You are unique and you have a voice – Sarah Davies
Let’s talk about the VOICE (not the TV show, although it’s probably relevant, I just don’t watch it so I wouldn’t know). I’ve been pondering this topic long before it was on the roster at the 2017 SCBWI Mid-Atlantic conference this past autumn. Here’s a brief synopsis of two presentations, one geared towards illustrators and one towards writers. I believe both presenters assumed that we are already vocalizing and seeking to fine tune our voices.
Mr. Castellano began by discussing style (he hates that word) as “informed interpretation” and what that means in an illustration — how do we use our experience of [what we are attempting to illustrate] towards successful execution. We talked about finding the concept behind the illustration and did a few exercises to work on finding the base concepts. These exercises reminded me of a game we used to play back in college that we called “Metaphysical Win, Lose, or Draw!” If you’re familiar with the original home game, it’s basically the same except that the concepts we had to successfully convey couldn’t be nouns. Essentially you have to figure out how to draw “cold,” or “abundance,” or “spiritual,” (you get the idea).
Mr. Castellano also showcased examples of successful illustrations that represented both a focus on the concept, as well as successful crafting techniques. He explained that skill in drawing is the foundation of illustration, but the choices you make in conceptualizing your illustration with regard to the structure and layout, and the techniques you chose to employ will ultimately determine how effective your final work will be. He discussed conveying a message using clean techniques in gesture, directional stroke dynamics, and line weights; positive and negative spaces (particularly negative); choice of color palette; and how “pops of color” stand out from a limited color palette.
Final words of wisdom: Draw with conviction. Have faith in your abilities and your work. Don’t worry about what you think something is “supposed” to look like or let self-doubt show. The simplest decisions ultimately tell the best stories.
I really wish I could have recorded Sarah Davies’ presentation on Saturday morning because I wasn’t fully awake. I’m not sure why – perhaps it’s because I’m still halfway still in dream territory – but I find that whomever gets that 8:45am slot at the Mid-Atlantic SCBWI conference always delivers the most fascinating presentation. Anyway I really hope Ms. Davies gets tapped for a TED talk because her presentation would just be so perfect for it!
Ms. Davies jumped right into the use of voice with comparisons to (and demonstrations of!) her own experience as a singer to illustrate how an author can find their narrative voices as well as those of their characters. She gave well-structured point-by-point suggestions so I’m going to bullet some of them.
“Develop your ear,” by reading outside your comfort zone – including and especially genres you wouldn’t necessarily personally like.
Really listen to the artistic choices other authors make in their choices of words such as using repeats for emphasis, cadence, and phrasing.
Think about how you can effectively bend or break rules, for example using double negatives to define a character’s voice.
Teach yourself to listen to your characters’ voices by telling (not reading) your stories out loud, acting out the parts using different voices for and from your characters.
Get to know your characters well enough to be able to speak with their voices.
Consider how different characters, for example a child and an adult, speak about the same thing from different points of view?
Ms. Davies also showcased examples of successful writing and discussed techniques for crafting an effective finished piece. One example was a flow of abstract to concrete concepts in entering a narrative which, to me, is exactly like a gradient of negative to positive space shown in abstract to concrete terminology! Other techniques Ms. Davies discussed were in finding the silence between words (hmm negative space again!); being concise and clear with word choices to convey a sensory or emotional experience; finding different ways to show and not tell – to paint a picture with words; adding rhythm; and sharing the storytelling with other voices.
Ms. Davies also gave the usual recommendation of daily practice – she called it playing or sketching – for 20 minutes each day. But specifically in order to help find and fine-tune our voices, she suggested experimenting in writing everything from every conceivable genre and from every conceivable perspective in order to explore what approach we would take to it.
Final words of wisdom: Write without restraint. Take Risks. Give yourself permission to fail. Write with passion. “A strong voice helps you stand out in a snot green ocean of boring”
So What is Voice? How do I want to use my voice? What do I want to say and how do I say it? How can you tell that voice is mine?
In my last post I’d said that VOICE was going to be a blog post unto itself. What I really meant was that I’ll have to kick it off in a blog post unto itself but as it’s my creative word of this year, I’m going to talk about finding my own voice in my own art frequently throughout 2018. I think that in order to find and fine-tune my voice, I’m going to have to snap my perspective and approaches like a glow-stick – to break out of what it’s SUPPOSED to look like, sound like, be like – shake things up a bit and see what shines #snapshakeshine.
About the illustration. Originally posted December 14th 2017 on Instagram: Sketching before coffee today. No graphite. I envy folks who can make the time and have the focus to draw everyday. 🎨 My work is good but it’s not where I want it to be yet. Still, I’m always learning and growing, and hoping to push that snowball to the next level in 2018. #snapshakeshine
I think January 1st is a very arbitrary day to begin a new year, don’t you? I mean, all those loose ends from the previous year are still cluttering up the to do list. Who am I kidding? That’s never-ending! But I need to keep this post fairly brief or I’m afraid I’ll never get it posted so I’ll just get right to it.
Recently, folks have been ditching the New Year’s Resolution–where we resolve to correct our perceived faults and habits– in favor of choosing and focusing on a productive, mindful key word for the new year. DIY designer and blogger Geneva Vanderzeil has a lovely discussion and downloadable worksheet for this on her site. I’ve never done a word of the year before but this year I thought about it and I’ve actually come up with three.
Discipline – Of course, I still have my usual old-fashioned resolution anyway. And that is, of course, to get a reliable good night’s sleep. To do this, I need to be strict with myself about turning off the electronics and going to bed! I think if one gets a good night’s sleep, everything else will fall in. And the way things look right now, 2018 is going to be an immensely busy year. Looking like I’ll be back working with k12 again in addition to everything else that’s always on my plate – being Captain Mom, running Illumination Services with my husband…
Resistance – This is a counter-word. Something I need to be aware of as in Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art. I get in my own way a lot. And then there’s the whole political part there too.
Voice – This one will be a blog post unto itself that I will write later. The short of it is that I need to break my brain a bit and then re-focus my artistic voice; figure out what, exactly, I have to say and then work on the words and the pictures. I’ve been learning a lot from looking at the work of other illustrators whose work is very different from my own (for example, Pascal Campion and Gizem Vural – seriously, check them out!) to see how they interpret the world.
About the illustration: This little foxes piece is my first illustration of 2018 and my baby steps in starting to push myself a little. I fought with myself the whole way but I have something I like well enough. The inspiration was my friend, Kelly’s, recent Facebook photo post where she found a fox sitting on her garden shed looking right at her! Quite a cool photo but I took a lot of artistic license, made it two foxes and added snow and stars. This piece was fun as well as frustrating because I got to experiment with masking fluid and Derwent Inktense colored pencils.
And now… Ok I was going to say “Let’s get busy!” but seriously, I need to get to bed!
The rules: Write a children’s holiday story (children here defined as approximately age 12 and under) about A Holiday Surprise! Any kind of surprise – anything at all! – the more unexpected the better!, but is not to exceed 250 words.
It was the first night of Hanukkah and everyone had gone across to the Mazur’s for latkes, leaving Binah alone to think for the first time since she arrived.
She could still hear them through the walls. It was always noisy in the crowded tenement.
Binah missed the village where she’d lived with Zayde, Bubbe, and Papa. She could run through the nearby fields and breathe fresh air!
Last spring, the pogroms began. Every week bought destruction and fear. One day Papa disappeared.
In August, Binah was sent abord a ship to join family in New York.
Kneeling near the stove on the cold kitchen floor, Binah dragged her overcoat from under the narrow bed she shared with her cousin Sally. She fumbled in the pockets until she found the large wooden dreidel Zayde tucked inside that day she had to say goodbye. It was large and lopsided, just like Zayde. Binah wondered if she’d ever see him again?
She stood the dreidel on end and tried a spin but it toppled right over showing the lucky letter, gimmel. Looking closer, Binah noticed a tiny crack. She put her thumbs on the gimmel and pushed. The side slid open.
Tickling her fingers into wool batting, Binah pulled out a coin, then six more, a gold watch, pearl earrings, and a little paper scroll.
Unrolling it, she read: “Binah—Use these treasures to help build your shining future in America. Always remember I love you, zeisele. I know you will succeed.”
I’ve missed participating in the last couple of Susannah’s contests so I really wanted to write something for this one. I’m still very attached to the characters I created for my very first holiday contest story, Sometimes, a Pigeon. This new story is about one of those characters. It’s also inspired, of course, by my own family history and a couple of visits to the Tenement Museum in New York (If you’re ever in New York, you MUST go!).
Artomatic, the area’s largest free pop-up art museum returns to Crystal City!
This year features over 600 artists, performers, musicians, and creatives of all stripes showcasing their talents on seven vacated floors of a former Department of Homeland Security building at 1800 S. Bell Street in Crystal City, Virginia.
Living in the DC area definitely provides some weird opportunities.
Anyway, look for my work in space#3402 on the third floor behind the movie theater. Look for this sign:
As you see, I’m sharing the room with my talented and creative friend, the incomparable, Alexandra Zealand!
You’ll have to check out the project she’s working on as well!
My little helper. Maybe we should put her to work painting the living room now?
The small works I’m showing this year were created for illustration challenges Kidlitart28…
…and the 100 Days Project that produced a series of food illustrations and the Little Yogis series. It’s also where I discovered that I love working in colored pencil.
I noticed I haven’t posted much about my other works from the 100 Days project. I should fix that.
For some reason, this year has been busier than usual. I haven’t had a lot of time to work on personal projects, and so this blog as well as my Twitter and Instagram accounts have been dormant for a few months. So I’m not doing that well in the social media/follower departments.
Apart from managing our household and the lives and endless paperwork (overnight diapers still included) of the 3 and 5 year old Jaegerlings, I can’t complain that it was paying contract work from my main client, k12.com, that ate the remainder of my free time! Whatever higher power placed me with K12 14 years ago sure has a sense of humor since, once again, I’ve been working in my worst academic subject – math! Trust me, it’s a lot more fun for me to graphic design and code it than it ever was for me to study it. Ah well.
In addition to the craziness of this year, my husband got laid off from his proposal manager position this week. Well then! It’s certainly going to be an interesting next few months as he very well might be joining me in the consulting and contracting world. For right now, if you need any freelance writing, editing, resume formatting, grant application or proposal work, he’s your guy. If you need graphics I’m your gal. Hmmmm maybe we could work together? That’s so crazy it just might work! What could possibly go wrong? Check back with me in a few months.
In spite of all this, I HAD to make time for my favorite muse, Susanna Hill’s 6th annual Halloweensie competition. This is the 5th piece I have written for Susanna’s competitions. The parameters, restrictions, and deadlines are great for exercising the puzzles of character, plot, and wordcraft for me. So for this, I will make time! And then… back to geometry for the remainder of November.
The Contest: write a 100 word Halloween story appropriate for children (title not included in the 100 words, children here defined as 12 and under), using the words spider, ghost, and moon.
It’s hard to believe it was only a week ago that I was in Springfield MA, attending the NE SCBWI conference. Wow, what a fantastic weekend! I met great people, connected with “internet friends” (in person!), learned lots, got inspired, and now have quite a lot of work to do. I made a a bunch of mental notes to try and remember to blog about — I probably won’t get it all but hopefully I’ll get the interesting bits.
There were sooooooo many wonderful workshops to pick from when I registered. I had a hard time choosing them as I couldn’t be in two or three places at once. My only disappointment was not getting more time with Patrick Carman. He’s doing some amazingly innovative work integrating media but his keynote didn’t really go into this and I unfortunately had to chose other workshops over his.
Randomly (because if you know me, I often toss in something totally random) the best out-of-context quote I overheard all weekend was “Yes! She found her dongle in her chamber pot!” (I can only assume they were talking about Sarah Albee)
Tips for Storytelling
I’m not sure if anyone talked about “what does this character want more than anything in the world?” but I heard a few people mention it as something we should already know and then going on from there. Maybe that focus is already old news?
Be careful that you don’t write an idea instead of a story. You can have a great concept but it’s nothing without an arc.
If your story has an emotional theme (heart), it should boil down to one unifying emotion overall. (This ties in nicely with a parallel through-line of action)
“This story is about x, but it is REALLY about Z” (for example, Little Blue Truck goes out for a drive but it’s REALLY about the virtues of being a good friend.)
From Tara Lazar (Beginning, Middle, End – I’m bummed I had to miss the MIDDLE of Tara’s workshop for my portfolio review. Only slightly ironic.)
Give the who, what, when and where but lead your reader to ask “why”?
First sentences are your hook but a resolution need not be the end. What happens after “happily ever…?” (not strictly necessary, but it leaves room for a sequel) Also, don’t give away the farm. It’s ok to leave some things ambiguous.
A great ending is inevitable – audience cannot imagine it ending any other way (this was repeated by several other presenters over the weekend).
If your ending isn’t satisfying, the problem is probably in your middle.
Children need to solve their own problems. No Parent ex machina.
From Aubrey Poole (Getting Outside Your Zone of Comfort: The Hero’s Journey applied to Character Development)
Using the Hero’s Journey as an arc, a character enters an unfamiliar situation and has to adapt to it.
Going outside the character’s comfort zone creates tension.
Character wants something (it may not be his dream), pays a price for it (sacrifices his dream for it), and maybe gets a different version of it than he thinks he wants, concluding with a return to a “new normal” (falling action), the resolution having changed the character.
Exception to this is the “steadfast character” who re-commits to who they are rather than changing who they are.
Echoing Tara, If your ending feels flat, without emotional response, your resolution is unsatisfactory (again, a great ending is inevitable).
From Wendy Mass‘ Keynote (Getting from Here to There (and Back Again) with your Sanity Intact)
Cut out unnecessary words (thank you, Stunk and White) and avoid any form of the verb “to be” (can someone please remind me which play that was in? I can’t ever hear that without being reminded of a play I saw in middle school…)
“Substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write ‘very;’ your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.” – Mark Twain.
“Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever.” Gandhi
“Don’t look back, you’re not going that way.”
And then she gave us all awesome waterproof notebooks made of stone because of course we all do our best thinking in the bath or shower.
Sarah gave us A LOT of great information on how to present our work to optimal marketability.
There is subjectivity as to whether or not you should put your contact information on the front of your postcard. Some say you MUST in case you get pinned to a wall. Others say it’s not a big deal to just turn the card over.
Be careful not to include “portraits” in your portfolio. They don’t tell stories.
Avoid showing character’s backs for sample art.
An illustration needs to tell a story, make the viewer ask questions about what is happening in the illustration and what is going to happen next.
An illustration needs to show emotion and relationship between characters (keep an eye on the eyes. The eyes have it!).
Use motion and gesture.
Details! Plenty of details (this was also mentioned in the First Look panel as well as Brian Lies’ workshop – see below)
Details are even more important in fairy tales because we already KNOW the story.
The technical execution of the piece and it’s medium is less important than the story it tells and the emotion it conveys.
If an image is meant to be a postcard, make sure it works in a small scale.
For a portfolio piece, it may be a good idea to leave room for text – a space where the text will obviously go.
Be aware of the gutter. Don’t put important stuff in the middle of a spread (1/2″ at least).
If submitting to magazines, review their formats and submit with those formats in mind (tall and skinny? side panels?)
If there is something out there that you really want to illustrate, put samples of that in your portfolio. Show the work you’d like to do more of.
Keep the style consistent. Push a style that is your signature. You will be hired for predictability.
Another thing you are showing off in your portfolio is your design sense.
Send postcards 3-4 times a year when you are first starting out, then twice a year when you’re more established.
Don’t forget to send to junior editors and art directors. They keep boards too.
Exercises similar to theatrical improv games that are meant to spark your creativity and enhance your skills.
In which we created 30 sketches in 1 hour. Wow, that was painful. Sergio gave us verbal prompts that we had to draw and timed us. I think some of the participants got a little frustrated but this was an amazingly liberating exercise.
Our last assignment was to take 3 of these sketches and combine them into a 3-panel story or logical sequence like three mice meet a hippo and then go off to watch the sun set. I actually kind of like what I came up with and plan to finish it.
This is a great exercise which, of course, we can all do at home, or over Skype, or something like that. We just need to make a list of 30 prompts.
From Dan Moynihan (Spark New Ideas with Drawing!” and “Pictures First! Draw Out Your Story”)
“As I draw the characters, I learn about the characters.”
Both of Dan’s workshops consisted of games. The first was really an after dinner game where we all drew in magic marker colors and passed our work around the table embellishing each other’s sketches.
Our second game was constructing an illustrated story by passing work along after each spread. The results were hilarious. I pretty much forgot how to draw entirely right about then. Some of us presented these monstrosities to “the class” afterwards.
The second workshop the following day was similar to Sergio’s in that Dan had us draw, but instead of different things we drew to the same prompt word over and over and over again in order to help find the story within our illustrations.
And then we drew the same character over and over and over again doing different things. This is one way to learn about the character.
I’ve always been more linear and had never thought to “draw out” a story this way but it totally works. You draw different sketches until they connect, piece them together until the story arc makes sense, then put them into the dummy and proceed to tighten them up.
From Brian Lies (The Angel’s in the Details: Going Beyond First-Order Thinking in Illustration World-Building)
Sidenote – I could just sit and listen to Brain read the phone book (if I still had one). He has such a great voice!
Details give us information (historical, geographical, demographics)
Details puzzle and delight us.
Details take us away from the generic and tell us stories about the characters. Like props and costumes. We know people and characters by their “stuff.”
Name (and nickname) your characters.
Put in things for the “grown-ups” to find – especially when they have to read the book over and over again (and you want them to, right?)
Convincing details lead to a convincing illustration – Mice wouldn’t have cheese wallpaper any more than humans have pizza wallpaper.
Scale is important – A bear would write a BIG letter. A mouse would write a LITTLE letter. A bear’s letter in a mouse’s house would be pretty big.
Brian gave us an exercise where we were to populate a portion of a character’s life with thoughtful details. This exercise taught us a little more about our characters (If you are a writer and don’t want to draw, you can simply make a list).
Finally… About the (my) Creative Challenge
And this one was definitely a challenge.
Before the conference we had to do the usual promotional prep work (cards, portfolios, in come cases buttons — I’ll have to remember that for next time! They’re just jingly fun to share). But we were also tasked with an illustration challenge to “Re-Invent Jules Verne. Choose anything written by Jules Verne and reinvent it, bring it into the 21st century. Anything goes, as long as it’s kid through teen friendly” at a double page 16″ x 10″ size. I picked From the Earth to the Moon. As part of my updating, I rewrote the quote.
I don’t consider this piece finished. I just ran out of time. And it’s got a lot of problems (hopefully I see more of them than you do!) but I do like it. I challenged myself to push a little more into the abstract layout than I usually go, mostly because of the Folger Theatre’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Seriously.
I realize that there is absolutely no obvious connection here. But it had to do with the stage set and the placement of a wedding cake high up in the back wall ABOVE the wedding scene. But it made the point. This was a wedding. And we didn’t question the placement. I had an “aha” moment. I’ve always been too straight-forward with my design. My set designs back in college were also always too… literal? I’m not sure when I got that grounded. I used to draw flying people like Chagall when I was a kid… Aha.
SO, I decided to try and break out of this a little and loosen up on this project. At which point the illustration started fighting with me. I wanted to do it in colored pencils, it wanted to be digital. We wrestled our way to a happy medium around an agreement on the concept. You may notice there are windows in the sky and stars on the background buildings? I’ve always been fascinated with city windows. Every time we drove over the 59th Street bridge at night, I would gawk as best as I could into the apartment windows at eye level, then look past them at the twinkling lights of Manhattan and think about all the people behind all those lights. The distance makes musing more poignant until it doesn’t matter if we’re looking at windows or at stars…
Next, I wanted to stay true to the concept of the story; that a group of people are trying to plan a trip to the moon. So my kids are out on the rooftop in various stages of planning or dreaming about how they’re going to get to the moon. Also, all the roof-top water towers of the city look like rocket ships. I’ve always thought so, anyway. Here’s where my Aha moment came in… I wanted to break the reality of my illustration and have the children’s plans and ideas floating above their heads to try and convey that this is what the illustration is really about. And I also wanted to make the plans LOOK like plans. So I inversed the graphite and added a grid to the water towers on the left that looks like graph paper. Continuing with the inversed graphite for the children and foreground was an experiment, and I’m afraid I cleaned up the lines too much on the right-hand side. I like the idea of what I did here better than my execution, but as I said, I don’t consider this piece done.
All in all, it was a good exercise for me. But it’s not the portfolio piece that the challenge suggested it might turn out to be. But I did get to scan a slice of bread for the moon texture.
WHAT A FANTASTIC WEEKEND! I got to hang with some great people – I now have at least 30 new Facebook friends, enjoyed dinner with strangers who are strangers-no-more, Sharon Abra Hanen (who invited me to dinner by overhearing me say I didn’t yet have dinner plans), Sarah Ignatius, Lin Norman-Lyman, and Heather Steffens. I was privileged to spend quality time with folks who have been inspiring me from afar for years including Jane Yolen and Tara Lazar (who are BOTH hilarious in person), and Kelly Light and Heidi Stemple (whom I also know from social media and who are ALSO hilarious in person. I’m fairly sure Kelly and I crossed paths in college, and Heidi reminds me so strongly of my cousin that I’m quite positive we’re related), Jannie Ho (whom I “met” doing Illustration Friday 10+ years ago and finally got to meet in person!) Courtney Pippin Mathur (the only person I’d met “in person” prior to the conference because she lives near me!), Vita Lane and Jason Hart (for one of the most wildly coincidental lunches I’ve had in a while – Not often I run into someone who remembers seeing a play that I designed in college!) all my #KidlitArt friends (@emilywayneart @AutumnSeybert @reneekurilla @ClarElizabeth4 @ioanahobai @APSabourin @scillabert @juliaanneyoung @erniedelia @fultonbeal @matusic @sarahlynnereul @ClaireLordon @IllustratorPG1 @PSWCreative @AJSmithillustr, joshfunkbooks) and Marlo Garnsworthy (I’m sorry Carlyn couldn’t make it but happy she introduced us!), Jennifer DesAutels, and Roya (so lovely to meet you!!).
I know I’m still leaving many, many people out!
I got tons of inspiration and advice and some conflicting feedback about what I need to do next work-wise that I still need to parse… But now… back to my reality where I’ll be spending the next 8 months parsing this all out!