I hadn’t participated in artists’ festival since living in California. At that time I had one foot in exhibition work and serving as the president of a fine arts organisation and forging my way into children’s book illustration. Yes, I had the white A frames, peg boards and of course the frame to…
Those periods between project deadlines and teaching can be those times for filling the well, a term used by Julia Cameron in her book called, The Artist’s Way. I recently pulled this book off my shelf and was amazed to find the date I originally signed the contract that dedicates myself to my own creative process and progression in its beginning pages was 1995! Scribbled throughout the margins alongside quotes from creatives past and present, were my own illuminations and points of awareness inspired from the text. (By the way, in case you think I am a defacer of books, this isn’t my usual practice. The Artist’s Way is a workbook and encourages you use it as such.) How I decided to fill the well this time was taking an online class called, Visual Storytelling, offered through The Art Connection Academy and taught by an American illustrator and art educator, Marshall Vandruff.
Marshall Vandruff, more information on this course his words, here.
There would be too much to cover in one post if I tried to hit every area Marshall managed to cover in his 12 hour mini course delivered over four weeks. What I will do is introduce a few concepts and exercises that are making a difference in my work. It is only recently that the Art Connection Academy, part of TAD (The Art Department) began a series of free Saturday seminars and mini courses. Something to keep in mind is that these 4 week mini courses are derived from TAD’s normally 16 week courses with time to fill out ideas and technique.
On the first night of class (for Marshall, noon in California) I discovered I was the only student! Earlier that day Marshall had agreed to deliver the class anyway and suggested that his role could also be that of consultant and direct the contents of the course to meet the needs of my current book project; a picture book that I am writing and illustrating. I wasn’t going to turn that down! So, through the magic of online classroom space (now commonly used in colleges and universities in the US combined with face to face classes) I logged into my first class.
It may be obvious to most why I would want to take a class in Visual Storytelling - I am a visual storyteller using the medium of word and image, using visual tools like, shape, line, tone, colour, and composition just as a starting point. Being a visual storyteller also means continuing to develop my craft and creativity as well as technique. Like many book illustrators, my desire is to write and illustrate my own stories, and the texts I would like to bring to fruition cover an age range from picture book to graphic novel to young adult novel.
The course divides up into four three hour sessions beginning with, Getting Story Ideas: Gathering Material; Creating Character: Lessons from the Masters; Assembling Ideas: The Craft of Weaving a Yarn, and Visualizing Stories: The Power of Telling by Showing. In a 16 week course, Marshal has his students apply these skills and concepts into reworking two comic spreads and character sheets for Winsor McCay’s, Little Nemo: Adventures in Slumberland as well as other exercises to develop their visual literacy skills. This includes reinterpreting characters and rethinking visual sequences and recording dreams through four panel comics and working out visual story lines through stream of consciousness image making. Marshall crosses all storytelling mediums and introduces art making tools to illustrate character, setting and plot contrasts.
Winsor McCay, Little Nemo: Adventures in Slumberland. An amazing example showing the use of framing, viewpoints, angles, tone, line and colour to tell a story.
In week one, I went back to ‘blue sky’ around my story in progress, Grandma Said. Asking the questions that Marshall gave me might be something you try. The first question was, looking at my story idea, who would be the most likely writer illustrator to tell it? Who would be least likely? This lead first to the obvious, at least in my mind, choices of art and text style to the unexpected, and pointed to my own sensitivities around my own work and confidence. Identifying and using Touchstones or visual representations from anywhere and everywhere that inspire and inform a story idea or characters, plots, moods and settings, with the unexpected begins with this exercise. Then, still in blue sky, make lists of keywords that come from your story idea, beginning with basic components, character(s), setting, themes (or what you think is the theme). Add under each keyword other words that have something to say however vaguely to that keyword and after that, begin to build bridges between your keyword lists with little pictures. Another way to pull together unexpected connections and interesting visual contrasts. I realise I’ve just used the word, unexpected, three times in this paragraph! That’s what I would say the point is, gathering raw material, a lot of raw material that will feed into a story idea making it rich and, yes, unexpected. Marshall starts off in the beginning talking about a process of chaos moving into order, and to embrace it.
Much of the material around character were exercises and concepts I knew and already used, but what stood out for me was looking at character types, the advantages and disadvantages of using them and how they are used in animation and film. The idea of ‘casting’ my characters and how they all serve the story. We also examined the importance of identifying with the protagonist, or main character, and the need to care about that character in order to engage with the story, which lead to three words, ‘just like me’. No matter the age of the reader, these characters need well rounded inner and outer lives that fed into premises of each character and we identified with our own living experiences.
An example of illustrating character design exercise in types, ‘The one who ______________.’
Now this is an exercise I really loved, using colour theory, contrasting and analogous colour themes to place characters in the story. If one character was warm, literally in colour and gestural behaviour, the character in opposition would be cool. It really helped to find those contrasting relationships that set up character motivations and obstacles needed in good storytelling. Or, should I say, gave me a visual way to clarify them. You can use the same concept to work out motivations, wants and desires, as well as flaws and strengths of each character. Writing out premises for each character in my story (what did they want and why couldn’t they have it) led me to understand the underlying universal theme to my story. The sentence I developed from this exercise keeps me focused and clarified so much for me. If you are like me and you never used that term, premise, relating to story making, I looked up a definition: ‘The idea that inspires the writer to write a story. The controlling idea = the story’s ultimate meaning expressed through action and aesthetic emotion and rarely a closed statement.’
Another exercise that helped me was working with a visual stream of consciousness. Once I had clarified (not necessarily the words, that can still be a work in progress) Marshall suggested I set aside three periods of time to work. That it was important that they be uninterrupted periods of time and that each time period must be separated by a minimum of a couple of hours. Working in thumbnails and using gestural drawing techniques creating shapes that define the space and feel of the frame as well as visual movement, without thinking too much about it, tell the story in a sequence of pictures. Keep going until I told the whole story each time. Don’t think about how many spreads or pages or frames it takes to tell it, just put it down. Then put the result of those three sessions aside for at least a day to cool before bringing them out again and pulling from all three sessions image sequences that start to tell a compelling story. This is only the first stage. Most visual storytellers will do this first stage predominately as medium shots (waist up and eye level the same as the characters in the frame). Once the sequences are working you can then start to develop your images cinematically, using angles, framing and viewpoints - bringing in visual interest and working the ‘camera’ to it’s best storytelling potential.
Visual Storytelling student work by Gabriella Eriksson.
Cleaned up sequential drawings to final art by another TAD student, Caitlin Worth.
And yet, one more example by another TAD student, Egil Thomspon, illustrating cleaned up drawings developed from rough rough sequential storytelling to final colour work.
There is much, much more we covered in this course that I haven’t written about. As I said at the beginning of this post, there was just so much. Marshall referred to an impressive list of well known storytellers from writing, film making, illustration, comics and graphic novels and animation such as screenwriter, Robert McKee, Molly Bang, Ray Bradbury, Eric Rabhan, Winsor McCay, and C.S. Lewis, just to name a few. Each week also included films or animations to watch to discuss in the following weeks lesson. I believe the work I did with Marshall has added more layers to my book. Layers that might not be seen by the reader/viewer but never the less, informs it. I highly recommend this course to anyone wishing to understand and push their visual storytelling skills further.
Illustrator Elisabeth Alba talks about her process in doing the book covers for H.B. Bolton’s book series and other work. Inspiration time!
Part of a series of interviews with women fantasy illustrators by Kiri Leonard.