I have worked for years as an artist--and I say the word "work" with legitimacy . . . I have actually been paid for my paintings. I've had several solo exhibitions and I used to be represented by a groovy little gallery in SOHO. I even landed a contract with Steve Wynn to do artwork for the casino that he built on the Mississippi Gulf Coast (I was commissioned to do several paintings for the resort and one of my paintings was featured on the room key cards--very cool!). When I decided to make a major creative shift four years ago into the world of children's writing and illustration, I thought the illustration part would come easily. Not quite . . .
My first children's book that I wrote and illustrated was a didactic, rhyming picture book. I sent it everywhere, planning my Caldecott speech in my spare time. Of course, the manuscript was awful--I made every newbie mistake in the book--but the illustrations? Surely someone with my art background could spin out picture book illustrations.
So, when I realized that my manuscript was going nowhere fast, I started sending my book dummy to art directors at various publishing houses. Most of the art directors were kind enough to respond to me--I'm so thankful for that. Many said that my work was lovely but "too fine art for the picture book market." I was also told that I needed to work on my figure drawing a little more (after all, it has been twenty years since I spent a summer at Parsons in New York drawing nude models--I'm admittedly a little rusty). But, the most common comment that I got was that my illustrations didn't tell a story in and of themselves.
I had always thought that illustrations showed what was going on in the text--but the truth is, the illustrations in a picture book usually show what's NOT going on in the text. They take the story to a new level and exist as a necessary part of the story.
At the SCBWI conference in L.A. this summer I heard Dilys Evans speak at a breakout session. Dilys was the founder and president of Dilys Evans Fine Illustration which represented many of the finest illustrators in the history of children's books. She talked about the first time she saw the work of David Wiesner, the three time winner of the Caldecott medal. He had sent in an illustration sample which pictured a city scene and one of the windows of the buildings in the scene had a giant catfish coming out of it. Now, that's a story.
So, I'm going to spend some real time this year developing my style as an illustrator and a storyteller. I plan to do lots of doodling and brainstorming and studying the works of illustrators I admire. "Back to the drawing board," as they say.