One Illustration Reverie; Two Real Deals

What does this short animated clip have to do with John Singer Sargent or children’s book illustration?

A quoi ca sert l’amour,  a short animation by Louis Clichy, with thanks to illustrator  and animation/game artist Amanda Williams for finding this.  She called  it “brutal and adorable.”

If a child-friendly story had illustrations with these lines — and visual characters as memorable as these  and color the way John Singer Sargent used it in his painted scenes, it would be some picture book, right?

I’m assembling a fantasy football — I mean  illustration project  — team here.

So, starting with the cartoon:  What makes these stick figures tug at your emotions as they do?

The honesty of the emotions depicted?

The “simple” (oh-so-sophisticated) graphics with their varied perspectives and 360 degree “camera revolutions”?

All the fast cutting and the surprise transitions?

The song?  Edith Piaf’s and Theo Sarapo’s singing?

The subject?

Could some of this aplomb be translated into picture book illustrations?

OK,  so let’s add some color and texture.  John Singer Sargent had a knack  for such things. Thanks to Chicago based painter Raymond Thornton for finding this.

I know.  Sargent is the painter who gives all other painters inferiority complexes.  We don’t know a lot about how he made his palette choices. (We know that he looked carefully.)

So enough with dream teaming. We’ve got some news today.

Two power chapters of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) have announced their 2010 pow-wows — both set for early next year.

It’s Time to Mingle in Texas

State Capitol in Austin, Texas

State Capitol in Austin, Texas

Awesome Austin

Austin SCBWI comes first with Destination Publication featuring  a Caldeecott Honor Illustrator and Newberry Honor Author, along with agents, editors, more authors, another fab illustrator, critiques, portfolio reviews and parties.

Mark the date — Saturday, January 30, 2010,  8:00 a.m. – 5:30 p.m.  Get the full lowdown and the registration form here. Send in your form pronto if you’re interested — more than 100 people have already signed up. Manuscript crtiques are already sold out. But a few portfolio reviews are still open at this writing!

Destination Publication features Kirby Larson, author of the 2007 Newbery Honor Book, Hattie Big Sky and Marla Frazee, author-illustrator of A Couple of Boys Have the Best Week Ever, which received a Caldecott Honor Award, and more recently All the World penned (all 200 words of it) by Austin’s own children’s author/poet Liz Garton Scanlon.

Frazee teaches children’s book illustration at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, CA.  She and Scanlon will talk about their collaboration on All the Worldt. You can read each of their stories  Behind The Book at a Simon & Schuster webpage here.

"All the World" by Liz Garton Scanlon and Marla Frazee

"All the World" by Liz Garton Scanlon and Marla Frazee

The  one-day faculty also includes:

Cheryl Klein, senior editor at Arthur A. Levine Books/Scholastic.

Lisa Graff, Associate Editor at Farrar, Straus and Giroux Books for Young Readers.

Stacy Cantor, Editor, Bloomsbury USA/Walker  Books For Young Readers.

Andrea Cascardi agent with Transatlantic Literary Agency (and a former editor.)

Mark McVeigh another former editor who represents writers, illustrators, photographers and graphic novelists for both the adult and children’s markets.

Nathan Bransford, agent.

The conference  will also showcase authors  Sara Lewis Holmes, Shana Burg, P. J. Hoover, Jessica Lee Anderson, Chris Barton, Jacqueline Kelly, Jennifer Ziegler, Philip Yates and illustrator Patrice Barton.

Read more about everyone here.

Happenin’ Houston

Houston SCBWI has announced a still developing  lineup for its conference just three weeks after Austin’s:   Saturday, February 20, 2010.  Registration has just opened.

Headliners here:

Cynthia Leitich Smith, acclaimed author of short stories, funny picture books, Native American fiction, and YA Gothic fantasies. Faculty member, Vermont College of Fine Arts.

Ruta Rimas, assistant editor Balzer & Bray/HarperCollin.



Patrick Collins, creative director at Henry Holt Books for Young Readers. Collins art directs and designs picture books, young adult novels and middle grade fiction (Baby Bear, Baby Bear, What Do You See?, Old Penn Station and Rosa, a Caldecott Honor book.)

Also featured: Alexandra Cooper,  senior editor at Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, Lisa Ann Sandell,  senior editor at Scholastic Inc., and Sara Crowe, a New York agent with Harvey Klinger, Inc.

Download their bios, more Houston conference info and a registration form from this page. No, you don’t have to be Texan to register for either of these “big as Texas” events.

Mark Mitchell teaches children’s book illustration at the Austin Museum of Art Art School — and online. Learn the best drawing secret free here.

“Let’s Board It Up!” The Magic of the Storyboard

 This Google Video clip from the promo documentary Finding Lady: The Art of Storyboarding  has been circulating around the art and cartoon blogs recently.

Disney animator Eric Goldberg explains how the Disney artists have always used storyboards as a developmental first step in their animation productions.

The clip goes on to show how movie makers from Alfred Hitchcock to Kevin Costner have used them as perhaps the crucial planning tool in a film.

Finding Lady came out to herald the 1991 release of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast and the “renaissance of the animated film” that some say began with The Little Mermaid  in 1989. 

It’s not exactly the way storyboarding is covered in our course  on how to illustrate children’s books. 

The storyboard thumbnails we talk about are quite different animals from the sketches and drawings you see tacked up on Disney’s storyboard wall.

But the same big ideas apply:  Using the storyboard to work out the the  “bits” of stagecraft,  the action and gags. Pacing, story flow and the economy of the viewer’s or reader’s attention.

For the movie director, storyboarding saves costly waffling around on the set, the video points out.  Because the details and the sequences have all been worked out in advance, the director can “edit in the camera.”

For the children’s book artist, storyboardings helps to gestalt the entire book on just one page. The simple very exercise  of it can spring  ideas free and save weeks of unecessary drawing and painting. 

To enlarge the video for better visibility, click on the Google Video box, then hit the enlarge screen button under the video on the Google Video page.

For information on the online Children’s Book Illustration 101 course”  look here.

Or to check out the free color lessons from the course (while they’re still available)  click here.

‘Twas the Night Before Christmas Aboard the ‘Black Sark’

'Sir Peggedy' visits the pirate ship in "A Pirate's Night Before Christmas"

‘Sir Peggedy’ visits the pirate ship in “A Pirate’s Night Before Christmas”

Two of my two all-time favorite Holiday Season picture books are by members of my own children’s writing group. One is Santa Knows by Cynthia and Greg Leitich Smith, illustrated by Steve Bjorkman (Dutton). The other is the new  A Pirates Night Before Christmas, by Philip Yates, illustrated by Sebastia Serra (Sterling .)

"A Pirate's Night Before Christmas" by Phillip Yates and illustrator Sebastia Serra

“A Pirate’s Night Before Christmas” by Phillip Yates and illustrator Sebastia Serra

Another is the classic A Child’s Christmas in Wales by the poet Dylan Thomas,  because of the fascinating wash illustrations by the great Edward Ardizzone. (David R. Godine, Publisher.) But that is for another post someday.

But how amazing is that when the first two quintessential Christmas picture books you can think of happen to be by writers from your own tribe,  in your own town?

Yates is a poet and humorist as well as an author, and in “Pirate’s Night Before Christmas, he applied all three gifts to a sea-yarn retelling of Clemment Moore’s “The Night Before Christmas.”

“I wrote the whole story by asking questions and putting myself into this workd that is uniquely the pirates,”  he told Cynthia Leitich Smith in her children’s and YA literature blog Cynsations. “That’s what writing successful picture books is all about — asking the right questions and letting the answers come in the most heartfelt way. ”

How would pirates celebrate Christmas? Yates wondered.

They would be too bad and mean to deserve a visit from Santa,  so they would need their own ornery ‘sea dog’ version of Santa — and he would drive a marine sleigh pulled by seahorses!  The rhyme structure of Moore’s classic Night Before Christmas poem is anapestic tetrameter (also found in Dr. Seuss’s beloved Yertle the Turtle and Cat in the Hat, Yates told Smith. “It’s a breezy, whimsical, magical form that just flows beautifully and is highly contagious when read out loud.”


To prepare to put new language and new word pictures into old poetic forms, Yates steeped  himself  in pirate lore — “the grammar, the slang, the history, the parts of the ship… ” Yates said in the interview.

Actually composing the poem took him only two days. He sent the ms out to five publishers and received offers from three!

He went with Sterling, who offered first. Sterling pulled in talented Spanish illustrator Sebastia Serra.

Serralives in a village on the  Mediterranean coast near Barcelona.

Children’s book illustrators and pirates have a special relationship with each other  that pre-dates Disney and Johnny Depp. Howard Pyle and N.C. Wyeth leap to mind, as does Gustaf Tenggren.

Serra’s pirates evoke wooden toys, marionettes and bright-colored sea creatures.  So they’re sweet and child-like, as toys often are but there’s also something oddly menacing about them, as there should be — particularly that  ‘outlaw santa’ who goes by the name, Sir Peggedy.

Pirates — even cliche pirates —  are never cute — not in the best  depictions of them that resonate with children and the child in all of us. Robert Louis Stevenson knew this.  Long John Silver had us wondering up until  the very end of Treasure Island  if he was a bad guy or a good guy. We were never sure, not even after turning the novel’s last page, although he usually treated young Jim Hawkins decently.

As in the word portraits of pirates, pictures of pirates must include some minor key notes — disturbing elements  in the colors, details of the caricatures, or the ‘spirit’ behind a scene (even when the Christmas socks are hung from the bowsprit with care.)

Pirates in children’s picture books can be poignant and a tiny bit  endearing.  But if they come off too cuddly, they’re just wrong!  Children get this.  And so do Yates and Serra.

Serra's pirate ship from "The Pirate's Night Before Christmas"

Serra’s pirate ship from “The Pirate’s Night Before Christmas”

Yates talked with us about the illustrations that appear in his book.

 When you were writing, were you imagining the pictures in the book-to-be? Did you kind of visually  “thumbnail” the whole work in your head?

Or did you mainly focus on the language of the poem — already sort of knowing  that the stanzas would  work as a rollicking, page turning, picture book experience.

A lot of the creation of the narrative involved inserting pictures in my head as I wrote.  I knew the structure of the poem’s anapestic meter so well that I trusted the language to guide me on the voyage. The poem already works and has stood the test of time for nearly 190 years. Since the language was already there, I just had to pop in the images that worked best.

I immersed myself so thoroughly in the pirate world that the images came first and guided the language. For example, in the opening stanzas, I couldn’t hang stockings from chimneys so I had to research how pirate ships looked and where a stocking would hang and it wasn’t until I came across a picture of a bowsprit that  I realized it was a perfect place to hang a stocking.

But with what? Well, I found illustrations of ships that used tar to make repairs and since tar rhymes with thar,the two came together in perfect synchronicity.

I’m not an illustrator, but the book truly was guided by the  “picture” first, the “narrative” second.

From "The Pirate's Night Before Christmas"

From “The Pirate’s Night Before Christmas”

Were you permitted any kind of  communication with Sebastia Serra during the illustration process? 

The whole discovery of Serra was simply amazing and all credit is due my editor at Sterling Publishing. Serra had submitted a portfolio to Sterling and one look at his artwork and they knew he was perfect.

All the communication regarding the artwork was done between Serra and Sterling, or Sterling and me. I never spoke to him by phone,  communicated by email, or anything. It would have been heavenly to talk to him, but sometimes you have to trust your art director and this was a case where I totally put my trust in them from the start.

Were you given an opportunity to share ideas about the art? (Or did you even want such an opportunity?)

I had very little to give since the art was so splendid. I almost think it was eerie how perfectly he captured the world I envisioned. But there were tiny things like “I want to see more seaweed on Sir Peggedy,” or “His tooth needs to be golder,” since this was boldly expressed in the verses themselves.

I also wanted more  people of all colors and races because pirate worlds were pretty diverse, when you think about it.

Any insight into why your editor at Sterling selected  Sebastia to illustrate?

His artwork was modern, moody, had an edgy quality to it that was appealing. Similar to Lane Smith, I think. Lots of clutter, but I mean that in a postive way. Detail upon detail. He could also handle crowds of pirates in one picture, which, when you look at the illustrations, you can see this was necessary. They were also struck by the world he had created on his own with my language as the starting board—the monkey running around, the fish hanging on the Christmas tree, the treasure map with it’s unique geography. It was all in the details.

'Sir Peg' with the men. Illustration by Sebastia Serra

‘Sir Peg’ with the men. Illustration by Sebastia Serra

What was (is) your reaction to his art for the book when you saw it?

I was overwhelmed, to be honest.  As I said earlier, it felt like some telepathic thing had been going on between us. After seeing all the illustrations together for the first time, it almost felt like he had looked over my shoulder the whole time I was writing it, it was that spooky. But mostly, to be honest, was the feeling that I had accomplished what I set out to do—I had given him enough of this world so that he could go off on his own and expand it and give it his own twist.

At one reading recently, a parent came up to me and she thought I had done the illustrations and was surprised when she saw Serra’s name on it.

She said that the language and the visuals so perfectly meshed and how did it manage to come out without me even being in the same room with him. I was also proud because now he has several illustrator offers on his table, thanks to the Pirate’s success.

Have you done any kind of teamed promotional activity with Serra? Or are there plans to team the two of you somehow on the promotional circuit?

Phil Yates

Author Phil Yates

Well, Sebastia’s in Barcelona, Spain and here I am in Austin. He has promoted it as best he can, but I imagine that  it’s difficult to translate Clement Moore’s poem from English into Spanish without messing with the rhyme or meter in some way. I imagine the story can be told successfully in Spanish because the pictures are so great. I do hope to meet him some day and he is eager to team up again on another project, but now it’s difficult for both of us to get together.

[Serra created the  illustrations for the book with pencil and ink on parchment,  then he digitally colored the scene’s. See the interview with artist Serra in the next post.]

* * * * *

Mark Mitchell, who wrote this post, teaches an online course in children’s book illustration, Make Your Splashes – Make Your Marks!   See Mark’s free video series about the best secret to better drawing.

The Breathtaking Collages of Ed Young in “Wabi Sabi”

The collage illustrations of "Wabi Sabi" by Mark Reibstein, illustrated by Ed Young, had to be redone at the last minute.

Collage illustrations

A cat’s journey to find the meaning of her name leads her from her Kyoto home to the pine trees at the foot of Mount Hiei.

And there from a wise Zen monk-ey, our questing cat learns ‘a way of seeing’ that is at the heart of the culture of her land.

Wabi Sabi, the Japanese and Tao zen concept that is also the cat’s name, “finds beauty and harmony in what is simple, imperfect, natural, modest and mysterious.”

“It can even be a little dark, but it is also warm and comfortable.”

Wabi Sabi, by Mark Reibstein and renown illustrator Ed Young (published by Little Brown and Company) was named one of The New York Times “Ten Best Illustrated Books” of 2008.

A native of Tientsin, China who was a child in Shanghai during the World War II years, Young  came to the United States in the 1950s and worked as a graphic designer before turning to children’s book illustration. He has illustrated 8o books, several of which he has written.

He has worked in many mediums, from authentic Chinese paper cuts to the soft, bright pastels of Lon Po Po, his 1989 telling of a Chinese “Red Riding Hood” fable, in which three sisters outwit a wolf who comes to their house.  The book published by Viking Penguin imprint Philomel won the Caldecott Medal.

How To Be A Children’s Book Illustrator recently interviewed Young about his pictures for Wabi Sabi.

Here, Young employed standard and some not-so-standard collage techniques.
“I’ve always used it in doing other mediums, because it’s easier to lay out compositions and make decisions with collage,” he said from his home in Hastings on the Hudson, New York on a Saturday morning in early November.

(A collage is a work of art created by gluing bits of paper, fabric, scraps, photographs or other materials to a flat surface, often combining the imagery with painting and drawing. Young has cited the collage designs of Henri Matisse as a major influence on his work.)

“It’s easier to change around, nothing is permanently pasted down,” Young said. “It’s flexible and alive. With other mediums you often get tight too quickly, then you get attached to it and it’s hard to change. Collage was something I used for sketching in the past. Now I use it to finish my work.”

Conversely, he drew pencil thumbnails in his sketchbook to get the idea formation process going for Wabi Sabi.  When he begins to work on an actual collage illustration, Young will place an item such as “a piece of bow” on the paper, and adds from there. For this he keeps several boxes of scraps, ribbons, colored tissue  — arranged in color schemes.

“I work flat until they are arranged in a way that’s satisfactory, then I’ll fix them to the paper with a little dab of Gluestick on the corner so the pieces won’t fly all over the place.

“It’s really play. You don’t get down to make something firm until the [pieces] start to talk to you.  Then you listen. ”

Interior illustration of Wabi Sabi the cat is cut paper -- a color Xerox, actually, that Ed Young made of an iron portable stove.

“Illustrating children’s books is like making a movie,” Young said. “You’re making a series of pictures that tell a story. Those pictures are also like words made by you to lay out the moods.

“When you have the pictures together it’s like phrases. The phases have their own spirit and that becomes a poem of some sort — if they hang together right. But it’s very different than making a singular picture.

“In the concept stage, I am placing things down to start telling the story. Then several stages down the line, I introduce the colors. I play around with colors when the composition is right.

“These [colors and shapes] shift around. They have to work with the page. They have to flow from one to the other one so that when you flip the page, you’re either surprised by something, or staying in the mood for the next picture.”

The sequence is something to behold in Wabi Sabi. The viewer does indeed  feel like he’s moving from mood to mood, experiencing all the contrasting sights and emotions, epiphanies and wonderment of this cat on her journey to find who she is.

The story behind the illustrations should be made an epilogue to the book in the second edition.
Young’s first set of illustrations,  which took him two years to complete, mysteriously disappeared after he dropped them off on the front porch of his agent’s house.

(While taking his wife to the hospital, Young had dropped the bundled illustrations in an envelope at the agent’s doorstep, but they never showed up at the N.Y.C. office of his editor Alvina Ling. The agent never saw the package. Police and parcel delivery services were called. Locations were scoured to no avail.)

A few months later, when everyone came to grips with the idea that the art truly was lost, he had to start over with only weeks until his deadline. In the meantime, his wife had just died of cancer.  “I was in crisis mode,” Young said.

He had already cleaned out and re-organized his studio. The brightly
colored paper and tissue scraps and slivers that had been the raw materials for his pictures were gone. He had also tossed all of his visual references — except for some angled, distorted  snapshots that Ling had made of the collages in his studio.

By now, though,  Young knew that in his second go-around he would take a radical approach.
The look of the book would be quite different.

“Wabi Sabi is a term used for celebrating the common things that people overlook and seeing beauty in them,” Young said. “When I did the first round, I used beautiful new things, many done from scratch. And fresh things, although the pictures were beautiful, didn’t really develop the idea of wabi sabi.

“So when I started my second version, I decided to use wabi sabi materials.

“Wabi Sabi does not occur when something is newly made because it hasn’t got to that point where the soul is revealed. New things don’t have stories to tell.

He would have to work very fast. He recruited his 12 year old daughter to help him.
“In the end papers, you see cat foot prints, for example. When they were pouring concrete on my garage driveway, the cat actually walked on it. I wanted the images because that said something about the journey. So I had my daughter photograph that.”

Pine needles that Young’s daughter brought home from summer camp clump and adorn the trees of the forest on the book’s back cover and elsewhere in the pages. (In the original first set of collages, the pines were merely tree stem shapes cut from colored paper.)

The tree bark texture is actually from a large weatherworn outdoor thermometer in his back yard.
(Young is fond of this artifact.)

The autumn leaves on pps 17-18 are … autumn leaves, collected by Young and his daughter.

Other bits of photographed foliage and nature and urban scenes were –in time honored collage tradition — clipped from the covers of Smithsonian and other glossy magazines.

The bamboo leaf shapes are scissored from real corn husks.  A rug mat the cats in the story sleep on is made of lint scraped from the Youngs’ clothes dryer. The speckled cover of a college composition book provides the textured background for our cat heroine in one of Wabi Sabi’s epiphany moments near the conclusion.

The mottled brown pattern of the cat herself throughout the book comes from the rusted surface of a portable cook stove Young owns.

All of these materials  — the leaves, the pine needles, the dryer lint, even the big thermometer and the stove! –were  taken down to a neighborhood copy shop, layed on top of the glass of a color Xerox machine– and photocopied!  (“It probably isn’t something you could do at Staples,” Young offered.) Then he and his daughter merely cut around the myriad shapes and patterns in the color copies — to create the images for the story.

“I try to take the time to find the soul of a story I illustrate,” Young said. “And, well, Wabi Sabi gave me the theme I needed to make use of that challenge,” Young said. “We were using things people have discarded, things people don’t want to celebrate. And I was reminded that this — and everything — is part of a process.

“With illustration, it’s no different. If I lose this set, I’m not the same person any more — so I’ll do another set.  One round is one telling. The next round is another  telling. I’m just finished for this round.

“The lesson is that nothing is frozen. If the book is ever to be made again, it can be retold by another person in a different way.  And it could be just as good, or better.”

* * * * *

The missing set of originals have been alluded to in press releases, a review in School Library Journal and other sources. I got additional details from Mr. Young and a video he loaned me of a talk he gave this fall at the Hastings on the Hudson Public Library.  The talk was in conjunction with an exhibit of the Wabi Sabi artwork at the library — All the art, Both sets!. The once-missing original pictures showed up almost a year after they disappeared — in a Lutheran church where Young teaches Tai Chi classes!

“I’ve had Individual pieces of my art that were lost before, and even whole sets of illustrations.
But I never had a set of illustrations that was lost — and then found!”  Young told his appreciative library audience.

* * * *

My warm thanks to Mr. Young,  Tara Koppel with Raab Associates Inc. and Celia Holm, Children’s Librarian at the Spicewood Springs Branch of the Austin Public Library for their help with this article.  Mark Mitchell

Lon Po Po (inside illustration)

Lon Po Po (inside illustration)

Author-illustrator Mark Mitchell hosts this blog and offers an ongoing online course on drawing and painting for children’s book illustration.