Archive for the ‘Balloon Trees’ Category

Behind the Art: How I Stopped Whining and Illustrated “Balloon Trees”

Sunday, February 10th, 2013

So –  the story behind illustrating Balloon Trees is actually a little different from all the other books, and art projects, i have had the delightful opportunity to work on (and post about) because, basically, in all honesty, when i first got the manuscript… i didn’t want to do it!

Okay, not the most noble or professional thing to admit.  But there it is.  When i first got the assignment – i cried.  Now bear in mind, i had just spent the better part of the previous year working on the illustrations for “Solar System Forecast”, a very detailed and complicated book that had taken me much longer than i expected to finish.  The book i was actually STILL working on.  Full of alien landscapes and scientific, techno-heavy elements it had followed right on the heels of “Meet the Planets” –  the previous, other heavily-detailed science book – so i was feeling pretty exhausted and not a little burned out.  [NOTE: Both books can be found in the Book section of this web site – go on over and check them out, they’ll enjoy the company.]

I longed for a soft, cute, fuzzy animal story i wouldn’t have to work so hard on (mentally and physically).  Something that didn’t need hours of research.  Something – to be brutally honest – that wouldn’t require a lot of thought or artistic challenge.  But instead i was given a book about factories and machinery and conveyor belts.  Hard, cold, unforgiving, technology.  And not even the interesting space kind, or the fun weird sci fi kind , or the go- fast- and- loose -with- reality, anachronistic steam punk kind. Nope, it was a modern warehouse variety full of complicated perspective and tons of annoying little wheels and gears and pipes and hardware.   I sincerely did get teary when i saw the subject.  I simply could not imagine how i was going to make that kind of book fun (sure, balloons themselves are fun, but if you’re drawing one it’s basically just a circle with a little thing on the end you tie a string on).

I had serious doubts about my ability to handle the balloon story, and kind of felt Sylvan Dell had made a mistake asking me to illustrate it.  I thought – surely they have illustrators better versed in technological/mechanical drawing.  I’m the semi-cartoony, “anthropomorphic girl”.  I was sure i was out of my league and, truth be told, didn’t even want to try.  Guess what that really translated into was – i didn’t want to fail.

My journal at the time read:  “… my feelings have run the roller coaster gamut of getting that uncomfortable twitchy feeling when faced with a difficult, not very fun sounding, project coupled with the guilt of seeming like a quitter for not attempting it, combined with the fear that if i turn something down i’ll never be asked again. I just don’t see any way to make the story fun – for ME – to illustrate but the very nature of that difficulty kind of intrigues me.”

The last sentence is the key.  I was afraid to tackle the book, i didn’t think i could do a good job, but i also didn’t want to be the kind of person who threw up her hands and quit before even trying.  There is something pretty cool, and satisfying, about overcoming an obstacle.  And, of course, i didn’t want to let my publisher down.  I wanted to be that Go To Artist who wasn’t afraid of a challenge.  But the doubts still lingered and once the “Solar System Forecast” illustrations were finished and shipped out i gave myself the weekend to think about the balloon story and see if i could find a way in – visually – that would be true to the book but also be fun for me to do.  Because let’s face it – if you are going to sit at a drawing table 8, 10, 12 hours (or more) a day, for months on end, in a cluttered little room, with one window you can only watch a small sliver of the world go by from – you really have to enjoy the work.

And let me stress – i liked the story itself.  I loved the way it was written – the rhyme is simply delightful.  I was just afraid the subject matter would be too dry and industrial to engage young readers (me), so i began – as i always do – with research.  Naturally  i hunted up everything i could find on balloon production, but i also pulled out all my art history books – to see how other artists had handled industrial themes and subjects.  And i eventually decided on a simple, graphic style (as opposed to the usual, hyper-detailed way i generally illustrate) inspired by the work of Charley Harper.  My reference hunt also unearthed several intriguing images like a rain forest at dawn, the swirl of dye in the latex, and a collection of balloon forms, that further ignited my interest and imagination.

I could start to see the illustrations emerge, but i still felt there was something missing – some personal connection i needed to make with a young viewer.  No, that sounds too pretentious.  It wasn’t some abstract, anonymous Young Viewer i was concerned about engaging – it was me.  I’m the one who had to enjoy the illustrations and i’m the one who needed someone (or something) to go through the story with me. That’s when i thought of adding “The Guide” – a living creature that could experience the balloon making process along with the reader.  Something a child, and an adult, [Me again] could relate to, that could weave through every picture.

It had to be something small, because i imagined all the illustrations being very close up, and it had to be able to maneuver independently through every phase of production, and it had to have a personality (i, personally, also had to struggle with the dangers of introduced species and animal trafficking) but i eventually found the perfect escort in a little White Eye (a bird native to Thailand rain forests) who fit all my parameters.  [NOTE: He’s a bird, so presumedly made the trip on some migratory mission of his own].  Once i had him – things just started falling into place.

And, yes, in tried and true Made For TV Movie/After School Special  fashion – i wound up having a wonderful and satisfying time working on “Balloon Trees”.  I went from despair and doubt to being very pleased and proud of the finished work.  The book i didn’t want to do has become one of my favorites (i’m sure there’s a story, or a moral, in there somewhere).

Now i can’t wait to start doing school book talks because that is the Background Story i want to share.  I want to tell students that it’s okay to have doubts, and even okay to be afraid to try something, or not want to do it – at first!  But right after that stomach-knotting anxiety, and just before you throw up your hands and say “I can’t” or “I don’t want to” and walk away – you owe it to yourself to give it a shot.  Whether it’s an unusual food, a difficult project, a new skill – take a breath, count to three, don’t think of all the reasons you can’t do something, find one reason to stare the thing down and attempt it.

I know that is a tired and over-used cliché, said so often it loses all meaning, but i think what makes my take on it a little different is – i am speaking from experience, as an adult (and a parent) who should have known better!  You’d think i would have learned that lesson by now, having said it so many times to my daughter when she was growing up, but lessons can still be learned at any age (like admitting all my teachers were also correct when they said practice would improve whatever skill i was learning at the time.  I had to learn that one the hard way too). And, in the end, balloons really are fun (and interesting to draw).  Now i can’t wait to see what projects pops up next!