Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Resketched Ron

This is a new character study of Ron, the main character for my next picture book. I wasn't happy with the last sketch. I think this works much better, but some revision is still needed. Ron, as all the characters in my books, will evolve, and need to be revised, as I begin sketching the book as a whole.

Originally, I'd planned some detailed photo shoots. I was going to photograph every scene, character pose, facial expression, the same way I worked with Valentine. Many illustrators work this way, and I often do, too. But, as demonstrated with my earlier sketch, I work better (I think) when I draw from my knowledge of anatomy, and then use photos to double-check my knowledge. When I begin sketching from photos, my drawings are too stiff.

For reference on clothing, architecture, time period, and environment, I'll be using Dick and Jane books, Mayberry Memories, and I'll also be watching lots of old Andy Griffith reruns.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Painting the snowflake

Recently I received an email asking that I detail my process of painting with acrylics. Using my Robert's Snow snow flake as an example, here is my process (sometimes, because I tend to work differently with each project). Please excuse this jumbled post.

Well, for one thing, I prefer using oil paints, but even with fast-drying agents, for me, oil paints take too long to dry.

I began using acrylic paints after illustrating my first book. I just didn't feel like doing the turpentine thing, and the waiting-to-dry thing, so I purchased a book on using acrylics, and that's what I've used ever since.

Inspired by a photograph of my son, I created this sketch. I created a couple of other sketches, too, but settled on this image.

The snowflake was sent to me from the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. It was pre-cut from masonite (I think). I covered it with several layers of white gesso, which serves as a primer and provides a white painting surface. Normally I don't use gesso — or masonite, for that matter — so this was a first for me. I was surprised at how transparent gesso really is — or maybe I just purchased the cheap stuff, I don't know. It took about five applications to completely cover the dark-colored masonite and to get a preferred painting texture.

After applying gesso to both sides, I realized I'd forgotten to drill a hole in the ornament for the purpose of hanging. No problem, I thought. Like any self-respecting man, I own a hand drill. Took me awhile to locate it in the chaos of my garage, but I found it. But finding my smallest drill bit was literally like looking for a needle in a haystack since it isn't much bigger than a sewing needle. But I found it, too. Then, I had to find the key to unscrew the drill bit — another needle. Once I found the key, I discovered it was stripped. I couldn't switch drill bits. Desperate, I tried the old Cub Scout technique of rolling the bit between my hands like I was trying to start a fire, but that didn't work. Frustrated, I decided that whoever purchased my snowflake would also get to find a way to hang it.

After the gesso was dry, I transferred my image to the snowflake. Over it, I layered a coat of burnt sienna paint, allowing the drawing to show through.

I started painting the background first, using cool winter colors that would recede. Then I blocked in the foreground, using warm colors. In the paint, I mixed in a generous portion of acrylic retarder, which I've discovered will allow me to keep my paint out in the open, uncovered, for two or three hours without drying.

After all of my colors were blocked in, I worked the finer details using less retarder. I wanted the detail work to dry immediately so I could keep working.

I finished the snowflake in about three hours.

If I were to do this over, I'd have created a smoother painting surface. Generally, I like texture, but in this case, the gesso base was too rough for painting in such a small area. Created some interesting and unwanted textures in the facial area. Also, had I known how much my wife would have liked the end result, I would have painted two.

Friday, July 27, 2007

My "Robert's Snow" snow flake

I finished creating my ornament for entry into Robert's Snow, a fundraiser to benefit cancer research.

Robert's Snow, written by children's author/illustrator Grace Linn, is a children's book about a mouse who's not allowed to play in the snow. Grace's husband, Robert, is a two-time cancer survivor, and the project was inspired by those experiences. After the book published, Grace rallied a group of children's book artists to create one-of-a-kind snowflakes to be auctioned off, with proceeds benefitting sarcoma research at Dan-Farber Cancer Institute.

I'm calling my piece "You'd better duck!"

Some of my most vivid memories of winter were the snowball fights we had in Chautauqua Park, the neighborhood where I grew up in Des Moines, Iowa. There were lots of kids living in Chautauqua Parkway, and we took our snowball fighting seriously. Following a heavy snow, armies of us kids would gather outside and plummet each other with snowballs for hours. We took refuge inside of snow forts built one snowbrick at a time, or we'd hide behind 7-foot snow drifts that were typical following an Iowa winter storm.

During recess at school, snowball fights were popular. There were lots of trees on the playground. We'd hide behind them to keep from getting hit. Our snowball fights went on uninterrupted until one kid got hit in the face with a snowball laced with a big rock. His face was cut wide open. After that, snowball fights on school grounds came to an end. Even still, a little blood and a head full of stitches didn't discourage our snowball fights. We shot snowballs back and forth at each other after school, on our 8-block walk home.

Someone sent an email requesting that I write about my painting process. So, while I created the ornament, I took a few photos. Later this weekend, I'll post the photos and write about my process.

Thursday, July 26, 2007


...my last post, Squeezing in an educational book, was supposed to be confidential, as per the contract I just now read. I deleted it. Shhh. Don't tell nobody.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Frazzled yet encouraged

Ug, I've got a headache. Today at my full-time gig, I was given an assignment: Create a series of bar and pie charts based upon some god-awful statistics from some god-awful agency about some god-awful topic. The entire report was typed in 6-point condensed Roman, and my photocopy was a photocopy that had been photocopied several times. I'm dyslexic. And there was math.

Can you see me frazzled?

In other news: Our writing critique group, which has been on hiatus for the past few months, will soon resume. Thank goodness because I haven't done much writing since we put our meetings on hold. I need a deadline and other writers to hold me accountable, or else I end up slacking off.

I sent an email to everyone in the group today and received enthusiastic replies. One person even got all techno on me by suggesting that we do our critiques live via webcams, if not in person.

I'm game, but I'm vain, too. I'm not photogenic, much less...videogenic, if that's a word.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Dreaming about drawing

Last night when my slumber should have been filled with dreams about flying like a bird above the clouds or eating pecan pie or, better yet, about something much too unmentionable to mention on this blog, I dreamt about drawing Ron, the 8-year-old character of the book I'm currently illustrating.

All night long, I worked up a character study, drawing and painting him from every possible angle. When I awoke this morning, I went into my studio and continued to do what I'd done while I slept. Ain't that weird?

I'll submit a new study this week, however, as with all of my books, the character will evolve as I sketch out the entire book.

In other news: Congratulations to Liz on the sale of her picture book to Harcourt, and to Spelile on the sale of her bilingual picture book (her first!) to Arte Publico Press!

Sunday, July 22, 2007

If I were a Simpson

If I were a Simpson character, I suppose this is what I would look like. The likeness is not too far off, though it is missing my all-too-cool mohawk, graying temples and pecan pie paunch. I made this avatar on the new Simpson's movie website. Go try it out.

I'm about as big a fan of the Simpson's as I am of Harry Potter — I'm neither. But last night, I did have the most fun in a movie theater than I've had in a long, long time. We saw Transformers! Wow, what a what a fun movie. I smiled all the way through, sitting cross-leg, refusing to go to the restroom, fearing I might miss something cool. I would have, too.

The wife was forced to see the movie when she discovered that Hairspray wasn't showing at the same time (She especially didn't want to see Transformers). But she enjoyed the movie, too. The son, who originally was too afraid to see Transformers, suddenly volunteered to accompany me when he realized that I really, really wanted to see this. "Ok, I'll go with you, Dad," he said, reluctantly. I think he felt bad for me. He squirmed through the whole thing, alternating between me and his mother's lap.

Guess what I want for Christmas?

Nothing new to report on the kidlit front. I'm still busy developing a new character study for Ron.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Harry Potter Austin Texas style

Be sure to see the Austin American-Statesman's Features section tomorrow. Several of our local Austin children's writers and illustrators will be featured in an article where they propose an ending to the new Harry Potter book. So, besides my critique partners, Chris Barton and Julie Lake, who are the other featured authors? Keith Graves, Brian Anderson, Julie Kenner, Jo Whittemore, Jennifer Ziegler, and Jessica Lee Anderson.

Nevermind the reporter never told me about this story, robbing me of any prior excitement (I don't think he likes me). And we sit face to face!

Change of mind

Nope, nope, nope, nope, nope, I've changed my mind. In my previous post, I've pictured how I would illustrate Ron, the character for my next book. But that is definitely not an image of Ron. It's Lamar, the kid who modeled for me. I focused way too much on painting a picture of my reference photo, and not on capturing the spirit of my character. I was in a rush to show my art director something, anything. I mean, they've waited 6 months for me to finish painting Enkelin, so I was feeling the pressure.

I learned early on in my career, working for an advertising agency, to never propose to a customer a concept you only halfway like, or worse yet, that you don't like at all. The customer will always choose the one that will haunt you for the rest of your life.

The good thing is, although my editor responded positively to the character study, the art director has been on vacation. That gives me some time to rework another character study before she returns to work and falls in love — or hate — with what I've already submitted.

Ug! I can't believe I submitted that!

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Picturing Ron

With my next book, I'd really like to try something different, you know, experiment with a different style.

Early on in my career, I was told by art directors, editors and art agents that children's book illustrators are supposed to develop a marketable "signature style" and stick with it. But I'd get bored using the same exact style, book after book after book. Heck, I change my hair every six months. So, with each book (trade), I use a slightly different approach.

My art director for Ron has requested the same style used for Black All Around!, but she's asked that I reconsider how I draw my characters facial features, particularly the eyes. Don't ask me why, but I draw my characters with tiny little eyes spread far apart. Some people really like that, some people really don't. But I absolutely love my character's faces. The style is odd, yes, but it's uniquely me.

Since my art director has opened the door to change, I took it a step further and experimented with something totally different. I submitted the above character study this morning. My editor said, "He's certainly cute." I don't know, though, I may return to something closer to my norm. Maybe I shouldn't experiment to this degree on a live project.

This weekend, I'm going to spend some time seeing how consistently I can draw this character in different situations.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Sick day. Grrrrr!

Today, I'm at home with a sick kid, so I probably won't get much work finished. Already, he's ordered breakfast in bed; He wants chicken. He's wants to watch TV; I'm in charge of the changing the channels. Between the sick kid, and a wife who keeps calling home to check on him, I won't get much done today.

In the past 15 minutes, the wife's called home three times, and now she wants me to take him to the doctor. Ahhhh!

I know the routine:

The wife: "He's sick. Do you think we should take him to the doctor?"

Me: "No."

The wife: "I called the doctor, he advised we bring him in to his office."

Me: "Ok."

The wife, hours later: "I took him to the doctor."

Me: "What's wrong with him?"

The wife: "He's sick."

And we pay $25-bucks per doctor visit for this bi-monthly revelation.

Edit to original post: We just returned from the doctor.
My son's diagnosis: He's sick.
His prognosis: He won't be sick tomorrow.
I should have gone into medicine.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Friday, July 13, 2007

Statistics gathered by the CCBC: My thoughts

According to the Cooperative Children's Book Center, in 2006, 87 children's books were written by African American authors. If you're not in the children's book business, you might be impressed. You might think: "Wow! This is great! Eighty-seven African American children's book authors got published in just one year?"

I am in the children's book business. Think again. More than five thousand children's books were published last year, according to CCBC estimates. Less than 2% of those books were written by African Americans.

At first, the numbers made me angry. History whispered racism loudly in my ears. I considered the people who make it possible for books to get published — agents, editors, marketing people, publishers. Most of these people are white. Where's a black author to fit in this picture?

I thought about this awhile. I came to the conclusion that charging racism is too simple. The condition is disheartening, yes, but it can't be blamed solely on white people. Not today anyway. Years ago, no doubt, racism was the culprit. I mean, if black folk weren't welcome at lunch counters, public toilets or swimming pools, it's not a stretch to think they, or their literary works, weren't welcome in children's publishing houses either. Today, I think, the issue is less about black vs white. It's about green — cash money green.

It would be nice if more books were published by and about African Americans. It would be nice to have more children's books with characters that look like my children. But publishers don't publish books to be nice, they publish them to make money. Publishing is a business, and the market sets the tone.

Before I started working on this post, I wrote a list of ideas that I thought would lead to more children's books getting published by and about African Americans. The list included things like more African Americans actually writing stories and shopping them around to publishers. Do you know how many black folk I counted at last summer's SCBWI national conference? Less than I could count on one hand. My list also included more African Americans pursuing careers within children's publishing houses. But nothing else really mattered compared to item #1 on my list: More African Americans supporting the books that are already being published. I really think it's that simple. If literature that features black children is truly important to the black community, then those few books written by black authors, those that did get published, should have flown out of book stores faster than a tick in a flea collar factory. Right? Does that happen? I don't know.

I've been told that multicultural books take longer to earn back money invested by publishers, as compared to other books. I'm sure there are many reasons for this; I won't attempt to tackle the reasons. But let me pose a question to you: You're a publisher. You have a fabulous manuscript in your hot little hands, one that will likely return a profit over the next 10 years, or so. In your other hand, you have another, equally fabulous, manuscript, one that you believe will return a bigger profit in two, possibly three years, maybe sooner. Which one you wanna publish?

I know it may rumple a few feathers, that I've thrown the responsibility of fixing this dilemma mainly at the feet of African Americans, and less with publishers. But the only way to entice publishers to publish more books by and about African Americans, in my opinion, is thorough the promise of bigger profits. Like they used to say in the '70s: Money talks and bulls---t walks.

All that said, 87 black children's book authors published in a year that produced more than 5000 books is sad no matter how you try to rationalize it. And sometimes it does make you wonder. A couple weeks ago, I sent an email note to my aunt, an acclaimed children's book author, venting about how frustrated I was trying to snag a literary agent. I asked her if she felt literary agents were less likely to want to work with a black author, or if I was copping out. I asked her if she knew of any black literary agents who would look beyond my skin color and take me on.

She said I was copping out. She was probably right.

*Thanks, Kyra, for sharing this link.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

I'll blame it on Kyra

Last evening at my full-time gig, I didn't have much to do, so I ended up reading a couple of kid-lit blogs. Before long I ended up over at Black Threads in Kid's Lit. Kyra is compiling a list of new picture books written and or illustrated by African Americans, month by month for 2007. I love this idea, in fact I considered doing the same thing myself awhile ago, however I wasn't sure how to get all the names of specifically African American new releases, so it never happened. I'm glad she's taking this on.

I was familiar with many of the titles in her January list, but one especially jumped out at me: Wind Flyers by Angela Johnson, Loren Long (illustrator). Immediately after reading her list, I grabbed my car keys, my security badge and my wallet. Five minutes later, I was at BookPeople.

I had made a promise to myself to cut back on purchasing picture books. I have way too many and, honestly, though I love them, what's one man to do with so many children's picture books? I broke that promise when I saw Brian Selznick's The Invention of Hugo Cabret. I left BookPeople with two books in hand and thus $42 dollars poorer.

Wind Flyers, a story about the Tuskegee Airmen (I actually know a Tuskegee Airman), is beautifully illustrated by Loren Long. The illustrations will take your breath away. I'm serious, I think the eyes must send the brain a rush of intoxicating endorphins when they beautiful art.

Hugo Cabret is a thick book, like one of those Bibles given out as prizes at summertime church camp revival meetings -- more than 500 pages and three inches thick. And what surprised me even more was the $22 dollar price tag. Cheap, a good bargain, I thought. I can't wait to read this one.

Currently reading, about halfway finished: The Glory Field, Walter Dean Myers

In other news: I plan to post some thoughts about another topic posted on Black Threads, facts and figures offered by The Cooperative Children's Book Center (CCBC) on the number of books authored by African Americans in 2006. I need to collect my thoughts on this topic and self edit (censor) myself so I won't post anything I'll be sorry about later.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Following a photoshoot, a phonecall with Floyd

Yesterday morning, I had a lively photo shoot with L, a young kid who is modeling the main character for my next book, Ron on a Mission. Funny how some kids express themselves, or don't. L didn't say one word the entire time he was here. He never smiled or showed much of any emotion, though I knew he was excited about being the star of my book. Before he left, I paid him $10 and gave him a signed copy of Summer Sun Risin', and he smiled so big, he lit up the room.

Following the shoot, I received a call from...guess who? No, you'll never guess, so I'll tell you. Acclaimed illustrator Floyd Cooper. Ain't that cool, or what? And, to tell you what's even cooler, he reads my blog — or at least, had read it recently and decided to contact me.

We talked the trade picture book business for a good while, talked about what he's working on, talked about what I'm working on. I have most of Floyd's books — Grandpa's Face, African Beginnings, I Have Heard of a Land — too many books to mention in one blog. And he's illustrated for just about every author of note — Jacqueline Woodson, Jane Yolen, Nikki Grimes, James Haskins. It was so cool to sit back and chat with someone who has already done all the things I can only hope to accomplish someday. Once I got past the initial shaky voice syndrome, I...er, we had a great conversation.

I'm honored he contacted me. When I told the wife, she screamed and said, "If you're friends with Floyd Cooper!, I'm friends with Floyd Cooper, too!"

Sit down, woman.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

More digital scrapbooking kits

These four digital clip art and scrapbooking kits — Play Time, set #1 and #2; Garden Pageant; Addie's Closet — are available for download today!

Monday, July 09, 2007

Thankful. But realistic

Received a phone call to discuss a top secret project. Of course I can't say what the project is. I will say that I'm in the running with KN, FC and JR on a project that has nothing to do with illustrating a book. Don't ask how I landed in a lineup of this caliber, I have no idea. But I know how this one will end.

As I listened to the names of the others being considered, I thought of that Sesame Street song: "One of these things is not like the others,
One of these things just doesn't belong..."

I'm not trying to be humble. I'm being for real.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Tagged by the best

I've been tagged so much, lately, that my virtual heinie feels like it's been beaten black and blue. Liz hit me up for "Five things." Then Gail hit me up for five more things. Rampian over at Word Pavillion and Thomas over at Tappity Tappity hit me up for "8 things." And Ms. Paula B over at Whateverings — who has the coolest sketch blog on the net — hit me up with a 'Thinking Blogger Award,' also a meme, of sorts.

Since I've already disclosed every possible odd habit that I possess, I'll name a few thinking bloggers who make me think:

I read Cynsations everyday, and I return there when I need a boost of inspiration.

Blue Rose Girls always have interesting topics of conversation that make me think and smile.

A fuse #8, now SLJ. I kinda dig a smart librarian in a red dress.

A Commonplace Book. I love this blog and if Julius ever offers his flickr photos as a published photo collection, I'd be first in line to purchase one.

Trevor's Blog. This guy and his blog are amazing.

Thinking Blogger Award
(the actual website crashes my computer, so click at your own risk).

Saturday, July 07, 2007

Beginning Ron! The story behind the story

Yesterday, I resumed work on Ron, a picture book to publish with D. It's hard to believe, but I originally began working on this book in late 2005. Things didn't go as planned.

I signed on to illustrate the book in the fall of 2005. About that same time, I also signed on to illustrate Zoom, a pop-up picture book with HC.

Zoom was supposed to be one of those in-and-out books, completed inside a month or two. Originally, they had requested a few car and truck icons that I had already created and was licensing to product manufacturers. It was a matter of creating a few more icons. I planned to whip this book out before beginning art on Ron. Instead, editors put Zoom on hold until late summer, almost eight months after the art was originally due.

I didn't worry. I moved on to Ron. I figured, when my Zoom editors were ready, I'd work both books at once. But then Ron was put on hold, too. I spent the first eight months of 2006 waiting. I wasn't able to work on either book, so I spent my extra time creating more icons to license, writing, taking a writing course, reading manuscripts from my critique group (of one, plus myself, at the time).

By the end of the summer, I was in a panic. Both books were to be completely finished by the end of the year, 2006, and I hadn't heard anything from either publisher. Top it off, I was scheduled to begin my next book, Enkelin, by December 2006. Houston, we got a problem.

I got the call to resume work on Zoom first. Found out that they had went through several paper engineers and was still waiting on a working dummy, but they were ready for me to resume. 8 months was just enough time for the scope and direction of the book to change. Zoom was no longer a simple in-and-out project. It became a second career.

Soon after getting the call to begin work on Zoom, I received the call to resume work on Ron. I went from having 10 months to complete this book to having about a month, start to finish. That wasn't gonna happen; I'm an artist, not a magician. I need at least a month, or two, to fully sketch an entire book, and I prefer 4 to 6 months to paint it, though, typically, I've been lucky to have 3 months.

Thankfully, my Ron editor was understanding when I told him that I wouldn't be able to begin illustrations for Ron until July, 2007.

It's July, 2007!

Yesterday, I re-read the manuscript. Looked over my original thumbnail sketches. Found a kid to model as Ron, a kid from church. I'm ready to begin. Ron will publish in 2008, near the end of the year. Zoom will publish in the fall of 2008. Enkelin, which I thought was scheduled for a spring 2008 release, is scheduled for release in October 2007, three months from now.


Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Life after Enkelin

I thought life would be simpler once I finished illustrating Enkelin, but not so. In fact, things seem to have jammed up even more.

I have a stack of paperwork that needs to be addressed. I have revisions for a Scholastic test project, a book written by PM and FM. I have another project that began as a simple test and has grown much, much more complicated. I've got digital clip art kits coming out the wazoo (I'll post them later). I've got a project to complete for the premier e-zine version of Read & Rise Magazine. I need to begin my Robert's Snow snow flake. And, I'll probably finish all this just in time for Enkelin revisions. There will be revisions, I promise.

Thing is, all of the above needs to happen in the background of my biggest priority — beginning illustrations on RON, a book about a childhood experience of astronaut Ron McNair who died when the space shuttle Challenger exploded. The entire book is due by the end of this year, which doesn't leave much time for other things (though I'm thankful for other things).

Oh, and my studio is a mess.

In other news: I've given up on my agent search. Why? Agents are mean. I once divorced a woman for being mean.