I educated myself by looking closely at art and illustration (the masters) that touched me deeply, for whatever reason. I analyzed every detail—how the art was composed, how it might have been created, what tools and materials were used and in what order, how color was used, different ways of communicating facial expressions or body language. I have some of this in sketchbooks, and a lot of it on scraps of paper here and there around my house and studio. In a way, it’s okay not to have a systematic way of storing and using this information. I absorb it, and then move on, and the act of looking closely is enough to lodge it somewhere in the recesses of my brain, where it quietly influences every mark I make.
As I developed my style, I would actually try to mimic that art that I was studying --not so that it would become my style, but so that I could inform my developing visual vocabulary. And, eventually all of this close study started leaking into my work until I saw that I really was developing my own unique style. I tried tons of different things, lots of varied media, and made lots of awful art, and here and there some things that made me feel good, or resonated as an ah-ha! As I grow as an illustrator, I continue to try to take general art classes when I can: photography, lots of printmaking, some drawing and painting, a wonderful collage/painting class. These broadened my visual horizons and introduced new methods and processes, without telling me how to do kids books!
So it turns out that my style is an amalgamation of my idiosyncrasies and tastes as an artist and the idiosyncrasies of my favorite artists, whose work sometimes belies their actual habits. Even when I switch it up and use different media and techniques, I can see pretty clearly why my style is mine--my hand insists on doing some things certain ways; I love certain color combinations, and they usually show up in my work; I have developed techniques that give me total flexibility because I am not very good at commitment! But that may be changing—as I gain confidence in my artist’s voice, I am more willing to take risks and commit to a less flexible technique, and that too is causing my style to evolve and grow!
an early sketch for You Are (Not) Small
And when your professional partner also happens to be your spouse it’s even trickier, if only for the fact that you can’t leave at the end of the day and complain about the jerk at the office.
an early sketch for You Are (Not) Small
People often ask us how our collaboration was on our first picture book, You Are (Not) Small, but I think what they really want to know is how we made a book together without killing each other.
Anna’s early mock-up of cover
Chris and I have been married for twelve years and together for twenty, so fortunately, by the time we nurtured this book into existence, we’d had some practice in the fine art of collaboration, also known as, the delicate balance of clearly communicating your viewpoint and retaining your voice without dismissing the other person’s viewpoint and permanently alienating them.
early sketch of the “fuzzies” from YA(N)S
For us, there were a few things that enabled us to have a mostly productive collaboration without ending up with (too many) battle scars.
a possible sketch for YA(N)S
What helped from the start was our similar sensibilities and taste in general. We both agreed that our characters would not be human or even an identifiable animal yet still be approachable and lovable. And we both favored a bold, simple visual style that would enhance the humorous tone. Chris did a wonderful job crafting detailed expressions and gestures in the creatures, elevating the text and humor immensely. I don’t think I could have asked for a better illustrator in that sense, one who really “got” the specific tone I was going for when writing the story. Having spent the past couple of decades laughing at the same things allowed us to cut right to the chase.
The ability to speak each other’s language was also critical. Had I not spent three years at film school immersed in the tenets of visual expression, color, composition, rhythm, etc., I wouldn’t have been able to effectively communicate with an illustrator and it would have been frustrating for us both. Likewise, had Chris not spent those three years being dragged to a thousand film screenings and listening to me edit, analyze, and break down the beats of countless stories, he wouldn’t have been able to communicate in the language that I understood. We’ve since developed a shorthand that we use to give each other feedback quickly and constructively.
Above all else, what saw us through to the end was not losing sight of what we were creating and why, reminding ourselves that we were realizing a dream, and keeping our sense of humor.
Which is not to say there wasn’t a fair amount of petulant door slamming and shouting. There was. But like most partnerships, ours is still a work-in-progress.
My approach to illustration was based on the kids book artists I loved the most: Jean de Brunhoff, Tomi Ungerer, Leo Lionni, early Sendak, and then all sorts of editorial illustrators, cartoonists and fine artists.
For Ellsworth, I looked a lot at Leo Lionni's books: the bright, textured shapes against the white page.
Clousseau has big influences from Edgar P. Jacobs, a Belgian comic book artist who was from the "Clear Line" school of Herge (Tintin).
Dmitri the Astronaut had a little Margot Zemach and also her idol, Andre Francois. Ludlow Laughs is a loving ripoff of the painting of Ferdinand Leger.
Milo's Hat Trick was strongly influenced by Saul Steinberg, or at least I hope so.
After a while, all the influences kind of meld together, and you become more this unique mutt of everything you've absorbed. And then it's easier to see a common thread...with my books it's a strong graphic quality; sharp lines and shapes, solid colors, stuff you find in a lot of the artists whose work I've followed.
I took an illustration course once, at Parsons, and I was not crazy about it. The advice was commercial and career-oriented: find a style, lock into it, and go make a lot of money with it. My advice would be to look at lots of art, all kinds of art: painting, illustration, comic books, tapestries, animation, decorative art, sculpture. Copy stuff you're attracted to. Be influenced by a variety of artists. Draw, draw, draw! Don't lock into a style. A style will make itself apparent after you've been doing pictures for a bunch of years.
I’m really excited that Atheneum / Simon & Schuster is publishing FIRSTBORN, my new novel for young readers, in the spring of 2015. It was a long time coming. It’s about wolves, and the idea first came to me on a wolf watching trip to Yellowstone in 2005 with Jean Craighead George. But I think I’m just as thrilled that S&S is first bringing out new editions of two of my older books, The Wainscott Weasel and Mean Margaret.
I must have started writing The Wainscott Weasel in 1990. A few years earlier I’d published a novel about rats set in New York City, so I thought it would be fun to do an anthropomorphic story in a more pastoral setting. Once I settled on the South Fork of Long Island, which I’d known since childhood, a first draft came gushing out—almost as if I’d fallen into a Coleridge-like trance, though I suspect it may have been more to do with the fact that I wrote it on a contraption called a computer. Till then I’d always written longhand on yellow legal pads, but I couldn’t resist the idea of skipping the horror of typing out a fair copy by simply pressing a button and having the finished product come spewing out of a printer. Unfortunately, the computer in question was a primitive IBM XT, and mine was a lemon. The hard drive crashed, and not having backed up the file, I lost the entire hundred and some pages. So I had to try to go back into my trance and transcribe the whole thing again. My other chief memory of that book’s formative stages was the helpfulness of the illustrator. Fred Marcellino, who’d previously illustrated A Rat’s Tale, liked the story but was having fits differentiating the weasel characters. Couldn’t I at least give my hero a distinguishing feature to set him apart? It got me thinking and led to my hero sporting an eye patch, which spawned a whole subplot that enriched the story a lot. As did Fred’s pictures, some in full color, almost unheard-of for a novel. The book was a true collaboration.
As was Mean Margaret, a few years later. I wanted to try my hand at a picture book, and I had a farcical idea of a little girl who devastated everyone’s life that touched hers. I must have rewritten it a dozen times, but every time I showed it to my editor, Michael di Capua, he sighed and shook his head. The story gathered dust in his file till his then associate, Holly McGhee, discovered it. She thought it had potential, and a dozen more revisions followed. No luck—till she asked a friend what was wrong with it. He said it looked like the outline for a novel. Within a month I’d produced a 118-page draft. This was clearly the right form, but it still needed a lot of work. We actually taped our editorial meetings so I could replay them later as writing aids! At the time I thought this was overkill, but later, when the book was nominated for the National Book Award, I realized I may have been wrong. This book, too, was much enhanced by illustrations—hilarious ones by Jon Agee.
I’m very grateful to Holly, and to Caitlyn Dlouhy, for helping bring Margaret and the weasels back to life.
“And time yet for a hundred indecisions,/And for a hundred visions and revisions,/ Before the taking of a toast and tea.” – T.S. Eliot
Revision strikes me as being one of those topics wholly unsuited for a guest slot in a blog that is mostly about the cheerful side of writers, writing, reading, and books. Here’s why: revision is a horribly beautiful mix of murder (you drown your darlings), joy (you have figured out how to fix a problem), and discovery (same). None of that loans itself to an upbeat, inspiring tidbit.
Instead, let’s talk titles. After all, even if you aren’t supposed to judge a book by its cover, there is no getting around the fact that titles intrigue (“The Secret Garden”) or delight (“No Fighting, No Biting”), but rarely bore, even if the book itself is boring.
I am epically terrible at thinking of titles.
So terrible that I have yet to come up with a title for a novel that makes it past any editor’s first edit. “My Heartbeat” was called “For Another Year,” and “When I was Older,” originally went by “Juliet and the Idea of Frogs.” My father came up with the title for my favorite book, “The Kings Are Already Here,” and “Stay With Me” began life as “Gold Cufflinks.”
Well, you get the idea. If coming up with a title is an art, it’s one that escapes me.
Some of these title losses I have grieved. My new book will go out into the world under another name, but I will always know it as “The Poet’s Daughter.” However, for the most part I understand that the book you discover in your first draft is not the book you uncover in the revision process. Titles are your canary in the coalmine. They come back to you or they don’t, but either way they tell you something you didn’t know before.
And that, at the end of the day, is the best part of revision (and titles, for that matter). It’s not that it allows for, to quote T.S. Eliot again, “time to murder and create,” but that you learn something new. And since my super-power is being a dork, learning something new is my favorite thing.
Dear young illustrator out there,
Here are a few things I’ve learned while taking a line for a walk.
(1) While on your quest for “style”, try not to mimic others too closely. It’s an excellent way to study and try out techniques, but learning and imbibing all those influences is only half the process. You still need to distill them and create something different. It helps to keep your sources broad and numerous, to create a mixture that’s totally your own.
It reminds me of becoming a person—you’re never one thing, and you continue to evolve over the years. I think my work has shifted and changed over time, and early influences have come and gone, though a few (like Jim Henson, Edward Gorey and Shel Silverstein) remain the same.
We recently had the pleasure of asking long-time Pippin artist Pascal Lemaitre how he found himself as an artist. We thought it’d be fun to share his answer here; hope you find some inspiration for yourself from this wonderful and fascinating answer.
Every kid draws and then some stop at a certain age. I went on because I saw my father painting and I thought it was cool. I was proud of my father. I met some artists and I loved the way they were. Of course I drew images I saw. I have a lot of father figures.
I wanted to be a serious artist. A painter. Dramatic self-portraits.Paint or die. Then I decided I needed to accept who I was.I was just a guy who liked to draw funny weird stuffs, that's all.
In a way it freed me of the burden of willing myself to be "someone". I decided it was time to embrace who I was to avoid a future full of frustration and bitterness. On that path I saw there was a brotherhood of non-serious artists. It helps. Then it's all about getting a life that brings intensity into your art. That's why I spend a good chunk of time far from my drawing table. This process of learning to accept yourself is common to every human being, but when you draw you bring that in your line. Here’s another way to think about it:
-Get a life.
-Unfortunately you need to work a lot to find who you are. Because it's when you try different things that you find which one suits you better.
-Drawing is like dancing. You need to practice a lot.
-Read books. Philosophers. Poets.
-Fall in love.
-Walk in the forest.
-Build around your dream.
-Be generous, you will create a flow and people will help.
-Life is crazy. It takes so much time and energy to build a person, and life is so short. So don't think too much about it. Focus on your art and life.
-Our work is about collaboration. So listen to art directors, editors, agent, and writers.
-See it as a way of sharing knowledge and learning. Editors are not enemies. We build together.
-Money is a tool. So invest your money in a trip where you'll discover the world.
-Break the walls in your head.
-Listen to you, Don't follow the crowd.
-If you study and there’s no pain, that means something is wrong.
-To grow up is hard. To broaden your art you need to go against your habits.
-Look at small children. The way they draw. Their intensity. Their need. Do this just to remember why you draw and to keep the pleasure of it.