Thursday, August 17, 2017

Focusing on Picture Books

Playing with ideas in my sketchbook.
Watercolor and ink.

Now that Camp NaNoWriMo is finished, I've been focusing on "what's next?" I have plenty of choices, including: continue marketing my current novel, The Abyssal Plain; revise and edit my work-in-progress novel Ghazal; write some more short stories. They're all important, and I don't want to neglect any of them, but the one thing calling me the loudest is to illustrate the picture book I started writing in my "spare" time last year.

To get my head (and studio) together, I've narrowed down my art supplies to the materials I truly love. Items that no longer serve me have all gone to good homes at the many cultural and recreational centers around town. The list includes charcoal, acrylics, pastel pencils, and a dozen other dubious experiments that just aren't "me." It was vital that at one time or another I explored these many types of paints and pencils; if I hadn't, I would never have found my genuine voice, and how sorry I would have been to miss that opportunity!

But now I know what I like and what I don't, and for today's post I thought I would share the supplies I'm using for this current stage of my art journey, beginning with:

1. Sketchbooks! I could talk about sketchbooks forever, probably because they double so well as manuscript and other journals. I probably have too many going at once (seven, with one more waiting in the wings), but I can't resist the various bindings, sizes, and papers. Each one is endowed with its own special qualities that inspire different stylistic choices and subject matters. My favorite brands are: Strathmore, Stillman and Birn, Moleskine, and Bee Paper Products. 
2. Akashiya Watercolor Brush Pens. I discovered these gorgeous pens on the last day of my Taiwan trip a couple of years ago. At the time I only bought four colors: black, gray, green, and reddish-brown. When I got back home, I was so impressed with the strength of the colors that I had to find where I could buy a full set. It wasn't easy, but thank goodness for  What I love best about these pens is the tips are actual nylon brushes with tons of spring and sensitivity and the color they release is downright juicy. I've read several reviews complaining about the lack of light-fastness, which so far hasn't been a problem for me. Admittedly these pens are not for creating wall or gallery art, but neither are many brands of watercolors unless you buy top-of-the-line professional grade paints. Despite this possible failing, I highly recommend these pens for sketchbook use as well as any finished art intended for printing, such as greeting cards, or book illustration.

3. Water brushes.

A paintbrush already filled with water: what could be better? I particularly like the way these brushes work with the Akashiya pens; I can lay down some color then diffuse it with a few brushstrokes to create a myriad of effects. Water brushes can also be used with traditional watercolors or water-soluble pencils, great for travel. My only warning is that if you're planning to take them on an airplane, I suggest you first separate the water barrel from the brush to avoid any air locks, otherwise you'll never get the pieces apart again. (Stated from sad personal experience.)

3. Ink.

Sumi ink is my go-to for anything inky involving a dip pen or brush. I love the sheen, the permanency when used with watercolors, and the slightly embossed feel of the ink when it dries. On the negative side, sumi ink can be very, very messy and difficult to use if you want a precise, architectural-style line (I usually don't), and it's entirely unsuitable for any travel or outdoor sketching. For these situations I prefer using Tikky Rotring or Le Pen Drawing pens which contain excellent and smooth waterproof ink. My other two choices, a Pentel Stylus pen, and a Pilot super-fine nib fountain pen are fantastic drawing instruments, but the ink isn't waterproof, meaning I have to either forego watercolor, use colored pencils, or draw the lines in later.

4. Dip Pens.

My first choice for drawing thick, organic lines is always a bamboo stick pen. The tips blunt a little faster than I'd like, but they're not expensive to replace. For a more delicate approach, any brand of metal dip pen is good--they all work! What I like about dip pens is their tendency to be unpredictable which suits my style and sense of adventure. I actually like the random ink splatter, broken line, or unexpected "happy accident" that can provide a new direction and fresh life to a piece.

5. Watercolors.

When I lived in Georgia I never used anything but tube watercolors that I would then squish out onto a palette that stayed wet for weeks. The same humidity that kept my paints in a big puddle also prevented anything I was painting to ever dry faster than in a day or two. As much as I loved watercolors, I often hated their slow-drying properties, and I didn't use them as much as I do here in Albuquerque. Now that I'm in the desert, however, I LOVE watercolors. Whatever I paint dries in minutes, a great boon for impatient painters such as myself, except now the trouble lies in the tubes: not only do they dry up, but the caps become irremovable in just a matter of weeks. The solution, and one I like, is to use pan watercolors. They start out dry and it only takes a squirt of water from a spray bottle to reactivate them in seconds. Kuretake is my preferred brand (they makes sets with more than the 12 colors I've shown in the green box above), but recently I've discovered these generic blue-tinned watercolors sold under a variety of labels from both Amazon and craft stores that have surprised me with their quality and color range.

6.  Synthetic Brushes. 

I'm a vegetarian, but I do wear leather shoes and carry leather handbags on occasion. It's the same with my paintbrushes. I have some lovely Chinese real-hair brushes, and one cost-the-earth sable brush, but my first choice will always be a good synthetic. In the past they had a questionable reputation, but the quality has improved so much over the years that I find them better and easier to use than real fur. Princeton is my brand of choice, and I think what I like best about them is the way they make painting feel like writing, something that comes the most naturally to me.

7, Graphite Pencils. Blackwing. I'll say no more. Just try these pencils.

8. Canson Watercolor Paper.

When I'm not using my sketchbooks, I like to have a good piece of paper for both practice and finished artwork. Canson paper is ridiculously inexpensive--and very good! The paper comes in several sizes and is excellent for more than just watercolor, e.g., oil pastels and graphite. A very economical choice for both fun and serious work.

9. Arches watercolor paper.

This paper is my absolute No. 1. And it is pricey. Like, truly expensive. And totally worth it. And yes, I have messed it up, had to throw it away, and start all over again. All part of the learning curve. Sigh.

10. Gelli Printing Plate.

My Gelli Printing Plate has been the most fun and helpful tool I've come across. I use it to make random backgrounds for my work: spread a little acrylic paint on the surface (I know I said I don't like painting with acrylics, but they're a must-have for the plate. Gelli recommends using the cheapest, runniest, bottled brands with a high water content for easy spreading.), make some random marks with a paintbrush or Q-tip or whatever's handy, place a piece of paper on the plate, run your hands over the paper, and there you go--instant picture!

Tip of the Day: The nicest part of working on a picture book is I now have a great excuse to read picture books. In my opinion, they are the most important books in existence. I would not be who I am today without Little Bear, Babar, and The Lonely Doll. Not only did I learn to read with picture books, they instilled a life-long love of art, a desire to travel, and a world of friends and wisdom that will always be with me. Next time you're at the library or bookstore, treat yourself to visiting the children's shelves. Whether it's a trip down memory lane or a way to discover the latest trends and titles, you'll be glad you went.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Good-bye, #CampNaNoWriMo

Time to gather round the campfire one last night and say good-bye to CampNaNoWrimo. It was fun, it was crazy-making, and it was often challenging to reach those word quotas, but we did it. Yay! And as always, I hasten to assure my fellow writers that if the best you could do was churn out an outline and a chapter or two, you still got some writing done and that's a win for sure.

As with every adventure, the minute I come home I like to unpack, sort out my souvenirs, go through my ticket stubs and guidebooks, and reflect on what the trip meant to me. In the case of CampNaNo, I didn't have to go very far from home, but I still came back with a virtual bag of goodies, mainly in the form of knowledge. Things I learned include:
  • Choosing to write short stories rather than a novel wasn't as good an idea as I thought it would be. Don't get me wrong, I love writing short pieces, but it was sometimes difficult to end one story and then immediately begin working on a new topic with new characters, settings, and conflicts. I kept thinking I was "finished" with the whole thing only to have to start writing again. A novel, I believe, would have provided an easier flow of productivity.
  • On the positive side, however, when a story's plot-line bored or evaded me, it was easy to conclude it with either a "happily ever after" ending, or drop it completely. In the latter situation, I was sure to make notes on various possible endings for when I do go back to edit and revise. 
  • Whether I brought a story to a conclusion or not, I re-discovered and re-affirmed how much I love writing. I really do. First drafts are exciting. I can't imagine a life without them.
  • I also learned that I'm a true "pantster," i.e., someone who writes "by the seat of their pants." The one certainty that kept me enthused every day was not knowing what would happen next. My curiosity was all the motivation I needed.
  • I enjoyed being in a community of writers, especially being part of a cabin. It was encouraging to know other writers were busily typing or scribbling away, going through the same struggles and bursts of inspiration as me.
  • It was great to stop marketing my current novel-for-sale for a few weeks. Putting query letters, synopses, and bio-statements on hold for a month was heavenly.
  • Slow and steady does win the race. Although I did have some miraculous moments where I was able to write 4000+ words in a single session, in general I was happy sticking to anywhere between 1500-2000 words a day. I realized there's no need to over-achieve on days that are busy, chaotic, or full of unexpected catastrophe. Just 30-minutes a day can be more than enough to get that story written!
  • I'm glad I took the time to create both a book of writing prompts and an accompanying art journal to go with my manuscript. I'm looking forward to continuing with the journal, and my prompts are great subjects for illustration, particularly for my children's picture book WIP. Double-duty!
As a "take home" reward and gift to myself for attending camp every day, I've splurged on a new bottle of sumi ink, a pad of rice paper, a bunch of collage ephemera and papers, and a sketchbook designed solely for ink and markers. Oh, and a 20-piece set of my favorite Akashiya watercolor pens. (I was VERY well-behaved, LOL!) So here I go: ready and set to keep  on writing  and drawing till at least the end of the year.

Back in January, or even May for that matter, I had absolutely no intention of signing up for #CampNaNoWriMo. In fact, if you'd suggested I do so, I would have come up with a thousand ways to say no. Yet when I made my decision to join up the week before camp started, it felt like the most natural thing in the world. Spontaneity is an important part of the creative process. Never let your plans become so rigid that you miss out on valuable, and unexpected, experience. 

Tip of the Day: Even with toasted marshmallows and dips in the pool, a solid month of writing can be exhausting. If you're finding yourself suffering from word-burn, a good way to take a break without losing your momentum is to switch your focus from writing text to activities such as designing your book cover, creating a book trailer, writing your log line, synopsis and query letter, and if necessary, putting together a detailed character and plot map. Not only will your energy levels increase, but you'll also have a wealth of fresh ideas for beginning your revision and marketing tasks.