In looking over a SCBWI calendar, I saw that an upcoming Illustrators’ schmooze was going to feature a picture book dummy review. I really wanted to go and I had a project I’d been working on for a while – a wordless juvenile graphic novel – which was ripe for feedback. I’d been progressing one illustration at a time and was quite far from having a full dummy to show….but felt I should attend anyway.
Instead of showing up with a half-completely (who we kidding? One-quarter completed) dummy, I decided to simply sketch my way through the rest of the illustrations.
I had a number of rough pencils in my sketchbook that I knew I could scan in and add to the pile of finishes illustrations, but there were still lots and lots of pictures that I hadn’t even conceptualized in my head yet. My first reaction was to keep working in my sketchbook until I had them all done, but the idea kind of frightened me.
The danger of sketchbooks is that artists can think of them as precious. The notion of “wasting” a Moleskine page doesn’t sit well with many of us. No matter how much we tell ourselves that it’s perfectly fine to go through a number of bad ideas in a sketchbook in order to get to a good one, it can sometimes be difficult not to dream of future generations of art historians going through our sketchbooks and marveling at how skilled we were – even when drawing loosely. Part of us wants our sketchbook pages to demonstrate a command of anatomy and form like George Bridgman and feature expressions to be as lively as one of Disney’s “nine old men.” We want future scholars to write articles proving that our sketchbook scribbles of molds for giant bronze monuments would have worked.
There is a famous story that R Crumb traded some of his sketchbooks for a house in France. When we sketch in our sketchbook, have to fight against our brain saying “is this drawing ‘house-in-France’ good?'”
And that is where notecards come in handy. Notecards simply do not carry the burden of being precious.
When writing, my main mantra is “let it suck.” I’ve consistently found it easier to write something I’m satisfied with by rewriting a horrible first draft than to create something good out of thin air (I can’t tell you how many times I’ve rewritten this blog post.) I wanted to apply that thinking to my drawing.
By using cheap notecards, I felt confident I could indeed let my drawing suck and not be critical about it. If a drawing on a notecard is a complete disaster, one merely needs to turn it over. If a drawing fails on both sides of the notecard, one can feel confident that discarding the card into the trash (or, hopefully, the recycling bin) will prevent art historians of the future from linking us to the travesty.
The goal in blasting through a number of drawings on notecards is to visually create a beginning, middle and end to a story. Invariably, you’ll have ideas already in mind for some of the illustration and only have story beats for others. When I get to illustrations where I have no picture already in my head, I’ll start by writing what needs to happen in the picture on one side of the notecard and put them off until I feel inspired.
The exciting thing about sprint drawing is that it is a completely different experience than laboring over one picture for a long time. Your mind just doesn’t have time to be critical and you become a different artist. You go into idea-and-design mode and don’t have time to be influenced by the quality of the drawing itself.
The result is often some pretty horrible drawings. But some of the sketches on your notecards will turn out to NOT be horrible. They will be exciting and dynamic and attract you in ways that you didn’t expect. That the drawings themselves aren’t well-rendered hardly matters – that you are excited about the composition will make you want to step up your game when creating the finished illustration.
As far as the notecards that do result in horrible drawings. That’s okay, too. In quickly examining them, it’s usually not difficult to figure out why they are horrible. And this analysis makes you far more prepared to come up with a new, less-horrible idea for the drawing.
What sometimes happens during this process is that part of the drawing on the notecard is working and you will want to re-draw that portion onto a new notecard. Again, the disposable nature of notecards works in your favor. The more time you put into any illustration – even a sketch – the more difficult it becomes to recognize its problems in telling your story.
It’s also best not to worry about the illustration count. Yeah, most 32 page picture books have 14 illustrations, but at this stage, it’s a far better strategy to get a visual beginning, middle and end to your story visually, and then see where you are. Gauging the storytelling flow of your illustrations is one of the main purposes of creating a picture book dummy and, again, the less you’ve invested the drawings themselves at this stage, the more likely you are to make sound editing decisions.
Once the cards are all staring at you at once (another advantage over sketchbook pages), you can usually see what illustrations are superfluous and also get an idea of what you need to add.
Making a second pass of your illustrations – combining two or more images into one, refining a composition and getting rid of images that don’t work should be completed in the 30 minute time frame.
The faster you get the idea-and design part of your brain to work, the better. If some of the drawings are barely discernible, that’s fine. You’ll now be able to imagine a great illustration in your mind solely from the composition – a composition you probably wouldn’t have been able to dream up if you had more time.