp.

Lionel O die-cast sprung trucks with rotating bearings were used for all train wheels except for the engine. They were hand-weathered using acrylic paint and real dirt/sand (after this photo was taken). If attached to a working engine on an O-scale track, the train could actually run.

The full train, ready for the cover shoot.

The arch bridge was made out of balsa wood, then spray-painted and weathered.

An illustration from the book shows the finished train crossing a bridge.

I sanded down a wooden figure-drawing armature and built it up again with Sculpey and epoxy to create the main character’s base form.

The boy was inspired by Ezra Jack Keats’s Peter from A Snowy Day. The book made me feel calm, cozy, safe, and sleepy as a kid—which is how I hope to make readers feel when they read Sleep Train.

A bedroom process shot.

An interior spread from the book shows the protagonist tucked into bed for the night.

Sleep Train by Jonathan London, illus. by Lauren Eldridge. Viking, $17.99 Apr. 3 ISBN 978-0-451-47303-5