Burton strived for perfection. She created countless versions of each scene so she could “get it right.” For example, our collection holds no fewer than fifteen versions of Act I, Scene 1. Although she reworked the illustrations obsessively, Burton kept very few notes and the text did not change much during the eight years she worked on the book. Some of her early drawings are only rough sketches of an entire scene, nearly abstract in their lack of detail, while other early drawings are meticulous renderings of a single animal that look like finished artwork.
In a clever innovation that saved time, and also turned her working drawings into a kind of toy, Burton drew a version of the proscenium arch and then cut out the center so that she could overlay the stage design on each page she was working on.
The stage setting appeared throughout the book and since Burton made so many versions of each page it was easier to only paint the proscenium arch once.
It took Virginia Lee Burton nearly eight years to write and draw Life Story. She began her work by mapping out the scenes as color sketches and then pinning them to the walls of her studio. If you look at the preliminary sketches in the collection, you can still see the pin holes at the top. She also drew on the back of scenes, on pieces of scrap paper or board that were odd sizes: convenient for an artist seized by inspiration, but a dilemma for archivists and conservators!
You can see that the text for this page would have been below the stage in this version of Act I, Scene 1. The content of the scene did not change dramatically over time, but the stage setting and page layout evolved from having one page per scene.
There are only subtle difference between these drawings, but Burton felt she had to practice the minor adjustments before she could create the final artwork.
The muted colors of these drawings might easily be overlooked by the reader in favor of the more dynamic color illustrations. It makes the level of detail all the more amazing.
It's quite amazing that Burton put so much time and effort into creating this book knowing that most of the work would not be seen.