Working on a new story for a picture book. Chickens appear to be the central characters, well okay, a rooster and a chick.
For a number of years in the late 1980’s – early 1990’s I created small figurative sculptures that I sold at craft shows and via craft galleries throughout the United States. I guess I would have called them dolls had they not been imbued with a dark and questionable humor. I have a few surviving examples of this work, all but one of which I keep in a box on a shelf. I rarely think of them. The only one I display has lived under a glass dome as part of the background of my studio low these many years. I christened it “Monster Baby”. More on him later.
In mid-November of 2016 I attended the SCBWI Western Washington/Oregon Illustrator retreat at Dumas Bay in Federal Way, Washington. Our fabulous teaching staff was comprised of Christian Robinson and Catia Chien. They were inspiring in an unabashed and unrehearsed way that put us all at ease. I’ve always had a bit of a block about “performing”, which includes creating in front of observers. The delightful thing about this group of several dozen children’s book illustrators is that we all fell under the spell of Catia and Christian, eagerly taking direction and just getting down to the joyous work of their assignments. The group divided into halves and split each day between one or the other, Catia or Christian.
Christian Robinson, whose preferred medium is construction paper, handed out sheets of black construction paper and had us each choose one colored sheet. We were to divide the colored sheet into quarters and then, with these pieces as background, use our xacto knives to create 4 illustrations. Our assigned subject was the cat and we had 30 minutes or so to complete our pages.
Mine, below, and then a window wall of fabulous cats:
Next, Christian handed out a sheet of white and a sheet of black construction paper to each of us, and had us choose one colored sheet of paper. We were challenged to create a book cover illustration depicting an animal chase scene. Again, we had about a half an hour to complete the exercise.
For both of these exercises I was surprised to find that the limitations placed upon me were a relief. No time to over think or fuss about details, just keep moving and quickly execute while working with the materials at hand. The construction paper, being such a pedestrian material, as well as familiar and comforting, gave me permission to just play.
Thank you to Christian for reminding me of the value of simplicity and limitations.
So, back to the “Monster Baby”. Catia Chien had asked attendees to bring along a story prompt from myth, legend or folklore as well as inspiring character designs by admired artists (in my case, Edward Gory, Maurice Sendak, Gustav Klimt) to spark development of our own monsters or fantastical characters.
The scariest monster I could conjure was a monstrous and demanding baby! A Google search led me to a 18th century Scottish tale about an “unchristened wean” who dies at birth and is buried without a name. The baby haunts the village, demanding to be named.
Catia led us through a series of exercises in character development, again with time restrictions, resulting in the following sketches (and the “unhappy little spirit” at bottom):
Upon returning to my home studio I noticed the connection with my three-dimensional Monster Baby. Same stance, same impenetrable stare, even the same blue of the attire. I guess I hadn’t been paying enough attention to Monster Baby. I’d better come up with a proper name, and fast.
Many thanks to Catia for helping me make this unsettling discovery!
My girlfriend Paula has a keen eye for unique objects at a good price. She haunts estate sales nearly every weekend. I sometimes accompany her and where she will exit an old Portland home with a bagful of interesting, if not valuable objects, I’ll most likely emerge empty-handed. But a couple of weeks ago, I happened across a pristine, 1955 Singer Featherweight sewing machine. The gal running the sale encouraged me to make an offer. I offered half the asking price and walked away with a treasure.
Before my mother had children she was an accomplished seamstress. She made beautiful tailored suits, fully lined dresses and slacks and even experimented with millinery. Once children entered the picture she focused on clothes for “her girls” and their dolls. Our suburban ranch home reverberated with the sound of my father’s baseball games on the TV and her sewing machine humming away in the basement. When she was deep into a project, you could barely get her attention (and don’t expect a meal on the table).
So, it is no surprise that we three girls learned to sew and I am sure this exacting craft has informed my creative work to this day. My motto of “draw, erase, draw again” is derived from the school of “stitch, check for puckers, tear out and stitch again”. Sewing demands patience and perseverance, care and attention (and a bit of a leap of faith to cut into that expensive fabric—measure twice, cut once!). I wish for my mom that she had had the chance to pursue her craft in a more substantial way; had cultivated relationships with like-minded creatives who might have encouraged and challenged her. Sad to say (and to my shame) her girls reached an age where we did not appreciate nor would we wear the clothes she so loved to make.
But her little sewing machine was where it all started for me, that creative thread that pulls me along still. Thank you, Mama
This boxed collection of illustrated books (approximately 4″ x 4″) is one of my treasured possessions. Purchased in 1983 (its copyright date), I’ve managed to hang on to it through many moves. I’ve often thought how lovely it would be to create a similar tiny body of work (as I do so love to work small). Perhaps someday I shall.
The impact of my first picture book, Lucky Boy, published in 2002 by Houghton Mifflin, continues to surprise me. About a year ago I heard from Marie Rochelle Macaspac who runs Switchblade Creative Studios Inc., providing marketing, design and social media for animal welfare (in particular for Muttville Senior Dog Rescue). She blogs about her adventures in dog rescue and asked that I participate in an online interview, which I was happy to do. Her first question, “Are you aware of the impact your book has made in the animal rescue community?” was easy to answer… (read more)
I’m having fun with the Illustration Friday prompt this week: “Slow”, and thinking very fat cat may be my way in to a new picture book.
Many thanks to my friend, the lovely Kate Berube for tagging me to participate in this blog tour. Every author/illustrator on the tour is tapped to answer a set of questions and then passes the interview on to two others – kind of a pyramid scheme of goodness.
Kate and I, along with Abbey Marble (also tagged), are members of a small picture book critique group here in Portland, Oregon. I admire Kate’s work because it is so direct and heartfelt. She tells a story with such beautiful, emotional simplicity:
Now on to the questions:
1. What am I currently working on?
As is so often the case, I start thinking I’ve lost my creative way and then something will pop up (sometimes in a dream, as happened the other night) and I’m off.
So this dream… something about a mouse with poor eyesight thinking he sees his mama. He gives the fuzzy apparition a hug and it turns out to be a twitching cat’s tail.
That’s it, just a kernel, but enough to send me to Wikipedia to look up “house mouse”. Did you know mice do have pretty poor eyesight, hence the sensitive whiskers? Mice who are blind from birth have super-normal whiskers to compensate. Mice are great swimmers and climbers and can jump up to 18 vertical inches. They usually try to maintain contact with a vertical surface (wall hugging) out of fear and anxiety. And on and on… fascinating, right?
Images spring to mind and a story takes shape.
The day came when Mama mouse did not return. The babies, now as big as Mama, save one, poked their heads out into the waning light. Blinking and sniffing, their whiskers and noses signaled all that was strange and new.
2. How does my work differ from others of its genre?
Sometimes I wish my work was more edgy and ironic – more stylized and trendsetting, alas it is not. Perhaps that is what sets it apart, the traditional bent and sweetness I sometimes wish I could banish.
I attended a small commercial art school out of high school, but the first year focused on the fine art basics, including a life drawing class which fueled my lifelong obsession with a person’s or animal’s gesture (I’m sure this verges on voyeurism!). In my illustrations I attempt to toe the line – depicting nuanced emotion without tripping into the saccharine or maudlin.
3. Why do I write what I write?
I learned to read on my mother’s lap. We didn’t have many children’s books in our home, but my parents bought the World Book Encyclopedia series which included a couple special Childcraft volumes, among them, Storytelling and other Poems as well as Folk and Fairy Tales.
The comfort of being read to by my mother combined with the wonderful illustrations in these books made a lasting impression.
I have no formal education as far as writing goes, nor do I have children (though my dog would beg to differ, when I make him wear his raincoat), and I don’t even have a good memory (except for that time my mom sent me off to Sunday pre-school without underwear), which makes mining my childhood for ideas pretty difficult. But, I do have a firm emotional memory of what it felt like to be a child and can place myself there in mind and body (even without underwear). From this place I hope to create stories with an emotional center and lasting impact.
4. How does my individual writing/illustrating process work?
I think I covered the writing part of this question earlier, so will focus on illustration here.
Once I have a story to illustrate I find a quiet place where I’ll be uninterrupted and read through it, making little art notes in the margins as to where I see an opportunity to enhance or clarify the action or somehow define a character. Then I create a thumbnail storyboard on tracing paper so that I can see it as a whole – the rhythm and bones of it.
If I’ve managed to capture some essence in a thumbnail I’m concerned I might lose by redrawing it, I’ll scan and enlarge the image before retracing it.
I love tracing paper. It’s cheap, not precious. It has nice tooth and enables light to envelop the drawings AND you can work and rework the drawing. It stands up to endless erasures. I prefer a cheap mechanical pencil with an 0.9 (number 2) lead, though I usually redraw some lines or parts of lines with a softer lead for emphasis at the end.
As far as the process of drawing itself goes, I find that it’s a lot like expressing a thought or opinion. I don’t necessarily know what I think or what I’m trying to say until it’s out there. And then it’s “oh, so that’s what I think about that!” (or perhaps I’m not a very deep thinker). So, for me it is a process of drawing and drawing (and erasing and redrawing) and figuring out what the drawings aren’t in order to find out what they are.
So I have a final drawing that I’m happy with, but it’s on TRACING PAPER (how dumb!). But hey, I’ve discovered I can scan the drawing and print it on hot press watercolor paper, let it dry for a day and then I can watercolor over it (not so dumb!). So there’s my big secret.
Also, full disclosure, I am color phobic. All those choices! And I’ve got a drawing I love, why would I want to mess it up trying to paint it (which I can’t erase). I struggle with color, but try to be brave and carry on. Here’s the resulting color “sketch” with watercolor and gouache.
A couple of terrifically talented picture book author/illustrators, again from Portland.
Drum roll, please…
Carolyn Digby Conahan, who discloses the following:
I’m happy to have a job that means I get to explore the world, and any idea I stumble across, or scare up, and call it work.
And Johanna Wright who has this to say about herself:
Luckily enough, I’m now a full-time author and illustrator. It’s the best job in the world and one that I’ve dreamed of since I was a kid. Not only do I get paid to make a mess and make up stories, but I now have a perfectly reasonable excuse for staring off into space for long minutes.