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!
This year I swore I wasn’t going to enter the Tomi Depaola competition again. It was too much aggravation and hassle the last couple of times. I’d put it off until the last minute because it wasn’t a priority – until, of course, it suddenly was. Like many of my peers, I also got the distinct impression that “Tomie just doesn’t like my work” (don’t ask why we all feel that way – chalk it up to artist’s insecurities). Lastly, Mr. Depaola has been frustratingly less than punctual on his end of the deadlines as the quality of the work always makes it hard to pick a winner. It’s his competition. *shrug* So I wasn’t going to do it.
And then I read the prompt:
One of the biggest and most important challenges the Children’s Book Illustrator faces, over and over again, is the UNIQUE VISUALIZATION of the MAIN CHARACTER.
So often, I have seen illustrators resort to generic depictions of the star of the story–too “designed,” too ordinary, too much like characters already seen in media, especially on TV and video games.
The assignment is simply to illustrate a moment from the following passage from Philip Pullman’s version of “Little Red Riding Hood” from FAIRY TALES FROM THE BROTHERS GRIMM (Viking, 2012). (You may want to read the entire story. It is an excellent book.)
And immediately sketched a rough draft inspired by:
Once upon a time there was a little girl who was so sweet and kind that everyone loved her. Her grandmother, who loved her more than anyone, gave her a little cap made of red velvet, which suited her so well that she wanted to wear it all the time. Because of that everyone took to calling her Little Red Riding Hood.
One day her mother said to her: ‘Little Red Riding Hood, I’ve got a job for you. Your grandmother isn’t very well, and I want you to take her this cake and a bottle of wine. They’ll make her feel a lot better.
My rough draft inspired my last couple of fairy tale illustrations set in the 1920’s/’30’s. This time I tried not to leave it until the last minute, but life interfered and my idea of what I wanted to draw wasn’t jibing with how the characters wanted to be drawn. After a bit of arguing, I gave in (the characters usually know best anyways).
My setting is 1920’s northern England, though the cottage is much older. I wanted Red to look a little more modern as she wants to someday become a “woman of the world,” while her mother is comfortable wearing the older, rustic fashion. Red’s world is comfortable, happy, and cosy. The world beyond the gate begins the misty, ominous forest.
Mr. Depaola has an excellent point… we all think of Red Riding Hood looking the same way in an 18th century travelling cape, no matter what time or place she’s set. The last time I drew Red back in 2008, this is what she looked like, captioned, “This is my rather standard treatment of Red Riding Hood.”
So far, a number of my colleagues have shared their entries to the competition in the PB critiquie group on Facebook. All I can say is that once again, Mr. Depaola is going to have a seriously hard time picking a winner. I’m personally blown away by my competition. Winning would be nice, but I really entered because the topic was inspiring. And I think I produced a pretty darn good illustration.
Working within the “weensie” constraints was a great experience for me last year. I had to give it a go again (and I couldn’t resist doing a quick little illustration for #Inktober 2015 as well).
As most of you know, I’m primarily an illustrator and have been spending most of my not-so-spare time this past year working up better illustration skills (my wee ones are still in preschool). Small writing challenges like this one give me exactly the right push to work on wordsmithing. Thank, again, Susanna Leonard Hill for hosting.
Here are the rules: Write a 100 word Halloween story appropriate for children (title not included in the 100 words), using the words costume, dark, and haunt.
She haunts the streets in search of treats. Her costume is a jaunty bell.
Green eyes that sparkle in the dark, The moon winks back and all is well.
She tumbles, nips, and almost trips A witch, two pirates, and a mouse.
They stroke her fur, laugh with her purr, As they progress from house to house.
But one by one they have to run, It will be bedtime all too soon.
Atop a Jack-O-Lantern’s back, She mews, then howls up at the moon.
This happened again last night before the kids put on their costumes. Little Kiki, the neighbor’s cat, is the inspiration for this poem (and my son’s costume – he adores her). She has been coming to our door all week to for Halloween treats.
Doin’ the happy dance this morning! The winners are posted. I won an honorable mention again! That’s a Halloweensie two-for two for me. And I’m listed first. I’ll totally take that.
A big THANK YOU to Susanna Leonard Hill for hosting this fantastic (and tough!) competition once again this year and making me believe I can write.
Congratulations to all the winners, my critique buddy, Johnelle DeWitt for placing as well for her super-creative main character, and to everyone who entered. Honestly, y’all are tough competition!
A little about the piece:
This piece is “Snow White and the Queen.” I’m continuing on my theme of fairy tales set in the early-ish 1900’s with a more theatrical Art Deco, old Hollywood setting.
I wanted to keep a little of the light = good/dark = evil symbolism as well as the hints of Snow White with a cobalt blue “Depression-Era” pitcher containing… something unknown and possibly vile, and of course the apple on the newell post.
I am not sure where the idea of the talking face in the mirror came from in the traditional Snow White depictions – possibly Disney? But my molded face atop the glass worked perfectly with the Art Deco design.
This mirrored dressing table is based on the silhouette of a piece I found on Google images but I changed the design to gold hard-edged roses. I also used this design on the Queen’s dress and the bannister.
Today is the deadline for SCBWI’s November Draw This! showcase. As I’m still easing into colored pencil techniques, I decided to try mixing it up a little bit and combined regular pencils with some blue Derwent ink pencil and regular Derwent watercolor pencil (which I also just discovered I own – it would seem I’m an art supply hoarder). I also got a water brush. What a concept! I’m still undecided on the paper. I used Strathmore Bristol 400 which seems to have a bit more tooth than I’d like.
Because I was trying some new things, I dragged my feet a little. I didn’t want to screw up what I’d already done by failing at new techniques. Also, I still haven’t really pushed my contrast as much as I could. I realize I’m being timid about it and I see a couple of things I could have done better to add a bit more drama.
Tonight, after we got the kids to bed, I figured I’d put the finishing touches on the piece before submitting it and decided the wall behind Snow looked a little bare. So I drew in some stones. Being tired from Jaegerling2 being up part of the night (he’s 2… maybe he’s teething those last molars?) I drew the stones rather ham-handed and a bit too dark.
Oh fudge. That’s it. Time’s up. Pencils down.
Luckily, it was a fairly straighforward clean-up in Photoshop. But I’m annoyed about it because I deliberately used gold opaque watercolor on the “wallpaper” pattern because I wanted the original to look really cool and shiney. I knew full well the gold would scan in umber tones (I’ve at least done THAT before). So the original looks really bright and colorful — the digital reproductions never really capture the depth of the color we achieve on paper — except for those dang stones.
Oh well. Call it “done” and move on.
All in all, I do like how it turned out. Though it probably could use a cat. There was a cat in my original sketch but he seems to have wandered off.
This piece was finished for Illustration Friday and Illustration Age’s challenge word, “Prize”. It is the boy, Arthur, and the Sword in the Stone. That’s a prize, right? — Excalibur and the throne of England!
I really wanted this completely done for IF but life happened and it was after midnight, EST on Thursday so I posted it to IF as a work in progress. If I was on a paid deadline, I’d have been up a few hours later to finish it, but as the Jaegerlings wake up around 6am, I thought it was best to get some sleep. Comparing the two scans, though, I almost like the work in progress better:
This is the second piece I’ve completed using good paper and colored pencils – still mostly the Mitsubishi’s (which nobody seems to have ever heard of) and a few Prismas. I’ve decided I’m just going to buy a full Prisma set when I have some extra money. They seem to be the easiest brand to replace individual pencils when you need to. But I’d still like to play with other brands, and I’ll probably still mix and match since some brands have better colors, I think though Prisma has a fairly staggering range. I was able to get to the one art supply store in the region last week and picked up a handfull of Farber’s. They’re a completely different critter. I also wonder about changing the tooth of the paper versus practicing a better technique. There’s a happy medium somewhere. Ackk that pun was not intentional.
I discovered through making a bunch of technical mistakes on this piece that blending Farbers is very different from blending Prismas. I bought a blending marker and some blending sticks. I also went way too heavy on the grass at first, and that was somewhat irreparable without digital help (I left it) but I like how the stone worked out. I think the Prisma brand blending sticks work best with the Prisma pencils (obviously) and that the blending marker may cause more harm than good though it makes a reasonable eraser with help from a blending paper. I think I sould probably work on a the layering technique of building from soft to hard. This is art-school stuff I didn’t learn 20 years ago (because I didn’t go to art school) but it’s not too late to learn.
A little about the illustration now… I wanted to draw a different idea of the Sword in the Stone legend. The traditional image is of a sword plunged vertically and somewhat crucifix-like into the stone (or, kind of modern-looking anvil – thanks, Disney!). I wanted to tie back into the paleolithic roots of Britain and the (completely unfounded by any factual evidence) legend that there was a temple of standing stones on the top of Glastonbury Tor. I kept a little of the Christian reference by having Arthur pull the sword out of the side of the stone, also implying the idea of Arthur as a sort of Christ-like savior of Britain (the “Once and Future King”).
I also researched late Roman costume in the northern regions and hope I’ve achieved a reasonable account of what the boy Arthur would have worn. The figure approacting in the background is obviously Merlyn.