Sunday, October 4, 2015

Deep Thoughts on Constructive Criticism

I've been mulling over the progress of my book dummy and trying to sort out different pieces of constructive criticism. Which is a little painful, actually. I was trying to keep from being depressed and moody. I was basically in the land of Deep Thoughts.

Which brought up a funny association! If you are an old fart like me you might remember Deep Thoughts by Jack Handey on Saturday Night Live. They were some old-school memes, video style. I went fishing for them online and found this great one from 1995. It's sort of relevant to my own personal deep thoughts. It's best with the video and sound, so click on the link. But here's the text, too:

I remember how my great-uncle Jerry would sit on the porch and whittle all day long. Once he whittled me a toy boat out of a larger toy boat I had. It was almost as good as the first one, except now it had bumpy whittle marks all over it. And no paint, because he had whittled off the paint.

Ha! Anyone used to working on a long-term creative project can surely relate to this feeling! I've been whittling at my picture book forever now. But is it getting better? Or just smaller and bumpy with no paint?

Here's proof that I'm still working on my dummy- the newest thumbnails.

Us earnest folks try so hard to do things right and pour all of ourselves into our work. But we have no objectivity about it. So constructive criticism from other people is essential to make progress. But how much? And who should we listen to?

You can definitely get too many opinions. Because all those opinions will conflict with each other. And the most forceful one isn't necessarily the one you should listen to. Ask for criticism carefully and selectively. If you have a critique group that you trust, they are the best! If not, seek out one of your peers who is serious about their work. And always offer to repay them with a critique or any way that you can be helpful.

Find a way to get a critique from the professionals also. I've been doing this through SCBWI conferences for years. You can sign up for portfolio reviews and manuscript critiques. You will either get a publishing professional like an editor, art director, or agent, or you'll get a respected published author or illustrator. I've also gotten a couple critiques from artists that I admire just by emailing them and asking. People are generally so nice and helpful!

Now that you have a pile of opinions from people that you trust, what do you do with them? Even when they are carefully considered and come from a place of experience, they will still conflict or be confusing.

Here are some of the comments I've heard lately about my art style:
It's too beautiful.
Too clean.
I'm too focused on technique.
My illustrations are distracting from the text.
My carvings should be messier with more cut marks showing in the print.
I need more pattern.
More black.
Less black.
Make my shapes simpler, with less detail.
Make it more magical.
People aren't your strength. (From just about everyone.)

And the worst thing to sort out:
It needs to be unique, eye-catching, and original.
Could you make it look more like… (insert the name of famous illustrators.)

That's enough to make anyone moody. It helps that I take a lot of notes during or right after a critique. And going back to read those helps because sometimes the emotion you feel can overwhelm what the person was actually trying to say. Rereading your notes can help you get to the kernel of truth you need to hear.

Give it time. Sometimes a couple days or weeks of setting the project aside and letting it percolate will help an idea form. Time allows you to figure out what is important and what doesn't fit with your vision. It's ok to disregard an opinion from a famous and experienced person. Just be sure you've carefully considered why they offered that opinion. Maybe there's a different solution that they didn't think of that will also solve the problem. But if they suggested a change, it's likely a problem area that needs your attention.

Also, listen to the core of the critique but realize that the speaker might not have used the clearest language. For example- one person said my linocuts need more black and the other person said that they need less black. These people were looking at different prints and that explains the conflict on the surface. But really they were both trying to tell me the same thing. I need to find the right balance between black and white in my carvings and rely less on the watercolor at the end. I need more pattern and texture in the carving. That will give the image more movement and shading without relying on watercolor. That's my takeaway after a bit of thinking anyway.

And remember, this is YOUR art! Don't let someone whittle it down to a small bumpy boat with no paint. Just use the criticism that helps you and your art grow. If a comment feels wrong or mean, ignore it! Listen to the people who are really trying to help you. And take their advice in ways that empower you and are in line with your larger vision. Go create!!

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

New Blog Header

I finally have a little time to do some fun art, so I'm making a new header for this blog- it's going to be a book. Here's the linocut at the beginning of the process. Yay! Something new for Art on the Page!

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

New Shop

I've had an Etsy shop for many years, but I'm putting it on vacation and I have a new shop on my website! SquareSpace makes it really easy to do although there are some things that aren't customizable. (That may not be a word!)

You can check it out here- Keep in mind that many other things on my website may also be for sale- just email me to ask- And through the end of September there's a coupon code NEWSHOP for 20% off!

Monday, September 21, 2015

Sunflower Bouquet

This last month I was working on a piece that I couldn't share. It was a gift for a wedding anniversary commissioned by my friend's husband. Now that they've had their anniversary, I can show it to you!

The bride's wedding bouquet was 3 sunflowers and some other small flowers. Her husband asked me make a linocut of the bouquet with their rings on the ribbon. This was the perfect opportunity for me to play around with lots of texture!

And here's how it turned out. She likes it!!

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

My Creative Life: Books

This is the third, but maybe not the last, of the posts about my creative life and figuring out how to be an artist. I said in the last post that I've had the wonderful feeling of finding my calling three times in my life. No beam of light came down from the heavens, but it's true that when I discovered printmaking it felt fantastic. The second time it happened for me it was when I discovered that I could make books. And the really great thing is that you can combine printmaking and books! Woohoo!!

These are some of the handmade artist books I've made. Most of them have content of various types  and a few are blank sketchbooks. I've always been a book lover. Mostly I read novels, but I love any kind of well written or illustrated or art book. When I was a kid one of the things I wanted to be was a writer. After moving from being a musician to a self taught artist and having no connections at all and no idea of how to get published, making books seemed impossible. 

But it turned out that there was a book I REALLY wanted to make. And it was way too offbeat to be a published book anyway, so I started to find out how to make a book by hand. That book became The Girl with the Pretty Red Hair in the lower right of the photo above. Oh my gosh! What incredible fun to make a book! Because the images in this first book were linocuts, it was easy to make multiple copies and sign them as an edition. Here are some of the linocuts printed on white BFK with the red flowers painted with watercolor. I mounted each of these little prints onto a red page in the book.

I had a wonderful time exploring handmade artist books for many years. I worked as a studio assistant for Laura Wait, an accomplished book artist in addition to many other things. I loved making artwork and designing a new book. And I loved making the first book of a series. But I didn't love production of the edition- making multiple copies of the same book.

So many people have their own creative interpretations what a book can be. And books certainly don't have to  have multiple copies- they can be unique pieces of art. The recent explosion of artist books has opened up endless possibilities. Books don't have to be on paper, and they don't even have to have pages. In fact the definition of a book is evolving and you can pretty much make up your own definition right now. If you'd like to see a zillion neat handmade books- check out these two publications by Lark Crafts.

500 Handmade Books: Inspiring Interpretations of a Timeless Form (That's one of Laura Wait's books on the cover!)

Masters: Book Arts: Major Works by Leading Artists (Another of Laura's books is on the back cover.)

As time passed, all of this creative innovation around handmade books made me realize that I was ordinary and boring and I mostly wanted to make traditional books. You know, the kind with covers, paper pages, stories and art inside, multiple copies, etc etc. And in fact I wanted to make children's books.

That was the third "finding my calling" moment. OMG! How did it take that long to figure it out??? Look- I made this print below, and others in the same style 15 years ago. You would think I might have started down the children's book path much earlier.

It wasn't until I joined a creative writing group 7 years ago that I discovered picture books for myself. I wrote a story about a dump truck that rescued a family of rabbits from a construction site. And I dove into the children's book world head first. 

I joined The Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators and went to my first conference. I learned that my 3000 word picture book rough draft was a joke. I eventually got it below 500 words with a dummy and two finished illustrations. The whole thing was exhilarating! It was going to be a hit! I was going to be making picture books forever and quit my day job!

But nooooooo. Children's publishing is competitive and there are so many talented authors and illustrators. And there's the whole shifting publishing world. I had so much to learn and practice. Now 7 years later I'm still unpublished. I'm working hard and I know so much more than I did. I've been in many many critique groups. I've been to 8 SCBWI Conferences (I think.) I've submitted 5 different dummies to about 70 different agents and publishers, and I've sent out lots of postcards. It does get frustrating. But I love picture books so much. My little girl was lucky enough to be born into a household that was already chock full of good books.

Now again I'm in a position where there's a book I REALLY want to make- even more than any of those other books that I really wanted to make. This is that one book that you absolutely have to make. The most important message that you have to share with everyone. The book that you are so completely invested in that it's your destiny to make it. Blah blah blah. Listen I HAVE to make this one.

But it doesn't have to look just like this. In fact this is the second complete dummy that I've done for this book. And it's about the 6th or 8th incarnation of the book idea. I tried thinking of it as a letterpress broadside, a collaboration coffee table book, and several different artist books including this one that I actually did complete:

You can see more photos of this handmade book, Earth on my website.

About my children's book, Our Home. It's about the beauty of our planet and how we all call this same place home. In July I worked like a maniac to get the drawings done so I could take the book dummy to the LA SCBWI Conference. And for the last month I've been working like a maniac again to clean the drawings up and make them better based on the feedback I got. Now in about a week I should have them all done and the dummy reconstructed to take to our regional SCBWI Conference in Denver. Wish me luck! Because like I said, I HAVE to make this book. So if I can't get it published traditionally you may have to listen to me repeatedly asking for money through Kickstarter to help me self publish my book. And you don't really want that, right? So cross your fingers that this book can find a publisher! And Thanks!

Sunday, August 30, 2015

A Challenging Critique

I've been loving Andy J. Miller's Creative Pep Talk Podcasts for a few months now. I highly recommend them for ideas about improving your craft, your art business, and for lots of inspiration. When he decided to join Patreon to let people support him with small amounts for each new podcast, I liked what he was doing so much I wanted to help! He also made available 10 openings where he offers quarterly reviews of your artwork and online presence to help you with strategy. And I got one of the spots!

Boy, Andy is thorough. He recorded my own personal podcast with lots of great ideas and impressions.  And he made me a private Pinterest board with examples of art that show what he was talking about. Of his suggestions, there's one that especially resonated with me and I've been working really hard on already. He suggested that I simplify all of my shapes- people, animals and objects. Make them less realistic and more stylized. That's the kind of art I like best, but I've always had a hard time getting there with my own drawings.

So to begin with I redrew one of the pages from my dummy over and over about 5 times. Each time I was able to take it a little further into a simplified style. This is the latest version of it above on the left. In this photo are also Book Fiesta illustrated by Rafael Lopez and Blue on Blue illustrated by Beth Krommes. It helps me to have art I admire with those clear, rounded, simple shapes to keep me in the right frame of mind.

I feel like I'm making some good progress in the right direction. It's challenging to redraw my entire dummy keeping this style unified throughout. But I'm happy with it so far!

I wanted to share a few of the illustrations that Andy picked to show me what he meant about simplifying and creating a more memorable, stylized look.

This is the girl from Extra Yarn illustrated by Jon Klassen.

The Musicians by Carson Ellis

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Thoughtful Picture Books

When agents or editors list their preferences in conferences or online the phrase "quirky, funny, character driven picture books" is a common one. That desire for funny picture books with a strong character is so common because they are great to read! You fall in love with the character, you have a good time, you want to read it again. Perfect, right?

But there are so many great books that aren't any of those things. And that seems to be the type of book that I am drawn to creating, so I keep my eye out for them. Have you read a book that was more about a place or an idea than a character? A book that was thoughtful and enlightening instead of funny? I love those books! And that's the type of book that I'm drawing right now. So I wanted to share some favorite picture books from my shelf that are NOT quirky, funny, or character driven, but ARE beautiful, thoughtful, and interesting. Please let me know if there are some you love like this also! 

Wherever You Go by Pat Zietlow Miller and Eliza Wheeler

Look at this beautiful spread below!!! Every page in this book takes you someplace wonderful. I wish I could live in this world created by Eliza Wheeler.

Dream Animals: A Bedtime Journey by Emily Winfield Martin

This is a sweet bedtime book with lovely illustrations by Emily Winfield Martin. My daughter's grandmother gave it to her and we love reading it while snuggling.

Red Sings from Treetops: A Year in Colors by Joyce Sidman and Pamela Zagarenski

This book of poems is illustrated by one of my favorite artists, Pamela Zagarenski. The mood changes throughout the book with the change of seasons and colors.

Sun and Moon by Lindsey Yankey

Lindsey Yankey is a new author/illustrator and I've bought both of her books. She's a brand new favorite! Her artwork is really different and interesting to me, and her stories are thoughtful without being sappy. I also recommend Bluebird by this wonderful artist.

Home by Carson Ellis

I just love Carson Ellis' color palette in this book. Although there isn't a storyline, there are enough other things tying this gorgeous book together that it still works and makes you think about what you love about your own home.

Blue on Blue by Diane White and Beth Krommes

This is a story about weather changes at a family farm near the ocean. There are so many opportunities for the masterful Beth Krommes to show off her beautiful layouts and detailed illustrations.

All the World by Liz Garton Scanlon and Marla Frazee

This is one of the best books ever! Marla Frazee takes on the challenge of illustrating All the World with grace and skill. Thank you for this beautiful book, Marla Frazee and Liz Garton Scanlon!

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Dummy Update

I was lucky to have a portfolio review with Lauren Rille at the SCBWI Conference. She is an art director at Simon and Schuster who works with the imprints Atheneum Books for Young ReadersMargaret K. McElderry Books  and my favorite, Beach Lane Books

Lauren really understood linocuts because she's worked with Ashley Wolff who created Baby Bear and Beth Krommes who works with scratchboard which is similar to linoleum printing. She suggested I use pattern and texture more in my carving and rely less on paint to finish the image. I liked her ideas and I'm going to try being a little messier as she suggested.

I'm currently redrawing the images in my Our Home dummy. I'm doing the drawings full size, cleaning them up, using some of the pointers I got at the conference, and drawing them with black pencil so they will look good when I print them back out. Then I should have time to finish one more linocut before the Rocky Mountain Chapter SCBWI Conference September 19. But I have other things going on too, and I'm feeling pretty rushed! Wish me luck getting it all done!

Friday, August 7, 2015

Back from the LA SCBWI Conference

Even though it's inspiring, the LA SCBWI Conference is also exhausting. When I finally made it home Tuesday afternoon, my brain was mush. It's starting to act like a brain again.

I wanted to share a few impressions and some photos. I took plenty of photos, but darkish indoor photos of people standing together and smiling don't make the most captivating images. I was thinking about that during the conference and I realized just how much you get from being there. And mostly it's not a visual experience or it would probably translate better into photography. It's a listening experience. You hear amazing things from the speakers. You hear tips from the publishing professionals. You meet other people and hear their stories. And when you are brave you speak up to tell a bit about yourself and other people listen.

One of the greatest people to listen to was Mem Fox. What a storyteller and comedian! She has drama, she has surprise, she has crazy expressions! I could listen to her read books for hours. She was a treat better than any cake ever.

My other favorite speaker was Kwame Alexander, winner of the Newbery Medal for The Crossover. He was so captivating that I was riveted to my chair and didn't even realize I didn't take a photo. So here's his publicity photo and if you ever get a chance to hear him speak, DO!

While it wasn't the main point of his talk, I was really glad I was there to hear him tell about trying and trying to be published, and then finally self-publishing many books. And still trying to be traditionally published, and self-publishing again and SELLING TONS OF BOOKS! He even sold books successfully at a farmer's market every weekend for an entire summer! This man is loaded with charm, rhythm, and an infectious smile. What a total winner. He made us all feel like we were winners, too.

Here's the room between speakers. So many grown-up kids, there to talk about kid's books.

Finally it was the much anticipated Portfolio Showcase. I don't know how many portfolios there were but it looked like hundreds! I really tried to look at them all, then I tried to look at the most eye-catching ones, then I just tried to keep my sanity. I wish we could have a whole day with them available so we could take our time. There we some real beauties there.

Here's a photo of my friend Dow Phumiruk taking a peek at my portfolio. Dow is a fantastic illustrator who lives in the Denver area. I was so happy to hang out with her throughout the conference. We met many years ago at a Rocky Mountain Chapter SCBWI Conference. She's doing great things, so keep an eye on her!

Not only does Dow create amazing illustrations, she also creates amazing costumes! She made SCBWindex!! Look at that hat! Sue Ganz-Schmitt went as a window and I went as Brawny paper towels. We were the cleanest, sparkliest trio! We came in second in the costume contest at the Saturday night gala.

And I couldn't resist sharing this photo of Laurent Linn, the sparkliest, classiest guy.

Meal times were a nice way to regroup, meet people, talk about what we'd loved so far, make plans, oh, and eat! Adam Rex had a little time for dinner and no plans, so we dragged him to the food court. Here he is smiling like a gentleman with me, Dow, and Heidi Yates.

And here we are another day having lunch on the hotel lawn. On the right is my roommate, Allison Ritchie. I was happy to have such a great roommate!

I took notes and doodled throughout the conference, but proportionally, I took the most notes at the Illustrator Intensive. That was an all day event on Monday featuring a great cast of illustrators, art directors, and an agent. They shared tools for creating successful images and lots of examples. My favorite was John Rocco, a Caldecott Honor winner for Blackout. My first line of notes says, "He looks like a lumberjack!" And in fact as a young man he was a commercial shell fisherman in Rhode Island. Here's his Twitter photo:

He shared great tips, but again like Kwame Alexander, what I needed to hear most was about his struggle. He didn't start drawing until college and it took him a while to find his way. Although he draws beautifully, he says it takes him a long time to draw an image. And I can relate to that. You fast people have no idea how intimidating it is to watch you dash off the perfect image! Some days my best friend is the eraser. Anyway, I loved hearing the story about the blizzard that snowed him in as a child. And how he finally realized after telling the story to his child repeatedly that it would make a good picture book. Sometimes the obvious things take a while to reveal themselves!

And how's this for a send-off? At the end of the Illustrator's Intensive, these 12 powerhouses lined up to give us quick tips. From left to right: Peter Brown, Pat Cummings, John RoccoDan Santat, Patti Ann Harris, Alexandra PenfoldMelissa Sweet, Lauren RilleEliza Wheeler, Cecilia Yung, Laurent Linn and Paul Zelinsky. They also gave us some banter, and silly business, and inspiration. At the end of the day, that's the most important part for me. At every conference, I stock up on as much inspiration as I can to last me through another year. And SCBWI never disappoints. Thanks for another dose of inspiration!

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Ready for SCBWI

I've mentioned in posts that I'm going to the LA SCBWI Conference this year. And it's this weekend!!!! YAY!!

Here is my portfolio printed by Blurb, my postcards printed my Moo, and two picture book dummies printed by my excellent Epson printer! I'm so relieved to have that Our Home Dummy done.

I've gone to this conference two other times, and our regional Rocky Mountain Conference many times.  The first time I went to LA, I was really just taking everything in and trying not to get overwhelmed. A real highlight that year was talking to Loren Long and listening to his presentation as he jumped around impersonating a happy tractor.

During that conference I drew this doodle-

That turned into the biggest linocut I've ever done!

The second time I went to the LA Conference, I was having personal problems at home and was having a hard time staying focused. I was so sad that I didn't get as much out of that time as I could have. The highlights for me that year were workshops by Eugene Yelchin and Melissa Sweet. Eugene is incredibly intelligent and articulate. He was able to verbalize so many of those instinctive design decisions that you make (or don't) that create a great illustration. Thinking back, I need to pull those notes out and go over them again!

And Melissa Sweet is a very short force of nature! Her illustrations are so beautiful, detailed, energetic, fun and colorful! She was really good at giving us suggestions for ways to stay creative and come up with ideas. She also talked a lot about color which is good for me to hear since I haven't done much reading about color theory. 

Ooooh, I wonder what my favorite parts of this conference will be? I know I'm really looking forward to spending time with my friend, Dow Phumiruk who is an awesome illustrator. She is so positive and happy. I will share bits about my favorite presentations during or after the conference!