The rain really got me down for a bit. Don't get me wrong, I love rain. I just don't like rain on snow. We got so much rain that the dirt came back...as mud. Mud season comes a couple times a year here. It's a lot of work and I'm always glad to see it go. We muddle through - pardon the pun - constantly wiping feet whether our own or the multi-footed creatures that traipse along, over, and through our lives. When mud season came back, my daily ski through the woods was over. What was keeping my blood pumping and productivity high was doused by rain that tempted me to curl up in a ball by the fire to nap for the winter. I just had to resist.
NaNoWriMo and PiBoIdMO were such a huge success. I exceeded my goals on both projects, contributed to Caps for Kids, and also redesigned both of my websites. I decided I liked the "x" per day challenge so much, I had to keep it up. So this month I'm taking my new website designs and writing a page per day in code so they'll be up and running in January. Why January? I assigned that month as Publisher Submission Packet Month (PubSubPackMo). I have a tendency to do 10 submissions at a time and then I'm toast for weeks. One per day is way more doable and by the end of the month I'll have 31! Those will not all be picture book submissions though. That many simultaneous submissions of the same picture book would be frowned upon by most publishers. Most of these will be bread and butter submissions to publishers to illustrate whatever projects they have that fit my style. Stay tuned to see the final websites and my progress on submissions.
MUD UPDATE - After days, the rain finally turned to snow - giving us about 6 inches. We're still not back where we were, but I'm hopeful...
My theme this month is...brainless or more accurately, "thinkless". I'm tired of the thinking process getting in the way of my creativity. Lately, thinking has been freezing me in my tracks and threatening to make my work stiff and lifeless.
Being someone whose brain is usually on overdrive studying, organizing, crunching numbers, scheduling, analyzing, problem solving, editing...I'm constantly trying to figure out how to make things work better, take less time, be more productive. It was time to STOP!
This all started last month when I decided to do an illustration for the SCBWI Spring Spirit Logo Competition. I had 3 weeks. No time to waste. After looking at all the roughs for projects I had done over the last two years, I was interested to see that I really liked the very first ideas I came up with on each one. Most of the time I didn't stick to the first idea when it came to making the final. Instead, I worked and worked and tweaked each one many many times. I decided for this project, I would do an experiment. What would happen if I didn't analyze my sketches to death and threw caution to the wind? What if I took the first idea and went for it - as is? So I did. It was liberating - much faster too and it was peaceful to do something without the inner critic chattering away during the entire process. "Lalala...I can't hear you..." The critic was annoyed at first, but she found something else to do.
After the illustration was finished, I wanted to keep going. At first, I thought (oops, it's a difficult habit to get away from) I would call this, "using my intuition to guide my work", but that didn't seem right. Intuition is derived from the Latin intueri which means to look inside oneself or contemplate. I already do too much of that. I wanted to abandon contemplation and empower the action part of the brain - more like breathing, which just happens if everything is functioning correctly.
(Stop right now and think about your breathing. Are you doing it right? Try to describe to someone how to breath step by step. Can you do it? It's enough to make you hyperventilate.)
So here's what I proposed for November - to work instinctively. Someone told me once that humans no longer have instincts. You know what? I don't care. When you look at the origin of instinct, it fits. Derived from Latin instinctus: inspiration; the act of drawing in a breath; to excite to urge forward. Perfect!
I couldn't have come up with a better time for my creative binge either because it's NaNoWriMo - National Novel Writing Month. It has been 5 years since I participated in this challenge to write a 50,000 word novel, but the best way to do it is to write, write, write and write some more without letting the brain edit. Just go with the initial idea and play it out through the characters. They'll let you know where you've gone astray and you can take care of it later. It's a lot like sketching - only with words.
But what if writing 50,000 words wasn't enough to keep me from thinking too much? Well, it's also PiBoIdMo - Picture Book Idea Month - a challenge to come up with a picture book idea a day. It doesn't matter if they're amazing ideas. Maybe one of those imperfect ideas will lead to one that's even better.
My plan was coming together nicely, but I could still feel my brain trying to think. Then it came to me. November is also Caps for Kids month here in Tahoe and my daughter and I always challenge ourselves to knit or crochet a hat or two a day for that. Put a project in my hands and turn on a movie while it's snowing. More mindless creativity and for a good cause too!
Why stop there? I was on a roll. I pulled out an illustration I've been hating and not finishing for two years now! With the critic on vacation - it really doesn't look bad. And who cares? It's time to finish the darn thing. I can edit it digitally if I need to. I'm sure I have other illustrations on the back burner that need to be put out of my misery. Strike while the critic's out!
Two thousand plus words a day, picture book ideas, finishing illustrations, knitting and crocheting hats - who has time to think? It's going to be a productive month.
So, forget the Latin origins - the Greeks said it best. You know...Nike?
Just do it...
Reality is a bendy thing. I often forget just how pliable it can be. I spend a decent amount of time making sure I'm presenting the facts accurately in what I say and what I illustrate. That's probably why I didn't last long in advertising.
One of the functions of an illustration is to pick up the slack where words can't go. Sometimes photographs or videos are necessary when a true story is beyond words. Take the story I've been telling about the dog we adopted this summer. I keep trying to describe the amount this dog drooled in the car, but I can't seem to do it justice. I have to show people—like this…
When I created illustrations for court cases or botanicals for books, the facts were really important, but now I'm illustrating an entirely different world—a pliable reality. Plodding through this new world has opened up many questions about how to complete the assignments presented to me. I explored this quite a bit in Mira Reisberg's illustration workshop this summer. As usual, she gave me an assignment designed to challenge me—"Two page spread, Mad Hatter's Tea Party, all characters are animals. Go!" (She didn't really say "Go!" I threw it in as an embellishment. I'm trying to use one of the things Mira taught us in class—"Don't let the facts get in the way of a good story." See how big my problem really is?)
I was definitely up for the challenge. I had never illustrated animals in anything but a true to life context. Even when I put a sea turtle in Yen and the Great Serpent, it was doing exactly what a sea turtle was capable of doing and nothing more. I had a surprising amount to wrestle with in representing animals at a Mad Hatter's Tea Party. I needed to become clear on how I would do this, so I began by studying many many picture books featuring animals and put together a list of things that were important to me: I was opposed to dressing animals in human-made items or having them in positions that were stiff and unnatural. The surface they were seated at had to be one that could naturally occur in their surroundings. All the animals had to be from the same geographical location. If they were eating and drinking it had to be in a way that could really happen given their natural way of moving. What they drank from had to be from their surroundings. My stipulations went on and on, even though I relaxed a few of them by the time I began sketching. With so many rules, I was stifling myself and making things more difficult, but I didn't realize it until I began going through the critique process.
I came up with a concept and composition that I liked and I was almost ready to begin the final when Mira offered a suggestion. "Those animals need to look like they're having more fun. Put some happy expressions on them."
(I think I may have gasped at that moment.)
"You mean…smiles?" I responded nervously.
Mira quickly put tracing paper over my sketch and demonstrated by putting a smile on my chameleon. Inside I think I may have been shrinking away in horror, but I put on a facade of easy acceptance and readied myself to add expressions to the faces of the other characters later. I thought, If that's all it will take, I can do this.
But that wasn't all. No…it got much more difficult for my feeble reality-based brain to grasp.
"And you need to show the lemur's tail…" Mira drew a tail on the tracing paper to show where it could go.
(I think I may have lost consciousness momentarily as all the blood drained from my head.)
"Oh no no no. This type of lemur doesn't have a long tail," I insisted. "It's an indri. I chose it because it is the largest of the lemurs and proportionally it fits best with the other animals. These lemurs also make a strange howling sound which…" I realized everyone in the room had glazed over. I sounded absolutely ridiculous. Clearing my throat, I said in a much smaller voice, "OK. I'll find a different lemur to use…one with a long tail." Now I had it…or so I thought.
Several days later I went to San Francisco with Mira to attend a gathering of children's writers and illustrators and she wanted to make sure I was clear about the importance of my lemur. "You know that lemur has got to be really cute," she said.
"I know. I changed it into another large type of lemur with a long tail."
"With a striped tail?" Mira asked hopefully.
"No. It isn't a ring-tailed lemur. Those are smaller. This is a sifaka."
"Put stripes on it's tail," she interrupted.
"I can't. Sifakas don't have striped tails," I pleaded.
Mira's disbelief and exasperation were pretty clear as she laughed slightly and commented, "You know, this isn't a scientific illustration. You're allowed to embellish."
"Oh," I said sheepishly.
I hadn't thought of it that way. The irony was that the entire time I was working on this project I had been disappointed that the kind of lemur I was illustrating didn't have a long striped tail. I had become a prisoner of a reality I had created. What Mira was telling me was obvious and I understood it, but like most extremely obvious things…it took a while for it to sink in.
I think I've got it now. This illustration took me on quite an interesting ride, but once I relaxed the rules I made up, a new world began to open up for me...one that is pliable, where anything can happen...
"Magic Carpet" - one of my latest portfolio pieces
The other day I was wondering how many picture books I've read since my daughter was born. I started taking her to the library faithfully every Tuesday when she was just a couple months old. She rode at my side in a sling as I searched through the kids books, checking out 10 plus books per week to read to her. I figure we averaged 50 a month - sometimes more, sometimes less. That's about 6000 picture books over the last 10 years - give or take a few hundred.
My daughter abandoned picture books right around age 5 when she discovered all the Star Wars chapter books that were out there. That's when she took off reading with a voracious appetite and left me and my picture book habit in the dust. The librarians have long since figured out that my daughter isn't the one reading all the books I check out every week. They all know she is the one reading the big thick books and I'm the one reading the skinny ones with all the pictures.
There are so many incredible children's books out there. It is sometimes difficult to remember which authors and illustrators go with which books. I have a much easier time connecting the creators with their books after meeting them and last week I had the pleasure to meet some very talented authors and illustrators at a Bay Area Bookies gathering. (If you're new to the word "Bookie" being used in this way, it's kind of like a Foodie...only with books. And no - they're not eating the books!) Anyway, this exceptional group of people didn't know me from Adam, Sue, or Larry when I arrived, but they welcomed me and let me in on their session of project sharing. Everyone had something to share and suggestions of all types were eagerly offered whenever needed.
Then it was my turn. I was honored to be invited to participate and not at all sure what would happen. I figured, regardless of the outcome, it is good practice to present current projects to a group. So, I stood up and talked about my background in botanical illustration, my interest in the cultural uses of medicinal plants and then showed the picture book I've been working on over the past year. They very enthusiastically encouraged me to send it out to publishers.
This picture book project of mine was originally only intended to get my feet wet in the process of illustrating a picture book, but I have now had extensive critiques by my SCBWI mentor - Yuyi Morales, art directors, editors, Mira Reisberg and my peers in her workshop, and 16 additional professional authors and illustrators. None of these people are in the practice of saying things "to be nice". Okay. I get it. I keep saying I'm not a children's book writer...I'm an illustrator, but I'm willing to give it a shot. I've listened to every criticism and it's time to make some last revisions before sending this picture book I wrote to publishers for consideration...
...but before I do that, I couldn't resist...
Even though it wasn't Tuesday, I went to the library yesterday. I came home with about 20 books, all by some of the different authors and illustrators I met last week. Some of them I had checked out before, some of them I hadn't, but having met the people who created them, all the books somehow seemed more alive as I edged closer and closer to 7000 picture books.
I wonder how many picture books I will have read by the time my own picture book is published?
Last weekend I attended the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) Spring Spirit Conference in Rocklin, California. A week or two before a conference you will find me building and re-building my portfolio based on direction from the invisible Art Director that lives in my head. The problem is that this AD is currently overloaded with too much general information she has collected over the years.
Here is a portion of the collected guidelines on what to include in a children's illustration portfolio:
Children (This may seem obvious...)
well developed characters
same character in more than one illustration from different views
interesting and unusual angles and perspectives
animals and people together
different ethnic groups
a pastoral scene
range of emotions
a story with images only
color and black and white images
people of all ages
male and female characters
people with disabilities
a mock up of a picture book with two finished color illustrations.
8-12 strong pieces
My AD drew from these guidelines, along with every bit of feedback ever received. She donned magnifying glasses as spectacles and as the days wore on, zeroed in closer and closer on areas which needed improvement. She finally short circuited.
It's no wonder that two days before the conference, I lost my insight altogether. I needed a fresh start with specific feedback on my work - directly from publishers, but this type of information is not easy to come by. Luckily, I signed up ahead of time for every critique possible that was offered at the conference. So, I fired my AD and closed my portfolio. I didn't open it again until I placed it on the display table at the conference. It was time to hear what the professionals had to say.
Critiques opened with samples of promotional postcards that a dozen of us submitted. They were projected on a wall as Kristen Nobles of Candlewick Press went through each one. It was incredibly informative. You can see the image I submitted at the top left of this post and, based on her specifications, my revised image on the right. Postcards are so small that she suggested most images be enlarged and cropped to show the most interesting portion.
Later on, Mary Rodgers of Lerner Publishing Group and Kristen Nobles graciously viewed our portfolios to give us feedback and reveal the ones that stood out for them. What made this feedback even more meaningful was that it was given to the entire group. They both went through their notes on each illustrator and gave strong and weak points as they pertained to each publishing house. We learned a lot from everyone's work.
It didn't actually sink in for a couple days that my portfolio was chosen by Lerner as Best of Show. It is very validating on a journey like this, after submitting my work to many publishers, to hear good news - or any news for that matter.
Kristen Nobles told me which of my pieces was, for her, my standout piece (shown to the left). The irony? It was a piece my crazy AD wanted me to remove from my portfolio two days before the conference.
I also signed up for and received a written critique on my picture book. I now have page by page comments to sort through and some work to do. I feel rich!
The other day one of my friends asked me what all this feedback meant. Nothing...unless I act on it...which I'm doing now. I've written up a plan of action and although I know that every illustrator isn't right for every publisher, I'm very hopeful that I'm on the right track. If she behaves, I might even let my crazy AD come back and help...maybe...
It's amazing how quickly things can change. Last week I felt hopelessly buried under an ever growing to-do list. Now I'm caught up and have time for things I didn't think I'd be able to participate in this month, like the Nevada SCBWI Postcard Project. The idea of the project is to take on assignments that are presented and create children's illustrations that will serve as promotional postcards. Through each stage of the assignment, illustrators post their work online for critique and discussions. Cynthia Kremsner and Dinh Chau-Kieckhafer, illustrator coordinators for the Nevada SCBWI, have set up the project to mimic the Art Director/Illustrator relationship as closely as possible. They've done a great job.
The first assignment is Mother Goose's Hey Diddle Diddle. In keeping with the cultural themes of my work, my illustration will take place on a vast African Savanna. A young goge (African fiddle) player, has scampered up a tree to get away from the animals that have wreaked havoc on the picnic scene below. (His friends have run off and left their instruments behind.) Unfortunately his fiddle has become a chew toy for a leopard cub (the cat), that sent some other items down the river (like a dish and spoon from the picnic spread). A nearby hyena pup (little dog) thinks this is very entertaining and can't wait to join in. Off in the distance one can see an elephant (a cow because she is female) jumping over the moon.
Here are the rough preliminary sketches for the characters in my scene:
The cat (foreground)
The little dog (foreground)
The cow (less detail because she is off in the distance)
I've been away from this blog since Chinese New Year. For all of February at least one of us was sick at a time. It was like a fierce ping pong match without a winner and it felt as if the entire month was lost in an abyss. I've been trying to catch up ever since.
On the heels of being sick, I found a children's illustration workshop I couldn't pass up. Never mind that I only had a few days to prepare for the first class and I'd have to drive two hours each way every week to attend. It was with Mira Reisberg, a talented children's writer and illustrator who specializes in multi-cultural work. She also worked with Yuyi Morales and quite a few other very talented illustrators and writers who were later published. I signed up right away.
As I knew it would be, the workshop is fantastic. We are a small group of illustrators and writers with pretty decent critique skills. Lucky me, Mira is also working with me directly to assign relevant illustrations for me to do. My first assignment was this:
"Illustrate a two page spread for a picture book of an outside multi-cultural scene showing different relationships."
So what did I do? I designed a composition with a magic carpet flying over the Great Wall of China, picking up kids as it goes around the world on a sort of world peace expedition. The point of view is from up high looking down, so I'm working out some tricky angles in the final sketch stage. As with every challenging piece I do, I've hit several points so far where I think there's no way I can possibly do this illustration. It's too hard. But just like every other illustration, I sit down at the drawing board and chip away at it until I've pushed past the obstacles with my best work. Most of the time, when I put my sketches away after staring at them for too long, I return to discover that they aren't as bad as I thought.
So...time to get back to the drawing board and see if that's true this time. I'll let you know...
Friday I finished assembling my Don Freeman grant submission. I made my own envelope to fall within size requirements and in it I put my 32 page picture book dummy, double-spaced manuscript, two finished illustrations from the picture book with one converted to black and white, and four copies of the grant application with career background and publishing bibliography. I took it to the post office with huge relief and the clerk asked me if my package contained any hazardous material. I laughed at the thought, but I've worked hard to take the hazardous element out of my work.
By hazardous I'm not talking about the postal definition, but the feeling of being chancy, risky, unsure. It is my job to present my work in a certain and reliable way, while at the same time highlighting the magic and value to the children's publishing industry. It is through repeatedly jumping through the hoops of submitting my work that my footing has become less hazardous.
It used to be that I struggled with even the most rudimentary parts of sending my work to publishers. Now I understand why. I hadn't solidified my own ideas about my strengths as a children's illustrator. There is a great deal of clarification I have had to go through with myself in order to present well and be understood in this arena, but it's getting easier and better every time.
Even now, as I prepare the same picture book for a critique from an art director, I am making improvements on the angle from which I present it. Am I looking back and wishing I could re-do my grant application? I could, but I would be wasting valuable time. It is better to move forward and know that I will always do my best, learn from the experience, and make a less hazardous presentation next time.
As I sit here writing this post, I'm watching large down feather-like snowflakes fall from the sky. Just a few minutes ago the snowflakes were small and ordinary, but something changed and in an instant a totally different type of snowflake was created. I wish I could change as quickly and effortlessly. It has been overwhelming at times to be a forty-something illustrator with a graphic design background starting over in the children's genre.
To aid in my transition, I have been preparing to apply for the Don Freeman Grant through the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI). The grant is geared toward picture book illustrators in an effort to further their understanding, training, and work in the picture book genre. If I get the grant, I will be able to seek more workshops and promotional opportunities. If I don't get it, at least I went through a very productive process to apply. Like any other grant, there are specific requirements to meet. I will be submitting 8 months of work - my picture book manuscript along with my 32 page mock up of the book, two finished picture book illustrations, and four copies of the application.
While assembling my finished work over the last week, I realized I knew nothing more about Don Freeman than the fact that he was a children's book illustrator who is no longer living. So, I did some research and found hope. It turns out he was a graphic designer and illustrator before he started illustrating children's books in his forties - just like me. Another example that change is possible at any time.
I'm almost done with my application now and all my experiences from the past year are finally coming together in my mind. I guess I've changed because this new genre no longer feels overwhelming. It feels like my new home.
2009 was the most challenging year of my life. I think that was true for many many people. I really didn't expect to feel the way I did at the end of it. I thought I would be celebrating my accomplishments and the fact that I got through every single bizarre event right up until the very end. Instead, I felt exhausted, sad, and a little angry. At first, I assumed it was because everything that happened finally caught up with me, but then I decided that the New Year's Eve Grinch in me was surfacing because I somehow felt cheated in having to start over with a new year. I was really good at 2009 by the end of it. In fact, I was a master of absurdity. I had triumphed over everything that was thrown my direction with the best attitude I had, all the while keeping my goals on track. What do you mean I have to start a new year?
I'm not going to re-cap 2009. You wouldn't believe it anyway. The Grinch was gone this morning and it's time to get on with 2010. Because of the outcome of 2009, I know that if I keep my focus on what's important to me - I can handle anything that comes my way in 2010. So can you...