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.

Rosa

Rosa

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.

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“Merry Christmas, me buckos, an’ a Happy New Yaaargghhhh!”

Sebastia Serra modeled his pirates and ship

Sebastia Serra modeled his pirates and ship

Those aren’t my words above (although they’re my sentiments, certainly.) They are the closing lines of “A Pirate’s Night Before Christmas”, the new children’s picture book by Philip Yates and Sebastia Serra (Sterling Press.)

"A Pirate's Night Before Christmas"

“A Pirate’s Night Before Christmas”

I’ve never done a “two-parter” on a children’s book before, but this is a special occasion.

First, it’s so close to Christmas and this book is a quintessential Christmas greeting, as told by one scabrous seadog to another.

Second, the wonderful illustrator Sebastia Serra who lives just outside  Barcelona, Spain, just finished a deadline.

And so he was able, just this morning to share with us some words about how he created his magical pictures for this brand new “Christmas classic.”  (We heard from author Philip Yates, who lives in Austin, Texas and is part of our amazing Austin SCBWI chapter in the previous post.)

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Serra says, “For me, A Pirates Night before Christmas is a very special book.

” The subject of the pirates has always been of interest for me but I never had the opportunity of illustrating it before. For this reason, I felt very much like doing it. Moreover, the text of Philip Yates is just wonderful and enormously inspiring for an illustrator. It is absolutely full of suggestive images and close characters.

“My working process always starts with a very thorough documentation work. I try to look for the atmosphere of the book in order to make it “breathing” like the text. For this reason I had to do a deep immersion in the pirates’ world: engravings, books, films, websites, etc.

“For the characters’ process I use plenty of paper. There are many attempts and sketches before I find the character that fits the text.

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“I often create some characters in 3D and in this way it is easier to draw them from all viewpoints. This time I was lucky to find an 18th century scale model ship that was very helpful to develop the different settings in a coherent way.

“The design of the scenes is always very intuitive. I usually have the image in my mind before starting to draw. Most of the images start forming in my mind from the first reading of the text.

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“From here on, the work with the computer starts. The whole of the process is digital. I add different textures like wood, ink stains, papers, etc. For this book of pirates, that has an atmosphere of old sailors’ song, I used papers of the 18th century which I scanned from the back of documents I found in a museum in the city where I live.

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“I am really proud of this book. On one hand due to the greatness of Yates’ text, and on the other, because I have the feeling that this time my work as illustrator has brought more to the whole of the text,” Serra says.

You can find Sebastia Serra’s website here.

For more images by Sebastia Serra from “A Pirate’s Night Before Christmas” see the previous post and interview with author- poet Philip Yates below. 

Mark Mitchell, who wrote this post, teaches the 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.

 

‘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.