I loved being a kid. I was blissfully aware and unaware of just the right things. My parents didn't hide much from me. I watched the Vietnam War on a black-and-white TV, and that's just how it seemed — black and white. Killing was killing, no matter who did it. Play was play, too; I melted army men and didn't think of it as killing, because it wasn't. I didn't overthink anything and I daydreamed about everything. Still do.
My childhood bookshelf was carefully curated. Feel-good picture books never made it past my mom. The Grinch, Brer Rabbit, Piglet—anyone who came with their selfish streak intact was welcome. I'm sure her selections had as much to do with her not wanting to be bored as they did with my character development.
My dad, who didn't have the greatest childhood, marveled at my love of being a kid. He was an artist, the head of a group of commercial artists in Portland, Oregon. He'd come home with the dregs of a big pad of paper and toss it to me like fresh meat to a jackal. I say jackal rather than lion because I've never been boldly voracious. There's always been a skulking, find-a-corner-to-create-in aspect to art, for me.
My mom was an artist too, and my parents certainly had their own critiquing methods: Dad taught me how to draw, accurately, and Mom taught me what to draw, imaginatively. She tried to keep me dreaming after I fell in love with my own ability to draw exactly what I saw. Skill can be a real dream-killer.
What I had to unlearn
Why do most kids stop drawing? Most of us start judging art by how accurately our hands can reproduce an image, after which we either become more skillful or drop it altogether. In my case, I got "better," but almost lost touch with why I liked to draw in the first place. Learning the rules of shading, perspective, etc., made it less fun.
Luckily, I idolized a few cartoonists (Don Martin, Bud Blake, Jeff MacNelly, and later, Bill Watterson), and that got me back to the fun side of art. What made a cartoon funny? It seemed more elusive, and therefore more challenging, than making accurate renderings. Drawing cartoons for my high school paper, and then for the feed store I worked at during art school, kept me excited about art. It wasn't cool to do humorous stuff in art school. Everybody was trying to impress each other with "real" art.
Art school was helpful to me for two reasons: it kept me focused on art during the four most distractible years of my life, and I learned a lot from other students' work. School itself was not that helpful. I remember one teacher who had the guts to rip into (sometimes literally) the work of students when they needed it, but for the most part my instructors were not "tough love" mentors. I ached to have my work skillfully torn to shreds.
Ads that added mad skills
I interned at an advertising agency to gain experience as a storyboard artist. Yet what I ultimately learned as an advertising art director was far more important.
I figured out pretty fast to be fast. Not having the luxury of time to stress out over having to be creative is very helpful. It's amazing how much I can get done when all the useless preamble is stripped away. It's like being shoved into a lake: you just start swimming, instead of easing into the cold water for an hour.
No idea is sacred. I learned how to treat my own stuff as if it were someone else's, to revel in what's good and examine what isn’t. It just doesn't matter if someone doesn't like my idea. Our ideas are not us, so taking things personally is an absolute waste of time. I try to listen well. If a comment is valid, it will resonate inside of me. If not, I ignore it.
I learned to accept my limits. My brain needs to relax and soak up the real world before it can imagine well. Two hours of recharged brain is worth ten uncharged.
Perhaps most importantly for my current line of work, I learned to strip away the inessential. My favorite medium as an art director was billboards. They had to be simple. Of course, for something that will be pondered longer than a couple seconds at 50 mph, it's okay to add details, but only after the idea has been first been reduced to its core. In other words, I learned how to build from the foundation up.
Painting in a cave
I jumped from a job where I had to do a dozen things a day, usually with a dozen people, to being completely alone in my apartment/studio in New York. My brain was happy for quite a while because it had so much stored up, itching to be released. My first art show was in the offices of film editors, a big space with a constant stream of creative types. I sold a lot of paintings. It made me very happy. For a while. But I needed my art to reach more people. And I needed to collaborate again.
Finding my dream job
It took a long time to figure out what I really wanted to do. Don't ask me why. It seems incredibly obvious now. I love drawing and painting. Typography. Making things funny. Great writing. Childhood. Duh.
Knowing nothing about how picture books are made, I walked into a store and found some interesting books made by people who were still alive (I figured they would be more likely to help me get into the business) and wrote to a handful of writers and illustrators, asking for advice. I sent them a link to my first website. It was scary. I felt like a six-year-old, asking to play with the big kids. Sophie Blackall and Kelly DiPucchio were very helpful. Kelly introduced me to her amazing agent Steven Malk, and he vaulted me into the business immediately. My first book, Clink, was written by Kelly, inspired by a painting I made of a robot abandoned on a subway platform.
The heart of a picture book
When I look carefully at anything that has been created, I distill it, rewind it to its original idea. I try to imagine that first sketch, draft, or plan at its inception. Sometimes that leaves me disappointed with what remains. If the core idea is not just as remarkable as its execution, I go away hungry.
I am hired by the idea. It's the only boss I care about pleasing. When I first ponder a manuscript sent to me by an editor, I sift through the words until only the square root of the story is left. Then I just start sketching images of characters and scenery, sort of like how a film director casts for actors and scouts for locations. The trick is not to parrot the words on the page, but to create images that give the reader another view of the story. It's as if the words are one window and the illustrations are another. Both reveal the same world, but from different angles.
Every story tugs me in a different direction. Bartholomew Biddle and the Very Big Wind felt like a classic adventure tale, so painting it the same way I painted the sad robot in Clink would have meant going against the heart of the story. What James Said needed to be in watercolor because it featured art that the girl in the story created, and kids don't paint in oils, my usual medium. I hadn't done watercolors since art school. It was intimidating to paint in different styles, but there was no way out of it. The stories made me do it. Look at Battle Bunny — I had to relearn how to draw like an eight year old boy, and then scribble all over my own full-color illustrations. So fun.
Why don't I write my own books? I'm trying. My goal is to be able to write the way I draw — getting out of the way so the idea can lead. But I will always make time to illustrate other people's books because great ideas are just as exciting to me when they come from someone else. I guess that's because deep down, I don't really think anyone owns an idea, because I don't believe that great ideas originate totally from within ourselves. And should I ever write something another illustrator would be better for, I'd be happy to hand over my brushes.
Why I love Charlotte
North Carolina, that is. After 15 years in New York City and Brooklyn, having a house with a yard and chickens and a shovel is a welcome change. Don't get me wrong, I love New York. It gave me the energy to jump into my dream job. Brooklyn alone is filled with so many great illustrators and authors and editors that, stretched arm to arm, they could probably reach me down here. But I grew up (in rural Oregon) smelling dirt, and it's good to be closer to it. When I'm not painting, I'm usually making something that would be hard to build in a city, or goofing around with the kids, who of course have no trouble telling me when an idea stinks.
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