I don’t often enter contests, but this past summer I opted to enter one with the Society for Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators. It was a new contest, called the Narrative Art Award. Disclaimer: I didn’t win.
Well. I didn’t win the contest. I did, however, work hard and quickly enough to pull off three brand new illustrations for my portfolio, each of which stretched my skills as an illustrator and storyteller.
I almost gave up before I even started. The theme was “Mystery” in celebration of Sherlock Holmes’s anniversary in 2017. I sketched and worked and wondered my way through several different ideas, none of which seemed good enough, clever enough, smart enough, or pull-off-able enough.
I finally decided to forget the whole detective theme and simply showcase three characters (a must) going through the beginning/middle/end of their story (a must) with a hint of mystery: where did the dragon’s fire go?
Now for the process photos. In the past year, I’ve become much better at the sketch/grayscale and value study/then paint process. While it seems like that might slow me down, it actually speeds me up, because I don’t lose time trying to pick colours. Once I have my values, I can pick a colour scheme and just work. The guess work is gone. I love this approach.
Here is the selection of main colours I used as my colour scheme. I use color.adobe.com to help me out.
Being a creative person is often a challenge. We face the world with the ownership of this label that we’ve self-inflicted: I AM CREATIVE! And we go out with an expectation on ourselves (usually by us, and no one else) that we be creative, and we create awesome things, and those things are innovative, and we keep making amazing things. The self-doubt and worry can really bring us down.
Some ways to break out of the normal ways of working, explore and enjoy our own creativity all involve removing expectations and simply creating:
Chalk. Work in chalk. Doodle and draw and write and wonder. It’s not permanent, it will get wiped away, so take the chance now.
Bath Crayons. Warning: these are sometimes hard to wash off. BUT, you can explore similarly to with chalk – it is less intimidating to doodle in the shower or tub, especially if you’re doodling for your kid (if you have one).
Buy a cheap sketchbook. I used to think buying an expensive sketchbook with high quality paper was crucial. I still kind of do, but I have a hard to EXPLORING in that book. Instead, I use the book I got for a few dollars at the dollar store.
Play “Yes, and …”. I learned this while taking part in a high school drama class last year and it has pushed my writing into new directions. Basically, in the drama activity, you and the other actor improvise and HAVE to yes (a basic rule of improv):
“I wonder if it will rain tomorrow?” might be responded to with
“Yes, and I wonder if it will rain cats and dogs?” to which the first person might say,
“Yes, and those cats and dogs will wearing Scottish battle gear as they take on the Irish in a game of pool golf.”
The exploding will continue and by the end, hilarity will ensue. The same can happen with your writing (or even your art).I make lists of “Yes, and” but I call it “AND THEN” and I listen to my voice saying it dramatically and with a ton of expression. I am then called to improve the dramatics of my writing!
Sketch in the wrong colour. Yes, draw that apple in blue. Why? It removes what you know about the apple and forces you to focus on its form and essence. A red circle is either an apple or a tomato, and so by drawing it as blue, we have to find creative solutions. Sometimes, you need to back yourself into a corner rather than run from it.
Do you have other suggestions? If you try some of mine, let me know how they go! Have a happy, creative day!
A funny thing happens when we start taking our writing seriously – we realize we aren’t very good.
But one solid way of improving the craft is to listen – and hear – the voices of our audience, who in turn are – most of the time – also our characters.
The #1 writing rule you will find is to “write what you know.” This is sometimes disputed, but overall, I hear and read that one the most. Unfortunately, I have no idea what being a 12 year old girl in 2016 looks like, feels like or sounds like, in a really authentic way. But sometimes, a 12 year old girl appears in your manuscript, and you need to speak for them through the character who has arrived.
The thing that most adults do best? They filter. They hear a kid say something and they add their own adulty filter, and that sucks.
Rather than looking for a way to infuse my own morals/beliefs/ideas/creativity onto my audience, I am letting them do some of the heavy lifting. I’m lucky – I’m a teacher. I hear and see a lot of kids every year. But teachers are really good at filtering, too. I’m learning that in both teaching and writing, it is best to observe like a scientist – without bias. At first, anyway.
Examples of weird/funny/awesome things I’ve heard kids say, that are begging to be written and turned into a characters voice:
“I can’t wait to grow up and have a boy propose to me. I’m planning my DREAM rejection. Like, maybe he is going to take me up Mountain Everest. And when we get to the top he gets down on one knee and asks me to marry him. ‘No.’ Then he’s like WHY DID I TAKE YOU UP HERE THEN?”
“I’m going to name my kid (says her own name). Like in the Gilmore Girls, when Lorelai names her daughter Lorelai. That’s awesome.”
“My hands are the same size as my moms, but they’re not as THICK.”
“When I get married, I’m having a SIXTEEN LAYER cake. You’ll need an elevator to get to the top of it!”
“Do hippies not like sugar? ‘Cuz I think my mom is hippie.”
These are real examples and they come from 10-12 year olds. They could easily be used to kick start a character or to write a picture book.
The challenge is to hear what the kid is saying, word for word, phrase for phrase, and to pick up on the specifics of the wording so that you can have a bit of a sense of who that kid is. It is being revealed to you through the things they say and the way they say it. Then, you can go off and filter it – respectfully – in order to build onto these words and turn them into your character’s own being.
I’m not saying to write your story/book based ENTIRELY on what a kid has said, but if you need to write a 12 year old girl’s perspective and you’re a 31 year old man? (Hello, that’s me.) It’s time to research, and to find a way of listening to kids without judging, filtering, embellishing or editing (until it’s time to write the actual story) – because a 31 year old man has no idea what the world is for a 12 year old girl, and has no idea how a 12 year old girl speaks and acts and inflects … until they have listened for a while, without conversing, and gotten a sense of the words that are unsaid.
This is the work of a writer. It is research, it is observation, it is acting and playing pretend. It’s fun, and it’s hard. Now go listen.
If I Had a Gryphon, the gorgeous (Canadian!!!) book written by Vikki VanSickle and illustrated by Cale Atkinson is downright awesome.
The pictures are masterfully created with a touch of sweet innocence, allowing them to keep you moving from page to page, but always wanting to go back for another round.
I was drawn to the book, at first, because of the illustration on the cover. I also was drawn to the little bit of special that was added to the title text. I’m always partial to a book that is created as a whole package, rather than having the text just placed in as an after thought (okay, that’s not really fair – but there is something delicious about an artfully created title font that is more than what I could create by clicking “add text” in Photoshop).
Vikki Vansickle’s first picture book is stunning (she also write novels). I know I keep using these fancy, and probably overused adjectives, but I can’t stop. It seriously is so great. I’m in love with this book. Through flowing rhyme that keeps the pages turning, the main character seeks out a better pet than her hamster – and each page or two contains a possibility, from Gryphon to Hippogriff to Kelpies and Mermaids. There are some creatures in here that I’ve never even heard of (like Kelpies, and also … what is a Kirin?!). This has sent me on mad Googling journeys: we’re always learning – and you have to give respect to a book that makes you want to both keep reading in rhyme and also find out more about something in the text.
Cale Atkinson’s work is rich, layered and boasts a gentle yet energetic vibe that is very easy to look at for repeated readings. If you have a little kid who will over love a book, then this is the book you need. His art, including and beyond this book, is just drool-worthy. You can find him here – he has more books coming out!
Kingsley loves this book. He regularly pulls it off the shelf and kisses the hamster. He also enjoys anticipating the ball in one of the illustrations (ball is one of his favourite words).
I would highly recommend that you pick up this book today. It’s loaded with art that is down to earth, and somehow polished in a rough and textured way. The words will flow off your tongue, and it may just be the perfect introduction to mythological creatures for the very young reader. Boys and girls alike will love this story.
Kingsley’s favourite activity is throwing things around the room, dumping every bin and bucket and then moving on. He plays most with things that aren’t technically toys. He is a typical 19 month old.
But, we are looking forward. We are thinking about how we can gently lead him and build skills that will help him in his life as a kid, a teenager, and an adult.
So, we organized the playroom. And we did it carefully.
We kept in mind that we have a Creative Kid, and his playroom should reflect that. We know he is a Creative Kid because all kids are creative. They stumble, bump and overcome challenges nearly every minute of every single day. So we decided to set up his playroom in a way that would challenge, encourage and open his mind up to imagination. We didn’t fill it with toys, and we even left out paints – the art corner will come in time, when he isn’t prone to eating every art supply. In the meantime, we will administer the art sessions under our watchful, but not overbearing eyes. No crafts here.
So here is what we did:
We didn’t bring in every single toy, because:
1) He doesn’t need every single toy. People buy him so many and he really is interested in sticks, tubes and tupperware.
2) If he had everything in there, there would be no option to switch toys out when these got old.
3) It is easier to fit, store and sort what’s in the playroom if the toys are selected carefully; and …
4) We selected the most appropriate toys for his current interest, skill and challenge level.
2. We kept some of his favourite toys that he is comfortable using.
3. We brought in some of the more advanced toys that would challenge him, frustrate him, and make him work with us to figure them out.
5. We put those sets of toys in some sort of organizer – a bin, bucket or basket. WE DID NOT LABEL THEM! This might limit future use of said bins, buckets and baskets.
Tidying after each session means that Kingsley sees that we all participate in taking care of the toys and the environment. We teach him to take pride in his home. We show him that it is easy to do when there’s a system in place. Just enough options for collections of toys means that there aren’t 42 bins of different types of toys. It is just right for his 19 month old mind to consider and form into a routine.
6. BOOKS: In terms of the books we wanted to include in the playroom, we kept in mind his extreme love for them. He loves them so hard that he sometimes eats, rips and loves them to pieces. To this end, we picked mostly board books, cheaper books, and books that we weren’t personally tied to. We also picked books we wouldn’t mind reading 10,000 times. We put these in 2 different baskets and left them accessible for him. We also put some favourites up on the mantle.
We left the bottom four cubbies for his Mega Blocks trucks. He loves driving these around, and he parks them when he is done. Why throw off something that is already working?
So what should you try to include?
Things that roll.
Things that bounce.
Things that are soft.
Things to read.
Things to make them think (at a developmentally appropriate level).
Things they already enjoy.
A place to relax (especially important for tired parents!)
Some original artwork.
Somewhere to make art – right now, it is just a chalk board for our guy.
SPACE to grow. (Leave room on the walls to hang art, leave room on the floor to sprawl and spread the toys out, leave room in the bins to add toys).
The moral of the story is that we know our kid, we know where he is every day because we watch and play with him, and we know what challenges to offer him next. Knowing our son has allowed us to create a space that will allow him to play, explore and learn – not just throw stuff around and leave it in a pile. Granted, that happens sometimes after a very long week. Nobody’s perfect. (Although this little boy is pretty darn close.)
Not only am I going to be Daddy again (!!!), I put a full month’s work (that’s drawing, studies, colour renders and so on, every single night and nap time) into a book just for Kingsley.
We knew that adding to the family would be an amazing thing … but we are still a bit unsure as to how to help Kingsley (18 months now, 2 years old when Baby G2 arrives) transition.
The solution came in the form of his favourite activity – story time. I brainstormed ideas with my awesome wife and then wrote the story, and set to work illustrating. It is 100% Kingsley, with his favourite actions and activities, and some key moments to help us talk to him to start introducing the idea of a baby brother or sister coming into our world.
I spent about a month secretly working on the project, and ordered it in a large (12×12) format from Blurb.com. It was a bit pricey, but in the end, it was worth it. (This post is not sponsored – we used Blurb to make our wedding albums and loved the quality.)
Kingsley pointed out lots of things in the book (like the “puppoo” – that’s “puppy” to those of you who speak regular English), and he mimicked some of the actions (like waving his hand in front of his nose when I read that the baby was stinky, or blowing kisses when the book’s character blew kisses).
I thought I would share some of my favourite illustrations here. I will be posting about some of my process work soon. (If you click the images, you can view them individually!)
I’ve talked before about my process, and it seems to continually change. That’s the most important part of my work. It changes. Just like me, my mind, my thoughts, the way I speak, the way I approach and interact with people and myself – it changes.
I am focusing more and more on reference photos, and using my sketchbook to explore and play.
I wanted to do some studies around my son, Kingsley. I felt that his strong, strange personality would be the perfect type of energy to try and capture in some basic pencil sketches, so I have been following him around for a week, sketching his gestures in very quick, messy sketches (live) and taking a zillion pictures of him.
I knew that I wanted to stylize him, too. I wanted to apply a picture book character “look” that might fit in with the approach I have been honing over the past year. I decided to start by actually drawing him from this photo, in a realistic way:
I drew him as close to this as I could in a short time frame (I gave myself about 10 minutes, and my focus was on pulling out major characteristics in his looks). Then, I played around with a character version of him. I moved the eyes around a lot, and replaced them about seven times with various approaches. I went back in my sketchbook to refer to some other sketches I had done a week ago that used an eye style I liked.
The results of the primary study:
Then, I sketched a number of poses. I used photographs in order to get the gestures correct, and played with eye shape, sizing, space and location, as well as line work in the mouth, nose and eyebrows in order to specify his expressions. I am so pleased with the general full layout that I put together. It was so much fun to create in this way, and using references, and filtering his general features through a realistic drawing first, really helped.
If you are a teacher, or if you have a creative kid, then try having them do something like this, too. Take some photos, and give them just enough time to sketch them down quickly before moving on. The “just enough time” for me tended to be the length of time that was provided before my iPhone went dark, though truth be told there were certain cases where I needed to zoom and move around the screen, so really, it was likely much longer than the minute or two provided by the phone.