Saturday, December 29, 2012

"Lose the Teletubbies!"

Every semester, we read part of Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird in our URI writing classes. We read the first part of chapter two, (called “[Crappy] First Drafts”). Here’s what she says:

All good writers write them. This is how they end up with good second drafts and terrific third drafts. People tend to look at successful writers, writers who are getting their books published and maybe even doing well financially, and think that they sit down at their desks every morning feeling like a million dollars, feeling great about who they are and how much talent they have and what a great story they have to tell; that they take in a few deep breaths, push back their sleeves, roll their  necks a few times to get all the cricks out, and dive in, typing fully formed passages as fast as a court reporter. But this is just the fantasy of the uninitiated. I know some very great writers, writers you love who write beautifully and have made a great deal of money, and not one of them sits down routinely feeling wildly enthusiastic and confident. Not one of them writes elegant first drafts. All right, one of them does, but we do not like her very much…

For me and most of the other writers I know, writing is not rapturous. In fact, the only way I can get anything written at all is to write really, really [crappy] first drafts.

The first draft is the child’s draft, where you let it all pour out and then let it romp all over the place, knowing that no one is going to see it and that you can shape it later. You just let this childlike part of you channel whatever voices and visions come through and onto the page. If one of the characters wants to say, “Well, so what, Mr. Poopy Pants?,” you let her. No one is going to see it. if the kid wants to get into really sentimental, weepy, emotional territory, you let him. Just get it all down on paper, because there may be something great in those six crazy pages that you would never have gotten to by more rational, grown-up means. There may be something in the very last line of the very last paragraph on page six that you just love, that is so beautiful or wild that you now know what you’re supposed to be writing about, more or less, or in what direction you might go—but there was no way to get to this without first getting through the first five and a half pages…

Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere. Start by getting something—anything—down on paper. A friend of mine says that the first draft is the down draft—you just get it down. The second draft is the up draft—you fix it up. You try to say what you have to say more accurately. And the third draft is the dental draft where you check every tooth, to see if it’s loose or cramped or decayed, or even, God help us, healthy.

I don’t know why I was surprised to discover that the same principals apply to illustration, but they do. This post is organized according to how things go in a RISD semester. You show your crappy drafts first and then work on them throughout the semester, making major or minor improvements and typically students bring in the final drafts on the last day of class and have a little art show.

Intro to Illustration. This was a 6-week class. Our main projects were to design a book cover for a fairy tale and to create character “turnarounds,” or drawings of one character from multiple points of view. I thought the first project would be super easy. Just pick a fairy tale! Just draw the cover!

I didn’t read a lot of fairy tales when I was little, except the ones everyone already knows about. So that was part of the problem. I thought I could do “Twelve Dancing Princesses,” “Jack and the Beanstalk,” or “Cinderella.” But the other problem with fairy tales is that there are 6 million illustrated versions for each one, and they’re almost all better than everything I came up with. So I was doodling in my sketchbook and stumbled upon this:

and that is how I decided I was brilliant for picking “Little Red Riding Hood.”

The first sketch I made with both characters was so bad that I can’t even find it. I may have used it as a fire starter. I think it looked something like this:

But when I brought in my cover sketch and put it on the wall for everyone to critique, there were 5 other Red Riding Hoods and they were all amazing! I hated mine and went home and crawled into bed and didn't come out until the next day (which really isn't that big a deal because I get home around 11 pm, but still). 

Anyway, I had to take a break from this project for a while and focus on something else. The next project was “turnarounds,” which a publisher likes to see in your portfolio to show that you can create a consistent character from different angles.

Meanwhile, I had to solve the Red Riding Hood problems, so I poked around on Google Images for a good wolf. I found this:

and suddenly the idea for the cover presented itself in big, flashy, mental neon signs. 

Illustration I. 12 weeks. 
Just for fun, we were asked to draw toys. Luckily Jesse's mom sent this! 

Got finger cramps after that one.

We had three projects, and each went through an evolution of several crappy drafts.

1.   Alphabet page. Pick a letter of the alphabet, write a sentence, illustrate the sentence.   




Color studies.

2.  Snowy Day. Inspired by Ezra Jack Keats’ Snowy Day, we had to illustrate 4 sentences from another book about all four seasons for young readers. The sentences were really dumb:
Winter is here. Put your boots on. Find your mittens. You can build a snowman.  
Winter is the cold season of the year. It’s a time for snow shovels and warm woolen scarves.
You can ride downhill on sleds when snow is on the ground.  
You can have a skating party if your birthday is in winter. Invite all your friends.

I thought this would be really fun, but I hated it. Everyone hated it. I’m not sure why, exactly. None of us were finding inspiration. Maybe it was because we weren't ready to think about snow.

I went through several rough draft ideas and first sketched out a version with Asian children because our RISD portfolio requires pieces with multicultural kids. But after an entire week of sketching, at the first critique, everyone decided these sketches would confuse a young audience. I can’t find these sketches either.

I liked my second set of drafts:
But at the second week of critiques, my teacher said, “No.” She told me to give the kids faces. Even though tons of illustrators have enjoyed wild success with dots-for-eyes:

Holly Hobbie
Shel Silverstein

Marie-Louise Gay
Quentin Blake
Janet Ahlberg
Lane Smith
Chihiro Iwasaki

Russell Ayto


Round 3:

Jesse’s comment: “Those kids look like androgynous Teletubbies.”

That’s what everyone else said in the third week of critiques too.

3.  Cricket magazine cover. I should have been thrilled to do this, but I still hadn’t figured out how to solve my Snowy Day problems without completely starting over and redoing everything. But we had to move on. To be inspired for Cricket, we spent one class period in the RISD nature lab. This building has shelves and cabinets lined with critters that have paid a visit to the taxidermist. There’s one cabinet full of just owls. There’s a room full of skeletons and nautilus shells. There’s a “Cabinet of Curiosities” that stores odd things in bottles with lots of formaldehyde.

We had to pick an animal and draw it and then the idea was to use the sketch as inspiration for our magazine cover.

I hate drawing in front of people, only because I’m not good at it and because I’ve taken too many shortcuts in life, I don’t draw that well. Which you might think sounds like baloney, but you should see what my classmates can draw. With their eyes closed.

I picked the tiniest animal in the whole lab: 
a wee mousie
I wasn’t in a drawing mood, so I made sure it took the whole 3 hours to create this masterpiece.

My first cover sketch looked like this: 

Then I went through 6 other ideas, wondering how I was going to get the desired effect, because Cricket covers often have a design that features something eye-catching on the front with a surprise on the back. Like this:

I went back to my original idea and drew more crappy mice. 

One of these mice is not like the other...

My teacher says my character is cuter than Fancy Nancy

So, this is why I had to retire from party planning. But friends picked up where we left off and saved us from being hermits. Thank you friends! The final project for Photoshop was to make a movie poster. Friends, I'm sorry I couldn't squeeze all of you onto my poster, just those of you who post pictures on FB that happened to work with my idea. If my life were a movie, it would be called:

The sad end to this story is that there are so many things I could have done to all of these pieces but I ran out of time. I’ll have to put them away for a year and come back to them later. Oh well, what do you do?