This month is unique because much of it is spent on my three week book tour across the country. We have long distances to travel between stops, and my mind often goes into reflection about not so much my work, but about the young future artists and writers I meet. I start each booksigning with a talk about how I get ideas for my books, create an illustration, using techniques that I think will help children with their art and lastly encouraging the children to create themselves.
I grew up in a very positive and thoughtful family, with many artists to look up to and untiring parents. Yet I still yearned for any connection with a real children's book illustrator. I had art teachers in school, but I although I enjoyed the competition of some very talented students, I again yearned for a personal mentor. At my book signings I only have a half hour or so to try to make connections with the children. I try to aim high and speak to them as the creative individuals I know they are.
Since we travel to only 23 cities and towns I will repeat some of my thoughts in this hedge a gram:
When I look at my email or see what's in my mailbox, I notice the question children ask me the most is, "How do I get ideas for my books?" I know they are asking because they are writing their own stories, or drawing a picture, and making up a story to go along with it. For me, an incident, quote, or image - for example a photo in a book, will tickle my fancy and I'll save it in my "mental notebook". In the case of my current book GINGERBREAD CHRISTMAS, an idea was sparked when I set out my cookie cutters. I found the story of the original folktale delightful. Opening the oven too soon would cause the baking gingerbread man to pop out alive and singing. When I saw that I had a dog, donkey and rooster cookie cutter I thought, what if I opened the oven too soon with those cookies? Would they bark, hee-haw and cockle-doodle-doo? Then, I came to my violin cookie cutter. It could come out playing a tune. Those connections started my story rolling. Once I have a premise I will work on the story, in my head sometimes listening to music, sometimes just before going to sleep when the mind is in that netherworld and sometimes when I'm running. I try to keep fit and have a healthy diet, but one of my best book ideas, THE HAT, came all in a rush after having a good night's sleep in a posh hotel and then having a sugary breakfast... pancakes with maple syrup and orange juice. I have to admit, I haven't been able to repeat the experience!
Storytelling and artwork are human endeavors that cross all cultures and go back in history. I feel all people have this innate ability, and time to create and motivation are the ingredients that make it happen.
When I work on my art I take special time when rendering my character's eyes. The clich?is "the eyes are the windows of the soul" if we are looking at an animal or fellow human, we look at the eyes to let us know what the other is thinking, often in a very nuanced way. We are given clues on how to communicate and predict behavior. When illustrating, an artist can create eyes that will make the drawing come alive and carry the story forward. Propping a mirror beside your art space can give me a valuable tool. I can make an expression corresponding to my character's, analyze it, and then duplicate it. The mirror can be another valuable tool for troubleshooting. If I have a nagging doubt about an illustration I hold it up to a mirror so the image comes back to me backwards. Usually I have worked on an illustration for hours or even days, and it becomes too familiar. When I see it reflected back I am relieved to catch an imbalance or see that an adjustment needs to be made.
Most artists and writers will agree that when one is concentrating on the creative work, the real world disappears. For me, as I add details, and imagine the story behind my illustration, it gains foothold after foothold until I feel like I'm in another world, my imagined world. It is a heady experience. Sometimes I unearth forgotten experiences, relive moments of great beauty or experience freedom from the binds of everyday cares and worries. The times it feels profound are few and far between, but it almost feels like there is a connection to one's unconscious individual being. The great artists, make that connection to the combined humankind unconscious. Although I can only aspire to this happening, it makes illustration fresh and alive for me every day. My wish is for all children to experience the joy of creating.
Happy drawing and writing, your friend, Jan Brett