Archive for the ‘Work in progress’ Category


Anxiety dogs me. Will anyone like my work, why are my drawings so tight/or too lose? You’d think I’d be a better speller by now, will anyone like my new manuscript, will I need another root canal soon?

Much of my anxiety is about work. Maybe its the same for you. I guess it’s an issue of control.

I don’t feel like I control much. Even my hair on my head. I mean, it’s MY hair on MY head. But it pretty much does as it pleases.

True I can resort to extremes when I need to – I can have it cut. That’s how I wrestle it under control.

When I comb it – it just laughs at me. I can put Dapper Dan in it. That may work for a short bit. But my hair still does what it wants. Everyone who knows me is used to seeing me and wondering if I ever comb my hair. I do. I try to get it to behave. But short of shaving it all off, it will do what it wants to do. So if I can’t even control the hair on my head, what hope do I have in controlling ‘real’ issues?

Many times it’s best to just go with it.

And that’s how to keep anxiety at bay.

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There are a few really good days being a full-time author/illustrator. Getting checks is nice of course. After all, the food doesn’t buy itself. But really the best days are when you get the book you worked on for a year or more for the first time.  Seeing the final proof for the first time is also a good day.

This past week I’ve been busy working on the second picture book I wrote and will illustrate. The dummy is coming together, though it’s at that point where I spend a lot of time wondering if a particular page communicates the right story beat.  I was concentrating so hard that my daughter and her friend snuck up to my studio and gave me a big “BOO! ” on Saturday. Twice to be exact. Each time  I screamed out loud. My wife heard it from the front porch. Well, it is the season for scares.

But the other cool thing this week was seeing the final digital proof of the picture book I wrote and illustrated that will be released  by Candlewick Press next Thanksgiving. The cover, the flap copy, the final art with final type…very cool to see. And I am looking forward to the first hardcopy proofs in a few months. You will hear me talking more about both books as they near release.

Now, back to work. But I better make sure my daughter isn’t sneaking up the stairs.

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I’ve been in Minnesota the past two weeks helping move my folks out of the old farmhouse where I grew up. There was plenty of work (have I EVER carried so many boxes?) and plenty of laughs with my siblings, parents and friends. The ‘estate’ sale went off without a hitch due to the help of many friends who gave up vacation days and weekends to be part of it. But there were also plenty of tears.


The house at sunset.

I chose to drive to Minnesota with my dogs instead of flying because I wanted the time to travel there and back to be substantial. The thought of traveling by air for this event was off-putting not only because of the hassles of flying but because of the ease and speed.  There were a few additional reasons to drive that had to do with schedule and family which make it seem a more reasonable, less irrational choice. But I wanted that time alone.

There aren’t many other events in life that can cause this much reflection.  If you are a Friend on Facebook you’ve already read a bit about it. And I don’t want to add too much here.

However the place I grew up, the physical place, has a lot to do with who I am. We had an entire river valley to explore growing up. Riding horses in the pastures and forest, finding salamanders in the window wells, crawfish and mud puppies in the St. Croix River. If I wasn’t drawing or making stop motion animated films I was wandering the country side.


The barn, my dad’s studio and the tent for the big sale.

There weren’t many kids near me, but in the summer some people had cabins along the river so I had other kids to hangout with. I suspect this lack of other kids explains the introspective part of my nature. I was the youngest so by a relatively young age my brothers and sisters were gone on to their own lives.

The house, the land I grew up on are practically mythical to me. And for many years I was sure I would head back and buy the place.

But life does not always go according to plan. Things change for good and for bad and my life developed differently.


My dog Angel chasing frogs on the banks of the St. Croix River.

I didn’t leave because I didn’t love that place. And throughout my life, no matter where I moved, that was home. Even here at my house of 7 years I can’t quite feel the same sense of place.

My only solace is that growing old, growing up, whatever you want to call it, demands an ability to say goodbye; to people, places and things. This is not easy. It isn’t supposed to be. But with the goodbyes come opportunities to say hello not only to new people but also new incites. Opportunities to grow beyond what you were and continue on the path to whatever you will become.

In the end it is just a house to almost anyone else. A piece of property that has a value attached to it in dollars. Most others will view it as a buying opportunity, a hindrance or a dream come true. It is a reminder that the most important things in our lives are projections from within us that change what we are looking at because of experiences, memories and emotions. It will always be my home, even when it isn’t.

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I’m leading a workshop here in Portland in September for the SCBWI focused on picture books. I’ve spoken at SCBWI events in the past on particular issues. Last year at Illustrator’s Day in Los Angeles I spoke about electronic books and apps. But this September I’m looking at what makes current picture book market unique and examining some of the differences that make a picture book a picture book and not a comic book, graphic novel or some hybrid.

There will be one or two class exercises and plenty of examples. One section of the class with focus discussion on what I consider one of the best picture books of the past decade, Mo Willem’s Knuffle Bunny.

I’ve been refining the outline for the class for a few months and I’ve been thinking about all the workshops, c;asses and events I’ve attended through the years. What I enjoyed and what I found most insightful and helpful in my work.

I want an opportunity to look at the big issues involved in picture books. Issues beyond illustrative technique and basic story structure. Illustrative style alone does not make a picture book click. Something as stylistically elaborate as Maurice Sendak’s illustrations to something as deceptively simple looking as Mo Willems’ drawings can be effective. The focus on character is a more vital issue for a picture book. (Oh yeah, we will discuss that!)

I’m collecting some thoughts on the current market from editors, agents and art directors I work with to share. And whatever insights I’ve gleaned about the business (if any!) will be hung out for discussion.

Just as a feature film is more than just its script, a great picture book combines visual and literary devices to create a compelling experience that is greater than any of its individual parts. See you on September 28th!

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Third in a series of new quick sketches.


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Another in a series of quick sketches with a limited palette.


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sendinRecently I was reading some online reviews of the books I’ve worked on. Never a great idea. But the Internet exists if for no other reason than to make you more neurotic.

Anyway, I found one concerning The Three Little Aliens and the Big Bad Robot. An illustrator had left a comment like, ” It looks OK. Basically he just ripped off the minions from Despicable Me.”

Ouch! I have to admit, the alien kids do look similar. But the sad part, or good part, is I designed that book long before that movie came out. And here’s the story about that.

I started designing the aliens as soon as the contract came in. I was really excited. My first drafts had all three eyed-alien kids and that crazy multi-eyed robot. I was into lots of eyes…I tried making the characters blue, but I didn’t like it. So I defaulted to a yellow-green/acid-green coloring for them because that coloring looked great atop all the deep-space backgrounds the book featured. And they are aliens…come on. I’m not the most original colorist.

So I turned in my first designs, I got notes back and the art director asked what I thought about each of the aliens having a different number of eyes so kids can more easily tell them apart. Cool idea. I did that and was soon moving forward painting the roughs.

About halfway through the book I went to Apple Trailers one day and – nearly wet my pants when I saw the first full trailer for Despicable Me that featured the Minions. I believe that the earliest teaser trailers didn’t have the minions in them. Well, I freaked out. Looked online for anything about them and started alternative character designs. I wrote the editor and art director, who had seen the roughs, telling them I would have to change everything because my characters look similar to these other characters in a new movie.

The art director wrote back saying, don’t bother changing them. They loved my characters as they were. The characters in the book are kids, they are not minions. And there are lots of characters with similar traits in books and films.

And so that’s how I became a big, fat, plagiarist…not.

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giantClick to make it bigger. Not necessarily better though…

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2012 was a big year for me professionally – if for no other reason than my graphic novel Earthling! was released by Chronicle Books. It’s a book I worked on for many years. A story that went through massive changes and a project that I am happy with and not happy with all at the same moment. I also illustrated two more picture books that will be out in 2013.Busy year. Good busy.

But 2012 was really all about Earthling!. I have worked on all sorts of projects in my life. Usually playing a bit-part or smaller in some major branded piece of entertainment. The desire to captain the ship, so to speak, speaks as much about ego I suppose as desiring a challenge. And it has been a challenge. But now Earthling! is done. Out of my head and my arm is recovering from drawing 256 or so pages in 6 months.

High-point: getting that first set of proofs from China (receiving them only a few days after I OK’d final full color digital art files in San Francisco…crazy). High-point: Seeing the real book for the first time when my author copies arrived. Seeing it on the shelf at a bookstore and library.

Low-point: being told it would get coverage in the New York Times and spending a week worried beyond belief about what they would say.

High point: having a very positive review in the NYT’s! Low-point: after the review ran in the New York Times having the paperback be out-of-stock at Amazon for 7 or 8 weeks. I’m still not clear why. But at least it’s back in stock now.

And so my professional year ends as this project that dominated my life for so long is cast aside, set sail, free to wander the winds of recycling bins and library shelves for years. I guess 2012 will always be about Earthling! for me.

If you are waiting for me to write some sort of valuable lesson about what I learned from all this I suppose I could write a platitude like: The more things change the more they stay the same. Or: Never leave an open container of cheese in your house if you have monkeys.

I might say that writing or drawing a book, creating a story and releasing it to the world is a job fraught with unexpected outcomes and revelations. Ups and downs. Disappointments and high points. It’s never quite what you expect. It’s never as bad as you think. And in the end, most of the time, you live to try it all again.

Where have I read that before? It goes something like this:  “It’s a dangerous business…going out your door. You set onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to”. And I believe that the road you take in creating something offers plenty of adventure too.

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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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