My SCBWI LA National Conference Keynote

 Last month I attended the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators summer conference in Los Angeles, and was invited there by Lin Oliver to give my first keynote speech for one of their national conferences. It was an incredible honor to be invited, and it marked a big milestone for me as an SCBWI member (and also as an introvert).

I recall years of sitting in the audience at these conferences and while listening to keynotes thinking, “I could NEVER do that!” 
Haha! says The Universe. 
What I didn’t know then was that, by now, I would have something to say and something to be excited to share from my experiences over the past 5 years of working full-time as a children’s book artist.

For my presentation, I was able to share about my experience of getting published quickly, and that the difficulties and the learning curve started, for me, after I’d published my first picture book, MISS MAPLE’S SEEDS. In the early days, I approached creative work as though it was a straight line from idea to final painting, and my process was built around a search for the quickest way from point A to point B. I spent years struggling in my approach to the work, focusing on productivity and the end goal, and found that instead of enjoying creating this beautiful work for books that were a dream to be hired for, I was finding myself chronically stressed and creatively burnt out. 

Creativity is not a straight line.  

With each book I worked on, I learned new things about working as an artist, and found that 
#1. Creativity does not work like a straight line. My focus on productivity and getting to the end product as efficiently as possible was the nail on my creative coffin. So…

#2. In order to enjoy the work, I had to focus not on the end product, but on the process of creating the work itself. 

   By shifting my focus onto the creative process, and how to make that daily process more enjoyable, I found stages of the work where I encountered resistance on a regular basis. This can be summed up best by this blogpost I wrote from a few years ago, which is a creative condition I call “THE ‘I SUCK’ DILEMMA”. 

Post about the creative “I Suck” dilemma

There are lengths of time—days, months, years—where the work we’re doing doesn’t look good, and it’s during this time that we experience the most resistance to doing the work. Not only do we not need to resist sucky work, but we can use it and embrace it as an important (and fun!) part of the process of getting to the better stuff.

I’ve been spending the past few years evolving my own creative process, and also reading about how the body, brain, and creative mind work together. This led me to break down a creative process for myself into 7 1/2 Stages, each that have a unique mindset and important function in our work as writers and artists. These phases don’t need to happen in order, and we move organically around them: 

1. DIG for ideas inspired by your childhood interests and your current interests. Ponder them, journal about them.
2. INSPIRE with reference photos, inspiration from other artists, research and information. Study the work of your heroes.
3. COLLAGE together quick thumbnails, studies, sketches, pieces, color swatches, paint tests, lists. This is about quantity over quality. Move quickly, and don’t judge, edit, or analyze. Think later.
4. SIMMER: Let it rest. Put it away. Go do other things and let your brain make connections on it’s own.
5. IGNITE: Moments of insight, clarity, inspiration often come at times when we’re not actively in the work…be ready at all times to capture these ideas. 
6. REFINE the work. Bring your thoughtful, discerning, honing eye. Here’s where you can think and edit. Pull the pieces together. This is about quality over quantity.
7. ASSESS: Step back and look. Share it with people and get feedback. Go to your critique group or an honest friend.
½ step: CHECK in constantly, while in the midst of each stage, to see if you are pushing, straining, angsty, or feeling bored. If you aren’t flowing, then you may be in the wrong phase and probably need to go back to inspiring, collaging, or simmering. 

After my presentation was over, it was awesome to hear feedback from so many writers and illustrators about what resonated with them. 
For those who weren’t there, I’ll share more about my 7 1/2 steps in more detail in an upcoming post. 
I also talked about our creative brain, and shared some really fascinating science that explains how we get ideas, which I’ll also share more about in another post as well.
Stay tuned!

To share a few other personal highlights from the conference: 

This kidlit group from Utah came dressed as Miss Maple and her seeds! Ahhhhhh!!!  ♥♥♥ Amber Alvarez as maple seed, Cari M Lee as Miss Maple, Heidi M Rogers as bluebird, Kristen Shelley as a pea, Elizabeth Child as the acorn

Doing a breakout session for illustrators with my agent, Jen Rofe. (Photo by Debbie Ridpath Ohi; debbieohi.com)

Hearing the legendary author Lois Lowry share stories about writing and her books (Photos by Alan Baker)

Gathering with art director, Cecilia Yung, and several of her illustrator clients for drinks and sharing

Watching Debbie Ohi give a presenation at the Illustrator’s Intensive

Visiting with fellow faculty Lynda Mulally Hunt, Bruce Coville, Debbie Ridpath Ohi, and Greg Pincus at Lin Oliver’s staff party

All of my love and thanks to Lin Oliver, Steve Mooser, and the SCBWI for everything they’ve done to build this amazing community, and for all the opportunities they give their members, myself included. Of the hundreds of people who have asked me “How do I start out in children’s books?” my answer is always the same…join SCBWI. 

Research Travel Tips

“Sir Adam’s Amazing Maps”

 

Over on the Picture Book Builders blog, I shared some highlights about illustration research I did for three weeks in England in 2015 for the new picture book biography JOHN RONALD’S DRAGONS: STORY OF J.R.R. TOLKIEN, by Caroline McAlister.

I had a great question come over Twitter recently about traveling for research, but couldn’t seem to limit my answer to few characters, so I’m sharing those here!

The most helpful thing I learned overall is to prepare as much ahead of time as possible, but leave some time and flexibility in the schedule for the unexpected.

Timeline at the Tolkien Museum in Sarehole Mill, Birmingham.

Here are some other key tips:

  1. Print out maps, bus/train schedules, and directions ahead of time. Phone and internet service can be unpredictable and at times unavailable (usually in the moments when you need them most). Luckily, my super amazing husband/travel assistant, Adam had foresight and prepared printouts to guide us, and they were indispensable.
  2. Call ahead. We discovered that dates and times for exhibits or opening hours were frequently inaccurate online.
  3. Balance travel with rest. When paying out-of-pocket to travel for research, you can feel pressure to maximize every minute there. But filling every minute will make for a miserable trip, and you’ll want time off for rest and recovery. We spent the weekdays researching, and chilled with relatives of Adam’s who live in England on the weekends.
  4. Keep your receipts! These trips are tax-deductible, so keep a detailed travel journal and all your receipts for filing at tax time.

We did a pretty great job of maximizing time and enjoyment. If I could have changed one thing, I would have added some extra days for returning to locations just for sketching on-site, which we didn’t end up having time for. But we took hundreds of photos to make up for it!

A few pictures: Mosely Bog, Sarehole Mill, Tolkien’s childhood cottage, Oxford tour, The Eagle and Child pub.

If you’d like more info on the book:
JOHN RONALD’S DRAGONS: THE STORY OF J.R.R. TOLKIEN
March 2017, Roaring Brook Press/MacMillan
AGES: 4-8,  48 pages
ISBN 9781626720923

Buy JOHN RONALD’S DRAGONS at your local indie bookstore
-or-
Order from Barnes and Noble here
Order from Amazon here

THE ‘I SUCK’ DILEMMA

i suck_ewheeler

It’s been two weeks since the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators annual summer conference in Los Angeles, and I am still feeling like I’m in recovery mode.  This conference is a massive whirling ball of creative energy. There we experience information, inspiration, connection, excitement, boredom, nervousness, and ultimately, exhaustion!  It was the first year I was on faculty to give a portfolio workshop and moderate a panel of art directors at the Illustrator’s Intensive day, so all of these feelings for me over the four days were extra heightened.

golden kite lunch_ewheeler

A memorable moment happened at the end of that Illustrator’s intensive day when the faculty was giving parting words for the attendees. The very last question that came up was (I’m paraphrasing):

“After four days at this conference I’m left feeling two things: An intense excitement and inspiration to go home, do more work and get better. Then there’s this overwhelming, ‘Oh my god, I SUCK! How am I ever going to get there?!’ What the heck do we do with these feelings?”

 

This question lit a fire within the faculty, Caldecott-winning illustrators and art directors battling for the mic to say:
“That feeling NEVER goes away.” And,
“Maybe we do suck, but we have to keep going, keep working at it.” And,
“The feeling of sucky-ness is what pushes us to reach for more and better. If we thought our work was awesome all the time, we’d get too comfortable and complacent with our work.”
It felt like the conversation could have lasted for hours. One thing was clear – we all feel this way, no matter how successful we’ve become in the eyes of others.

And I felt so moved to say something, and we were sort of out of time, but mostly I just didn’t have the courage to take the floor in that moment. So that question has been eating at me since, and I’ve decided to share what I had wanted to say then, here.

DrawingInsecurity-v3-500

by Debbie Ohi, inkygirl.com

 

There’s a fundamental problem in the way that we creative people approach our work. We draw lines or write words on paper, declare them an extension of ourselves, and then label those marks (and ourselves) as either AWESOME or SUCKY. This is an illogical and unhelpful thing that we do.


THIS IS NOT A PIPE: The Treachery of Labels
MagrittePipe

In Rene Magritte’s painting The Treachery of Images, the image we see is a painting of a pipe. Underneath the pipe are the words, “This is not a pipe.” Because of course, it isn’t. It is paint on canvas. Can we take away the labels of ‘good’ or ‘bad’ from our work, and see it simply for what it is? Marks on paper.

Even worse than the judgements we give our marks on paper are the labels we give to ourselves (in response to the marks on paper). “I SUCK!” we proclaim. But I am not those marks – I am a human being, that is ink on paper, and “I suck” is only a thought in my head.

“There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” ~William Shakespeare 

I think we are afraid that if we don’t connect our identities to our work, if we don’t judge it as good or bad, we won’t care about the outcome. We won’t care to improve, to grow. I assure you, this is not the case. Why?
Because the reason we do this work, the reason that we sit down every day and make marks on paper, is because we have seen art, or read writing that made our hearts sing. Maybe we’ve even had a taste of this from our own work. But that is our driving force behind making marks. We want our ideas and our marks to make our hearts sing.

~~~~~~~~~~~

So, back to that question, “What do we do with these intense feelings of ‘I suck’?”
On an action level, we have two simple choices:

  1. Continue making marks on that paper.
  2. Make new marks on a new piece of paper.

How do we know which action to take? Once we take our thoughts away we are left with the marks on paper, and our internal feeling response to the marks. This internal feeling is your guide to what to do next, so give it your full attention. Don’t label it, don’t judge it, just feel it.

Does it feel enthusiastic, exhilarating, expansive, focused, or simply relieving? Those are good signs to keep going!

Does it feel confusing, tense, blocked, or like a sinking pit in your stomach? This is a signal that you might want to stop and refocus. So in that moment ask yourself those two questions:

  1. Would it feel better to continue making marks on this paper?
  2. Would it feel better to make new marks on new paper?

When you look at these lines on the paper, does it feel better to leave them as they are? Does it feel worse to abandon it now? Maybe more marks will fix what’s not working for you. Does it feel better to do something entirely different? There’s no right or wrong answer, you’re just feeling for relief.  Every moment is a slight adjustment towards a feeling of relief. Improvement is a matter of incremental turns in the direction of better feeling marks.

I would also suggest taking these steps (often) in between number one and two:

  1. Take a nap.
    (Or a walk. Or a shower. Clean something. Read something, etc.) It’s likely that if you’re in the emotional state of ‘I suck’, none of those marks will please you right now. I have discovered that when I take action in my desperation to fix problems, I usually end up mucking things up further because of my lack of clarity. Walk away and come back with a clear mind. Those two decisions of continuing or starting over will still be there, but you’ll be fresh in your approach.
  2. Study marks on other papers.
    Stepping away from your marks often and revisiting other work that you love will remind you of that heart-singing feeling. Try to learn about why those marks worked so well. It can help create more clarity in what kinds of marks you want to make that will feel better.

REVISION, EVOLUTION, IMPROVMENT, GROWTH
Maybe the marks won’t make your heart completely sing for a while, but you will be able to at least feel relief from previous marks that really didn’t feel good. Keep turning, making incremental shifts to a place that feels a little better, and a little better. This is what we call ‘the revision process.’

TURN IN THE DIRECTION OF FUN.
If you aren’t enjoying yourself, it’s likely you’re not going to create work you love.  A miserable journey is not going to leave you feeling happy at the end. A joyful journey is going to respond with a joyful outcome. Melissa Sweet taught me this – at the Illustrator Workshop, she showed us some painting she was experimenting with, and to us it looked gorgeous. But she asked herself one simple question, “Okay, this looks great, but am I having FUN?? No.” So she turned in the fun direction, and the work came out EVEN BETTER. To anyone else it may look great, or it may suck, but the only thing that’s relevant is how the marks make you feel.  So those small incremental turns should go in the direction of fun–in the direction of play–in the direction of relief. They are moment by moment, downstream turns. Effort and pushing feels upstream. Playing and inspiring feels downstream.

marks on paper_e wheelerI am the first one to admit that I get too precious with my work. I have limited time, and so I often feel that I have to make everything count, that it has to be perfect right out of the gate. But that’s not how the creative process works. It’s not how those heart-singing surprises happen. I’ve realized that when I’m too concerned with creating a great end product (trying to do something that doesn’t suck), and add to that working on a deadline, that’s when it goes downhill for me. But when I’m focused in each moment with ink flowing on paper, without analyzing or judging it, that’s when the magic happens. Inspiration and insights come out of a good-feeling process, and answers to problems in the work are waiting there.

This process of mark-making and finding relief in new marks is a process that never ends. It’s creative evolution – it IS the work. Turn towards those feelings of inspiration and the desire to keep making new marks, and release the “I SUCK!” words in your head. Those small, gradual, incremental turns  will eventually lead you towards mark-making that will make  your heart sing.

Workspace – Sketching for The Grudge Keeper

Right now I’m knee deep in sketching for the picture book THE GRUDGE KEEPER, by author Mara Rockliff. It’s a folk-tale inspired story of the one man in town who collects everyone’s insults, umbrage, and petty complaints, filing them all away in his cottage. Mara’s manuscript is brilliant! It’s been exciting to be able to visualize this quirky world and characters that Mara has created.

Here’s a little peek at my workspace while I’m sketching:

grudge_working sketch_72dpi

Sketching is, for me, by far the most grueling stage in the illustration process. I will admit that I look forward to nailing down these sketches and moving forward to inking and color.

Will share more as I’m able!

 

 

 

SCBWI Bulletin (Sept/Oct 2012) Cover Piece

 

 

I was invited by the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) to do cover artwork for their magazine’s 2012 Sept/Oct issue. This is a huge honor, as it only comes out 4 times a year and the illustrators they usually ask to contribute are total rock-stars!

The theme always involves a kite in some way (the society’s logo), and I had so many fun image ideas; funny, scary, sweet – but the one I chose was what I hope is the most magical concept.

Left: rough thumbnail, Right: tight thumbnail

This was the first time I’ve ever worked in 3-point perspective, the view of the city being from above. It was a really cool challenge, and I used some photos from a trip to Europe that my husband and I took back in 2010 as inspiration. I decided to make the city a merge of London, Paris, and Quedlinburg (Germany).

Photos from our trip to Quedlinburg, Germany

I blew up the thumbnail sketch to full size and sketched on tracing paper over that.

Perspective drawing on tracing paper

Final pencil outline

sketch detail – the boat

I scanned this light pencil outline and then printed it onto my watercolor paper (Arches Coldpress 140lb) with my printer (Epson 2880 wide format, pigment ink). This is how I transferred the sketch onto my final paper, but sometimes I use a lightbox to re-sketch the image for the final image instead of doing it this way; it just depends on which is easier for that particular piece.

Here’s the final image:

Inked with dip pens and India ink, colored with watercolors

And look what I received in the mail last week; printed copies, a thank you note from Steve Mooser (president of SCBWI), and a beautiful framed cover image with engraving. Wow – thank you SCBWI!!

Printed copies, note from Steve Mooser, and a framed gift from SCBWI

 

Lighting Studies

When creating a new illustration where lighting is key, try building a simple 3D model to photograph as a helpful reference. As you’ll see in my examples below, it can be a very crude model made with whatever materials you have handy.

I started trying to sketch the figure as a series of basic shapes. Realizing it would be more helpful to see the figure in 3D, I used modeling clay (available in arts and crafts stores), some toothpicks and a pizza box top to recreate the scene in my thumbnail sketch.

Building the scene also gives you the ability to look at angles you may not have considered.

Stay tuned for the final image!

~Eliza