Wednesday, August 17, 2011

It's About the Sheralyn Barnes

Since my last post, the SCBWI conference in Los Angeles has come and gone. My oh my....what an enlightening event. I encourage anyone who loves children's books and wants to make a career in making them to go next year if you can. You won't regret it. It's amazing, informative, inspiring, fun, exhausting, and yes....frustrating. I've been home for over a week now and all the information and experiences are slowly sinking in. I'm realizing just how important that last emotion - frustration- is. It seems equally as important as inspiration in this game. And here's why....

I've spent the last 5 months with my head in the computer trying to hone my skills at painting digitally and I've been very happy with my accomplishments. However, after this last conference, I realized that I've been ignoring a couple of key elements that are very important to being a good children's book illustrator. I've been ignoring the story and the characters, the two things that make a good book a good book! I realized that I've been so involved in making fur look like fur, snow look like snow, and wool look like wool that I haven't taken the time to really get to know my characters and how they think or explore in depth where they live. It seems crazy to only just now realize this! My training is in fine arts so I was never exposed to the basics of character design (or the importance of thumbnails) in school.  I now realize that I've been using my obsessive attention to detail in painting as an excuse to avoid pushing myself out of my artistic comfort zones in illustration.

I can admit this to myself after having had an incredibly enlightening critique with Dan Santat again this year at the conference. In 15 minutes he made a remarkable difference in my perspective on my work. His critique opened my eyes even wider to what I've been ignoring.

Here's what I mean...

I showed him this piece. It is the opening illustration that I did for a final to go with a Christmas book dummy about a rabbit and mouse who hide in an old woman's barn when a blizzard comes. In this scene, the rabbit is supposed to be anxiously awaiting his mouse friend's arrival at the rendezvous point so that they can go together to the barn for safety. This is a piece that I've been laboring on for the last month (you know...getting that fur and snow just right).

Dan respectfully pointed out to me that what I have painted here is a portrait of a mildly concerned rabbit looking to his left. Then, I threw in a couple of trees to establish that he's outside and there is snow. That's it. Think about it, if he was a rabbit actor trying out for the part, he wouldn't get the role now would he? Now considering that I have sat through six workshops at several SCBWI conferences with the fab art director Laurent Linn in which he very accurately shows the many facets that make a good illustration good (and how a good illustrator is like a good movie director, lighting director, wardrobe designer, etc) I absolutely can't believe I was so blind to what I had done here! A good children's book illustration should always intrigue the viewer and make them ask questions about what is going on. The most memorable statement that Dan Santat said to me this time around was.... "Your illustration should tell a story before the text is even added."

So he gave me some tips on this piece. Here is a rough of possible changes using some of his suggestions.

Since this rough is small on the screen and hard to see I'll note what I'm aiming at. First, this rabbit is worried, his character is neurotic and he should look as worried as I would be if I was stuck in a car on the freeway in an oncoming blizzard with bad tires. I want to get that across (and intend to work on that expression and body language since it is key to the scene)! My imagined setting is Vermont....with lots of hills, pines and snow. I would have picked my home state of Minnesota, but it's too flat. So it's Vermont as I imagine it would be in winter. In the upper right, the barn and house are off in the distance and the incoming snowstorm is already upon them (this is a key location of where the story is taking us). In the middle upper right, the mouse is coming up the hill from the barn (where he's already been, unknowing to the rabbit who is looking for him to come from another direction).

So it's a start in a new direction at least. The importance of learning how to move the story forward was reinforced over and over again in workshops in LA with (the amazing illustrator) David Small, (the absolutely amazing Art Director with great hair) Laurent Linn, and (the wonderful art director) Martha Rago. All these people know what they are talking about, so I am eagerly listening and trying to stay all ears and keep my eyes open as much as possible to my own blind spots from here on out! This is why going to conferences is golden. Another reason to go to conferences? I know everyone in Pixel Shaving because of SCBWI conferences. That's been the icing on the cake! I've learned so much from knowing all of them and am so honored to be part of such a talented group of illustrators.

Thanks for tuning in!
Look for another enlightening and fabulous post from Hazel next week!


  1. What an insightful post! Since I'm a writer, I hadn't thought character building through from an artist's point of view. This is so helpful for me in learning more and more about the entire process. (although I didn't experience the illustrator portions of SCBWI, I was absolutely blown away by David Small's keynote. Wow.)

  2. Sheralyn, I love walking this creative process with you. You are an author/illustrator, but I think it is a shame that there isn't more creative interaction between those of us that are just one or the other. One of the thrills of SCBWI for me was becoming friends with more illustrators like you, Hazel, Debbie etc...

    Rabbit is definitely getting more worried, btw ;)

    I heart Pixel Shavings!

  3. Excellent post Sheri! Full of valuable information and insight, thanks for sharing.

  4. Wonderful post, I too will now look at my characters through the eye of a film director. I have learnt a valuable lesson tonight - Thanks

  5. Thanks to all of you! It's been a very insightful couple of weeks and I feel grateful to be a part of the Pixel Shavings group so that I can share my experiences. I learn so much from everyone else here that it makes me very happy to know sharing my experiences can help you as well!