P.J. Lynch: Story illustration A-Z

The childhood thrill of make believe looms large for Dublin-based artist P.J. Lynch, 2X winner of England’s Kate Greenaway Medal for IllustrationHe may not come out and say this. But you can’t not feel it in his children’s book illustrations and murals, YouTube videos and lectures about art and painting in Ireland and the U.S.

He puts pretending first, which makes his formidable technical skills as a draftsman and painter accessible to all.

Lynch created two remarkable murals on the theme of Gulliver’s Travels for the Johnston Central Library — in Cavan County, Ireland (where Johnathan Swift wrote most of his classic satire.)

In the video Lynch shows us how he acted out the character roles for one of the large panel paintings.

Illustrators are actors, as Howard Pyle suggested to his students more than 100 years ago.

In the above BBC film short Lynch talks about illustrating the old Norwegian folk tale East of the Sun and West of the Moon and how he asked his mom, girlfriend, neighbor “and anyone who was handy” to pose for him as characters in Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen.

In the videos above and below an older Lynch walks us through the stages of creating illustrations for American Frank Stockton’s The Bee-man of Orn. 

He shows us how he uses the computer to re-arrange his drawings and compose his scenes to best effect.

Elements from his piles of sketches can be “moved about like paper cut-outs,” he says.

“The great thing is they can be enlarged or reduced and you can even change the shape of them. You can even flip them over, like this…”

“Then all I have to do is paint the pictures,” Lynch says with a hint of drollness.

Some of these pictures will take up to a month to complete, he says.  He’ll make sketch after sketch “before the image ever starts to take shape.”

His watercolor demo speaks for itself. At the end he adds touches of gouache for highlights. You’ll enjoy peeking into his blog, where you’ll find more examples of his spellbinding art.

Voyage to Lilliput mural for Cavan County Library

East of the Sun, West of the Moon by George Webbe Dasent (translator)

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See what happened when Walt Disney (and Boy Scouts  movement founder Lord Baden Powell, too) discovered Baloo, Mowgli and other characters from Rudyard Kipling’s darkly themed stories about animal society in the Indian jungle. You’ll enjoy the latest video post up on the Illustration Course blog.                                                                                                                                                      * * * * *

Check out illustrator and teacher Will Terry’s guest post on  preparing your picture book dummy to send to publishers.  The post is part of the terrific on-going PBDummy Challenge series by illustrators on the #KidLitArt blog.

Will offers  some great video courses on illustration and other art-making at his Folio Academy website. My favorites are How to Illustrate a Children’s Book and his two Photoshop video courses. You can read more about them here.

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Are you interested in writing children’s books as well as making pictures for them? You can download two free examination copies of the Children’s Writer newsletter at the newsletter’s website here.

The newsletter is a publication of the Institute of Children’s Literature. Writer Mary Furlong has profiled Make Your Splashes – Make Your Marks! (On Your Mark, Get Set…Illustrate!) in this month’s edition of the Children’s Writer  (June 2012).

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Discover an instant way to righteously better drawing in these free videos.

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Author-illustrator Mark Mitchell teaches an online course on children’s book illustration that you can read more about here.

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‘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.”

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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.]

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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.

Develop your artistic confidence here

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Illustration by Mark Mitchell from The Trail North by Charlotte Baker Montgomery (Eakin Press)

Congratulations!
You’ve landed on a blog and an education-community site intended for you.

You won’t find another site quite like this. Here you have art lessons. But they’re more than art lessons. More like revelations. You’ll find design and drawing tips. But they’re more than tips. They’re keys to easily tackle most picture-making challenges that you may face.

You’ll learn how to draw without “learning how to draw.” Anyone can do this, with a high interest level, the right information and a little bit of “right practice”.  You’ll get these here.

You’ll find painting instruction  — but a unique kind that can free you as it encourages and dares you to explore several painting mediums, with brush or mouse.

You’ll discover how to grow your illustration from a thumbnail “seed” to a living-breathing, full-sized sketch–  and “make a scene, fusing the  skills of the draftsman with those of the storyteller.

You’ll be shown what I call the “Howard Pyle Theorem” (to remind you that illustration is a special kind of theater) and the “Lynne and Tessa” factor, which proves how story imagery can reach beyond the frame and maybe the page!

In monthly interviews you’ll meet successful children’s book illustrators and see how they work.  They might share some trade secrets with you.

You’ll find news roundups of the field,  mini-lessons by guest artist-instructors, exposure to the books, blogs and projects of your fellow illustrators. You’ll find an online community and support group and a clearing house for an astounding array of resources and information. And gradually you’ll be able to enter the dialogue of illustrators, graphic designers, art directors, editors, agents, writers, teachers and librarians and others who love children’s books and children’s book art.

As enrolled student-members, you’ll have access to the year-long online course, Make Your Marks: A Power Course in Creating Effective Illustrations for Children’s Books, Magazines and Other Media for Children, based on a popular class honed over the years in the studio classrooms of the Austin Museum of Art Art School.

You’ll acquire some  sophisticated knowledge in a surprisingly short time — that ccould save you years of frustration and possibly costly mis-steps.

You’ll love this journey. You’ll have fun. In the strange, quiet way that creators have fun. And you’ll grow.

Maybe a lot.

So bookmark this site. Keep coming back to it. You’ve found a good community for you — but it is partly a gated community.  To enroll as a student-member and have access to the in-depth content and the core training,  e-mail mark@markgmitchell.com.

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Author-illustrator Mark G. Mitchell (www.markgmitchell.com) is the editor of How to be a Children’s Book Illustrator.  

Download his award-winning book for young people, Raising La Belle for free at http://shipwreck-book.weebly.com.

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