Monday, February 14, 2011

Writing Advice from Illustrator Will Terry/How Not to Kill 'Em with Color

Ok -- I admit it. I am an author who is a wanna-be illustrator. I study art and pictures probably just as much as I study words and text. You might not even know that about me, so maybe I am a "closet" wanna-be illustrator.  Then, one of my favorite picture book illustrators, Will Terry, releases his video series "How to Illustrate Children's Books" and "Digital Painting in Photoshop" and I tell myself I must have him Guest Blog over at my blog pond so that other writers who are closet wanna-be illustrators can come out and stretch their wings along with me. But does sweet, humble Will mention it in the following post? No. So here's the link. Enjoy the creative process (and the color aspect - but in moderation, of course)!

And without further to-do, here are some enlightening anecdotes from Will Terry:
I feel like the brother of three sisters all over again sneaking into their bedroom with one mission – get to the barbie dolls, rip as many heads off as possible before their screams forced me to run and hide. Part of me feels that I don't belong here. I got horrible grades in school. I'll bet that most of you did well in school. I'll bet that most of you enjoyed writing as a child – I didn't. I'll bet most of you have no trouble with reading comprehension – I did and still do. I lived in the shadow of an older sister who over-achieved in school. Why am I confessing all this? Because it's part of who I am and I feel lucky to have found what I'm good at. It pains me to realize that the world is littered with souls like mine but who never found themselves or were never rewarded for their talents. I grew up feeling inferior to those who excelled in reading, writing, and math. I was afraid of you guys.

Ok, that was a very heavy way to start out but I feel I owe it to my counterparts to push this message whenever I can for awareness. The public school system is broken – it looks to strip mine a few skills from those who posses them while leaving the rest feeling unwanted and discarded.

I thought I would talk about a very important lesson I learned a few years ago. It was very painful but I'm so glad I allowed myself the opportunity to open up to new possibilities. Often we get to a comfortable place in our craft and we don't want to receive criticism – we stop practicing what we preach. I'm in a critique group called Brotique (a bunch of guys trying to write picture books) and I have no trouble accepting criticism on my writing. I think it's because I have very few hours writing in relation to the time I have spent refining my illustration style.

A few years ago I met David Small (caldecott winner for So You Want to Be President? ) at a writing conference out here in Utah. I had the chance to go to dinner with him after the conference and he started talking about professional critiques. He said most professionals don't really want an honest critique. I gulped because I realized that I was in that camp. Why would I want a professional critique? After all I'm a professional right? I know what's good about my work and I don't need anyone telling me different. As he talked I thought about it and one thing I learned early in life is that whenever you're confronted with an opportunity that seems painful or difficult it usually is followed by growth. Also life is too short to say “no” to new experiences – I know too many “no” people and they're boring – I don't ever want to be accused of being boring.

So I found myself volunteering for his critique – almost like I was hearing my voice from across the table. Mr. Small then looked through me - “Ok, but let me warn you.” Uh oh. “I'm too old and I've wasted my breath telling artists what they want to hear to long to sugar coat my feelings any more – in other words I'll tell you exactly what I think of your work.” GULP - ok. What had I got myself into?! Luckily he didn't do it right at the table so everyone could see me melt into my chair. “I want you to send me the book you're most proud of and I'll look it over and get back to you.” Sheesh – what a relief – I could still back out gracefully – at least nobody at the table would know that I chickened out.

This would be a boring story if I had chickened out so of course I didn't. That which does not kill me makes me stronger – so after a trip to the post office (I sent him “The Frog with the Big Mouth”) I waited to hear from David. A few weeks later I summoned the courage to call him and take my flogging. After the small talk I said so what did you think of my book? His response came with another disclaimer. “Ok, but there are illustrators I've lost touch with after I've commented on their work – some people can't handle criticism.” I assured him I was well prepped and ready for my lashes – not in those words but you get the point.

Anyway quite simply he said that I have beautiful illustrations but I don't give the reader any rest from my fully illustrated color spreads. He went on to ask, “Are you trying to kill your audience with color and visuals?” “Not everything is as important as you're making it.” “In order to have a crescendo you have to have rest – a place to build from.”

WOW! He was right. I was trying to kill the viewer with color. How did he see through me so easily. In fact I remembered looking at picture-books in college wondering why every illustration wasn't treated with equal value? I remember thinking that most books were lacking a consistency in image quality. But I was making a horrible mistake. I wasn't looking at the book as a project but more as an excuse to showcase artwork. I felt silly. Was I trying to kill the viewer with fully illustrated color spreads? I was trying to wipe out the planet with my color! “I wanted to blow the viewer off their chair with color – If you gaze upon my work I'll burn your retinas kind of color – and the funny thing is that I can't stand movies that have 20 min action scenes where the story fall apart. Talk about blind.

So I thank you David Small – I have to admit that it took me a few months to fully accept your gift but it has changed me in a good way. I'm trying to be more sensitive to the story. Ask myself more questions. What can I do to enhance the plot, characters, etc. When should I underplay the illustrations? When should I unleash my powers?

What did the author intend? Will the reader understand the text better if I put this or that in the pictures?

In the end I now look at each manuscript as the first half of the completed project. And I'm happy to share this experience with you – perhaps you too can improve your craft if you let go a little and allow for the fact that you just might not know it all.

I'm now working on another book (Senorita Gordita) for Albert Whitman by Helen Ketteman (a total sweetheart) and this time I'm going to get it right – or as right as I can with my current skills.


  1. I really like this guy Will. For someone who doesn't view himself as a writer, he does a very good job in letting us hear his voice! I appreciate his honesty, it comes through loud and clear. This is really good advice for illustrators who've been around the block. Just because one has been successfully published, does not mean that they have nothing left to learn.

    As for the over use of color, it's an easy mistake to make. In this industry that is so over saturated with incredible talent, we push ourselves to produce every image with a WOW factor. Color is often the best way to achieve that.

    Illustrators are always acutely aware of the vibrancy in the colors that surround them in their everyday life. We forget that sometimes subtlety can have an even greater impact. Thanks for the gentle reminder!

  2. @Lisa -- I really like this guy Will, too! He's so humble :) And not to mention, TALENTED!
    So glad to see you here at the Word Playground, maybe next time, in the spotlight :) XOXO