Archive for February, 2013

Meet the Planets – Research and Development (And A Crazy Statue)

Sunday, February 17th, 2013

So, when i first started the blog about doing the illustrations for “Meet the Planets” i fully intended to write small excerpts describing the step-by-step process of each phase as i was going through them. I wrote three.

Now here we are – two years and two new books later – and i am only now getting around to writing installment #4.  Ah, procrastination thy name is Laurie!  Needless to say, the whole step-by-step, real time, follow the process idea has gone by the wayside, but that does not mean i no longer have tales to tell.  Oh no, no, no.  “Meet the Planets” still has a number of background stories very near and dear to my heart  that i want to share and i am going to continue plugging away at them as time and inspiration and creative literary muse permits (all while also starting a new blog series about “Solar System Forecast”, the book that came out September 2012; and continuing additional installments of another new blog series about “Balloon Trees”, the book that comes out any day).  There are only so many hours in a day, and a good portion of those hours inexplicably disappear into some space-time Black Hole also know as my art room, but given that a meteorite just hit Russia the other day, i really need to stop putting this off.

So to get us back into the swing of Planet things i thought i’d describe the research materials that went into making the art.  Or at least just list the variety of books and magazines, flotsam and jetsam, gimcracks and gewgaws that inspired the illustrations – because there was a lot of stuff!

Books: 15

Comet – Carl Sagan,  Cosmos – Carl Sagan,  DK Eyewitness Books: Astronomy, Universe,  Gardner’s Art Through the Ages – 6th Edition,  History of Renaissance Art – Creighton Gilbert,  The Illustrated  A Brief History of Time/The Universe In A Nutshell –  Stephen Hawking,  The Illustrated Timeline of the Universe – Richard H. Sanderson & Phillip S. Harrington,  My First Book of Space – Rosanna Hansen & Robert A. Bell,  Murmurs of Earth – Carl Sagan,  Stars & Planets – David H. Levy,  Stars & Planets – Exploring Our Galaxy and Beyond – Igloo Books LTD,  Star Wars Where Science Meets Imagination – National Geographic/Lucas Books/Museum of Science, Boston,  Time Life Student Library – The Universe,   The Usborne Illustrated Encyclopedia – Science & Technology

Magazines: 13

Astronomy (Collectors Edition) – Cosmos, Before There Was Light;  Discover – A Field Guide to the New Solar System;  Discover – Special Einstein Issue;  Discover Presents – The Whole Universe;  Kids Discover: Astronauts, Space Exploration, Galaxies, Solar System, Planets. Sun, Mars, Earth, Moon

CDs: 3

Holst – The Planets – Orchestre symphonique de Montreal, Charles Dutoit;  The Songs of Distant Earth – Mike Oldfield (inspired by the book of the same title written by Arthur C. Clarke);  Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of The War of the Worlds (inspired by the book written by… oh you know who wrote it).

I literally used every book and magazine listed above, listened to the cds while i drew, and also made tons of random on-line searches looking up additional information, but one of the singular most important influences actually came about by accident.

When i first got the manuscript for “Meet the Planets” i had some trouble deciding how to physically portray each of the planet participants.  Should they be human- (or alien-) esque figures, clothed in some sort of costume that represented the planet (like Jane Jetson, when she entered the Miss Galaxy competition representing Earth)?  Or should they be bobble-head type beings – big planetary face on top of a smaller, costumed body?

I was still undecided when i went to visit my daughter who was in college, in New York.  She had to go to an architecture lecture at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine  (the talk was about gothic architecture, of which St. Johns is a lovely example) and i was allowed to tag along.  We had just gotten off the subway, and were walking across the street to the church when i saw the most amazing statue in the park beside the cathedral. The Fountain of Peace.

Talk about your divine inspiration.  A giant planet head (actually there are two, there’s another one on the other side) supporting battling giraffes, giant crabs and angels. It was so crazy and surreal, and had the added benefit of reminding me of something you’d see on Doctor Who ( i am a huge fan.  More Doctor Who influences will be discussed in future posts)  so that just made the decision all the easier.  The planets would be done as big round “heads”.  Essentially just as they are found in space – colorful spheres, only with facial features. And appendages (to hold whatever accessories they might need in the competition).

You just never know where inspiration will come from so you have to be open to anything.  This is why i love research!

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!