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Saturday, December 22, 2012

Tell Me a Small Christmas Story


It's a well-known fact that the things we remember from events that are supposed to be Big Events are rarely the planned-for memories. When you look back on all the Christmases of your past, what populates the home-movie-screen behind your eyelids are small moments, no? Tell me your story. By the way, you can read some of my own small-but-big moments by clicking on the pic.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

What It Looks Like



Sometimes what it looks like is a gray stone wall. You know there’s light because some of the gray is grayer (shadows), but you don’t see anything you’d actually call light. It’s just a wall of ugly rock, sheer and taller than tall — tall without end — and even if you had your spiked climbing shoes, what could be the point? Behold the cliffs of Mordor.
And so you are still for a while, and that’s fine. Stillness, even scary stillness in a fetal position, can be part of how the soul accomplishes some of its quiet work.

Eventually, you can no longer be still, and so you shout and rage and cry. This is also good. We would not have these vocal tools if they, too, did not have their place in the fascia that connects our worldly and spiritual experiences.

Eventually, the raging rages itself out. Maybe now you are moved to pray.  For some of you, prayer comes first, and God love ya. (I’m sure he does.) For others, the act of prayer is like dancing — something you prefer to leave to more confident people, because it makes you feel self-conscious. In the gilded sanctuaries of your youth, you were taught to speak to God using someone else’s words, and it felt like lying.  Or it filled you with guilt, made you very aware of how far you were from the sacred person the elders wished you to be.

Or maybe you gave it your best in-the-name-of-the-father shot once or twice and concluded no one was listening. But now here you are, Mordor before you and a desert of despair behind you. With nothing left but your hands and feet and broken heart, you pray in ragged words. You shout out “Help!” Or: “GOD! Help me, would you?”

And in your desperation, you think you’re asking for a helicopter to deliver you back to the world you knew before you woke up at the base of the infinite rock. You think you’re asking even for a godforsaken rope ladder, the kind you’re supposed to have in your bedroom to escape from fires. You think maybe you’re even asking for part of the rock to suddenly topple down and crush your head, because that would be better than the lightless rock face and the desert.

It does not matter what you think you’re asking for. That’s what I believe – though it’s important to add that I do not pretend to know. All the pretending-to-know under gilded arches drove me farther away, while the wondering and watching, the asking and receiving, brought me closer to – well, I’ll just leave it at “closer.”

So here is what I believe. When we ask for help at the base of the cliff, sometimes we get the helicopter. And sometimes we get just enough energy to lift a leg and find a foothold. We get footholds and crevices to grip.  I think we become inspired to move a little and maybe we’re struck with the sudden wisdom to stop looking for the helicopter, and to just keep groping for purchase and moving up.  We get the temporary relief of a distracting and beautiful memory, something to make us stop grimacing for a moment while we climb.

I believe we might have gotten these things even if we did not ask, but that because we asked, we are given help. It’s the one reliable. “Ask and ye shall receive.”

Reiteration: I do not know how this works. I do not know what God looks like. I do not know why bad things happen to good people. I don’t know why children and animals are born only to be abused, or where the love of God goes when the waves turn the minutes to hours.  I don’t know why my brother decided to go to that concert  on that night in that car with that friend, and I don’t know how or why the miracles happen, either. I don’t know why the same field of wildflowers blooms every spring without fail. I don’t know what to think of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, or whether the Bible is the Bible or a book of poetry or a novel or the Reader’s Digest Condensed Version of the Wisdom Traditions of the World. I do not know, I do not know, I do not know, and I do not need to know.

But whenever I have asked or shouted or raged for help, or pleaded in a little-girl voice, or awkwardly muttered for it, help has arrived. Sometimes it has been in a very direct, “Your meal is served, ma’am” way, and sometimes in a form of grace that I wouldn’t have dreamed up on my own. So I’ve decided it’s best not to be too specific when I ask.

I don’t know I don’t know I don’t know. There’s so much I don’t know. But when I woke up, feeling (as perhaps you did) that today I needed to do something about other people’s pain, I knew this: I can ask for God’s grace to be delivered to them as they climb the cliff face. Grace, in all its disguises, will arrive.

Sunday, December 09, 2012

Drawing Ladies

Young kids who like to draw usually like to draw something in particular: horses, dogs, robots, super-heroes. They usually grow up to become adults who don't draw.

When I was a kid who liked to draw, what I liked drawing was fashionable ladies. Then I kind of stopped drawing for a while. And when I returned to it, as an adult, I knew that drawing all kinds of things — buildings, people, flowers, patterns — was important because to me it was all about illustration, and you never know what you're going to have to illustrate.

Recently I got a job involving the illustration of some costumes, which sent me immediately to books about fashion illustration. And then it sent me to drawing ladies in fashionable clothing (and men, too), and it all came back, like the way the aroma of a just-opened box of crayons whisks you back to third grade.

I had so much fun imagining outfits and trying to make the lines look elegant. Unlike my child's approach, I studied what made some fashion illustrations so great — so artful — and that allowed me to do a few things in my own drawings that kind of mimicked the look.

To be clear, fashion illustration is its own discipline. I am not a fashion illustrator. But for a while, for this project, I remembered the joy of a kind of drawing that captured my imagination for a while as an unfashionable kid. Lovely.

Saturday, December 01, 2012

Does Your Newspaper Mean More Than You Think?

This image has little to do with the text below. It's just the stiff sketch I made after not having drawn much for a couple days.

I want to be Christmas shopping right now, but I can’t. I have to do this instead, because of all the things occupying my gray matter these days, the one item rolling around there at all times, worrying me, making me sad, is the state of the American newspaper.

“Boo-hoo,” you say?

Stay with me. Please. I’ll keep it short. Ish. I’ll keep it shortish.

Or not.

If you’re lucky enough to live in a place with a decent local newspaper – not even a really good one, like my Plain Dealer, just a decent one – then you are privileged. But the sell-by date on that privilege may be fast approaching, and it is time to take action.

I’m not going to reiterate the cultural and economic issues that plague print newspapers. If you’ve made it even this far, you already know them.

What you might not know, or quite believe, is that however long you’ve lived with your local newspaper, and however much or little you have read it, the paper has been making your community better. That’s right: EVEN IF YOU NEVER READ THE PAPER, IT HAS MADE YOUR LIFE BETTER.

How can I be so sure? Because simply by existing, the newspaper has reached readers – your neighbors, friends and community leaders – and explained their world to them. It has informed their votes, pointed them to new restaurants, and opened their eyes about corrupt politicians. Perhaps the mere existence of the press has even inspired some such politicians to stay on this side of the law. (We’ll never really know, but it’s possible.)

Now, perhaps you have some beef with your local paper. Everyone does at one time or another. My beefs can be stirred up by something as small as a typo that I think should absolutely never have seen print, and DOES ANYONE EVER EDIT THIS THING FOR GOD’S SAKE?

Perhaps your beef is beefier. Perhaps the newspaper did a story you think misquoted a friend involved in some controversial issue. Perhaps you think the writers and editors are in the bag for your political opponents. (I can find you plenty of people on the other side who say the same thing.) Perhaps you find yourself yelling at their football columnist every week. Or you think they don’t do enough investigative work. Or they write too few positive stories.

I have a list, collected over decades, of the typical gripes that people nurture about their local newspaper. I don’t laugh about them or mock them; people feel very passionate about these things, and I respect that.

But if your grievances have soured you to the point where you think your community is better off without the local rag, I’m here to tell you that you’ve lost your grip. And that you are – and I say this with affection and love – wrong with a capital WRRRRR.

Whether you love everything the paper does or not, every day that its reporters ask questions and meet captains of industry and transcribe the first versions of history, your community is better than if they weren’t doing that. Not a little better, either. A lot better.

And every day that the paper comes out, and you don’t at least glance at it, and find at least a story or two to read, you consent to making your world a little smaller than it should be. You’re a little less of an asset to those friends and neighbors who count on you to know stuff and be involved and act as a good citizen acts.

Guilt trip? So be it. Just as I passionately endorse your right to be pissed at the local paper for the ingredient they left out in last week’s recipe on the food page (does your paper still have a food page?), I passionately believe that it is impossible to be a contributing member of a healthy society without reading the local newspaper.

And don’t tell me you get all you need to know from the local TV news. TV news serves a fine function, but it does things differently. And it doesn’t come close to serving the citizenry in the way a daily or even weekly newspaper can do.

While I’m at the whole judgment-slinging thing, I will add that just as it’s also not really cool to boast how bad one is at math, it is SO uncool to boast about how one doesn’t have time to read the paper. So if you are one of those people, please be properly abashed. And if you hear one of those people boasting, tell them they’re far less sexy than you had previously thought they were, and there is absolutely no chance now that you will ever hit on them.

Here is what I’m asking.

If your local newspaper isn’t doing a good job, complain. Gripe to the editor. Write a letter. Call them to better behavior.

But for crying out loud, keep reading the paper. Challenge it to higher standards, because their writers and editors ARE the fourth estate and carry power and privilege for a reason, and it’s not to justify their mass comm degrees.

Subscribe, because for now that’s still how newspapers tell advertisers how many people read their effort. And it matters.

Buy an ad. Buy an ad for your church rummage sale. Buy a graduation announcement for your niece. Buy a big full-page display ad for your thriving business, if you’re lucky enough to have one. Be a part of the ecosystem of an informed public. It matters.

And no, it’s not too late. Our culture has slowly learned to accept the myth that newspapers are dead. But accepted ideas change all the time. Look at the Arab Spring. Look at leg warmers. Look at how people view cigarette smoking now versus just a few decades ago.

Finally, if you are a passionate newspaper reader: Thank you so much. On a personal note, you ensured a great career for me and for beloved colleagues for a long time. That’s a nice thing, though it is not the crucial thing.

Far more importantly, you get what it means to be informed, to be a reader, to think and engage and connect. If you’re a newspaper reader, you’ve made things better.

So thank you. And carry on.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Tech Challenged

So I am reduced to posting via iPhone because our Internet has been down for many days. I think I'll leave it at this: everything I have to say is on the page here. Hope you can read it, of you're inclined.
Best wishes.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Improv

Left the sketchbook at home Friday night. Had to draw on the jazz orchestra program book. But still. Had to draw nonetheless. Improvisation is the common language of jazz and sketching. The best part of improv is like the best part of that family vacation you still remember -- the one where you got just-lost-enough, but not so lost as to mess up the whole trip. The best part of sketching (separate from illustration) is its in-the-momentness, the possibility of being surprised, even pleasantly so, by what shows up from the end of your hand. Happiness and joy.

Saturday, November 03, 2012

The Insecurist's Thought for the Day

This is the latest in the Red Ridinghood series. Click to enlarge, if you like.

There are two fine solutions for writers and artists of all kinds who, upon comparing themselves to others and having an ACUTE ATTACK OF INSECURITY of that special variety many of us suffer, can use.

One solution is to ask friends and loved ones to tell you how wonderful you are. And they likely will. Only that doesn't really help, because deep down you are a better judge of your work, and the things you don't like about it are going to vex you now matter how many there-theres you hear.

Another is to decide to eat worms, i.e., declare that, having written/drawn/played the worst piece of roach excrement ever to be passed off as art, you will forever forsake the work.

Yep. Do that. Then count on your elbows how many people beg you to please, please, please continue to create.

No. These are not the two ways. The two ways are this:

1. Keep doing the work with focus on improving the skills you think you lack.

2. Use the better work you see/read/hear out there in the world — which, by the way, is indeed full of people whose skills are more refined and whose inborn talent might in fact be maddeningly and unfairly more generous than yours — use their work to study. Use their work to inspire you.

Those are really the only two things I know that chase the wolf from Grandma's bed, so to speak.

Despair still mounts ninja attacks on my quivery little soul. Usually I have to flail helplessly back at it for a little while before I remember that the despair-killing antidote is tucked in my pocket, and that I have only to reach in and remember: Stop wallowing. Do the work. Study to improve.

That is all I know today.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Post Mortem

This tri-fold design had lots of program info inside; the front of the card is, obviously, on the right.

Over the summer I worked on a little gratis project for a local non-profit, designing an invitation to a fundraiser. Overall, the job was problematic. It would be unprofessional to dish, but let me just say I found it to be a less-than-splendid partnership.

Still, three valuable things came out of the experience. First, I learned -- or relearned -- the value of detailed, up-front communication. There's honor and ease in spelling out anything that involves investments of time.

Second, I learned that "pro bono" can, weirdly, empower people to treat you less well than if they're paying you. This is probably an unconscious thing on their part, but it argues for either charging for one's time or for, as my friend Ann recommended, creating an invoice with actual dollar amounts on it (so they know what you're worth), then writing "comped" at the bottom.

Third, I still kinda like the original design, seen above, for the invitation.

Late in the game, it became clear that the group couldn't do four-color. That changed not just the pizzazz of the image but also the effectiveness of the texturing that made the original design worth doing, IMHO.

Today I got a look at the invitation in the version that came back from the printer. It was ... distressing. Major ink tranfer as the pieces came off the press. (You can read ghost letters on top of the actual text.) And the images lost much in the shift from four-color to two-color. In a way, seeing the printed version was a perfect ending to a perfectly miserable experience.

If I sound like I'm blaming it all on the other folks involved, I say au contraire. The project was mine to manage from the start.

By the way, it should go without saying that I've obscured the name of the organization and its members, but just in case you were wondering about the awkward empty blocks of nothing, that's where some type went.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Gourds and Ghouls and Making Time

Click on the images to make 'em bigger, of course. The better to find the typo in the text, my pretty ...

The wonderful leather sketchbook from the Ann Arbor Art Fair is filling up fast, mostly with Red Ridinghood iterations but also the random little sketch. Even when I haven't been able to make time for true urban sketching, I've sneaked in little drawings. Sometimes these are the ones that end up mattering when you page back through old sketchbooks.

And, as I learned in art school, you can do fun stuff by pulling disparate images from sketchbooks. Making sketchbooks thus a bit more wonderful - but only if one uses them, of course.

Using the sketchbook in more than one way becomes important because — well, I've finally succumbed to the reality that there isn't time in this life to do everything. So we do what we can, and use the best of it in creative ways.

Speaking of fun, since we're almost at Halloween, I thought I'd reprise another little thing I did a couple of years ago during this season. I might be the only one who liked it.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

...And from Sketchbook to Illustration

If you read yesterday's post (and you still can, of course), you'll see I've been playing around a lot with Red. I decided to go this way with the beginning of the story. But of course there will be more Red to come.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Sketching in Red

The past two weeks have been bustling with new full-time work, but I've been setting aside mornings to do some thinking on children's illustration. Forthwith: A series of sketches that I regard as "old-school red," which is sort of coming out of this page here from a while back.

First, I was playing with ideas for a first scene from the Red Ridinghood story. So here are some thumbnails, along with a page in which I was dithering over her look. If you click on the page, you can get a closeup of those little thumbnails on the left, but be prepared: They're ugly!

Next came a page on which I gave myself a choice between two looks. The left side was sort of cutesy-poignant. The right side hewed to the original portrait. I liked it better. Incidentally, see where the cat's face bumps right up to the line of the table leg? That's what we here in illustration call a "tangent," and this type of tangent is an E-R-R-O-R. Tangents can be used in a purposeful way. This one was an accident, and it's bad because it causes a weird little hiccup for the viewer when he or she is looking at the illustration.

Having decided on the more individualized, portraitlike Red, I just played with drawing her in different ways. I still need to work on studies in which she shows more instantly recognizable expressions. I find that while I'm drawing here, she seems determined to have a quiet strength and to be a bit reserved. In some ways, she reminds me of The Lonely Doll, and I think I want to make some of that go away. But I'm starting to see how she comes to life.

And finally — in terms of this blog post, not in terms of this little mini-project — I put her in a scene. It could be turned into a finished illustration, or I could decide on something different.

Sunday, October 07, 2012

Very, very short story contest, anyone?

It started with an idea of drawing a certain kind of oldish guy. Then suddenly the vixen appeared. And the rest is some sort of weird Freudian history.

This is one of those sketches that make me want to invoke The Dream Clause ("Don't blame me for casting you as a ________ elft who _________ in the shower in my dream. It was my subconscious! I'm not responsible!")

Though that only goes so far when the weirdness is committed during waking hours while you have a pen in your hand.

Anyway, let's make something of this, shall we? A caption contest. Or, if you're so moved, a very short story. I will award a prize to anyone whose entry, here or on FB, tickles my fancy.

Here's a link to the first such contest I did on this site. Winsome, creative writing from all my talented friends.

By the way, you should ignore the sentence of text on the left side. It's just my note to myself, since this was drawn in my sketchbook.

So write your own notes instead. What's the woman doing there? Why is the old guy so wary of her? What's up with the bartender? Who designed the woman's dress? Is there someone influencing any of this off-camera? Who might be telling the story? Ready, set, GO!

Tuesday, October 02, 2012

Drawing from the Outside In

Urban sketchers learn — quickly or eventually — that drawing from observation goes better if the artist works big to small. Place the general shapes of the buildings (or construction equipment) before you start work on the window trim. Figure out relative proportions before drawing in the little pebbles on the road. (Do you even need the pebbles?)

It's funny that we should have to learn the big-to-small lesson at all, but I think this is because as children we liked drawing detail. Of course, as children we were less hard on ourselves if our drawing didn't replicate the object.

But it does make things easier. And unlike many lessons, the drawing big-to-small lesson goes down just as easily if someone simply TELLS you to do it this way as if you learn it by accident.

So look: If you're interested in observational sketching, and you're hoping to more or less replicate what you see, start by placing the biggest shapes, then gradually go small. (Incidentally, working from the outside in has metaphoric value as well, but you can just sit and think on that one yourselves. All I'm saying is that there are usually life lessons in art lessons.)

Of course, if you don't care about replicating nature, but simply want to put down an impressionist rendering of what's before you, I say: Yes. Do it.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

A Place to Play

A sketch from my sandbox

Carlo worked a 10-hour shift the other day. And still, when he got home, what he really wanted was to pull on his tennis shoes and run off for a couple hours of ping-pong at the club. (Yes, there are such clubs, and yes, these are serious table tennis people.)

The kind of day he had would not have inspired a similarly energetic reaction on my part, but in general I get it. Every grownup needs at least one sandbox. The ping-pong table is his.

A funny thing happened the other day during my portfolio critique at the children's book conference. An art director noted that work derived from my sketchbooks was generally better than work created as Illustrations with a capital I. This is not the first time such as an observation has been made, and I am far from the only illustrator with this issue. Years ago, a newspaper colleague was scribbling on a piece of scrap paper in a meeting and, in about 90 seconds, came up with a simple line drawing that became a cover illustration for a story we'd been discussing in that meeting.

For many of us drawn to pens and pencils and such, our sandbox is a sketchbook or the back of an envelope. It's the one place to recapture the freedom of play we found in childhood.

Where is your sandbox?

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Ok, so this weekend at the Northern Ohio Chapter of the Society of Children's Book Authors & Illustrators conference (biiigggg inhale), I had many nice encounters and heard inspiring, smart, professional artists. One of the most inspiring talks was by Christopher Canyon, a southern Ohio artist who seems to reinvent himself with each new picture book.

This is another short post, the purpose of which is to say to artists and illustrators, simply "Go to his website and see how Christopher Canyon and his equally astounding artist-wife, Jeanette, have made what looks like a beautiful life doing beautiful work that enhances the lives of children."

And also: I had to buy his Christopher's picture-book version of John Denver's "Sunshine On My Shoulders," because 1)He did a great slide show talking about the making of the book, 2)It's an inspiring work that, as he points out, isn't about anything happening, but about a feeling, a situation that sets up an interesting challenge for illustrators, 3) he played guitar and sang the song for us, and 4) the whole experience spirited me back not only to the 70s, but to that very particular kind of freedom that characterized being a kid out in nature int he summer.

Bravo.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Children's Book Conference

This is a re-run because I've been gathering intelligence from the Northern Ohio Society for Children's Book Authors & Illustrators. More later ...

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Going Places

Sometimes we have the illusion that we're standing still. It's only when we look back on where we were that we can see that — oh! That was a PATH I was on!

I am looking forward to the time when I look back and can say — oh! That was a PATH I was on! And it was a GOOD one!

Monday, September 17, 2012

Returning Your Call

Have we ever been less careful about communication than in this, the communication age?

How easy it is to put the return call or message on the to-do list, then let it sorta slide around down there while more important things happen.

I do it.

You do it.

How do I know you do it? Just a hunch.

So today, fueled (I'll admit) by a recent spate of unrequited communication, I am going to examine my own return rate.

Do I owe you?

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Circling Back

Years ago, before art school was a twinkling in my eye, I took a continuing ed class with the wonderful Lou Grasso, during which we had an assignment to illustrate Red Ridinghood. The picture second from the top has appeared on this blog at least once, and maybe more, because I ended up liking a lot about it. There were things that went (perhaps accidentally) right, especially the girl's expression.

Last night I was playing in my sketchbook and thinking about fairytales and I started to wonder what I'd do with the same general idea if I were to execute it six years after the first. The image at top is the one in my sketchbook. (Sidebar on sketchbook: It's the beautiful leather one I got at the Ann Arbor Art Fair this year, but alas it was gotten — TWICE! — by Roscoe, and has been slightly damaged. Grrr.)

Anyway, I might mess around a bit more with different scenes from the story, or I might take the new sketchbook image and develop it into a new finished illustration. We'll see.

The idea of circling back to an earlier project can be liberating when you don't have other ideas, or just something to do out of curiosity. Who were you when you drew that thing the first time? Who are you now?

Saturday, September 01, 2012

Drawing from Memory

A woman walked by a window outside a restaurant where I was lunching a few weeks ago. She looked 60ish, and her bright red lipstick highlighted the retro structure of her face. (What does that mean? I don't know, exactly, but her face looked like it was constructed for the mid-1950s.) She was not especially attractive, yet she carried herself with an air of utter confidence.

I could've pulled out my sketchbook, which I had with me, but it would've meant pulling my attention away from my lunch partner, which I wasn't willing to do.

This is the sketch I made of the woman a day or two later. It wouldn't hold up in court. It wouldn't help police identify the person I saw, I'm sure. But it IS an accurate record of my impression of this woman — her attitude, the general lines of her face and the almost absurdly old-fashioned hairstyle.

If you like to draw, I recommend adding this kind of drawing to your repertoire, if you don't already use it. Many of us bounce back and forth between observational drawing (great for practicing accuracy) and imaginative drawing (making stuff up! yay!). This lies somewhere in the middle, and endures as a record not of what we saw, exactly, or what we conjured up, but of how something hit us. And if we practice this with people, we end up with a bunch of potential characters for stories, comics and whatnot.

Especially whatnot. Very important ...

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Visit My Galleries!

There's no picture with this post because I want you to look at OTHER pictures — the ones in the two main gallery areas of karensandstrom.com.

Regular readers of this blog will see a lot of familiar work, but there may be a few surprises. There are three main galleries and a Sketchbook section. And if you check out the My Books tab you can take a peek at a few pages from my book-in-progress, Thick Through the Middle.

This now concludes this episode of shameless self-promotion. Have a wonderful day!

Monday, August 27, 2012

On the last weekend before the start of the school year, at least for Lylah, we spent a Sunday afternoon hanging in the picturesque Tremont neighborhood of Cleveland. We perched at the park at the center of the neighborhood and I drew one of the houses nearby. A person could go almost anywhere in Tremont and find interesting things to photograph or draw. This is less true in the suburbs, although of course one of the obligations of the person drawing or photographing is to see what others don't.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

No Problem

In the night, when I couldn't sleep, I opened my book and picked up a pencil without a thought about where the pencil would go.

It did not go to the big question mark of the future.

It did not go to taking K back to college, or to one less person in the house.

It did not go to worst tasks on the to-do list.

It did not go to unanswered letters.

It did not go to the giant scales that weigh and re-weigh and tally one's value in the world.

It did not go to the bathroom scale.

It went to this place and to this horse. The horse seemed to make things especially nice, so I thanked him.

He said it was no problem.

Tuesday, August 07, 2012

A Retread — Just Because

I'll admit it. Sometimes I'm in love with my own drawings. Art school also taught me to be in-hate with my own drawings. This has its uses. You sketchpeople understand this. Being in love with your work doesn't help you get better, though it's kind of mentally healthy, I think.

Back to love. This image, posted here in another form a couple years ago, warms the cockles of my ventricles because it's a representation of Flatso, the stuffed bear that has belonged to my younger daughter since she was 6 months old. And the little girl throwing herself on Flatso is, of course, that girl, at about age 3, when she was deliciously, irresistibly cuddly. When I see this image, even though I rendered it, I melt. Sue me.

Sunday, August 05, 2012

Say Yes to the Blue Alpaca

I've been working so hard that my new handcrafted leather sketchbook book from Iona, which I bought at the Ann Arbor Art Fair, has felt neglected. I did what any desperate drawer would do (besides climb inside a drawer) and drew a blue alpaca.

The quote at the bottom of the page is something that struck me from a recent interview with Arnold Schwarzenegger. As far as I know, his position in no way represents alpacas, blue or otherwise, but it resonated with me. He speaks of how he "Never heard 'no' as 'no'" in terms of achieving goals. He always just heard "yes."

So many of us take to the no-means-no lesson when we are kids. This makes things easier for adults, of course. But there comes a time when we should learn either to disregard others' nos or simply to turn them into yeses. It would be great if we learned that gradually, say in our early adulthood. But anytime is fine.

Friday, July 27, 2012

From the Corners of the Brain

It's important for illustrators to do imaginative drawing from time to time. That said, what we produce might be regarded in a way similar to a dream: We are not really responsible for the content.

This sketchbook image started with the mindless line drawing of the female character, who seemed pleasant enough. When I realized that nothing was happening in the picture, the character on the right emerged as if from the darkest corners of my brain. Mind, he didn't emerge with enough clarity for me to actually draw his clawlike hand in a convincing manner, but in general you get the idea he is up to no good.

That's it. That's all I've got for this. So if it suggests a story to you, please share.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Speak to Me of Radishes

I feel some food-related posts coming on.

In the meantime . . . How do you feel about radishes?

Thursday, July 05, 2012

Permission Granted: The Picture Book List

My children technically grew out of picture books more than a decade ago. I never did.

We had spent years indulging a sweet bedtime ritual of piling books upon the bed and letting words and pictures carry us off to foreign lands as we drifted to sleep. (I was always tired then, and usually fell out about the same time or just before the kids did).

But as they grew, and moved onto chapter books, I found myself utterly resistant.

Sure, I wanted them to be accomplished little readers, but I didn't want that to mean we had to give up the illustrations. I said something to that effect to a colleague at the time, the theater critic Marianne Evett. Marianne is a Renaissance woman, a lover of art and culture, and also the mother of children who, like mine, were well past picture books. Technically.

But when I admitted to Marianne that I didn't want to stop having the books around, she performed a magical service. She gave me permission to go my own way.

She acknowledged, almost casually, that she still kept picture books around the house. And why not? The best of them are poetic, funny, transportive, insightful — and full of artwork defined by those qualities as well.

And so it was that I kept buying picture books, and now collect them, though not in any scholarly way. I have no qualms about sitting down with one to revisit the story or to admire the artwork. This has more than a little to do with my decision to go to art school and study illustration, of course. But that's not what this post is about.

It's about doing for you, perhaps, what Marianne did for me. If you've been waiting for permission to indulge your love of picture books, then regardless of the presence or absence of a camouflage-providing child, I grant you that permission. Go to it. Go to the bookstore. Buy yourself something nice.

Without further ado, here's a list of 10 favorites. I could come up with 10 more, and maybe I will in the future. And by the way, all of these have the approval of my daughters, who still like picture books themselves, and who occasionally receive them as gifts from their mother.

Mama Do You Love Me? by Barbara Joose; illustrated by Barbara Lavallee. Gorgeous, vibrant illustrations bring to life Joose's message about the infinite love between a mother and child. The setting, in the Inuit culture, also speaks to a reverence for nature.

Olivia by Ian Falconer. This one's all about the title character's spunky personality. Falconer, a New Yorker illustrator, renders Olivia the piglet in expressive lines so winsome you'll have to lie down after reading. (Series)

Poppleton by Cynthia Rylant; illustrated by Mark Teague. Here's another pig, but this one is a bibliophile named Poppleton who has moved from a booming metropolis to a charming little town and befriends a friendly llama neighbor named Cherry Sue. Teague is a splendid illustrator, and brings a gently humorous watercolor styling to the books. (Series)

When Sophie Gets Angry — Really, Really Angry by Molly Bang. Vivid, livid color palette and almost jarring painting style are just the right expression for this unusual story about what it feels like for a child — or anyone — when anger takes over.

Owl Moon by Jane Yolen; illustrated by John Schoenherr. A father and child take a late-night walk in the woods to catch a glimpse of an owl. Schoenherr's elegant watercolors perfectly convey the magical mood of the adventure.

Zen Shorts by Jon J. Muth. Muth's exquisite illustrations really make these three Zen tales, revolving around a clutch of children and their panda neighbor. Muth alternates between soft, crisp watercolor and a black and white brush-and-ink technique. (Series)

Owl Babies by Martin Waddell; illustrated by Patrick Benson. Three young owls must cope with their fears when their mother disappears into the night — only to return, as she always said she would. Benson's depictions of the young birds makes me want to climb into their tree with them.

Children of the Forest by Elsa Beskow. This one is a throwback from Swedish storyteller Beskow, whose spritely woodland children commune with flora and fauna. The decidedly old-fashioned nature of the tale, and Beskow's gentle drawings, can make you yearn for a simpler time.

The Polar Express by Chris Van Allsburg. Before it was an animated movie that critics thought was weird-looking, "The Polar Express" was a gorgeously illustrated tale about Christmas and faith in magic.

Flotsam by David Wiesner. Having just returned from our all-American vacation at the all-American Jersey Shore, the setting of "Flotsam," I leave this for last on the list because I love it that much. Wiesner could not be more eloquent in this wordless tale about a boy who finds a magical camera washed up with the tide. I return to this book over and over to study Wiesner's gorgeous watercolors. I discover new details in imagery and narrative every time.

Wednesday, July 04, 2012

American Idle

The seaside town of Stone Harbor, N.J., does not bustle with activity. A list of things to do there goes pretty much like this:

1. Run or walk the beach in the morning.

2. Lie on the beach.

3. Body surf or boogie board the lazy Atlantic surf.

4. Buy T-shirts and hermit crabs at the 5 and 10 downtown.

5. Shop at the surf shops and candy stores and jewelry stores downtown.

6. Drink or otherwise buy booze at Fred's Tavern.

7. Bike around town.

8. Watch for terrapin turtles crossing the access road from the mainland.

9. Run or walk the beach in the evening.

10. Stand in a very long line for ice cream at the Prohibition-era parlor called Springer's.

That's kind of the whole story. Oh, you can bring board games and have your computer around. There's a dated but not quite old-fashioned move theater in town. But you won't be bombarded by ads for parasailing or wet T-shirt night at the bars. You won't be beckoned to swim with the dolphins or participate in massive beach volleyball tournaments.

No. Things here are . . . slow.

Can you throttle back your own speed? Let the tide be your guide? Can you reach back to ideas of fun and entertainment that predate YouTube? Shake the idea that the only time well spent is time spent on hard-core doing?

It's harder than it looks. One of the reasons for this is that a more or less quiet vacation leaves you alone with your own thoughts — about the constancy of the sea, maybe, compared to the fleeting nature of youth.

Also, in the quiet of these days, you find out just how deeply rooted your mental to-do list is, and how uncomfortable it can be when you first try to set it aside. If you're a thinks-too-much type, you bring, even to a place like this, a 21st century mission to DO THE VACATION RIGHT.

Eventually, the sea lures you in. It figuratively forces you to abide by the Zen of its tides. It literally lures you in to feel the whirl of salt water around your legs and the thrill of a watching a wave aim right for you.

Jump the wave or ride it. Float and forget your to-do list.

There's no way to do it wrong.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Drawing as Religious Experience

Maybe God was the first illustrator. Maybe he needed illustration to get his ideas across. Maybe it went like this:

God is sitting around talking to one of His angels, waxing enthusiastic about His plans to populate Earth.

"And then I'll make animals," He tells the angel. "What's an animal?" the angel asks.

"It'll be a little like a person," God replies. "Body, neck, head, limbs. Here, I'll show you." God grabs pencil and paper and draws a gorilla. He shows it to the angel, who says, "So animals will be hairy, wide-bodied humans with hands and feet."

"Yes, some of them. Except for these," God says. He scribbles on the paper for a moment, then holds up a drawing of an elephant. (It's a very fine drawing, done half with His left hand and half with His right.)

"Huhn," says the angel. "So animals will be big, hairy and wide-bodied, but some will have giant ears and frightening noses instead of hands."

God looks at the elephant drawing. "You really thinking the nose is scary?" Then, without waiting for the angel's answer, God draws a cat.

"What's that?" the angel asks.

"An ANIMAL," God tells him, with the tiniest bit of derision, because after all, what does the angel think they've been talking about?

"Ohhh-kayyy," the angel says. "So animals will be big, hairy and have hands and terrifying noses, except for the ones with small heads and striped fur."

"Exactly!" says God. Then He hunches over his paper and draws a giraffe.

"I give up," says the angel.

"And now for the birds ..." God says.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Using Zoo Time

If you like to draw, zoos are good place to be. You can hang out near the slow-moving animals, like the rhinos and elephants, or try to capture movement near the raptors' cages.

Yesterday the Northern Ohio Illustrators Society had its annual sketchcrawl at the zoo. My modus operandi was to do a page of fast gestural drawings, not seen here, to warm up. I recommend warming up. In fact, I recommend warming up way more than I did. It would've been good to warm up for a half hour just to work out the kinks.

After doing some quick colubus monkeys with a brush pen, I sat down to do their environment here. If I were going to do it again, I'd start by painting in only values with watercolor, then laying the lines back on top. Had I pulled that off, it would've made a better sketch, because the scene really is about values more than line. I'm a sucker for lines, sometimes to my detriment.

I also took a lot of photos for later use. On something like a zoo trip, I might try to capture a somewhat realistic depiction of the animal. Better yet, let's call it a more or less TRUE depiction, as in: here were the general shapes, here were the accurate proportions, my best attempt at color, etc. Here's what the flamingo more or less looked like."

When I go back to the photos I took, however, I'm likely to go a little freer, a little more stylized or to exaggerate. Observational drawing teaches me to look at the animal. Drawing from memory or from photographs lets me exercise imagination.

For My Writing Friends

For my writing friends, I wonder ... Is there any equivalent of a writing warm-up? I don't have one, but I'm a big believer that the creative process is similar from one discipline to the next, so it got me wondering what would happen if I figured out some version of quick-sketching as it would apply to writing.

What do you think?

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Why Cleveland Is Kinda Cool

A little poky here with the Parade the Circle page from last weekend, but I've been busy with Events Outside Of My Control.

But the point is that this year was the 23rd Parade the Circle event, in which Cleveland's University Circle comes alive with artful weirdness. It had been a long time since I'd been to the parade, but I was extra glad I went this year, because I'm adding it to my internal catalogue of things that are just really excellent about this city. And here's why:

See, I don't necessarily love a parade. I've heard it said that some do, and I respect that. But they're often too filled with military precision for my taste. (Sidebar: thumb's up on the Macy's TG Day Parade.)

But the reason Parade the Circle is cool is that the people IN the parade are just folks who have spent a few days or a few weeks coming up with outlandish, and sometimes beautiful, artful and chaotic costumes and floats. It all reminds me of how we made art when we were kids — playfully. There's a noticeable abundance of exuberance and a noticeable absence of slickness.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Your Daily Newspaper ...

You can click on this to make it more readable — though it will be most readable in print. Just sayin' ...

The thing about your daily newspaper is that, if you are lucky, there are still people working there who try to do cool things once in a while. When I say "cool," I mean "Beyond what the paper should be doing as a record of history in the making and raining hell on corrupt people." Like that. Anyway, the cool thing my newspaper, the Plain Dealer, did for me today was publish my illustrated version of a recent blog post. I hope people like it. I also hope the Plain Dealer is still around to do many more cool things for many years ago come.

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Tee It Up

I play a little game to circumvent inertia and procrastination.

Let's say I have a project that is financially or personally important to me. Let's say it requires persistent work over a period of time. Or let's say it's just a one-shot job that simply needs to get done. In any case, once it gets moved from "attractive project" category to the "task-to-be-completed" category, the most primitive part of my brain wants to put a big pot of approach-avoidance on the stove and watch it boil.

This is odd, since most of the work I do is actually pretty pleasurable, or goodchallenging, or funproblemsolving. No matter. It's as if the Great File Cabinet Upstairs has a manila folder marked "WORK," and once a job slides into that file the luster lifts. I can't tell you how many times I was faced with an art-school homework assignment and felt myself heading for a great big pity-party, avoiding it only by reminding myself, "YOU ARE PAYING GOOD MONEY TO BE FORCED TO DO THIS WORK!" That put things in perspective.

Anyway, when I have a job and I resist starting, I trick myself with a tee-up. I agree to take on the tiniest little starter task — something that is so trivial that it cannot even be called work. If the project is to start an illustration, the task might be to clear space on my drawing table. For me, this is a tiny task because I never let my table get crazy messy. It would be an unfortunate tee-up task for a total slob. You see what I'm saying, right?

But in my case, the tee-up is, "I'll just clear a nice space to work, locate my tools and materials, then I'll start the real work in the morning."

And what inevitably happens is that I start enjoying clearing my work space, and decide that there would be no harm in taking a gander at my sketches — just look at them. And that either gets me focused and excited for starting the project the next morning — success! — or I actually just dive in and start working right then and there. Double success!

If have a writing job, and feel a little overwhelmed, I might get past the approach-avoidance with a decision to just write the first paragraph. Who can't write a paragraph? I can write a paragraph. And I do. And almost inevitably it leads to the second paragraph. When the story has seemed especially daunting, I've tricked myself with the even easier assignment of simply creating an electronic file and putting my name at the top.

Yes, I am that easy. I am that easily tricked by my own bad self.

Anyway, that's it. That's the tee-up. Maybe you already do this, too. Or maybe you want to try it. It's just a suggestion, after all.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

The Illustration Argument. Won.

As you can infer from the last post, art galleries are cool places to me. If I were smarter, I'd go to the Cleveland Museum of Art every single week, and look at maybe three artworks each time. I'd really study them, and think about them, and hear what they have to say. I would try not to read the wall labels till the art itself had said its peace.

Typically, what hangs in galleries is regarded as fine art. This is considered different from what I do (illustration) because fine art tends to be more "for art's sake," while illustration is often "for book's sake" or "for magazine article's sake" or "for advertising's sake."

Now, some fine-art snobs denigrate illustration, and I'm not going to get into why I think that's dumb. Let me just say that it's possible to love fine art and love illustration, and that great illustration is better than mediocre so-called fine art for turning people into art lovers. Indeed, illustration in children's literature is the first art many people are exposed to in their lives, and therefore might set a person up to be a lover of all kinds of art later in life.

I love illustration best when it does things that aren't easily done in real life, like Wile E. Coyote hanging in mid-air off the edge of a cliff. (I love it less, and sometimes not at all, when it looks like a drawing of a photograph.)

I love illustration when seams and roughness and peculiarities of perception are evident in the work itself. I love it when it's perfect and complex and highly rendered, but also when it's childlike and naive.

Finally, I love the democratic nature of illustration. It comes into our houses via cereal boxes and postcards and books and magazines. It doesn't ask us to wait till wine-and-cheese hour to spend time with it. It's self-assured enough to say "Look at me!" but humble enough to say "No cover charge!" And the best illustration, like the best fine art, doesn't yield everything on first glance. It rewards us for spending time with it.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Did Rembrandt Have a Cat (and Other Pressing Questions)

Having seen "Rembrandt in America," an exhibition from American collections, I have Rembrandt and art and mastery and non-mastery on the brain. There is so much to be struck by in the beauty of these portraits, and so much to notice. And (but?) like watching the Mozart biopic "Amadeus," which got me stuck on the existential tragedy of being Salieri (or so it would seem tragic), this exhibition has fixated me a bit on all the other artists who worked in R's time, in his studio, and whose fate -- despite a lifetime of dedication to their art -- is to now be dismissed with words such as "merely competent" in the show catalogue.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Learned In Art School ... And Elsewhere

I've been assembling this list for one reason and one reason only: So I can remember all the really important stuff that I've learned over the last few years. I share it here first and foremost because the items make me sound smart, and second because you might find them useful. No. Kidding. I'm sharing because I think they're important.

1. Make Work Daily. You'll improve faster. You'll remind yourself that this is what you want to do, and this is what you do.

2. Set Your Own Standards. Make them higher than the standards your mother sets for your work. Make them higher, even, than the client's, if you have a client.

3. Be Intentional. Be intentional about your projects and be intentional about how you use your time. This means not waiting for The Muse, whose watch has been broken since, like, 500 BC. You would not have to be intentional if time were limitless, but I have found that not to be true. This is disappointing, but it's what we have to work with.

4. Notice More; Judge Less. The noticing eye is open to seeing connections. The judging eye is a tiny little cataract-riddled thing.

5. Be Unreasonable (sometimes). Bobby Chiu's great book The Perfect Bait was my first encounter with this idea in a form that made sense to me. It means that if the only way to get better is to, say, rise at 5 a.m. and practice your scales or work on your rendering or write your book, and a little part of you says, "But 5 a.m. is an unreasonable hour!" then the correct response is, "Yes, it is unreasonable. And still, I will do it."

6. Be Interested in Something Outside Your Art. Be curious. Follow your curiosities. Become expert in something, or at least more expert than your friends. My friend Sarah has learned a lot about coal mines and poker. This makes her a better artist in many ways.

7. Travel. Sometimes that will mean, "Go to Paris!" Sometime that will mean, "Explore the parts of your city that scare you." Both are travel.

8. Don't Get Addicted to Comfort. If you get addicted, it means that comfort will always win. And comfort does not want you to get up at 5 a.m. to work on your book.

9. Give Safe Haven to Neither Self-Doubt nor Self-Pity. They are boring. They are forms of narcissism. They are forms of procrastination. Say hello to them politely, offer them a fake smile, then escort them directly out the back door, to the little wooden shack even your dog won't live in.

10. Choose worthy heroes.

11. Draw Your Material from Life. Art and artists resist absolute rules, but let's just say it tends to be a good idea to draw the owl's feathers because the owl feathers spoke to you in some way rather than because you saw a cool way to render owl feathers in someone else's illustration on Deviantart.com. It's better to write a short, clipped paragraph because it precisely conveys the mood of the meeting your characters have found themselves in than because you always liked Hemingway.

12. Respect the Dreaming Child. This is the part of you that wants to bound toward paper or canvas or computer to record your genius story or drawing or idea.

13. Respect the Dispassionate Grownup. This is the part that can stand back and assess what the Child has made, and offer helpful suggestions.

14. Always Keep Separate the Dreaming Child and the Dispassionate Grownup. Whenever they try to play together, they make a big mess. Force them to communicate by messenger pigeon.

15. Be Realistically Confident. Work from your strengths, whatever they are. In the beginning of a project (or a career), your strength might be your enthusiasm and ideas, or your mastery of a particular technique.

16. Expand Your Skills. Confidence cannot be given to you like some "participation award" for showing up to soccer practice. You get it by getting better; then by getting good; then by excelling.

17. Make the Stuff Only You Would Make. Not because there's any real sin in being "derivative," as the music critics like to sneer, but because you're just here on Earth for a little while. So record you, not them.

18. Be Grateful.

19. Study the Work of Others Like a Pro. This means noticing techniques, influences, the way the artist has solved certain problems, the finesse with which he or she has employed detail. Admire it. Scrutinize it. Accept inspiration from it, if it comes.

20. Resist, Like a Pro, the Temptation to Compare Yourself to Others. Such comparisons encourage Self-Doubt and Self-Pity to ring your doorbell.

21. Thank the Universe for Making You An Artist. Even though art and writing and music are hard, you are privileged to have the kind of spirit that wants to do this. So say "thank you." Say it every day.

22. There Is Always Another Way. Successful artists are about experimenting, improvising, duct-taping and work-arounds. If you think you've said something in the ONLY WAY IT CAN BE SAID, that doesn't necessarily make you elite. It might just mean you're thinking too small.

23. Fill Up on the The Wisdom of Youth. Most of my life, I revered people older than me for what they seemed to know, and for what they could teach me. Going to art school with (at first) teenagers — young enough to be my own kids — taught me that smart starts early. I learned to respect them for all they knew and all they had taught themselves, and each other. Did they have it all together? No. But neither do I. Youth + Experience is a magical potion, no matter what side of the equation you're on.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Sshhhh! I'm Trying to Draw — Er, Hear!

Live musical performances are, for the most part, much more enjoyable for me if I can draw while I listen. Possible exceptions to the rule: David Bowie, Bruce Springsteen and other highly visual performers, whose every move I'd want to watch. But when it's just guys and gals playing instruments or singing, well ... my eyes need an assignment. So I draw when I can. Such was the case Saturday night at the final performance of the season for the Cleveland Jazz Orchestra, which would've been completely enjoyable except for the young woman and her date seated next to me. They talked through the entire first half of the show. Over the music. Mostly, she was the loudmouth, but he responded to her incessant questions and comments. She shut up only long enough to take her phone out of her purse every 30 seconds and check email and second text-messages. Somehow she failed to notice that, unlike at rock concerts, where people regularly (and still infuriatingly, if you ask me) carry on loud conversations, everyone else in the Ohio Theatre was actually listening to the music. I fumed silently. Why? Because I reasoned that a person who is rude enough to do this is also rude enough to ignore a polite request to shush up. I reasoned that any request on my part would mean only that the hostility that I held alone would simply be doubled, and she would continue to talk and to read her texts. At intermission, we moved. Though we heard from seatmates that eventually she was asked to put away her phone, and that the two of them left midway through the second half. All of which is to say that it's amazing the whimsical bird on this page does not look angrier. What do you do in situations like this? What should I have done?

Sunday, May 06, 2012

BFA Thesis Show at Cleveland Institute of Art

Hey, heads up! If you're in the Cleveland area, come see my thesis presentation — and artwork by more than 100 grads of the CIA class of 2012 — this coming Friday, May 11, from 7 to 11 p.m. Those are the public reception hours. The exhibition takes place at CIA's Joseph McCullough Center, 11610 Euclid Ave., Cleveland. You can catch a glimpse of the three-chapter appetizer of my book, "Thick Through the Middle," and buy me a (free) cup of wine. Or I'll buy for you. Be there or be square!

Tuesday, May 01, 2012

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Where Cometh the She-Robot

Maybe this is interesting. Almost three years ago, I posted this image from my sketchbook. I had entertained myself, and was intrigued by the result. About a month after that, I turned the sketch into a school assignment and this is what it looked like. I took it to a critique session and saw its potential and its flaws. I promised myself I'd go back and "fix" it, but never did, mostly because I got busy with other assignments. On the brink of graduation from art school, I decided that was one job I could'nt leave unfinished. So the image at the top of the page is what I would say is my "final" version of the She-Robot, except ... Who's to say what's final? Funny thing: I hadn't looked at the original sketch in a long time. As I do today, I see things I liked that got lost on the way to a more finished piece of art. But here's what has always been so satisfying about artistic endeavors, including writing. It's the great mystery: One day, there's nothing there. The next day, you're fiddling about with a piece of paper, or an open Word document, and something arrives from ... somewhere. And then it grows. And when it grows into something good, we can pat ourselves on the back for being creative geniuses, I guess, but that's not completely honest. We know in our hearts that whatever it is, it has arrived because of collaboration with some mysterious source that mostly hides and winks at us from behind a closet door.