Without missing a beat one of the other students said, “I think they’re arriving at 2 o’clock.”
The journey to discovering my own voice was a long one so I’ll try and be brief (and you know I can be long-winded when I’m not careful!). Actually, the journey of discovery seems to be ongoing. I’m fairly restless where my “style” is concerned — always pushing for the next big thing, as it were. I’m usually happy with my art when I’m finished with it but can always see other ways I might have done it, which leads neatly into my next illustration project, and that one into the next. It’s a nice organic process.
In my case I saw a lot of students enter the illustration program at the Alberta College of Art who I thought were very decent picture makers. But then I spent some time looking through the graduation show (as I neared the end of my first year of general studies). To my surprise almost all of the illustration students were producing work that could only be called “good illustration”. It looked like illustration. It was good. But it was boring. I quickly changed my mind about my area of study and chose to study drawing and printmaking in the fine arts program.
The illustrators whose work I truly loved spoke with such a strong and powerful voice that they somehow transcended mere illustration. I wanted to be like them! Eric Carle. Stephen Gammell. Lane Smith. Jack Kirby. Chihiro Iwasaki. Bill Sienkiewicz. Anything they laid their hands on always looked only like their own work. Their voices were so strong you could identify their drawings without having to read their names on their books. That’s the kind of illustration I wanted to make! I decided that studying fine art would be a better way to find that voice because that voice doesn’t come from studying illustration techniques and doing illustration assignments. It comes from searching deep within yourself and finding who you really are. It comes from observing the world around you and learning where you fit. It comes from experimenting with different media and trying to express different ideas. I tried video installation projects. I tried abstract expressionist painting. I spent hundreds of hours doing figure drawing and learning anatomy and color theory.
The funny thing was when I graduated from art college I was further from a career in illustration than I’d been when I started. I showed my work in a gallery with some printmaking friends and thought about the future. I needed a job! So I took my burgeoning digital skills and found myself a graphic design job (not as a designer but as a production guy — I did digital typesetting; colour-correcting photos; pre-press; etc. And some designing.) And all the while I spent my free time drawing comics. I knew that my real calling was to draw Spiderman for a living! I still have a big pile of rejection letters from my submissions to Marvel and DC comics. I actually got pretty close to a professional comics gig with both of them before realizing that I was doing the one thing that had discouraged me from studying illustration in the first place: I was imitating other artists. I could draw pretty well (as evidenced by almost getting the coveted gig with DC Comics) but I took a step back and realized that my voice was nowhere to be seen. And I started to hate my drawings because of that. And it was REALLY hard work. So I kept my nose down and did my design job and thought about my dream illustration job.
I saved lots of money (design pays really well!) and spent my free time putting together a portfolio of what I thought were terrific illustration samples. My art used to look vaguely like Marilyn Manson album cover art — it was a strong mix of my fine art “voice” with digital techniques that I’d taught myself by studying Dave McKean’s wonderful Sandman covers and Bill Sienkiewicz’s amazing graphic novels.
I showed this portfolio to Doug Fraser who said, “Your drawings are beautiful! They’d look great on my wall but I’m not sure what art directors are going to do with it.” I’m stubborn. I booked a trip to New York, Toronto and London and took my portfolio on the road for a month. My first meeting was with Steve Heller at the NY Times who said, “These are great but I can’t use them. They’d look great on my wall, though.” And that set the tone for my month of showing the portfolio.
However, in Toronto I managed to have one particularly nice meeting at an ad agency. The Art Director I met liked my portfolio, even though he agreed that it would look better on his wall. And, since my portfolio was fairly slim back then, asked if I had anything else he could see. The only other thing I had was my sketchbook, which goes everywhere I go but is never shown to anyone. So I showed it. He was puzzled by it. Where the portfolio was dark and brooding and full of muted colours and foreboding (the goth influence was pretty heavy) my sketchbook was full of silly, light-hearted drawings — the sort of things one draws on a napkin while talking on the phone. He put them side by side and compared, then said, “Now if you can take the rich textural elements of your portfolio and mix-in the fun and frivolous side from your sketchbook I think you might actually have something really cool! Come and see me when that happens.” That was an eye-opener. It had honestly never occurred to me that you could try selling something to art directors that took only a few minutes of your time and was, for all intents and purposes, SILLY. It had never occurred to me that my voice might also encompass that FUN side of my personality — the side that I didn’t have to work hard at.
Luckily I’m a good listener. And this AD was right. I began to morph the fun art with the dark, textural stuff and slowly the art began to look more and more like MINE. And the organic approach I had always used in my sketchbooks took over the way I looked at paying work. My palette got brighter. My drawings became more and more accessible. And I was having more fun than I’d ever had before!
I had a chance meeting with Bill Sienkiewicz at a comic convention a couple of years ago (I still have a soft spot for comics). I watched him draw and listened to him chatting with a couple of fans. When they left I pulled out a copy of Grumpy Bird and showed it to him. I told him how I had loved his work when I was in art college (and still did) and how, while I never tried mimicking him, I had borrowed a bunch of his techniques and applied them to my own art, which was definitely in a similar vein back then (the dark, brooding gothic phase). I explained that Grumpy Bird was a direct descendent of his own twisted drawings. He laughed and said something like, “I LOVE it when someone can take something that I took from someone else and turn it completely of its head and become something else altogether.” He put Grumpy Bird beside one of his dark fantasy drawings and you couldn’t see the resemblance at all. I like that.
So my advice to illustrators? Listen more than you talk. Listen with both eyes and ears. Because sometimes other people know your work better than you do. Sometimes they see what you can’t because they aren’t invested in it like you are. Also, your voice comes not from your mouth, but from your hands. Let your illustration do the talking for you. And if you have listened just right, and processed everything carefully, you might just find that you have something to say. And never stop listening! Because when you think you’ve found your voice you might just be surprised when someone else can answer another piece of the puzzle for you. And because no one likes a big talker! Ha Ha! Your style is your brand. It’s your identity. It is what makes someone look at your work over the hundreds (or thousands) of other illustrators out there. Be proud of it.
And that's my three cents worth!
I LOVED David LaRochelle’s text from my very first reading of it and knew right away that I had to illustrate this story. And I liked that David had made the book itself a character—the way it addresses the readers and takes them along for a ride (with some unexpected appearances from a tiger along the way). So, without any hesitation, I told my agent to please “sign me up!”
This initial reading was followed by a long period of waiting while I worked on other projects and practiced drawing tigers. Then, when we were ready to start work on It’s a Tiger!, I began my sketches, only to find myself completely thwarted by David’s delightful story! Oh, no! I loved the humor in the text so much but my initial drawings fell completely flat. What was I doing wrong? So I reread the manuscript a whole bunch of times and realized that the humor all revolved around the surprise appearances of the mysterious tiger. Every other spread needed to have a hilarious image of the tiger surprising the reader. But, of course, there are only so many ways to draw a tiger leaping out at you before the joke gets stale. That, and there was the problem that the TIGER pages had ALL the action and the interspersing pages had none at all. My pacing was terrible whereas David’s text was so beautifully paced.
Back to the drawing board! I realized that where I saw the humor was in the REACTION to the tiger’s appearance. And merely relying on the readers’ reaction wasn’t going to be enough—I needed the reader to SEE the reaction to the tiger for themselves. So I asked Melissa and Jennifer (my wonderfully patient editor and art director) about adding a new character to the book, “But don’t worry! It won’t affect the text!” I told them. I think they were a little dubious. And, to be honest, so was I. What would David think about me adding a character that he probably never intended to be in his book? But sometimes I just have to rely on intuition.
The end result is a book that challenged me at almost every turn of the page. David’s writing required me to draw some things that I had never had to draw before—like the ocean, a rocky outcrop, and a cave. The sketches presented some other challenges that I hadn’t foreseen, such as the huge diversity of backdrops. How to draw all of these different backdrops and keep the whole book stylistically coherent? The solution, after trying a few different approaches, was to do away with my love of photo-collage and dive more heavily into digital painting. I created a few new brushes in Photoshop that allowed me to build richly textured color fields that could tie all the differing backdrops together. This technique allowed me to quickly paint-in more complex scenes and slowly build-up the colors for scenes that were more sparse. The boy and the tiger were colored using Corel Painter then imported into Photoshop for finishing.
Creating the narrator was an interesting piece of the puzzle. I wanted a solid character but one who wouldn’t steal the show (it’s the TIGER’s book after all). He, or she, couldn’t have a huge personality, but had to be appealing enough that you’d want to follow him through the book. And, since he isn’t mentioned in the text, I didn’t want to be strong-arming attention away from the story that David had created. I have a huge respect for David’s text (and for his writing in general—he’s a very, very good writer). I needed a character with whom anyone could identify—someone with a simple, iconic face that could also convey all the emotion required to carry the humor when necessary.
Perhaps the biggest challenge was drawing the tiger himself. I hadn’t expected this at all! He had to be mean and scary, but not too mean and scary. He had to be cute and attractive, but not too much so. He had to have some real personality. And, of course, he had to have some good cat-like slinkiness! And I learned that cats are very, very difficult to draw. But I like the tiger. I think he turned out okay. And the drawing of him on the front cover might be one of my favorite drawings that I’ve ever done!
The end result of all this is art that I’m immensely proud of. I had to work hard for it, mind you. Sometimes there’s nothing like a huge challenge to make one put one’s best foot forward—and this book challenged me at almost every turn. I hope you enjoy this book as much as I do.
But, back to The Bribe. My parents are voracious readers. My little brother is a voracious reader. I was a voracious drawer. With so much reading going on in my house my parents were a little concerned about my lack of interest in reading. In fact they didn’t even think I could read more than a handful of words in one sitting. So my dad brought a book home after work one day. I think it was one of those Dick and Jane books if my memory serves correctly. But it was a LOOONG one, not one of the easy ones. He sat me down on the sofa and gave me the new book and said, “Jeremy, if you read this book to me I will take you to the toy store and buy you anything you want.” “Really?” I said. I took the book, opened it and began to read. I read it unfalteringly and with confidence. I didn’t stumble over the hard words. I read the WHOLE BOOK to him. When I was finished my dad looked at my mom and said, “I didn’t know Jeremy could do that!” My mom looked at me and said, “I didn’t know you could do that!” I looked at my parents and said, “I’m in grade two, of course I can do that! Now let’s go to the toy store.”
This is what I chose. It’s a beauty of a toy tractor. Solid metal, rubber tires, good paint.
I don’t think I read another book (not properly anyway) for a few more years. Of course I had to read the occasional one for school, but that doesn’t count.
Fast forward to 2004. Publishers began to take interest in my drawings. Serious interest. But there was a catch. They wanted me to write. Not just draw. WRITE. But wait a minute; you want the one guy who would do ANYTHING to avoid reading a book to write one? So I’m going to be a reluctant writer now too? I was in my early thirties and still a reluctant reader. Still loved books, but admired them from a distance—like a shy teenager at a high school dance who wants to ask the hottest girl if she’ll dance with me. That was books and me. Except that this was backwards—the hottest girl had just asked ME for a dance? I’m not stupid. I accepted.
I signed up for a writing class and started reading with a vengeance. I was thirty years behind on my reading. I had some catching up to do. But now it was like a challenge. In order to really impress the hottest girl at school I had to learn to do this thing. I read. I wrote. I read. I wrote. And somewhere in there I discovered that reading was the most wonderful thing and I had been missing out on it all these years.
I now take a book with me everywhere I go. I’ve still got some catching-up to do. In the words of my lovely daughter, “I’m a ferocious reader!” During negotiations for Grumpy Bird (my first picture book) Pippin decided to take me under their wing. I’m still amazed that the kid who had to be bribed to read gets to have his name on a list with the likes of William Steig (one of my heroes), Kate DiCamillo, Doreen Cronin, Kathi Appelt, David Small. Everyone really. They’re all amazing!
I phoned my parents the other day as I started to write this little piece and asked my dad about the bribe. He just laughed and said he learned his lesson, “I never bribed you again after that!” That tractor reminds me that rules are meant to be broken, that all good things come in time, and that I’m a late bloomer. I still think of that tractor when I crack open a new book and when I sit down at my drafting table to craft a new book of my own. It also reminds me that my books had better be good enough that kids don’t need to be bribed to read them!