Must Be the Cruelest Business in the World..."
Those aren’t my words. They
were spoken by the husband of a friend of mine. He loved her
very much, and he was
expressing what he thought of the profession she
was determined to
She was good. She had a
Bachelor of Fine Arts degree and
was meticulous, a perfectionist in the best sense.
She loved what she
But over the years she’d run
into setbacks and
disappointments on her path that had been hard. And it
heart to watch her persist in the face of all this hardship and so little reward. And on one particularly upsetting day,
he made his comment
that you see above.
She was a children's
isn't so pretty either. But one day when I was in my mid-20s, I
got lucky. An illustrated children's story that I had mailed out was
plucked up from a publisher's
editor of a company known then as Harper & Row
Publishers wrote me that my pictures and story had charmed her.
But there were
problems that needed to be worked out with both, she said. She asked to see my original
art. So I
sent her my drawings, which were rather rather large and ungainly.
I was a long
way from New
York, working as a reporter for a newspaper in West
had always liked to draw. But my college art education had left me a
little rudderless, and after languishing in one particular painting
composition class, I changed majors, and colleges.
This was the era when art that made statements about society
upstaged traditional, represental drawing and painting.
It was years before the computer game explosion and anime.
Communication and eventually, journalism would become my new path. But I continued to sneak in life drawing and art
history classes, because I knew I had that painting gene
And so now, years later, my picture book had
been discovered in a slush pile.
But I was clueless about the world of children's publishing.
I hoped that
the life and "personality" of my work would push my book past
all the conventions of the industry that I
It almost did. The editor wrote me thoughtful "status
She asked to see more proposals. (I only had the one.)
you read a lot of picture books?" she asked me in a phone
she made to me during those months.
I knew at that moment that I'd
Sure, I loved Maurice
Sendak's pictures for
Where the Wild Things
Are (they reminded me of stage sets.) I was crazy for the drawings E.H.Shepard did for the original Winnie the Pooh, and the magical pen and
wash styles of Edward Ardizonne and James Stevenson.
But I was
& Row sat on the fence with my book for a year before finally
declining it. The editor wrote me a long, even apologetic letter explaining that my
book, had they taken it on, would have required much revision and
the economic and publishing climates had changed, she said...
In the end, though, I believe that it
was my naivite' about the craft and 'the biz' that sank the deal.
So I stepped up my
read children's books and books on art and painting. I attended life drawing sessions after work, took
more drawing classes in the evenings and weekends with small groups and at the Art School
of the Austin
Museum of Art that was just down the highway from my home.(I'd moved back to Central Texas by now.)
And I found some great teachers.
I secured some moonlighting illustration work. (I
was still working as a reporter.)
led to a few assignments from children's magazines. They paid
better than the black and white book illustration I was doing for
the regional publisher I was moonlighting for. But the
magazines wanted full
pictures. It meant painting
A New Way
I was used to deadlines
as a reporter.
With art it was different though. Like, what if you only had a few hours
remaining to FAX your sketch and the sketch felt all wrong?
Or you could tell your painting wasn't
It was missing something -- some little ..je ne sais quoi...that would make all the difference, if only you could figure out what it was.
So I had to teach myself to get over the worries, tap straight into the joy of creating art, make the pictures work and slam dunk those assignments!
meant going back to the basics, of course. I had to really learn all the little technical things I'd been shakey on.
A huge part of the on-the-job-learning was the shock
seeing your watercolor illustrations published over and over.
It wasn't always pleasant. (Each publication experience was like hearing a recording of your voice for
the first time.)
Still working as a journalist, I had some articles
accepted by American Artist
magazine and its quarterly publication Watercolor.
This meant interviewing some of the country's top representational painters.
I was named a contributing editor of Watercolor. One day the magazine asked me to write
a series of articles profiling
children's book illustrators who worked in water-based
This turned into a two year series that featured many of top stars of American children's book illustration -- Patricia
Pollacco, Jerry Pinkney, Ted and Betsy
Lewin, Edward Everett Fisher, Jaqueline Rogers, Caldecott Medal winners Emily Arnold McCully and the late Barbara
Cooney, to mention some of them.
I listened intently to everything these artists said, of course.
not only because I was writing about them. I was trying out what they
told in my own illustration work that I was doing for publishers and
the kids' magazines -- especially Cobblestone and Appleseeds, but also Cricket, Pockets, Caliope, Faces, Footsteps and Odyssey.
About this time the Art School of the
Austin Museum of Art invited me to teach
a workshop-class (for adults) on how to illustrate books for children.
one of the exceptional museum
art schools, with a faculty of
professional, working artists who are dedicated to helping others Kindred Spirits
(adults and in the summer, children, too) become proficient in their various disciplines of drawing, painting, print-making, ceramics, sculpture, photography,
bookmaking, cartooning, and computer
I could bring to class what I'd learned on the job -- and from some of the some of the most successful children's book artists!
My new students were of all backgrounds, geographies, ages and skill levels. Many had
their BFAs; some had MFAs (but still had questions about children’s book illustration.)
were game animators, graphic designers, illustrators,
photographers and professional fine artists and even some of
the art school's faculty.
They were also
Every class was full of talent.
- college and high school students
- authors and editors
- teachers of
all grade levels
- a builder-real estate developer who was working on a bed-time story for his kids
- an eye surgeon,
- the curator of one of the largest university
museum and research collections in the world
- and a nationally known children's
songwriter and performer.
Some of these students had never taken a drawing class before.
Yet most brought in sketchbooks that contained their scribbles of original story characters -- or notions for an illustrated story!
I was struck by how much they reminded me of myself when I began -- yearning to tell a story in
pictures but not sure where to start, or how to get going under full sail.
So my objective was clear:
- To teach empowering
attitudes and core skills in drawing and painting.
- To shorten students' learning time
- To help them avoid the common mistakes and disappointments.
- To expand their appreciation of the field.
- To help build their foundation for future art-making.
- And prepare them a little, if they were inclined to confront "the cruelest business in the world."
Career-wise, things were percolating a little for me. A
"chapter book" I'd illustrated for David R. Godine
Publishers was named to the list of "notable children's books of the year" by Smithsonian magazine.
Another little book I'd written and illustrated, Raising La Belle (about an early colonial shipwreck
recovered from a Texas coastal bay) won a prestigious Spur Award from the
Western Writers of America.
It won the U.S. Maritime Literature Award for the same year (2003.)
That led to my commission from the governor
of Texas as ...ready?...an Admiral in the Texas Navy.
I tend to get seasick on water, and I've
never heard a shot -- much less a ship's cannon -- fired in
But crazy things can happen in the arts sometimes.
I was asked to judge, with two others, an annual competition by the National Society of Children's Book
and Illustrators (SCBWI), the Magazine Merit Awards. A Personal Litmus Test...
But when the children's literature
asked me one day if I would be interested in illustrating a story by the popular British fantasy
novelist, Lloyd Alexander, I got a little nervous.
Cricket's art director approved my initial sketch and I was excited...
the icy grip of stagefright tighten on me, when I saw, after several hours of paintiing, that my watercolor was
not turning out well.
It was time for the average
mortal to panic. And I did (a little.)
I caught myself, took a deep breath, and fell back on what I'd
taught myself and was now teaching to
I unconfused myself and diagnosed my painting's problems.
I followed my own fix checklist -- added color layers, deepened colors,
pushed the darks beyond what someone might deem
safe or prudent....
And after another day of
painting (and keeping the faith, which illustrators must keep) the picture came around.
It even still looked fresh. I mailed
it in on time and everyone was pleased.
The moral, I guess, is, always keep your illustrator's cool.
And make sure you have the right maneuvers.
been a great journey of self-education.
But I think the trip would have been shorter had I found a course like the one I'm teaching now.
I would have become a more competent artist
sooner. I might have started off on a better foot with some editors and publishers.
that illustrator friend of mine, whose husband was concerned for her?
was tapped by one of the country's top children's poet-authors to create
the pictures for her new book. The book went
on to win important literary awards and
glowing reviews that celebrated the artwork as well as
No, she was never a student of mine. She
made her own luck.
it shows you that magic is out there if you give it
a chance and some time. (It's our job as illustrators
and creators, as it turns out.)