I have spent a good deal of time over the years looking at the possibility of illustrating picture books and then running the other way proclaiming that I was just not a picture book artist - even though I have secretly wanted to be one for a very long time. I have gone to SCBWI conferences, read books on the process, and poured over stacks and stacks of picture books long after my daughter was interested in them herself. (There goes my alibi of checking out all those books at the library for my daughter!) I sat through portfolio reviews with children's publishing professionals and told them I was not a picture book illustrator. One reaction both puzzled and intrigued me. Several years ago children's illustrator rep, Christina Tugeau, answered my comment that I was not a picture book illustrator with, "Someday you will be." What did she see?
The process of illustrating a picture book baffled me. When I would attempt it, I always experienced this awful shift in imagery. Very different from the imagery I got when illustrating concepts for Faery Medicine. I always chalked it up to my not being right for the job.
When I was accepted for the SCBWI Mentor Program, I was prepared to declare my suitability to illustrate for older kids and stay away from the picture book genre. So, when my mentor suggested doing some picture book illustrations for my portfolio - I stood up and declared I was ready for the challenge - to face my fears - to conquer the process. What? That's right. I couldn't get away from the fact that even though I was not yet able to get through the process without losing my visual voice - I really really really wanted to be able to do it.
So, I set to work looking for stories that fit me - my voice, my style. First stop - folktales from around the world. I read and read. The ones that resonated with me the most tended to be Asian and I found one that featured a hardworking girl with skills in using medicinal plants. Bingo. I read through the story several times to get a feel for it. Four beautiful images came into my mind. Next I sat down to create small image ideas for the remaining 11 spreads and I hit the wall again. My first images were very dream-like and flowed well, but when I looked at the words again to work on remaining images, I felt a mental shift and got very stiff, mundane imagery. Baffling.
"Blueberry" a literal interpretation
Yesterday I finally figured it out. I have a sort of dual personality in illustrating styles. I work in two different genres that employ different parts of my brain. I illustrate both scientific literal ideas and abstract concepts. Words - if there are too many - put me in the scientific, literal area of my brain and the imagery is quite different there. It is devoid of dreamlike quality and definitely part of the real world.
Something I read in Uri Shulevitz' book Writing With Pictures helped me put it all together. He explains the difference between a picture book and a story book. A picture book needs illustrations to accompany the words to help them make sense. A story book can stand alone without pictures. Sometimes pictures books start with imagery and the words are written later. When I looked at the picture book equation in those terms - without the words - it all made sense. If I rely on words too much - my interpretation becomes too literal and mundane. (Interesting for me to have missed this correlation since I talk about brain function in my sketching workshops!)
"Tree Faery" a dreamlike concept
So, next I will do one of two things - isolate key concepts in order to illustrate the existing folktale or create the imagery and then write the words. I generally create imagery first and text second when developing characters for Faery Medicine. It's funny that I thought I was working backwards by doing this. All along I was working in a picture book fashion. Just like the Wizard of Oz - there's no place like home and I was already there.