The first thing I do is read the manuscript. I make copies and put them all over the house. I write down my ideas and thoughts on them and just try to step into my author's brain. Then I dive into my research. I learn facts, history, natural habitat, animal behavior and everything that makes this particular animal unique.
A variety of visual reference can really help you see your subject from the inside out. I looked at skeletons, illustrations of muscles, videos and of course lots of pictures. Never copy anyone else's work. It may be tempting if you are struggling with skills and technique but it is the shortest path to ending your carrier before you get started.
Do you ever have a bad drawing day when nothing works? When that happens to me I go back to kindergarten. I will build things out of plasticine before I resort to copying anything. Never under estimate the power of looking at your subject in the round. It can unblock your creativity and help you perceive things from a new angle. No one has to see the mess you just made! I have used this technique so many times. In college I used to build things out of Lego when I was struggling with perspective and just really tired.
The best piece of reference that I came across was a documentary on YouTube. Watching a baby rhino bump around and live in a house was very enlightening. Wow did it help me perceive their scale and power. Having empathy for your subject is so crucial for an illustrator. If you can infuse your emotions into your characters they will take shape and have presence. I would recommend this documentary but beware this is not for little children. I found it quite upsetting.
Stay Tuned! Stage Two is coming up next! Creating the cast of characters for the story....