Tuesday, March 15, 2011

What I Can't Do (And Tom Yezerski Can)

Before I start my blog post, a quick announcement: Tonight, March 15, at 7:30 I will be on a panel at Boston College with Susan Goodman (who INKed yesterday) and Lorree Griffen Burns talking about NARRATIVE NON-FICTION, called TELL ME A STORY AND MAKE IT TRUE. If you are in the area, please come! Here's the link.

Now back to our regular programming...

I’ve written a bazillion nonfiction picture books. (Yes, that’s accurate, a bazillion.) And a few fiction picture books, too, by the way.

I have illustrated nary a one. I tell the kids who ask me at school visits that if I did my own illustrations no one would buy my books. Ha ha. It's so true. I also have not sung in public since I was the only girl not to make the chorus in sixth grade. (Would it have been that hard to put me in there, in the back? Really?) Wait, this isn’t my therapy session? Sorry. But my point is this: When I write nonfiction picture books they are either illustrated with photographs or by the deft hand of someone else. Right now I am eagerly awaiting sketches from a brilliant illustrator for my book about a mathematician. I know she is going to bring much more to the book than I ever could, or could ever imagine.

Yes, I am in awe of illustrators and forever grateful to those who illustrate my books. I got to wondering recently what it would be like to create a book from start to finish as others here on I.N.K. do, (I bow down to you who do) and just as I was thinking about that, a lovely new book landed on my desk. A book that I wish I had written, and yes, illustrated. Meadowlands by Thomas Yezerski. (FSG)

Tom is a friend of mine and I asked him if he would share his process with us so I could live vicariously. I asked him which came first, the words or the pictures.

My illustration process usually begins with the words. Actually, it begins before that. It begins with my being interested in something. In this case, it started with getting lost somewhere in the Meadowlands! After I found my way out, my curiosity led to taking a guided hiking tour and a pontoon boat tour of different Meadowlands areas. I talked to a few experts and got their take on the story. For this book I went to the Meadowlands Environment Center and asked if I could go along on some class field trips. This also helped me see how kids might learn about the complicated issues in the book. Then I drove to more out-of-the-way parts of the Meadowlands (it's big; 23 square miles) myself and walked around (under the turnpike, around industrial areas). A story starts to form in my head based on what I've seen.

And are pictures already forming in your head?

Yes but the words come first. On rare occasions, I may think of a spectacular image and then find a way to get it into the story, but it works better if the picture is part of the storytelling. When I start with the words, I already have the text divided into 32 pages so that each spread is a "scene" or "message" that can stand alone. Then I read my text and decide if there's a concept I should show in the picture because it should be explained to the reader or, better yet, I look for one sentence that will make a dramatic illustration. I focus on that one sentence and draw a few different tiny sketches with different ways of showing the idea I want to draw. I try different points of view and different distances from the subject. I think of it as a camera moving around the scene. For this book, I liked drawing many of the pictures from the eye level of the animal depicted; it was important to me to give the reader the feeling of being on the same level as these other members of our environment.

Wow. That is so cool. I love the idea of you being a camera and an animal as you look around. So you spent a lot of time in the Meadowlands?

A lot of time! The best way to illustrate a book is to go to a place that is either where the story actually happened or looks a lot like where it happened. Real-life locations ALWAYS show me something I wouldn't have considered. Maybe I didn't realize the different angles that a particular plant grows or I didn't know how a bridge actually rests on its supports. I take lots of pictures to answer any question I might have while I'm drawing.

This is a photo Tom took of the New Jersey Eastern Spur, heading to Newark. Tom referenced this when painting this beautiful picture of the dragonfly:

What if you can't get a photograph of something you need to draw?

If I can't get my own pictures of what I want to draw, I use books from the library or I do a Google Image search. In a lot of cases for this book, I had photos of the setting, but I never actually saw the animal I wanted to draw, even though I knew it lived there. So I would gather a bunch of pictures of, say, an egret, and draw a composite of those pictures. It's important NEVER to copy somebody else's art. With enough different angles of something, whether it be an egret or a truck, I can pretty much figure out what it would look like from the angle I want to show it. Sometimes, when I start drawing the details, I come up with some questions, like "Do ruddy ducks build nests here or do they only stop by during migration?" or "When ruddy ducks are here, is it summer or winter?" Pictures show a lot, so an illustrator has to know a lot. Hopefully, by this time, I have an open line of communication with an expert, so I can just ask her. Illustrating a book is a good way to make a friend!

I love making friends with experts. And I think they enjoy helping a book come to be, too. Back to the illustration process: so you make drawings first and then paintings? When do you show your editor what you have?

I make my final drawings the exact size of the final paintings. Sometimes while I am drawing, I realize I need more reference and have to go back. Or the picture doesn't look right, and I'll realize I need a different illustration altogether. Back again! Just like the benefits of storyboarding a movie, a lot of early planning means fewer trips out to take pictures. The final drawings are very finished, because I want to be sure they will make good paintings before showing them to an editor. I don't want the editor to approve a rough idea that it turns out is a bad picture or impossible to paint. If the editor is surprised by something that later shows up in a painting, she could easily tell me to do the whole thing over again.

I'm thinking that it's now that I would see the drawings if I were the author and you were the illustrator. (A girl can dream.) But I guess after you and the editor talk it all over, you're ready to paint?

Once a sketch is approved, I carefully measure the dimensions of the page onto a piece of Arches 90 lb. hot press watercolor paper. I put the sketch on a light table and the watercolor paper over that. I trace the drawing lightly and quickly. Then I use the markings of the tracing to finish the drawing. That can take a couple of hours, because for my style of painting, the drawing is the most important part. There is a lot of erasing. When the drawing is penciled in, I use a quill pen to draw black ink lines over my pencil lines. After I finish the drawing, I tape it on all four sides down to a plastic drawing board, so it stays flat while I paint. I color it with Windsor & Newton Artist's Watercolor. I use paints with the simplest pigments, so they are more predictable and less muddy when they mix together. When the paintings are done, I pack them up and send them off to the publisher with crossed fingers. Hopefully, they won't come back!

I'm sure your editor was thrilled. The paintings are gorgeous and expand the text beautifully.

I asked Tom one last question. Did you have fun? The answer was YES! Not only did he have fun running, walking and canoeing in the Meadowlands, but he also fell in love and got married while working on the book! Eleni went with him to the Meadowlands a lot.

Congratulations to Tom on a gorgeous book. And wishes to both of you for a long life of exploring together!


Jan Perley said...

So how do you get photographs in your books? Do you have to buy them from a stock place? Or does your publisher provide them upon publication?
I've completed a book about animals and am wondering what my next step is as far as the photos in it.


Deborah Heiligman said...

As with all illustrations you work out photos with the publisher--unless you yourself are a professional photographer. Arrangements vary. Sometimes you are given a budget; sometimes photo costs come out of your advance. With my Holidays Around The World series National Geographic paid for the photos (and their brilliant photo editor Lori Epstein found them) but that meant my advance and royalties were arranged as with any other picture book. I am sure other INKers can tell you other ways it is done.--DH

Anonymous said...

This is a terrific article. Thanks for writing it, Deb. As you know, I'm in exactly the same boat as you are/ have been. When I do school visits, I tell the kids that I can't even draw a good stick figure--and that's truly not an exaggeration (the only thing I do worse than draw is sing!--oh, oK, and maybe cook . . .) Anyhow, for that very reason I am always careful to share lots of slides for both the picture books and the novels that are from the illustrator. As you made clear so well here, they do as much research and prep work as we do--and the need to be interested--dare I say, OBSESSED-- with one's subject matter remains a requirement for both the writer and the artist.
Jan: I've done a series of books in which I used my own photographer--but that pairing was pre-approved by the publisher (now a Holt imprint) and she signed a contract just as I did before we started. We were hired for the series based ona book proposal that included sample chapters and sample photographs. I've also wrtten Y/A biographies (for Chelsea House & Eerdmans) for which the publishers provided all of the photos and illustrations and I really had nothing to do with that part in those cases. These days, though, there is so much more available on-line, that I imagine you could submit some stock photos as examples and then let them determine if they want you to do more of that--or if they like your text and would prefer to have their own art dept. provide photos. Hope that helps . . .