Hello, and welcome to my first blog tour!

My delightful and talented friend Kate Berube tagged me to participate in The Writing Process: Author/Illustrator Blogtour. I don’t think there is a comprehensive list of the artists and writers who have participated, but if you click on Kate’s post, you can follow the links backward to see previous posts.

 

kateBI first encountered Kate’s distinctive work on Illustration Friday, and I loved it enough to (gently) stalk her on the internet. Check out her adorable characters, at right, and you’ll see why.

When I realized that she, too, lives and works in Portland, Oregon, I impulsively emailed to see if she would care to join my teensy weensy critique group (which consisted of myself and the lovely Susan Boase whom I met at an SCBWI NY conference about a thousand years ago). In retrospect, this boldness was way out of character for me, so it may be that Fate had a hand in the whole thing. However it happened, I have been lucky enough to witness Kate’s journey from just starting out to today: she is now agented, and has three books under contract! Many thanks to Kate for roping me in to this fun opportunity.

 

 

I”ve never blogtoured before, but imagine it will be delightful, like a scenic bus trip through my working process.  All aboard? Let’s roll…

1. what am i currently working on?

I have not yet officially announced my current project, but I guess this is a good moment to do so: I am currently working on interior illustrations (black and white) and a color cover for a middle grade chapter book (Two for Joy by Gigi Amateau, Candlewick Press, Spring 2015). It’s a wonderful, sensitive story, and I am super excited to be working with one of my all time favorite publishers. Here’s a sketch of the main character, Jenna, and her mom as they arrive at her Aunt Tannie’s house:

p39_arrival_revised

I like to work on more than one project at a time, so when I hit the wall on one, I can switch to the other for a while. At the moment,  I am working hard to finish a dummy for one of my own picture book manuscripts. Here are some snippets from that project:

Waves_spread

summer_castle
It’s a concept book targeted to preschool kids, and I am in the home stretch after a very long process. It should will be ready to submit this fall! I have several more manuscripts on deck to dummy up as soon as I finish this one – but right now I’m determined to keep my focus on one dummy at a time, in hopes of FINISHING them all (eventually) and giving each one its chance to find a publisher. My new mantra:

finish!submit!move-on!{Tangent: I’ve always loved hand lettering, and I’ve been playing with incorporating it into my illustrations, so I have been spending some time developing lettering samples. You know, on the side. Sometimes I wish I had fewer interests, but that would be boring…}

2. how does my work differ from others of its genre?

My style and medium are rather traditional, which, ironically, is what seems to make me unique these days. I work mainly in watercolors, on paper, with an actual paintbrush. I do use photoshop for certain stages of my work, but my goal is to create illustrations that feel almost as if they were sketched from life. Even as I admire and marvel at some of the wonderful edgy digital and mixed media work that is out there, I find myself working in the opposite direction: my goal is to make my style even more sketchbook-like – fresher, looser, more spontaneous. But spontaneity is hard to balance with the consistency of line, color, and character needed in narrative illustration.

2 girlsflyingkite_590

3. why do i write what i write?

I write what I write for the child I was, and also for my almost six year old son, and those are two very different audiences. I was an introverted, bookish kid, and spent much of my childhood hunkered down, lost in a book or art project. I pored over the Gnome Book and those beautiful books of family life by Carl Larsson. I made little books and taught myself calligraphy. I identified intensely with book characters, especially in the early middle grade years. I was Harriet the Spy for most of my second grade year; I traveled with Bilbo Baggins through the Shire; with Lucy through Narnia; and I became Betsy, of Betsy, Tacy and Tib (I even cast my friends as Tacy and Tib, though they never knew they had roles in my secret alternative life). In embedding myself in these characters I could imagine myself being brave, outspoken, witty, clever, outrageous.

My son is just beginning to read, but he has been a passionate book fan since he was tiny. His experiences have inspired lots of story ideas, but I’m most inspired to make stories about the social challenges he (and every kid) faces every day: connecting with people who think differently from him; developing empathy; learning to share; winning and losing gracefully; managing hurt feelings. When he was just two years old — socially driven but so limited in his actual vocabulary and knowledge of the world — I marveled at how he would march boldly into each new social encounter. He was armed with scant tools but determined to forge connections with people around him. To a shy-ish person like myself, it was awe inspiring. Unlike me, he is gregarious and outgoing, and a collaborator: he becomes more passionate about any project or idea if others are engaged in it with him. Books, for him, have been a way for him to engage with whomever is reading. It’s too soon to know if he will continue to be an eager reader on his own or if he will be ‘reluctant’ as they say. Given his preference for social connection, I can imagine being alone with books might lose traction unless he finds stories and characters that capture him, inspire him, and give him the experience of entering new worlds.

IF_universe_web

So I write and illustrate with the hope that my reader will connect at the heart with a character on the page, because that character may capture a reader like me or like my son, and open his or her eyes to a new perspective. And I write with the hope of transcending stereotypes and representing all kinds of kids in all kinds of worlds, facing the questions, challenges and joys that every child encounters.

4. how does my individual writing/illustrating process work?

Ha ha…I always read other people’s blogs to try to find the secret to success on this — how to balance life and work, and how to switch hats between the art and the writing (and business) sides of this process. So if you are here seeking my secrets, help yourself! Or if you have good suggestions, pass them along.

In general, I feel like I will never have a story idea again. And this is true until one pops into my head and blows my mind. But when ideas fail to jump on me, I have to set off in search of them. I usually do this by carving out writing-specific time. Early morning is good for me, but any uninterrupted stretch of 2 hours or so will do. I free write. I make lists. I look over the lists and notes I made last time I carved out writing-specifc time. I did PiBoIdMo once, and it was a great way to get in the flow of generating ideas (note to self: sign up for PiBoIdMo this year!). I spew thousands and thousands of words: random fragments, scattered thoughts, snippets of dialog, rhyming couplets. And eventually one of them catches hold of me and demands my attention. And when that happens, I know I’ll need to carve out some more 2 hour stretches to focus on playing it out before it gets away.

In projects I am both writing and illustrating, I usually start with a ‘complete’ manuscript. While I am writing, or when I have a first draft, I start doodling to find the characters.

amelia_charactersketch1

My character sketches usually explore the character in action, or several characters engaging together – I can’t find the real character until I know how she connects with her people or pets.

cowboy_pp6-7

With a complete text, and a sense of the characters, I begin making thumbnails — and quickly start to make changes to the text.

 

seasons_thumbs_web

Mostly I am cutting-cutting-cutting, as I begin to see which descriptions could be illustrated rather than spelled out in words. Once I have the book mapped out, I revisit the truncated text and often find the rhythm has gone wonky from all the trimming. Further revisions ensue.

When the text is trimmed within an inch of its life, and the thumbnails feel like they will flow, I make tighter sketches of the spreads I am most excited about doing as color finishes. When I have solid sketches for those spreads, I scan them and print them from my Epson Photo 1280 inkjet printer onto Arches hot press bright white paper in very faint blue or sepia ink (depending on the palette I expect to use in the color version).

It’s not archival, but I print light enough that if the ink bleeds, it just blends in (and I recently learned from Susan Boase that if you let a non-archival inkjet print dry overnight, it fixes itself and won’t bleed. Who knew??). This method is one of my strategies for keeping spontaneous line in the final art. Once printed, the faint lines become my foundation, and I alternately paint and draw (with graphite, colored pencils, water soluble pencils, and sepia ink) on top of the printed sketch. This helps me keep the composition and consistent characters while retaining the  energy of a fresh, new sketch or painting. It also helps me keep pushing myself — I often repaint those spreads many times to try out different color palettes, change the characters’ expressions or body language, and play with different techniques. I don’t know if I have the fortitude to start over and over with a blank sheet of paper — the printed sketch really helps!

When I get to the point that I am happy with several finish samples, I complete sketches for the rest of the dummy that match the style I’ve landed on, scan everything and dummy the book up in InDesign with text in place.

sledders2_web

 

5. who are the two author/illustrators that you are passing the interview to?

I hope you enjoyed this portion of our tour. Next stop will be on the blogs of two writer/illustrators whose work will surely inspire you:

Victoria Jamieson has written and illustrated several wonderful picturebooks (Bea Rocks the Flock! Olympig, Pest in Show), and is now venturing into the world of young graphic novels. I love her work, and have learned so much from her.

Sarah Brannen is a woman of many talents (Singing! Figure skating! Olive harvesting!) who writes and illustrates beautiful children’s books. Uncle Bobby’s Wedding, Feathers: Not Just for Flying, and the Very Beary Tooth Fairy are among her recent books.

Where have I been?

Well, friends, it has been a busy month. A vacation in March derailed my steady little blogging train, and my habits and routines have been all out of whack ever since. And then this past weekend was the Western Washington SCBWI Spring Conference, and I spent much of the prior two weeks preparing for it.

Here a couple of vacation sketches for your enjoyment. Just a little something to tide you over while I craft a longer post about the conference. Can you guess where we went?

honuakai_web

honuakai1a_web

Addendum

” It’s probably more common to come home [from a conference] and feel a touch of despair in addition to all that inspiration…”

Martha Brockenbrough

Ain’t that the truth. As inspired and excited as I felt after last weekend’s workshop, I definitely also felt a touch of melancholy. I have called it the conference roller coaster. The highs come from connecting with like-minded peeps, getting good comments in critiques, feeling buoyed and hopeful and ready to take the next big steps. The lows come from overwhelm at all the talented people out there (how will I ever get noticed?), from the more critical comments (will I ever be publishable?) and from a sense of being a small fish in a big, competitive pond.

Martha’s post offers constructive reflection on the post-conference maelstrom. It’s worth reading if you(like me) are sorting out your next steps…

Wearing Two Hats — writer/illustrator workshop

Last weekend the SCBWI Oregon chapter hosted a terrific 1-day workshop for writer-illustrators with Art Director Lauren Rille of Simon and Schuster. She was a great speaker and critique-er — her talk was highly entertaining (she cusses!), but packed with good information, and she pulled no punches when it came to critiquing our work. Her clear message was that the process of creating illustrations for a book is equal parts fun and difficult. It is a long, demanding process, and revisions and criticisms will probably continue long after everyone is ready to be done with this story and these characters. An illustrator must be prepared to revise and revise and revise, but the end result will raise the bar beyond what the illustrator thought he or she could do. A little daunting, but ultimately an inspiring perspective.

My favorite part of the day was the ‘intensive’ on character development. The key points Lauren emphasized were:

a) anatomy: even our tiniest readers are experts in looking at human bodies and faces, so even if we are creating exaggerated characters, they must be convincingly human (or anthropomorphic in the case of animal characters). Proportion, structure, and physical characteristics must be based in real anatomy even if the artist takes these elements beyond what real anatomy can do.

b) gesture: movement and body language tell so much story, sometimes very subtly. The illustrator’s challenge is to capture the gestures, subtle and extreme, that convey a character’s personality and energy.

c) emotion: characters’ emotions can be conveyed completely visually — the text may not include a word about it, but if the character shows emotion throughout his or her physical stance, facial expression, and attitude, the reader will totally get it. Pro tip: use those eyebrows!

Lauren had us do several exercises to try out these ideas. First we came up with a character:

boy&bear

After talking to us about gesture, she invited us to revisit that character and give him or her some energy through gesture:

 boy&bear2

In another exercise, she asked us to convey an emotion without showing the character’s face. We drew an emotion out of a hat —can you guess what mine was (answer below)? I found this pretty difficult, not sure how successful I was.

 happy_web

 

I was much happier with my results in the final exercise. Lauren had us draw 3 prompts from hats — physical attribute, action and emotion or attitude–combine them in one character and create a little narrative in 3 or 4 images. I wonder if you’ll guess what prompts I picked for this one?

 nosepicker_sketches

 

I appreciated the nudge to draw something I never would have drawn on my own! The exercise really pushed me out of my own head space and freed me up to show my sense of humor. I cracked myself up while drawing these images, and I think the fun I had with it shows. Now I am hoping I can retain that silliness and energy when I refine these sketches and make a color set of playful nose-pickers for my portfolio.

Thanks to Barb Herkert, SCBWI Oregon, and Lauren Rille for a great day!

prompt 1 : happy

prompt 2: playful; coke-bottle glasses; nose-picking