Sunday, November 29, 2009

how to

My 12 year old daughter, a diligent writer as well as being over 600 drawings into an animated cartoon she's putting together in iMovie, recently showed me this bit of writing advice she devised for herself. I found it to be so compact and thorough that I wanted to share it.

1. Figure out what you like. Write about what you like most.
2. Think up the setting.
3. Get the main characters. Your story would be especially interesting with a hero or two, and a villain.
4. Remember three things: Beginning, Middle, and End.
5. Imagine your story. Relate it to something important to you in your life. It could be the fact that you don’t fit in. Have the main character someone who is special and is left out because of this.
6. Eat some pie.
7. Begin to write the basic summary. This will help you get ideas.
8. When finished, begin putting the meat on the bones. (a.k.a: START WRITING!!!!)
9. Put in a lot of details.
10. When you’re done, you can ANIMATE IT!!

Monday, November 16, 2009

there is no answer

I finally broke down and got a cellphone, holding out for so long for the reason that I LIKE being unavailable to the world.

Having myself to myself without distractions is generally when my mind drifts into a calm and creative place.

I'm my most productive when I have nothing I'm supposed to be doing and no one can interrupt my nothing and ask me to do something for them.

So no, I'm not giving out my cell number. I've got it on a slip of paper in a box hidden somewhere. Ha!

Monday, November 2, 2009

chocolate covered paradox

Shortly after Halloween some years ago my daughter asked the question: "Why do they call it 'Fun Size' if it is smaller and you don't get as much?"

Friday, October 30, 2009

happy halloween

Sometime during the early 60's I saved the day. My brother however liked to stir things up.

Monday, October 26, 2009

have you seen the little piggies?

"This little pig loved a gnome", from 'The Wonder Book' by Amy Krouse Rosenthal, drawings by myself.

Available in March!

Wednesday, October 14, 2009


Some folks are still surprised that an illustrator can offer up something worthwhile. It seems silly to me that the subject continues to be debated.

Gibson was treated like a rock star during his lifetime, yet more than one critic has flung the word ‘illustrator’ at Andy Wyeth as an insult.

Perhaps after all these years, it is the art critics who remain the clueless ones. But they do have a lot of cerebral baggage they have to peer through in order to see things, so we should cut them some slack.

I had a chance to voice my own take on the subject when asked to write a review for The Seattle Times of an Al Hirschfeld exhibit at the Frye Museum.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

words fail me

I haven't really had anything to say lately. It happens every time I get really into drawing. Words and pictures seem to use opposite sides of my brain that can not be used at the same time. (But I can rub my belly and pat my head simultaneously.)

In fact, the creative slice of the old bean resents distractions and interruptions with a fervor.

As a result, I'm an inconsistent blogger.

So it goes.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009


My daughter has a Leopard Gecko that dines on crickets. They've escaped. The house sounds like a swamp.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

technical difficulties

Our house was burglarized over the weekend and my computer stolen. I cannot access my email easily yet, so if you are trying to contact me, it's best to call-- 206-938-4516.

And if anyone buys a used iMac with a ton of my artwork on it, please burn a disc of it and send it to me. No questions asked.


Monday, August 24, 2009

out of the woods

Back in the studio today after a 4 day backpacking trip in the north Cascade Mountains. That's myself on the left with my hiking buddy Dan.

Pretty wild place-- I came across a wolf track and hunters spotted a wolverine and bear near the trail just before we began our hike. Plus the usual whistling marmots, eeping pikas and other critters.

OK, back to work!

Thursday, July 30, 2009

crossroads at midnight

Illustrations by Gennady Spirin.

I wince a little when I hear the word “talent”.

To me the word implies that ability is merely a gift. Magic.

For someone to say “She’s got talent” does nothing to suggest the years of hard work, planning and intelligence that go into producing great art.

If asked how long it took him to paint a watercolor, my instructor, Irving Shapiro would say: “30 years”, or just about as many years as he’d been painting altogether.

A friend has gotten up at 5 in the morning for decades to get a few hours of painting time in before going to his “real” job.

While I was at art school, I invariably painted until midnight or one in the morning, several times falling asleep at my drawing board -- once with my eyes wide open.

There is a legend around blues legend Robert Johnson; that he sold his soul to the devil in exchange for his red-hot guitar ability. A more romantic explanation to savor than sweat and determination.

If the illustrator Gennady Spirin has sold his soul, it was to a very benevolent spirit, for that man’s got “Talent”!

I’ve never seen such an ability with watercolor, even surpassing the great Sir William Russell Flint.

To tear our eyes from the lovely handling is not easy, but once we do what further marvels we see: rich moods, superb compositions, flawless drawing, color to break your heart.

Natural ability factors in, sure, but I’d say most of what we see in Spirin’s work is the result of a purposeful, intelligent, long laboring soul rather than mere magic.

Friday, July 24, 2009

first timer

A package arrived the other day, inside were the f&g's for 'The Wonder Book', by Amy Krouse Rosenthal, illustrated by yours truly.

This career I've chosen is one step closer to feeling real.

(For the perplexed: f&g's stand for folded and gathered, an unbound proof of a book)

Friday, July 17, 2009

just for Adam

inking of you

Illustrations from ‘The Story of Ferdinand’, by Munro Leaf, illustrated by Robert Lawson.

There are some overused words out there. ‘Hero’ and ‘perfect’ being a couple I can think of right off. (Puhl-eeze! Someone who chucks a ball around is NOT a hero.)

But I’m gonna commit my own misdemeanor: There ARE at least two perfect things out there.

‘Where the Wild Things Are’ is a perfectly written book.

‘The Story of Ferdinand’ is a perfectly illustrated book.

Even as a runny-nosed kid, I knew it was perfect. I used to spend hours gazing at those rich blacks, the lovely hatchings, marveling at Lawson’s absolute skill in drawing. Every inch of ink semed perfect to me.

That line from the Beatles song: “She’s the kind of girl you want so much it makes you sorry,” was exactly how I felt about those drawings.

Perfect. Except for the cover, the cover design sucks.


Monday, July 6, 2009

Zwerger two

Illustration by Lisbeth Zwerger from ‘The Wizard of Oz’.

Illustration is manipulation, (evil bwa-ha-ha laugh here). The artist seeks to control what the viewer sees and what they sense, what is important and what is background. What and how they feel. The tools the artist has for this are numerous.

One of the greatest challenges an illustrator has is taking an inherently busy subject and controlling the chaos so that the piece powerfully communicates the essence of the story to the viewer.

A field of poppies could result in a nearly unreadable cacophony as an illustration. A riot of pointless color at the very least, overwhelming the eye.

Besides, red poppies are cheerful, this scene needs to be frightening. So what’s an illustrator to do?

Selections must be made! Choices! Manipulation! Power wielded!! (Another evil laugh here.) An illustrator must see themselves as Master of the content, not a slave of it.

Lizbeth Zwerger has done that here with extraordinary skill.

An eerie greyish green background suggests an endless field without the literal busyness that would overwhelm the viewers eyes, while simultaneously being complimentary to and enhancing the purer red of the poppies. She suggests the field without being controlled by it.

The vertical stalks and eliminating the plant’s leaves simplify things, resulting in an appealing graphic design while the starkness somehow infers a tension, a stillness, a moment of frozen time.

That the poppies are oversized emphasizes the lost, helpless feeling of the characters, they are small, alone, isolated.

Zwerger here is a storyteller, not just a decorator of a page in a book.

This is illustration at it’s best.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Zwerger part one

Lisbeth, Lisbeth, How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.

We’ll start with the values. Squint and you’ll notice that she’s working with only 3 distinct value sets. Lights, a few halftones and some darks. No mushed tones here!

Notice how the dark windows and ground circle the center of interest like a frame.

The two identically sized buildings and formal, centered composition enhance an awareness of the difference between the diminutive Dwarf Nose and the giant next door.

Look at the empty space above Dwarf Nose! It emphasizes his shortness and your eye runs right down that slide of space straight to his red coat.

The colors are kept muted and cool except Dwarf Nose and the orange coated giant, with the thin orange roofs of the neighboring buildings as a triangular unifying device.

Even the door of the shop is arcing towards Dwarf Nose.

My drawing teacher Mr. Parks used to say: “Find what you can do to reinforce the center of interest.” Here Lisbeth uses color, value, shape, space, movement, temperature and scale.

What we see here is not mere talent but deliberate, smart work.

My heart goes pitter-pat.

Illustration by Lisbeth Zwerger from ‘Dwarf Nose’ by William Hauff. North-South Books.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

more best

William Heath Robinson.

Such dynamic use of empty space! This work is filled with energy, tension and humor.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

the best

Inspired by Betsy Bird's top 100, I'm planning on featuring MY top picks for children's book illustrators. I may end up at a round ten, we'll just have to see.

First on the list is the artist that got me started on all this, N C Wyeth. I still vividly remember wandering through the local library when I was a kid and randomly pulling Treasure Island off the shelf. I was electrified. Stunned. I absolutely lusted to be able to paint like that.

The paintings were far more than well crafted, they were raw, truthful, bold, earthy. Filled with power and vitality.

And Wyeth handled sensitive subjects with equal deft and meaning. This painting of Jack Hawkins leaving home displays a masterful composition featuring a determined yet hesitant boy with his tearful mother who has stepped back to allow Jack's destiny to unfold.

The darkly shadowed foreground, the raking triangle of burning sunlight across the house, the lonely cloud in a washed out sky. The homey touch of the bowl in the kitchen window. All deliberate tools to create a feeling for a very powerful moment.


Saturday, May 30, 2009

Le phoque

'Le phoque' by Caroline Lamarche, illustrated by Goele Dewanckel

I am completely, out of my mind in awe of the art from this book.

Elegant simplicity gets me every time. Of course it doesn't hurt that I'm usually surrounded by seals whenever I take my kayak out. Still, the art kills me it's so gorgeous.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

go for two!

Lightning can strike twice in the same place!

I have received another two-book offer from HarperCollins. The first is about a determined girl named Petunia and her quest for a perfectly awesome pet. The second book will be another Petunia story, which will be described once I dig up an idea and write something.

It's been a busy year for me. Looks to get even busier!

Monday, May 18, 2009

wow wwa

I attended the Society for Children's Book Writers and Illustrators annual conference for western Washington state over the weekend (SCBWI WWA). As last year, the event was flawlessly organized, inspiring and a heckofalota fun.

I finally met my uber-agent Steve Malk in person, and got to know a few other Malketeers, such as the frighteningly talented Adam Rex and Hizzoner Jon Scieszka. The boys certainly proved my theory that the nicest people end up at the top. At least in the kid-lit world.

Listening to Nancy Pearl, Elizabeth Parisi from Scholatic and others share their experiences and expertise, clearly the common thread was a passion to provide great books for kids.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

da boids

The tanager's are back! Makes me feel as though I'm living in the tropics.

Monday, May 11, 2009

for my next act...

When I was growing up in Chicago, I used to watch Bozo's Circus on our old b/w TV. I liked the band. The clown was lame.
I remember one show vividly. Bozo had a guest act. A plate spinner. The guy had 7 or so vertical rods on which he placed ceramic plates, setting them spinning with his hands. The act was putting all 7 plates on the rods and keep them spinning fast enough so they wouldn't topple off. He wasn't very good at it.

Anyway, even as a kid the act really stressed me out.

There have been many times in my life when I've felt like that plate spinner. Running to and fro frantically, sweating unglamorously, trying to keep too many projects spinning at the same time. Desperate not to let a too-long ignored project topple and smash.

Expecting any moment to hear the tune the band played when someone blew it.

What do other writers or illustrators do to stay focused on the important project? I know what is my top priority, I just keep getting pulled away from it.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

don't worry, be happy

In one month I have to turn in the final art for my first self-authored children's book.

This is my least favorite stage of the process. The concepting is done, the design has been worked out, the only thing left is to deliver on the promise. To draw the dang thing. Turning the vision into the visible. This is where the art ends up being great or less than I had hoped. It never is as good as one imagined it would be.

So I've become anxious. And tight.

I suppose that is why at this crucial point, with time running out, that I dropped everything to write a new story. Delaying the inevitable, avoiding the difficult.

This is where I need to pull out all the tricks to fool myself that everything is fine and dandy, there's no rush, the art'll be brilliant. If I can regain a relaxed confidence, things will flow along nicely with less effort.

The art of warring with oneself. It's a mind game.

Thursday, April 23, 2009


Although it has been more than 25 years since my grandfather died, at times I still miss him deeply.

Albert Schmid was an artist of many talents. Landscape painter, engraver, wood carver, in the 20's he owned and ran his own commercial art studio in Chicago. During the depression the number of artists in his studio gradually declined from around 20 to just 'Papa' himself. Hard times.

He was an accomplished watercolorist. One of his buddies on weekend outdoor painting trips was the famed Haddon Sundblom of the Coca-Cola Santa Claus fame.

I remember him as a gentle, quiet, wise man. He was one of those 'Good Men'. I was in my early 20's and in art school when he died. In the course of my own life and career there has been many times I've wished him at my side to lend advice or just a understanding ear.

As a child I had so much admiration for the man he was and the things he accomplished. I still use the easel you see in the picture of him. I hope to pass it on to my daughter when the time is right.

Monday, April 20, 2009

the good life

I've been watching 4 of these guys frolicking in the big maple outside my studio window for the last few days.

Being able to nap high in a tree while wearing a soft coat of fur sounds pretty darn nice.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

the way to do is to be.

I wish I had time for painting outside. I love weather, and pure painting like this is bliss.

Monday, April 6, 2009


I had not heard anything about the uber-genius Freeman Dyson since reading 'The Starship and the Canoe' about a decade ago.

The New York Times Magazine had a feature story about the venerable heterodox's take on global warming and other things.

His belief that creativity is subversive hit me where I live. As I'm working on designing and illustrating my first manuscript for Harper, I've been running along that razor's edge between creating something novel and daring, subversive if you like, or going with what I know to be successful, since I ardently desire this book to be successful itself. (Successful enough to keep me in funds so that I can continue to write and illustrate books--it's rather fun.)

I've lived long enough to know that necessity is the mother of convention, and having a mortgage to pay and a kid to raise is a powerful pile of necessity.

So. Risk or safe?

Why, compromise of course! But if what you produce is not NEW and INTERESTING, it will be overlooked or quickly forgotten. So risk is safer, yes?

Safety can be risky, but risk is not always the sure route either. So I'm risking no matter which route I take. Therefore I might as well risk, since there is always risk. Risk is not truly risky, since nothing is safe.

I have to lay down now...

Thursday, April 2, 2009


After nearly two months of work, I finally have the design for my book 'Hugs from Pearl' roughed out.

Once the manuscript was completed, there were about a thousand ways for the art and design to go. Watercolors, pastels, fully rendered, cartoon, pencil line, ink line, saturated colors, pale color. Uff-da! A lot of decision making. My brain feels it's gone 15 rounds with Rocky Graziano.

Now I just have to send it to my lovely, keenly perceptive and awesomely brilliant editor at Harper. Wish me luck.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

striking the balance

I endeavor to keep a fresh, impromptu quality to my illustrations. After so many revisions by the editor or author or designer, it is difficult to work a drawing over and over yet keep it from looking overworked and lifeless.

A balancing act; perfection and spontaneity. They were arguing about it 600 years ago in China.

Fu Shan:

"Calligraphy should rather be awkward than clever.
Rather ugly than pleasing.
Rather crumbled than suave.
Rather plain than assembled."