Friday, December 4, 2009

The Three Narrative Arcs of Making a Book: Part ll The Mushroom

When I take the dive into making a book, I am aware that the book is already underway. Let me explain. It is like the mushroom. We see the fruiting body when the mushroom finally pops up after a johnny-come-lately-rain. But underground the mycelium, (a network of fine, almost microscopic filaments) have been at work for quite a while. So too the creative person has been subconsciously working out an idea, a concept, trying to get at an inner itch. Many of my best ideas begin in my journals like the one above. I jot a thought. I scribble a sighting (whether an "inny" or an "outy". These ideas continue to grow in the dark.

Eventually, an idea can take it no longer and pops to the surface to be harvested. Then I must act. The sketch above is part of the next phase where I take the random ideas and build some reference based on research. These sketches are "life" drawings that I did at the Oregon Zoo for the book, The Boy Who Went Ape. Every book takes me on a winding road of discovery and "nut gathering" or in this case banana gathering.

I sat in front of these chimps and sketched like mad. This was my favorite model, Delilah. After I finished the sketches, I showed her and she stuck out her lip with approval or looked away in pity. We are still corresponding through squirrels and ravens.

Once I achieve critical mass of reference material, I do thumbnail sketches and put them in some sort of order as in The Magic Rabbit storyboard above. After sketch-sketch-sketching rabbits, I hopped around with different story possibilities. For me as a picture book author and illustrator, the story unfolds with words and pictures leap frogging each other.

Often in my process, I will shoot models. Above is son, Jesse, posing as an angel for Nancy Willard's exquisite story, The High Rise Glorious Skittle Skat Roarious Sky Pie Angel Food Cake.

I play around with various medium to find out which way to take the final paintings. The study above was made with torn paper, egg tempera paint and gold leaf.

The final cover (above) was painted in egg tempera with neo-colour pastels and gold leaf. There are many more aspects I haven't addressed about this process, but to quote Larry from "Ground Hog Day" , "There's a heck of a lot more to it than that!"

There is an essential collaboration with author, illustrator and editor, which I will address in Part III.

I've skimped on some details such as editorial input, proofs, and more proofs, sending art out, and waiting. Then more waiting. Then Rip Van Winkle. And then finally, FINALLY! a biggish envelope arrives in the mail. It is the bound book! I turn off all ringers, get a cup of something hot, sit in my favorite chair, pet the golden lab, let the cat curl up in my lap, and read my new book. Oh, it is sweet.

So, there is a "story arc" in the actual making of every book. Each journey is both an exhilarating
free fall, and a long sweaty slog through the jungle. But! The reward is multifarious. It is satisfying to craft a work of quality and give children and adults a true gift. There are battle scars to show off, but the best part: good books to read and share!

"We see the brightness of a new page
where everything yet can happen"--Rilke


Anonymous said...

Weird. This is the second thing I've seen in the same day that talks about creating books for kids being like a mushroom. Is it something in the air, or are the fungi taking over? Anyway, if you didn't see it yet, check out this video. And thanks for the super interesting post, Richard! It's always interesting to get a peek at other people's creative processes.

steven said...

richard this is truly fascinating. i've shared hundreds of "picture books" with my students over the years. i've met several authors and illustratrs but i have never felt as "inside" the process in a way that made sense to me as in this series of yours. so thankyou. steven

Richard Jesse Watson said...

Thanks, Laurie. I checked out that video. Very interesting. I especially liked the way she included us in her searching for the story. The convolutions and trial-and-error, that a writer must go through to find the story arc and heart of her story. But I think you are right, the fungi are up to something...

Richard Jesse Watson said...

I appreciate that Steven. I am continuing to see this process in new lights, myself. Life is layered, and the creative process is endlessly fascinating and revelatory.

Martha Brockenbrough said...

Richard, I loved this post! Watching your creative process is an inspiration.

Protege said...

I completely LOVE the painting of your son (The Angel). I love everything about it; the composition, the colours and the shapes.

Richard Jesse Watson said...

Thank you Zuzana. It cheers me up when I look at it.

So, cheers!

Richard Jesse Watson said...

Thank you Martha. Watching *your* creative processes involves sitting back and being all a-gaped. Not only are you spinning dozens of plates, but you are taming a spouse (good luck), raising potatoes who talk, and dueling mucky- literati.

Claire Rudolf Murphy said...

I so enjoyed reading about the process from an illustrator's POV. Richard, this is not a book you wrote also. So how much does the already written story line drive the narrative arc of your illustrations? I'll keep reading, as I know you have more blogs on this fascinating process. Thanks.

Julia Kelly said...

you are so right about not seeing the work of the inner core until it revels itself like a mushroom- the easy part- everytime I am in that hidden part I wonder why the heck I do this! Then it is reveled-it must be like a drug I need to create works- right now, am in that pre brain working phase- hopefully something will pop out soon!

Richard Jesse Watson said...

Claire, the "already written story line" is the base line off which I can add other music. Or one might say that the author brings out the characters and I get to go shopping for them. Clothes, houses, shoes, attitude, environment, time period, etc.

Julia, I thnk the hardest part is the "pre-brain phase". You are trying to coax something out of thin air. You are trying to catch a will-o-the-wisp and bring it into the light. I don't even know what a w.o.t.wisp is.

Bethany said...

Hi Richard, I love seeing your process and the painting of your son is delightful! Thanks for sharing!!