Thursday, May 10, 2007

Thinking in pictures

Today I have the extreme pleasure of hosting Ruth McNally Barshaw, author and illustrator of the newly released Ellie McDoodle: Have Pen, Will Travel. Ruth is my hero because of her brave, nearly unplanned trip to New York a few years ago which led to agent representation in a Cinderella roundabout way. (Read that magical tale at Ruth's whistlestop on Elizabeth Dulemba's blog.)

As a graphic artist myself, I was eager to know about Ruth's creative process. Ever the storyteller, she filled me in with fascinating answers....

1. When you began crafting the story for Ellie, did you WRITE IT or DRAW IT? Or a little of both, like your famous captioned New York drawings?

It came out page by page, start to finish, in captioned drawings just like the sketchbook. It was surprisingly easy to write and draw it. There was no pressure, and I felt I was doing it almost on a dare, so it practically wrote itself. I didn't know where the story was going when I started. The big lost-in-the-woods scene surprised me. I thought the ending was going to be Ellie with the frog pond (an early scene in the book). But the book just kept going.

I'd never written a novel and I didn't know what I was up against. I suppose ignorance is bliss; if I'd known about all the subplots and character arcs and story arcs that have to go into a novel, I might have been scared off of even trying. But they appeared almost without effort. Before sending it to my now-agent, I put the developing story on my website in a hidden area, and sent the link to a trusted friend (Fiona Bayrock). She read it and told me it was good but that there were a couple places where the voice strayed from a kid's voice. With that, it was easy to figure out just where. I fixed those pages and sent it to my agent, who liked it and signed with me.

2. I know your sketchbooks are like an extension of your arm. Are you EVER without them? If so, have you ever been somewhere, seen something, then rushed home to sketch it?

I don't think so. More commonly I sketch on whatever's available. Like in New York City the first time for the SCBWI conference, I found myself out at dinner with a large group of people I'd gotten to know well online over the years, but I didn't have my sketchbook with me. Unthinkable! It was too memorable a scene to just leave it undocumented. So I drew on a paper dinner napkin (those things don't take ink well, by the way) and taped it into my sketchbook when I got back to the hotel. Last week I bought my first book at a local bookstore on May 1, its debut date, but again forgot to bring a sketchbook with me. So I drew the scene on the store bag. (Kim butting in here: I LOVE that. What a perfect place for that uniquely special drawing!)

Usually I have some sort of paper on me, somewhere. In my school visits I teach kids how to make a mini sketchbook out of a sheet of paper, without a stapler. I've done that many times.

3. Have you ever created "fine art?" (Hate that term. Like ALL art isn't fine!) Maybe the correct term would be gallery art which hangs on walls? Or have you always aspired to be a "print" artist & illustrator?

I've produced some art which would work well in a gallery. I'd love to do a show sometime. To me it would feel like I'd come full circle, because the first art I did was fine art. I'm woefully ignorant of most fine art practices, but am learning what I can from friends who exhibit their work so that when the time comes, I'll be ready. At the revisions stage in the first Ellie book, I deliberately did some of the work in a format that I thought would work well for displaying in a gallery show someday.

When I was in high school I knew I wanted to make a living at this. So I figured I should become a "commercial artist" -- the term we used back then for a working designer or illustrator. A good deal of the work that hangs in galleries and museums straddles the line between fine art and commercial art. My work always has, too. I don't see the big divide between the two that some other artists see. And I don't feel one is more sacred or superior to the other. My goal has always been to create work that could be enjoyed by many people at the same time rather than by one rich person in his own foyer. Print accomplishes that very nicely.

4. Do you see real things, sketch them and create stories to go with the sketches? Or is it the other way around -- seeing pictures in your head that go with stories you have already created?

Most commonly something in real life jars an emotion or a storyline in my head that instantly turns into images coupled with phrases or sentences, which becomes sequential; the next scene unfolds and my job is to get it onto paper, both the text and art, before the image fades. It plays out like a movie, scene by scene, usually with both text and art at the same time. It's not always a full story, or it's not always all of the scenes that are needed to make a full story. In that case, I get down all that I see in my head, and then go back and flesh out each scene until it's whole. And I add more scenes where they're needed. So some of it comes to me organically, as a sort of flash of inspiration, and some of it is shaped and molded to fit into whatever blank spaces are left by the first process.

But sometimes an image comes first and I invent the story to go with it, as you said. And sometimes the words come first and the pictures follow. I'm sure I have many more ideas for stories than I will ever get to follow up on. I would guess that's true of all writers and illustrators.

5. Do you prefer drawing people or scenery? Faces or full bodies?

I prefer drawing people with a few props. One of my favorite things to draw is a bunch of shots of the same person doing the same thing but from different angles or using the prop in different ways. Like, in Ellie book 2, there's a page of a boy Ellie likes, bopping around a soccer ball with one foot. I saw this in person, a kid with remarkable control over his soccer ball, and was inspired to draw him several times on the same page, each time with a different foot maneuver. It felt almost like a scientific drawing when it was done. All of those images, put together, told a story in just one page. I love doing that. It's especially effective with action or with small kids.

I try to draw what the occasion calls for. On a New York City street, you have to step back and draw the whole scene, at times, just because of the urban jungle it evokes. If I'm alone, the scene probably has a bunch of indistinct body-like things in it but nothing closeup. If I am observing, for instance, a group of girls on the subway, then the people become the fascinating focus and the scenery, the doors, poles, benches, become secondary, and they fade into the background.

I think I like drawing whole bodies more than just heads. Part of that comes from drawing things for little kids and having them demand that I finish the drawing by doing the whole body. That always cracks me up. Kids don't like seeing just heads. The thing is, you can convey so much emotion with gestures and it gives a much more complete story than just the face. Eyes say a lot. The face says even more. The body says it all. It's fun to have the face or eyes say one thing and the body say something opposite. You can't play those sorts of mind games as much if you only draw faces. But, on the other hand, sometimes I just doodle eyeballs when I am on the phone. Dozens of faceless eyes from all sorts of angles and in all sorts of styles -- manga, Bambi, dots...

6. Have you written in prose-only enough to know if there's a big difference in the way one tells a story in prose compared to this exciting new storytelling form you're using in Ellie? (Or maybe it's not so new after all. Think of the prehistoric bison in that French cave. I'll bet there was a great story to go with that!)

I wrote a longggg philosophical answer to this and then decided to spare you and our readers. :)

The short answer is this: I don't think there's a big difference. This is simply a marriage of text and image in such a way that the text is minimized because the image tells as much as possible. Sequential art is nothing new. Maybe it does go back to the caveman days. I do know it dates back at least to Elizabethan times, because I often discovered it while researching art for an annual Elizabethan feast at my university, 25 years ago.

People like to say that a certain person "invented" the graphic novel or the comic strip or sequential art, but in fact those things have existed for at least hundreds of years. Maybe it's the most basic form of visual storytelling there is, aside from theatre and playing charades. So, I am just getting back to my roots. It's the kind of art I did, 30 years ago, in my daily sketchbook journals, when I was a teen. And it's apparently the kind of work my ancestors did, 400 years ago, in books and paintings.

What I think is especially exciting is this: This format works for reluctant readers, and it also works for very avid, intellectual readers. It works for all ages. It works for any theme. It's an expensive format to produce, using today's publishing conventions. So that might be why it isn't done more. But since it's a legitimate format for a story and there's so much that is unexplored with it in modern-day publishing, it makes sense to me that it's a format we'll see more and more of, in years to come.

Thank you, Ruth! It was fun peeking over your shoulder. Best of luck with ALL your Ellie books!!

Be sure to catch Ruth at these other stops on her blog book tour this week:
Karen Lee
Elizabeth Dulemba
Dotti Enderle
Alan Gratz
Barbara Newman
Greg Fishbone

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