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Think First (2010)

We were surprised by images that came from someplace below conscious thought, unplanned and strongly evocative.

At last spring’s New England SCBWI conference, I was attracted to “Thinking Before You Draw,” offering illustrators “a chance to exercise their visual language.” Illustrator Frank Dormer (Socksquatch and other books; led several rounds of this simple exercise: He gave a word or phrase and named several objects. In response, we were to create a quick rough sketch, adding nothing but the elements named. After each round of sketches was completed, we posted them on the wall for a group discussion. Here’s what Frank gave us:

1. Good vs. evil; a pot, an ant and a spoon.

2. Happiness; an egg and a tree.

3. Fear; a house and a little girl.

With Frank’s guidance, we tried to get beyond preconceived, conventional images connecting the emotional idea and the objects, such as putting a smiley face on the egg or the tree. When we succeeded, we were surprised by images that came from someplace below conscious thought, unplanned and strongly evocative.

Intrigued by the power of the exercise, I followed up by interviewing Frank. As he made clear in the workshop, the exercise came from illustrator David MacCauley, a guest lecturer at the Savannah College of Art and Design while Frank was studying there. “The illustration majors were invited to a Saturday class called ‘Thinking Before You Draw,’” Frank told me. “David would give us a phrase and a few parameters, and we would be asked to create a sketch… For example, he gave us the phrase, ‘the battle of good vs. evil using a spoon, an ant, and a cup.’ We were then asked to create a drawing using ONLY an ant, a cup and a spoon. The resulting image would hopefully make the viewer say, ‘It’s about the battle of good vs. evil.’”

Frank recommends doing the exercise in a group to reap the greatest benefits from discussing the resulting sketches. The purpose of the critique is for everyone to see and be inspired by how rough images can convey strong meaning. What are the applications of this approach to our job of creating illustrations for actual books?

“Within the structure of visual storytelling, one needs to think about content,” Frank says. “Yes, it’s great to make pretty art, but first you need the underlying structure to tell the story… Many illustrators have a small bag of tricks that they take out ... regardless of how well - or not - it assists in telling the story. Need a happy clown, I can do that. Well, maybe we should also ask why the clown is happy. Some would call this the DeNiro approach to illustration. Get behind the façade, the mask, to why you are making this clown…

“Think, mull, wander, smell, and listen. Then draw. Yes, there are deadlines. But start with a blank piece of paper, and don’t reach for that trusty art tool. Go for something else. Think beyond the materials. Go to the heart of what you want to say. Don’t be so in love with a final piece. Don’t be afraid to start over six or seven times if it isn’t telling the story.”

Most illustrators engage in this process as we sketch thumbnails before settling on a composition for a particular spread. But how quick I am to seize on the first solution that works. And how seduced I am by my character’s appearance and actions. This approach reminds me to slow down, to take my time. Identify my emotional focus for the spread. What meaning am I hoping to convey? How else might I arrange the picture elements to deepen the feeling I’m hoping to evoke?

“Don’t worry about the finished work,” Frank advises. “Get the structure of your illustration solid. ‘Does moving the tree to the top of the composition add to or subtract from the feeling?’” The extra care and time spent building a strong foundation of emotion and meaning is an investment that pays off in the power of the final art. (For further exploration of these principles, Frank recommends Molly Bang’s book, Picture This. Using colored paper cut-outs, Bang demonstrates how different shapes, their sizes and their placement create emotional meaning, such as horizontal lines and shapes = stillness and calm; diagonal = movement.)

Take it from Frank: “Before you begin drawing, think.”