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Archive for October, 2012

From the sketchbook.

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Big Halloween party for our daughter and her friends on the horizon. After some discussion with my daughter it was decided I would paint a vampire portrait for above the fireplace and I would create a centerpiece for the food table. This centerpiece would take the form of a miniature, haunted graveyard.

Below is the portrait. I haven’t painted on canvas in maybe 10 years. I mean a complete painting. I kept looking for the undo button. I started off wanting to do a serious portrait, then decided it should be super cartoony. That proved too cartoony so I did this. Something in-between.

click to make biggerer

The centerpiece was a lot more work and I will post final shots of that some other time. But I made most of the elements out of Sculpey, baked them and painted them. There will be an old well and dry ice will be in there to add some Oregon like weather conditions. Below is an almost finished overview.

The Ghoul in the tree is a gauze and latex wrapped body with a wire structure so I could pose it. The base is good old plaster and the tree is a series of cutting from a bush i cut from the yard this summer but liked the miniature look of it. I had it handy. The box ‘base’ will be surrounded by black cloth once it’s brought to the dining room and placed on the table.

There is a ‘digger’ on the one side as well.

It was fun to work on this. Like working in stop motion again, but nothing had to actually be super stable and built to last. Just well enough constructed so  that it looks good. I got to use up lots of old boxes, cardboard pieces, and extra paints.

I’ll post some larger pictures in my Flickr gallery to the right on this blog.

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What is Illustrator’s Day in Los Angeles?

 

Well, illustrators eat for free that day at any restaurant. They are attended to by an Illustrator’s Assistant all day as well. The assistant will carry your illustration gear. Brushes, varnish, laptops, wacom tablets. I’m not sure where they carry it all, but they do. And people are allowed to stop an illustrator and get books or baseballs signed at any time on Illustrator’s Day. Illustrators also have access to air conditioned rooms which are well stocked with cold drinks and free wifi access and paints.

Oddly enough illustrators also have to do most heavy lifting that day in Los Angeles. And they can’t get their haircut on Illustrator’s Day. Weird I know, but these are rules handed down from the Illustrator’s Days of old. The earliest one on record was celebrated in 623AD. All we know about that first celebration for certain is that each illustrator got a free rodent to eat.

Illustrator’s Day in Los Angeles, sponsored by the SCBWI, of which I am a member. I’ll be there. Will you? Most likely not as about 75% of the traffic on this blog comes from outside of the United States. And most of the rest of the traffic is my mom and dad trying to figure out what exactly a blog is and what I do for a living. I have the same questions…

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I came across an amazing quote from the composer Vangelis in a lengthy article linked here.

“Vangelis always prefers to use his first take whenever he can, even if the recording contains small mistakes, because he sees his first takes as more honest than rerecording the same music again.”

I found it inspiring that he tried to use his first take even if it had a ‘mistake’. It makes you ask – what is a mistake? If we are using art to communicate and we want communication to be genuine, honesty is worthy of a few mistakes, isn’t it?

A creative process is not just a process of refinement. It’s also a moment of inspiration. Of surprise. As a commercial artist you are paid to execute to an expected standard. In some ways you are paid to lie. Ones salable skill becomes reproducing something agreed upon as being inspired and excellent and making ALL your work inspired and excellent. To make every stroke, every page an act of inspired honesty and completeness. But good creative execution is not just a process of refinement. I wish it were that easy. Great creative execution is also about the moment. A string of ‘moments’. And simply refining, scrubbing, erasing and sanitizing does not always mean better. There is incredible value in the unmitigated act.

I’ve always been fascinated by the differences between the process and practice of writing and drawing. When I start to come up with a story my brain bounces between words and images. I may hear dialogue, or voice a particular dilemma that generates a story, but images come along and start altering and refining those words. And back and forth it goes.

Writing is a process that better embraces a series of refinements and editing. Obviously you still need the inspiration to create the story. And the inspiration to use the words as you see fit. But the visual arts gets more bang-for-the-buck from that immediate inspiration. It also depends on the genre or style of illustration you are pursuing. A formal portrait or landscape takes a certain amount of reworking and structure and editing. But for me artists like William Steig always captured my imagination and part of his process was definitely embracing the immediate.

Art By William Steig.

That’s not to say that you don’t prepare to do your work. I don’t just sit down and scribble something out, pronounce it ‘done’ and go get lunch. But the editing process happens on small bits of paper and sketches and in my head. When I start to build a final work I don’t want to ‘trace’ lines I already drew. I want a rough guide and then (I can’t think of a better word) I hope for the best. Often I end up reworking and refining. Getting notes and altering things. Getting a new text and changing the images. But if I need to do that for too long on a particular piece, I know I have blown it.

I have great respect for the comic industry inkers who do amazing brush work to bring intricate pencils to life. But I don’t feel close to that work. It can often feel overwrought. The process that motivates me is a little murkier. More subtle.

Trust your first take. But be willing to start over if you have to.

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The other day one of the Google founders talked about the opportunities for ‘content creators’ in regards to using their You Tube service. (Of course, it’s always about the possibilities that await you IF you use this or that of a companies’ tools and products and platforms and…) And while my first reaction is to agree that the possibilities of global distribution are unparalleled, something about the way he said ‘content creators’ unnerved me. Made me want to wash my hands…or make sure I never have that on an ID tag at an event.

Content Creators…Logically I can understand that. And I ‘get it’, as the kids say…Wait. I’m too old to know what the kids say. Plus I’d just be texting this or Tweeting it if I knew. Anyway, I’m probably as likely as anyone to be defined as a content creator. Work across mediums, work across genres, work across platforms..check, check, check.

But I didn’t like to hear myself called that. And I’m not sure why.

Maybe it’s my 20th century ego. Maybe it’s delusions of grandeur. Maybe I’m just too neurotic. But maybe it’s another use of language to separate humans from what they do. To abstract it to another degree. After all, maybe a ‘content creator’ is more likely to let Google take their ‘content’ and use it to build Google’s business, while a ‘writer’ might expect to be paid by said company for that activity.

I don’t have an answer to this dilemma. Not sure I can competently recite the question. But there is something unnerving to the description and the casualness with which it is championed.

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Too many books…

Too many books. Too many shelves packed with books.

There, I said it. I have too many books and they are beginning to weigh on me more than I want them to. So it’s time to start deleveraging. So to speak.

It’s a big decision to make. But I plan on getting a box, then going through all the books on my shelves and I will keep only the books that fill that one box. No more, no less. I have too many tomes that I haven’t looked at in 15 years. I have those ‘Art Of’ books from animated films. Probably a dozen of them. Beautiful big, heavy, books. Love the art in them.Wonderful to casually page through, like I have time to casually page through anything anymore.

I do almost all of my visual research on the web now. I have directories full of art samples. I find myself going to the books less and less often for research. Either because of sloth or…well mainly because of sloth. This will not be an easy task but I need to clear the overstuffed shelves, the stacks on tables, the piles on the floor.

I’ve done this with CD’s and DVD’s and records and cassettes. Media storage nightmares all of them. I have three or four comic book cartons that need to go too. I’ve managed to ignore them, stick them in the back of the studio, move them to different corners, but honestly – it’s time. I realized I haven’t looked at what’s in those boxes for many, many years. Some I don’t think have been opened since I moved from Wisconsin to LA. Oh my. I feel even older now.

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I’ve spoken about this when I give talks at schools but I haven’t written about it much here. I have a confession to make. I wasn’t a big reader as a kid. I know, I know…that’s not what I’m supposed to say. Don’t I write and draw books for a living now? But I was a kid who liked doing things. And I grew up in the country with plenty of space to have adventures. A river to swim in and build rafts on, horses to ride, a few chores tossed in of course. And I liked to draw and sculpt and make stop motion movies on 8mm. So reading wasn’t my first choice on how to spend my time.

I had some favorite picture books, which I still have and have talked about before. And I remember the elementary school librarian making a valiant effort to get books into my hands. I read a few, but my life in 6th grade was so alien from the tortured life presented in some of the middle-grade novels I was given, I couldn’t make the leap to be that interested in them. And then there was the time my mom had me check out the Little House on the Prairie books by Laura Ingalls Wilder and read them. I enjoyed them well enough actually. But when the kids on the bus saw I had them checked out, they were not so generous of literary spirit as to excuse what they saw as ‘girl books’ in my possession.

In 7th or 8th grade an English teacher had me read The Wizard of Earthsea by Urlusa K. Le Guin. At first I didn’t expect much. Dragons, fantasy…not really my favorite stuff. I didn’t play Dungeons and Dragons. I didn’t know what a mage was. But I loved that book and finished it within a week. I created maps of Earthsea. I drew a comic about it. I could picture the opening scenes in my head as if I was there. And I read the other books as soon as I could. From that point in 7th grade on I started to wander book aisles and pick books out at random. I did it in college in the art library too. And that’s still my favorite way to find a new book. I have several stories about picking a book randomly off a shelf that later played a big roll in my life.

I think many of us find reading when we find it. We are not all ‘bookworms’ as kids. And often as not it’s finding the right book at the right time to interest a kid. For me it was The Wizard of Earthsea even though I had no notion I would enjoy fantasy lit. I don’t write high fantasy now. I read a bit of it but am certainly not an expert on the genre. It’s not even my favorite genre. But that book introduced me to a story I wanted to read. And the habit stuck.

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Island Questions

You asked me, what three books would I want if I was stuck on an island?

I was not at all excited to answer you. But I will play along, because if nothing else, growing up in the midwest produces people who are eager to please.

I’d get two books about getting off islands and a third one on painless ways to die.

Then you continued. What three songs would I want, if I was stuck on an island. (And if you don’t mind, why are you so worried about being stuck on an island? I mean, how often does that happen?) But again, I will answer in hopes that this is the last question…here’s my answer: I’d bring one song. Some sort of orchestration mixed with the sounds of whales singing. That way when I listen to it I would be reminded about how beautiful it is to be in the ocean. How majestic are its mysteries and wonderous its creatures. And soon I would think living on the island was the best possible place to live.

And now I ask you, dear interrogator, why ask which three songs I would want? I think you’d learn a lot more about me by asking what three songs I WOULDN’T want. Which three songs would I exclude. What three songs would so demoralize and depress me that I dare not travel with them for fear I may end-up stuck with my iPod on an isolated island.

Then the trivial nature of these inquirers is made clear. With the ability to ban only three songs from being played, well, that leaves dozens upon hundreds of other Christmas Carols, any one of which would cause me to jump into the water from whatever height was available and swim until the sharks got me. Or until I came to another island with no music playing.

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Here’s me making another push for a great Halloween book that isn’t JUST a Halloween book; The Book That Eats People. It may not, at first bite, be a book that is thought of as a Halloween book. But the highly imaginative story within a story is perfect for a silly-scary read. And it’s not just about candy and tricking and treating.

No pumpkins, no witches…but nothing better captures the mood of Halloween than The Book That Eats People.

I don’t have a favorite Halloween picture book. My daughter and I like The Haunted Hamburger by David LaRochelle. And I like reading Julia Donaldson’s Room on the Broom (Illustrated by Axel Scheffler). Where’s my Mummy by Carolyn Crimi and John Manders is also a good read for those Halloween bed times. Lately my daughter has taken a liking to a couple of different History of Monsters type books. Some of them are definitely not picture books, but she loves the ‘historical’ aspects of them. The Essential Worldwide Monster Guide by Linda Ashman and David Small was a book my daughter had no interest in the first night it was read, but ended up as the book of choice (BOC) for about two weeks after that. She claims it needed to be read with a certain style. Whatever it was, I know it well by now. It’s a small-word-count book that examines creatures from different cultures. It stays simple and sharp and offers lots of jumping-off points to discuss other things.

And it’s almost time to watch It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown. That’s the best part of Halloween for me. Well, that and the left over candy.

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The second time I was going to write a picture book (I’ll talk about my first attempt at writing a picture book some other time. When we need a really good laugh…) I clearly remember clearing an afternoon of everything else, getting a sketchbook with doodles and ideas, sitting at my desk, bringing up a new Microsoft Word document on my computer, positioning my hands over my keyboard so I could start typing…and…and…sitting there.

I wrote nothing of any commercial value that day. I don’t most days. But the difference is now I write something everyday and don’t have expectations that what I will write will magically transform into a 32 page picture book. Most of what I write is, to be less than polite, sucky. (That’s a word used in the trade. Strictly a professional term.) And only the tiniest fraction is commercially viable. I wish I could improve my batting average. (I hate sports analogies…)

But I often think about sitting at my desk in Pasadena trying to write one on demand. I wanted to start work on it immediately. You know, things to do, places to go. And I had a million ideas. And just about 1 million of them wouldn’t work well for a picture book.

For me, books don’t just hop out of my head. Heck, my illustrations don’t work like that.

The way I work is more obvious to me now. It’s little steps here-and-there, now-and-then.

Ideas grow and develop across months. I write things down not expecting anything to come of them. On the rarest occasions something sprouts. The picture book that was recently acquired by a publisher developed like that. It’s a picture book that grew from one little drawing and a few sentences.  After a long journey of edits with my agent and input from an editor, it was solid enough to move forward.  I will be starting work on that in the next few weeks and I’m very excited. It’s the first picture book I wrote and will draw.

I know some people get that opportunity right away. I know artists and writers who have the ability and luck to sell their first manuscript. It didn’t work like that for me. And my second picture book, which is in the process of being acquired (which I can’t talk about yet) didn’t come about any easier. It didn’t have any less drafts or fewer edits or revisions or rewrites or waking-up-at-three-in-the-mornings and realizing that page 15 sucks. (Again, please excuse the professional language.)

I know everyone has a different process. Some learn faster than others. Some writers have a naturally commercial set of instincts. It’s taken me a lot of years to figure out that the time I set aside for writing is just the start of the process. There is no way to shorten the book making recipe for me. But by ending and often beginning each day by writing I create more opportunity for something to develop.

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