And without further to-do, here are some enlightening anecdotes from Will Terry:
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.