Art and Letters

So many colleagues from the Austin children’s and YA writing community spoke on panels and signed their new books at the 2009 Texas Book Festival this past weekend.  I always enjoy this 2.5 day party on the state capitol grounds.  But I could not go this time because I was on an illustration deadline.

So Saturday afternoon while looking for music on You Tube to ink my drawings by,  I stumbled upon “Foreign Letters” by Israeli singer, composer-arranger Chava Alberstein.  Here’s her performance at a Berlin concert with the Klezmatics.  (You have to click on the “Watch on You Tube”  link.  It’s  worth it.  She’s a spellbinder.)

“Oh, how beautiful. I love foreign letters,” she sings. “They are like drawings. They are like secret signs from magic places, from different worlds.”

Alberstein’s music is typically ravishing.  For her though, it’s about words and language.  She says so herself in songs and interviews.

Chava’s song and the book festival happening downtown got me thinking about the graphic statement of the written word —  of how text =  images and the  alphabets of the world derive from pictures.

On Monday I was reading  a new blogpost by comics creator and teacher Scott McCloud discussing the presentation of text in graphic novels. McCloud linked to an interview with Todd Klein, the graphic artist who did the lettering for Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman series, which required Klein to invent a different font for each character! You can read the interview here.

I thought of children’s author Charles Ghigna, aka Father Goose who posts a new poem on his blog each week full of word pictures for “teachers, librarians, parents friends …and kids.

I found myself reaching for Liz Garton Scanlon‘s resonant new picture book All the World with illustrations by Marla Frazee that happened to be lying by my computer.  Publishers Weekly has just named it to its list of  Best Children’s Books of 2009.

9781416985808

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

Yes — it was as I remembered!
Her poem text was rendered in
pencil.

Or else set in one very
cleverly executed font.

I contacted Liz to find out which.
She’s one of the leading lights in our Austin SCBWI chapter.

Did Marla Frazee hand letter the text?
I asked her.

“Yep,” she replied.

One more celebration of letters on the page!

“…Letters that are the beginning of everything good and bad in this world. With letters you can create anything you want. You can create disasters.  And you can create hopes and dreams — good dreams.” — Chava Alberstein

Two other authors from the  Austin SCBWI gang have books on PW‘s list of best children’s books of the year.  The Day-Glo Brothers: The True Story of Bob and Joe Switzer’s Bright Ideas and Brand-New Colors by Chris Barton, illus. by Tony Persiani (Charlesbridge) and The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate, by Jacqueline Kelly (Holt.)

This just in: The New York Times releases its “Best Illustrated Children’s Books of 2009” list tomorrow (Saturday, November 7. ) Yes, you’ve already guessed it:  All the World, by Liz Garton Scanlon with illustrations by Marla Frazee  made the list (and it’s a pretty short list.)

Have your portfolio reviewed by Caldecott Honor illustrator Marla Frazee or the wonderfully talented Patrice Barton at the Austin SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) annual conference Destination Publication on Saturday Saturday, January 30, 2010. Find the full lowdown and registration form here

And have it reviewed a month later by Patrick Collins, Creative Director of Henry Holt Books for Young Readers  at the Houston SCBWI  conference Saturday, February 20, 2010. Download information and a registration form  here.

Mark Mitchell, who wrote this post,  teaches children’s book illustration at the Art School at the Austin Museum of Art and online. You can learn about his online course here and receive some free drawing videos and a lesson.

example of Glagolitic alphabet

The Glagolitic Alphabet in action: Codex Zographensis from Medieval Bulgaria

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Dogged Daily Drawing

Cartoonist,  comics artist-author, web designer  Erik Kuntz drew a dog every day for a year.

And now he can draw them out of his head quite easily.

I know this because I saw him do it with my own eyes a few weeks ago.  I was sitting across the table from him at Central Market Cafe at an Inklings critique session. He had his sketchbook out. (A lot of folks bring their sketchbooks to Inklings gatherings.)  He was doodling as he listened to the various conversations that were going on around the table.

Suddenly this friendly,  rough and ready four pawed canine fellow appeared on the page — and everyone stopped talking.

I was always  impressed by  Erik’s decision to create  regularly  (by drawing then posting to his website a dog every day so we could keep tabs on him.  And not the same dog, either.)

It was the sort of character building put-your-time-and-money-where-your- mouth-is goal that I’ve always aspired to.  (Alas, I’ve found that other peoples’ deadlines motivate me more than my own.)

Erik never missed a day– and no one ever told him to do it.

He talked with us a few weeks ago. 

Why a dog a day, Erik?

I came up with the idea in 2000.  I even designed a logo for it way back then. Somebody said  if  you do something everyday,  it’s not possible to get worse at it.  Some of the newer studies, like those quoted in Malcom Gladwell’s  book Outliers have suggested that genius is over-rated.  I read something about that in 2002. 

I thought I should force  something ;  I really should be drawing more. But I let my own personal insecurities  get in the way.

It did bother me for six years.  I kept thinking,  where would I be now in my skill if I’d put more effort into it years ago.

On January 1, 2008, I launched my web comic Hex Libris and I thought,  as as long as I’m doing this, I should start doing a dog a day at the same time.

Dog a Day wooden model conceived by Erik Kuntz

Dog a Day wooden model conceived by Erik Kuntz

And why dogs?

People like dogs. It’s not like doing  a cat a day, because with cats you don’t get the huge difference — all the variations that you get with dogs.  Dogs are funnier than cats and have more personality.
I knew more ideas would come from them.

Plus I was working on a children’s book about a Dalmation, and I knew that the reason I wasn’t  drawing the way I wanted to was because it’s easier to just not work.

And so how did you proceed?

As best I could.  I tried to do them in one sitting.  Some of the pieces would take more than one day. Generally they took a couple of hours.  I didn’t intend for  them to take  me as long as they did.  Some days I wished I had more time  — and came away a little bit discouraged. But as I started to improve and become more proud of the stuff I was doing, I would ask myself, what do I need to put into this image to make it a piece I’m happy with?

I worked mainly with a Wacom tablet.  I discovered that the ‘happy accidents’  that you often get in watercolor –can happen in digital mediums, too.

Working digitally you could just go back and work it to death.
But I learned to just stop and post the piece. I discovered the freeing nature of just stopping when I was reasonably done and telling myself, ‘This is what I did today, and I’ll do another one tomorrow.’

I put them up on the web as I completed them to keep myself honest.  I never missed  one. But one day something happened to my webserver  and the dog that had been up went down.  And I heard from eight people.

Dog a Day ala Dr. Seuss

Dog a Day ala Dr. Seuss

How did you give yourself ideas?

There were some days when I would sit down and just not know what I was going to do. Often I would begin by noodling around with the Wacom.  For the one dog I did in complementary colors, I just put on a sphere and started to form a dog out of this. I spent an hour and a half on that,  just finding the dog hiding in the raw thing.

Complementary Colors Dog

Complementary Colors Dog

Some of the dogs I did with Bic pen or Sharpie marker on typing paper.  Sometimes I would scan these and repaint them digitally.

People would send me ideas.  Some people would send me photos of dogs and I did drawings.

Some days I would search the web for interesting dogs. Some days I would work completely from my imagination.  I would do these three minute-dogs, stopwatch running.

I’d start with a really loose gesture, with some fuzzy notion of an action or a composition. I’d work really rough and light with blue pencil on paper, or the blue digital pencil  on the computer.  I used to be one of those kinds of people that tried to get every line right and I was really slow and cramped in my drawing. I felt like there was some sort of freedom missing in it.

Now I know I can get away with a fast, loose gesture. I learned that I could draw the arm as an arc, and everybody would be fine with it and nobody knows…

Fu Dog a Day

Fu Dog a Day

And now,  the book: You’ve repackaged your drawings in a new format!

I was thinking initially of  a small run of books that would be a Christmas present for family and some friends.

I started with one print on demand publisher but had problems with their color. Later I  turned to CreateSpace, owned by Amazon. They were substantially cheaper but they didn’t have the high grade glossy paper. But now the book is available  through their store.

I’ve designed books in the past, but never an art book. I used Adobe InDesign, which is a great program.

You know,  the Dog a Day project was never meant to be anything commercial.  It was meant to improve my skills and yes it did.

The idea was to challenge yourself and accept that if it wasn’t very good, then at least you drew.

I’m still drawing every day. And, yeah,  I can draw dogs with my eyes closed — no peeking.

"Hex Libris" Dog a Day (Connie and Watson)

"Hex Libris" Dog a Day (Connie and Watson)

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You can order your personalized softcover copy of  “A Dog A Day”  at Erik’s webstore here.

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Erik is also the creator of what is probably the most charming comic created for the web, the kid-friendly Hex Libris . Since its launch on January 1, 2008, the series has been unfolding a narrative about Kirby,  caretaker of a magical library and his fictional friends. (They range from a Nancy Drew-like character and her big dog Watson — to Frankenstein’s very literate monster.) You can read our early interview with Erik about Hex Libris here .

Bat Girl Dog A Day

Bat Girl Dog A Day

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The narrator in the “Dog a Day Project” video, of course, is Erik’s wife, brilliant actress, comedian writer Maggie Gallant. They met in London while both working on start-up team for America Online – UK .

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Author Cynthia Leitich Smith interviews author Chris Barton on the publication of his picture book bio “The Day Go Brothers: The True Story of Bogb and Joe Switzer’s Bright Ideas and Brand New Colors” (Charlesbridge, 2009)  illustrated by Tony Persiani. The book has been getting great reviews  and you can learn how to enter to win a free copy in the post in Cynthia’s  blog Cynsations.

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Mark Mitchell hosts the “How To Be A Children’s Book Illustrator” blog.
To enjoy some free watercolor lessons from his online course
on how to illustrate a children’s book go here.

Shadow Dog a Day by Erik Kuntz

Shadow Dog a Day by Erik Kuntz