Sunday, February 14, 2016

PAINTING DRAMA 1: An Art School Do-Over at The Oatley Academy

Looking back: Almost exactly seven years ago I started this blog. At the time, I was beginning a mentorship with illustrator Yuyi Morales and I wanted to share my journey. I also had this crazy idea to fund it by offering different amounts of art to those who contributed. It worked, but boy do I wish Kickstarter had been around back then!  Check out the original funding post here.

Little Red by Kristen Schwartz
It seems fitting that I’m re-igniting this blog to share my experiences from another mentored illustration program—Painting Drama. I spent quite a few years getting portfolio reviews at conferences from different art directors and the varying viewpoints were starting to pull me in different directions. It was time for regular guided feedback from one qualified person instead of many. Taught by Chris Oatley of The Oatley Academy, Painting Drama is about composition...and so much more. It was like an art school do-over for me. I went in as blank a canvas as I could and in the end, I learned more in 12 weeks of Painting Drama than I did pursuing my degree.

This was no workshop for the casual creation of art and I wouldn’t have applied if it were. I was looking for maximum growth, which, in my mind, involves great discomfort—a “Dark Night of the Soul”. For me, this term refers to an inner crisis that leads to great growth on a very personal level. It’s a place I go when I’m so far outside my comfort zone I feel I can’t handle things in my current capacity. I either have to give up or meet the challenge head on. There’s usually a feeling of hopelessness to rise above, then renewed resolve, followed by picking myself up and continuing on with newly acquired skills and perspective. The lack of anonymity in a mentored course creates even more discomfort. Stir in some blood, sweat and tears and it’s a success. I knew that in order to push my skills to the next level, I needed a big challenge to trigger that process. When the right opportunity appears, it’s necessary to trust…and jump.

And trust I did…
During the first weeks in class I discovered that most deadlines in Painting Drama were less than a week to complete thumbnails, comps and final illustration—on top of everything else in the lesson. My heart sank. Just doing an illustration took me a full week—never mind the thumbnails and comps. Hopelessness, dread and panic washed over me. What was I thinking? I was never going to survive. Everyone else seemed just fine and the more I looked at their work, the worse my work looked to me. I knew I would be getting kicked out of Painting Drama for failing miserably. BINGO—Dark Night begins!

To stay in the correct frame of mind when the panic took over, I asked myself what my purpose was for taking the course. The answer was, “To learn to see and create compositions more intentionally, to capture the essence of emotion and to reach my goals in children’s publishing”. That shift in thinking is what made all the difference in the world. It didn’t stop me from sometimes thinking I wasn’t going to finish in time, but remembering my purpose made me work much smarter and also made the process more meaningful. All the solutions were inside me...somewhere. All I had to do was be the best me I could and trust myself. On the second assignment I worked 17 hours straight solely on the illustration. I decided that wasn’t a viable option or habit I wanted to continue. So, I restricted my time on the actual illustration and became more thorough in the steps leading up to it. As I continued on, the illustrations went quicker and the results got better and better.

On the left: I used skills I already had to best meet the composition deadline. In this case I illustrated from photographs I took.
On the right: For the last assignment, I re-did the illustration to implement feedback and better meet my standards for a finished illustration. This time, I didn’t illustrate from photographs, but I referenced them. I relied more heavily on my emotions to complete the characters and environment. The time allotted was the same for both illustrations.

By being limited on time, I learned to use the skills I already had as a starting point. That way I was able to do the very best I could with the concepts I was learning. I ultimately began thinking about it like budgeting money and living within my means. Since I wasn’t willing to abandon sleep (=debt) and adopt an unrealistic lifestyle to finish an illustration, it was necessary to challenge my current workflow and find a better way. I essentially re-invented my way of working—a huge benefit for me and my clients. It became a profoundly exciting challenge and I achieved more in less time than I ever thought possible.

In constantly reminding myself of my goals, I also stopped paying as much attention to how “bad” my work looked. Instead, I was focused on composition first and the finish improved with each illustration. Painting Drama was like a creative lab where I felt safe to experiment, fail, refine, explore and work as hard as I could without being diminished for not being perfect. It was the environment I wish I had in college.

Conquering my past...
Heading off to Otis Parsons at 19.
I started out in college illustration classes as a “star student”. On two separate occasions at different colleges my departure from turning in "perfect" work after struggling with new techniques was met by the words, “I’m disappointed in you.” Both professors said these words in front of the entire class during critique. One continued on with a rant and the other continued by writing me a “letter of disappointment”. I was devastated. I’m not even fragile when it comes to critiques, but when they’re personal and it happens twice at a young age, creative growth can freeze in place. In that environment the idea of failing is terrifying…but failing is necessary for growth.

In Painting Drama, although sometimes pushing back the urge to hyperventilate, I felt safe enough to fail. I didn’t always get the concepts right on the first try, but Chris never said, “I’m disappointed in you”. He pushed us to “Be brave. Be honest. Be professional.” He trusted us to dig deep and do our very best and we trusted him to be honest without making it personal and crushing our artistic souls. I will be forever grateful for the opportunity to be part of an environment like that. (I tear up just thinking about it.)

The results...
The composition concepts in Painting Drama gave me a new visual language and the best tools for creating compositions I’ve ever had. It’s all still sinking in and I think benefits will be surfacing for a long time. So far I have renewed inspiration as if my creative brain has been unlocked and I’m able to envision many more images, partially due to the time spent analyzing, drawing, and photographing my surroundings. It really opened up a new world. I also gained an appreciation for my own experiences in life and art. Time goes by. We live our lives. How often do we stop to realize the value of our experience? I learned to do that in Painting Drama and gained a much greater level of confidence in the skills I have. I don’t know if this will make sense, but I feel like Chris was “The Wizard” and he gave me a scroll containing the attributes I had forgotten or didn’t even realize I had.

He was also able to pinpoint areas each of us needed to work on. Because Chris knew our goals, he could advise us on skills we needed and next steps to take. In some areas I was closer to my goals than I thought and there were others I didn’t realize I needed to work on. It was invaluable information. The ability to give feedback to someone with their potential in mind, without discouraging them about where they are in the present, is a rare talent.

The time Chris Oatley puts into his students is unbelievable and beyond generous. He has remarkable insight into each as individuals, a point of view on composition I've never encountered before, and a genius way of delivering content and assignments that keeps everyone challenged to the utmost—in every way imaginable. I have never known an instructor like Chris and I know Painting Drama will continue to impact my art for the rest of my life.

I didn’t even get to the amazing community that comes with Painting Drama and all the Oatley Academy courses. Bringing together a nurturing creative community is yet another thing Chris has a knack for. Watch for upcoming posts about my amazing classmates!

Sunday, June 22, 2014

NaNoWriMo YOUNG WRITERS PROGRAM: The Importance to my Daughter and Fellow Future Storytellers

The first book our daughter wrote.
There is one sentence inside.
When our daughter was born we began feeding her a steady diet of books. We read to her every day, many times a day, but especially at bedtime. By the time bedtime reading was an hour, she craved more story than picture books could offer, so I read books like the Enchanted Forest Chronicles by Patricia C. Wrede, Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis, Protector of the Small quartet by Tamora Pierce, Redwall by Brian Jacques and eventually, Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien. Tolkien's work was by far the most challenging to read out loud. His sentences can be rather…um…long. (We kid that his sentences sometimes go on for a couple pages or more.) The imaginary worlds of daytime play were built from bedtime stories and included at least 14 "invisible" friends like Gandalf, Kazul, Bilbo and Aslan. She acted out parts of books, made up new parts and memorized long passages to recite.

When she was 6, her favorite author was Tamora Pierce (still is) and she announced she wanted to become a writer. It was only natural that she would want to write books like the authors she admired so much.

Enter NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) – a challenge to write a 50,000 word novel in 30 days:
While I was participating in NaNoWriMo, and having a great (and torturous) time doing it, I noticed they had a Young Writers Program where kids could participate and set their own word goals. Since our daughter was interested in becoming a writer, I suggested she give it a go.

It was an experience I will never forget. She was 6 and set her word goal to 500. Later she changed it to 900, but ended up going beyond that. Every day she climbed up on my lap and told me what to type for the day's installment of Jurassic Barbie. I was on the edge of my seat as she spun her tale:

Year One – Jurassic Barbie
"Oh, by the way, I forgot to mention that I am also an archaeologist. One day when I was digging I uncovered an interesting discovery. I found proof that long ago there had been Jurassic Barbies and that they had wings so, they were really more like fairies. There were even some that lived in the water. When I looked at the cells I discovered that they had been alive since the beginning of earth, but that they had looked different than they looked later on…"
---excerpt from Jurassic Barbie by Hannah Brown
Many times she ended the day on a cliff hanger and made me wait until the next day to find out what would happen. I wrote exactly what she said, changing nothing. It was hers and hers alone – a great accomplishment.

When the month was over she looked forward to setting her word goal even higher the next year. She even practiced typing faster so she could keep up with her thoughts and do it all herself. In the meantime, she read books at an amazing speed, no doubt collecting inspiration for future writing.

NaNoWriMo year two and beyond:
Year Two – Jurassic Barbie continues
One little problem we discovered when November rolled around again and she embarked on NaNoWriMo on her own – she absolutely hated to write! Not only was it intimidating to have ideas swirling in her head that she couldn't keep up with, but punctuation stopped her dead in her tracks. It wasn't intuitive enough for her yet and she really wanted to do it "right". My advice? Leave it out! Don't punctuate. Don't edit. We'll do it later. The world was lifted from her shoulders and she wrote freely. (It was quite a task to add punctuation to her very long 1000+ word sentence – rather Tolkein-esque – but we did it.) The story was a continuation of Jurassic Barbie from the first year. The book contains lots of amazing made-up science details on bringing an extinct creature to life – how she collected cells and created different parts and all the characters that helped her do it. And, like any good story, there was danger and intrigue with characters trying to steal or destroy her project.

The years went on. Her word goals doubled and tripled for NaNoWriMo and her stories became more complicated. The most challenging was in 2012 – a novel with only one character in it. She quickly discovered how difficult her concept was, but she got through it and learned a lot from it. Last year, at 13, she surpassed 50,000 words. She had a group of friends to write with who made all the difference in the world and a lot of encouragement from the online community of the Young Writers Program. In her words, "In the past couple of years, however, I don't think that I could have made it to my word goal without the support that I found on the NaNoWriMo website from other young writers."

Being a writer is more than just learning to write – life skills and inspiration:
Year Five – The Leopards of Ireland – snow
leopards kidnapped and held at a testing facility
in Ireland! (I was honored she asked me to
illustrate the cover.)
Our daughter's writing skills were achieved very organically (in part because we homeschool and let her interests guide her learning). She knew what she wanted to achieve and NaNoWriMo helped her progress without taking the joy out of it. She had no desire to take writing classes and any mandatory writing she did for state requirements was like pulling teeth. Now, because she has become such a skilled writer, she can take those state standards and twist them to her will – usually putting a humorous spin on something someone else thinks is important.

Always seeking to improve her writing, our daughter now researches grammar, word meaning and punctuation whenever she is curious. It isn't unusual to hear her say she spent the morning learning how to use semicolons, hyphens, em dashes or any other type of punctuation for a particular project she's working on. She does it as she needs it and it makes all the difference in how she feels about the information.

Writing for NaNoWriMo introduced valuable time budgeting skills. From her first year with NaNoWriMo she would set a word goal and then divide it by the number of writing days to figure out how many words she needed to write per day. If she wasn't able to get to her daily word count, she knew what she needed to do to meet her end goal.

As if merely existing weren't enough, NaNoWriMo also supplies pep talks from other Wrimos (NaNoWriMo participants) and seasoned authors like Scott Westerfeld and Justine Larbalestier. They throw out writing prompts and suggestions for those days when writing seems impossible. Scott Westerfeld says, "For a lot of people, Nano is a great way to move away from the concept of a muse they must wait for. It teaches you to write whether or not you feel inspired. You can find the inspiration in rewrites or after an hour of hard slogging. And basically, that’s the best way to get to a novel length. The muse, she is fickle. Nano is a machine."

This is a personal journey, but for teachers who wish to harness some of the joy and enhance the process, the Young Writers Program has impressive teaching materials they supply free of charge to groups and classes. It is truly an amazing program for anyone wishing to explore writing.

The importance of writing and loving it:
Does our daughter still want to become a writer? Well, she is a writer and no one can take that away. Does she want to do it for a living? She doesn't know. One day a couple years ago she mentioned hesitantly that she might not want to be a writer as a career and there was a brief melancholy moment – I think because she had been so adamant before. But she said she thought about going into the sciences, linguistics, or perhaps forensic linguistics. She loves words and language (and science and math), is a four time K-8 spelling bee champ, a three year participant in regional final spelling bees and she has been learning both Irish and Spanish with plans to learn many more languages. There is no way to remove the writer and lover of words from this young woman. Writing will always serve her in whatever she does as a valuable part to her chosen career. And who knows, she may still pursue writing as a career. The future open book. (Couldn't resist.)

Thank you NaNoWriMo from the bottom of my heart, for your dedication to the pursuit of writing for joy and for inspiring others to discover it…


Our daughter is currently raising money for the NaNoWriMo Young Writers Program. If you would like to participate, you can do so on her fundraising page or directly on the NaNoWriMo Young Writers donation page. The NaNoWriMo goal is to revamp the Young Writers Program website and expand their outreach to correctional facilities, halfway houses, and juvenile detention facilities. Every little bit adds up...