Sunday, May 20, 2012

Too Much Frosting?

I've come to realize a few things about my illustration journey. Telling a visual story is number one and I've been way too busy working on number two- making it pretty. Don't get me wrong I love what I've been doing but what I'm talking about is having the sensibility to pull back sometimes and subjectively make logical decisions.

It began when I started seeing books from Mo Willems and how much attention they were getting 4-5 years ago. I have to be honest. I was trained in a more traditional illustration program so to put it bluntly I wasn't a fan- in fact I felt it didn't deserve all the hubbub. How could such simple primitive art be of equal or apparently greater value than mine? This is hard to admit because it more than suggests arrogance towards my art. I'm pointing the finger of shame at myself here.

Over time I've realized that I've had it totally backwards. It started by watching kids respond to books like: Don't let the pigeon drive the bus (which I had wrongly judged by the cover.) Kids love it! -but I was looking at the simple line work and primitive drawing with a critical eye. How could anyone fall for it? -but they were in droves! What I was missing is how well it communicates and draws kids in to Mo's magical world and now I realize - THIS IS OUR JOB!

The movie transformers also really helped change my mind. Sitting through 45 minutes of CGI had my skin crawling- it was over frosted! -too much of a good thing. Was I guilty of the same sin? And digesting Caldecott honor book "First The Egg" by Laura Vaccaro Seeger was enlightening. I had been basing my value judgements of children's books on small pieces of art taken out of context.  Now I've realized that the book IS the art and to take it apart and judge it is akin to rating a movie from a 5 minute section.

What really solidified my new found religion was getting a critique from David Small- Caldecott medal winner for "So You Want To Be President?" I asked his opinion and he kindly gave it. He said, "beautiful work but you don't give your reader any break from your full blown color!"..."it's like your trying to kill em with color!" Wow- how did he get it so right? I didn't want to kill em with color- I wanted to annihilate em with color!!! I used to think that if I crafted each image in my book better than the last- the viewer would love it too. Unconsciously I was creating my 45 min. of boring CGI. Frosting is great when applied judiciously...too much and you just want to scrape it off.

Now I look to illustrate the story first...if it calls for lots of color I'll use it but I'll also look to hold back at critical times so that the "frosting" tastes that much better!

29 comments:

  1. Hee heee, you are far too self critical (in a constructive way) to be arrogant , and it's nice to hear someone as successful as yourself admit that there is always room for development :o)

    My favourite children's illustrator is Quentin Blake, his anarchic scribblings fit Roald Dahl's bizarre little stories perfectly and as he very rarely even provides a background, there is enough room for kids to fill in the blanks with their own imagination.

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    1. Yes - filling in the blanks with imagination!...also, not getting in the way of it right?

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  2. Very good points Will. You are a fantastic illustrator and your pictures are rich and vibrant, but you are right maybe it is sometimes overload for kids. I know as an adult I love them never thought about maybe too much for a child. Guess we learn something new everyday.

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    1. It's a journey - just sit back and take it all in because if you're open you'll learn and grow faster and be much happier...and thanks for the kind words :)

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  3. great post Will, you're always giving me something to think about :)

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    1. You're very welcome karen - thanks so much.

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  4. Great thoughts to think about, Will. My journey with color was enriched and broadened when I began painting landscapes. I came to appreciate the subtle grays of nature and it added a whole new dimension to my understanding of color. I've grown to love the many muted and subdued colors that surround us. They bring a depth and feeing into a work that bright colors cannot begin to reveal.

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    1. Soooo true...I think I had sought to define my style with ridged rules because it felt safer....I've come to realize that safe in regards to art is as dangerous as it gets! Being open to new ideas, processes, techniques, and methods is liberating and the foundation to creation.

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  5. Love your insight here. I'm taken it to heart.

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  6. Ok, I was having this conversation with someone recently. There are these stopping points in my evolution, and I wake up to something that I need to change...usually through some kind of critique from a luminary whom I respect. So I go back in, thrash around and actually DO change my art. Which I NEVER would have done just by reflecting on my own stuff. But the result is that I end up with a similar, slightly jarred and improved version of the same thing...i.e. style. I love this post. We must all be thinking in the same cloud. The idea that I need to get out of the way so that children can engage, and make art that is outside the box I am in...I also think your colors are what makes your art unique, and suspect that you may not tone it down to Davids pallet. Maybe David McPhail.

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  7. Excellent post Will! I too suffer from too much frosting and plan on scaling back my color and hope to make it more harmonious. I have been studying 50s and 60s illustration and the limited palettes that are used. Plus Dan Santat uses great colors. But I must say that your color is topnotch and makes me envious. Oh, your characters kick ass as well.

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  8. Thanks for the personal take on what I've been hearing more and more lately about "allowing room for the viewer." This applies not only to color, but to technique and surface polish in general. It's tough to avoid the natural inclination to keep refining a good thing.

    And I especially like your insight about judging the whole. Ideally, a single illustration should make no sense outside the context of the book . . . right?

    All good stuff to keep in mind, but as a big fan of your work, Will, please promise not to throw the baby out with the bathwater! :-D

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  9. Wow. Great insight Will. I'll be interested to see how this makes your work evolve. Like you, I had to learn to appreciate spontaneous work that I now can see as genius, but I think if all books were like Mo's and David Small's style, the spontaneity of what they do would become boring and predictable in no time. When I see one of your books on the bookstore shelf, I find I want to lunge at it from across the room and find out whats inside and I think many people feel that way about your work. Your work does have a lot of color going on, but I also think it gives kids reason to stop and smell the roses along the journey of the read. I think that is equally important to remember. Yes, story is above all, most important, definitely. It gives us our destination. But remember that some people like to hike fast and furious to get to the mountain top while others like to take it slow and smell all the smells and see all the sights. There is room in children's books for both kinds. I think many illustrators are beginning to get frustrated with the "frostiness" of the computer age with good reason. It's a struggle to keep it from happening with digital painting and I feel I've been failing at keeping it at bay myself lately...in a big way. It's really easy to obsess. It's true that you might have a bigger battle to wage with frostiness working on the computer as opposed to paints, but your work still has it's own form of spontaneity that truly is uniquely you. As far as the CGI comparison, I'm only bothered by the frostiness of CGI movies that have stories that suck. Ice Age... made my stomach turn...left theater, not cause of the animation, because of the really boring story. Tale of Despereaux...great book, horribly boring screenplay and film...left within 20 minutes. I didn't want to see "Despicable Me" when it came out cause I thought the animation looked too finished, contrived, and slick. I ended up loving the movie because the story was so damn well written.

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  10. Art's a funny thing. Every attempt to set so-called standards falls apart because of the shifting nature of creative expression and finicky tastes of the viewer. When a book of simple stick figures wins a Caldecott, it may feel like a no-win situation, unless you come to the realization you described above.

    I saw Mo Willems' Knuffle Bunny books at a B&N the other day and had the same initial reaction: What the ---?? This won an award? Why? It was just photos and scribbled characters. Then I read the stories and found myself laughing out loud in the bookstore. Point well taken.

    You just never know how a work of art will strike anyone. In my area there is a very talented artist, who paints beautiful landscapes with extraordinary technical proficiency. He sells his pieces for thousands of dollars. But, I must say, they leave me rather cold. They're very pretty and well done, but do not take me anywhere.

    On the other hand, I recently saw an abstract painting of a crawfish that was composed of very minimal arrangements of red and black. This made me smile. It was as if its lack of information sparked the imagination far more than a painting that tells you everything.

    Dr. V.S. Ramachandran, a noted neuroscientist, has explored the human brain's reaction to art, and he has come up with some fascinating theories. Here is a link to his lecture at Oxford in 2003 concerning "The Artful Brain."
    http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/reith2003/lecture3.shtml It contains audio and a transcript. Well worth checking out.

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  11. Hi Will, I recently purchased your photoshop tutorials, and I've been putting my new-found skills to good use!
    Have a look at my drawings at
    http://olivierargyle.wordpress.com/
    and see what you think. Thank you so much for taking the time to make tutorials, I've really learned a lot.

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    1. Looking good Daniel!!! I'm glad you like the tutorials! I can see that you were paying attention :)

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  12. What a great post. I think I am guilty of the same thing.

    During my graduate thesis critique, no one mentioned the art as the problem; the STORY TELLING (or lack there of) was all they talked about. The gist of what they said was that the story seemed secondary to the art. I hate to admit it but they were absolutely correct (though I was destroyed after that, and didn't do any artwork for about a year). Later that day we went to see How to Train Your Dragon, which is chock full of story, and helped me better understand what they were saying.

    I'm not really sure how to pull back though. Maybe make some book illustrations simpler than others?

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  13. So many great comments and great points - I always learn a lot just from reading the different view points.

    I can see where my article went a little ambiguous. FOR THE RECORD. I am not going to stop using mass amounts of color! BUT, what I meant is that when illustrating a book I'll look to use that color in places where it needs to be used. Example: if the text reads, "Martin was very sad. He was having a really dull and boring day." I'll would now probably hold back on making Martin and his environment look like a party scene with colorful details. If Martin ends up having a blast at the end of the book -THAT is where I'll unleash the beast! ....so don't worry that I'm going to stop being me - I love creating those really colorful scenes - I just want them to have more impact! POW!

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  14. Ahhhh. So relieved to read your last post. Thought it sounded as if you were second guessing your self and all you have taught us. (Folio Academy)Your post and these comments are filled with great insights and a lot to think about. I am one of those simple illustrators (BIG Charles Schultz fan) But, I am really loving learning so much about color and it's fantastical impact. Thanks so much for your tutorials. As with everything, the challenge is to find the way it works for you.
    Cheers,
    Doodles

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  15. You have learned so much about yourself! And taught it to others! This is why you're my hero.

    Happy Birthday.

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  16. Great post!
    When I had my portfolio reviewed by art director Patrick Collins of Henry Holt at an SCBWI event, I was surprised to hear something similar: too much color, too much going on in a lot of my illustrations. While he gave my portfolio a somewhat favorable review, he said I should go more for simplicity. His favorite illustration was a simple cartoon dragon done digitally that I threw in at the last second. He liked the bright colors that were displayed on a simple, plain white background. I still feel there is a need for colorful, detailed illustrations, just not on every page!

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    1. It's funny how much has to be learned along the way - just too much for school.

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  17. Woah there Will!

    Read this post and been mulling it over for a few days. Got some words of caution that contradict the sage counsel you got from David Small.

    Don't let the esthetes beat you down. You've got your 1000 loyal fans who buy everything you do (like me) and LIKE what you do. Personally, I scratch my head at the Caldecott award choices. I didn't like that sort of thing as a kid and I STILL don't like it.

    It's a matter of personal taste. Some people like vanilla. Personally, I find it rather bland. I go for Pralines and Cream or Butter Pecan. How boring it would be if there was only one flavor of ice cream.

    I like your colors just the way they are. I LOVE your colors. I feast on them and revel in them. "The Tresure of Ghostwood Gully" is a silly story. The ONLY thing that makes the book worth buying is your illustrations.

    Now if you really WANT to do something bland and boring, fine. Your choice. But I won't buy those books from you. And I sure hope you don't change your style just to please the intellectuals who mistakenly think your colors are overloaded. They like vanilla. OK for them. But I DON'T LIKE THEIR STUFF.

    The intellectuals didn't like Dickens in his day. They considered him a hack. But his works have NEVER gone out of print since the day he wrote them. Mozart's work was glossed over in his day for the likes of Salieri. But who listens to Salieri now except as a curiosity? His music doesn't feed the soul like Mozart's.

    So Will, stay true to your gut feeling. Your images don't get in the way of stories, they bring them alive, even the lame stories of others that you've illustrated. Be true to your soul, my boy. No one could do colors like that if they weren't in your heart already. Maybe you'll never win a Caldecott but I'll keep buying your stuff and so will lots of others.

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    1. I hear you Michael and thanks for all the kind compliments - you got me all choked up :) ...I think what I'll be doing is looking to use a little more vignettes against the white of the paper so as to create more emphasis on the full color spreads. I'm not going to change my pallet - I love color too much :)

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  18. Phew! That's a relief. For a minute there I thought you were going to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Yes, vignettes interspersed with full page images is just the thing, like you did so nicely in "Little Rooster's Diamond Button," "Señorita Gordita," "The Three Little Gators." So, basically, keep on trucking. You're doing it just right already.

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  19. I have been discovering some of the same things about my artwork and trying to start to change things up a bit. I too first wrongly misjudged the pigeon books until they all became my favorite books and I bought a pigeon stuffed animal mascott. Yes, I agree, it's all about the story and the excitement it creates for the children.

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