Friday, May 2, 2014

Drawing 100 lions (or maybe more)

When I ran a little advertising/design shop on campus a few decades ago I drew up a poster that said,
Before you decide on one, draw 50.
Under that headline was some line art: 50 thumbnail illustrations (and they were actually decorated thumbnails). The poster was to remind me not to settle on an idea too early in the brainstorming or drawing process. My best work doesn't usually come on the third try.

I'm illustrating a book about a lion.
The first task is to get to know that character inside and out: what's he like?
For a method actor the question would be, what's his motivation?
My best way to figure it out is to draw, draw, draw.
I don't just aim for 50, anymore.
Usually I aim for 100.

Eventually I figured out the lion. (After drawing 137.)

Now, on to the rest of the characters...

(And if I need to draw dozens more lions because I ultimately don't like the one I chose -- or the art director doesn't -- I won't be surprised. Whatever it takes to get my best work.)

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

"There's a book in this!"

Today my kid invited me to tag along on her Engineering group field trip to the local landfill. I've learned never to pass up that sort of opportunity because something useful will come of it. I was right!

I learned:
- it's a landfill, not a dump. Landfill people dislike the D word. In my state, dumps are illegal, and they offer no protection for earth, air or water. Landfills have strict regulations, and a lot of  engineering goes into meeting them.
- those plastic grocery bags are worse than I'd thought. They blow around at dumps. I already knew they're terrible for our lakes and oceans, they are unrecyclable, and they don't break down into compost like paper bags can. 
- There is beauty even at the landfill -- my daughter found a tiny perfect heart rock for me.
- my work-in-progress picture book about a (shhh, it's a secret!) needs more work, and probably more research.

Of course I took along a sketchbook. 

Our tour guide seemed a little nervous at one point when she noticed I was taking copious notes. I hurried to explain that I was writing a kids' book, and this was just research for it.
(The last Engineering group field trip was to a special top-secret facility where the kids had to produce picture IDs to enter and parents had to wait outside.)

She relaxed and said most people don't take notes on her tours.
If people knew what power the almighty pen wields, they might scrutinize children's book authors more.
But I am harmless, and she must think so too; she offered to send me a poster showing a detailed cross section of the landfill.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

The eternal question: Talent? or self-honed Skill?

Note: I edited this post a few days after publication. Seemed like an awful lot of text. So I added more. Ha! and I added some indents and pictures.

On the RhyPiBoMo blog, an interesting question came up.
 I am posting it with my answer, here, with a couple words and line breaks added for clarity.


 Kristi said: I have a question for today’s guest, Ruth Barshaw. Is sketching something that one is just naturally good at, or can it be learned? 

I answered:

 Hi, Kristi! I’ve read varying opinions on this, and have talked to some famous illustrators about it too. Though some will argue against it, I’m not alone in my firm belief:
Anyone can learn to draw well. It just takes time and lots and lots of concentrated effort.

Some people say that it also requires talent. I say no.
Some people claim I started higher on the “talented” level — that people who draw well are somehow born with a special knowledge, or even just a predisposition that sets their work apart.
I am not sure if that’s true or not.
I’m not an expert on brain studies, but I am a researcher and have dug deep into this subject a few times.

I don’t have any of my early childhood art.
I do not remember being told by anyone that I had special talent for art until I was in third grade.
By then I loved to draw, maybe as much as some other kids loved to run, or loved to play baseball — things I liked, didn’t practice much, didn’t *understand* how to do better, and so wasn’t much good at — and so didn’t excel at.

Lucky for me, my art ability was recognized by a couple of teachers who asked me to draw things for their bulletin boards.
I’d drawn one giant cartoon of Dennis the Menace for a group project and one of the other kids begged to take it home.
Third grade is the first I can recall of anyone wanting my art.
I remember working really hard in second grade to develop my art (and also to grow my hair long).
The working hard on art part, I’ve done ever since. (Growing my hair long is still an issue)

I see amazing art done by very young children.
Maybe they really are specially talented.
Or maybe they just have smart people in their lives who value art and tell the kids why what they did is special.

I believe it’s learning WHY that makes one a better artist. And, of course, repeated concerted effort.

If you want to read more about how to become a better artist, check out Betty Edward’s Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain.
You’ll be astounded at her students’ growth in mere days.
But it shouldn’t be surprising: They have someone telling them how to see things differently, WHY certain things work and others don’t.

You can teach yourself how to draw.
You’ll learn faster with smart help.

(That's the end of my answer on the RhyPiBoMo blog, but I'm afraid I have more to say on the subject.)

          Many years ago a friend told me she had decided artists and people with special arts talent (musicians, poets, even people who deliver great lectures) have that information/talent/predisposition whispered to them by the dead masters.

 My kids are good at music despite me,
not because of me.

          I was a little offended: does this diminish my own hard work at developing my skill?

          Does this mean the first human was untalented?

          How do we explain the talented artist who doesn't use their art at all, who wastes what appears to be a gift from above? Will there be divine punishment? Or will Abraham Lincoln whisper brilliance to a number of potential thinkers, knowing some will ignore it?

          What about the kid who produces amazing art at a crazy-young age? Is someone whispering to him? What's a prodigy?

          Do we all have potential for percussion, but only some of us have parents who buy us drum sets when we're little, and even fewer encourage us?
(We won't get into elephants and monkeys painting, and what Art is. That's for another post.)

My 2 year old granddaughter's decorated cookie. 
Maybe she's not a prodigy. Or -- wait -- maybe she is!

          My friend's idea has spread widely. I've heard it many places. I still don't buy it.

          I still don't like the suggestion that I was born with something that others weren't, that what I have developed was whispered to me, that I am lucky instead of hard working. (I realize her suggestion doesn't automatically equate to all of these; I am extrapolating. Probably proponents of the idea would say I am both lucky and hardworking.)

          Brain science says once you think something, it's easier to think that thing later. Confidence or the lack of confidence can build from your thoughts.

          This is why people (like me) post affirmations on their mirrors and computer workstations: to repeat good thoughts, so they grow.

          If you are rewarded for something -- if a teacher nods in approval, says something nice, tapes your paper to the wall for others to see, shares it with the class -- you learn to repeat.

          If you're rewarded for innovation, you will innovate more.

          If you're rewarded for being quiet, for not coloring outside the lines, for drawing exactly the way you're told to draw, you might still grow up to be an artist but it'll take extra effort to push yourself to greatness.

          If you're punished for doodling on your page margins, for designing varied but barely legible handwriting fonts on your school papers, for creatively mixing things a teacher thinks shouldn't go together, for ::sigh:: depicting things someone thinks you shouldn't (yeah, all that happened to me), it might stifle your art instinct. Or it might merely send it underground, where you work on it quietly but only share it when you think it's really ready. That's what I did.

My sister and I were born one year and one day apart.
Mom made fanciful, beautiful cakes for our birthday every year.
Maybe my art ability *is* inherited.

          I believe time (and science) will show that we are all born with an infinite palette of possibilities. We paint our own futures. The colors are dulled or brightened by other people's intrusive praise and criticism, but we can undo their efforts, remix and repaint.

          WE decide if we'll be good at sports or art or science. Or all three.

          Case in point: My youngest kid. She's an accomplished athlete. And a very skilled artist. She has won a scholarship for engineering, which means she's really good at math and science. (All A's)

          Of course she was born brilliant. But she also had people in her life who helped guide and encourage her. And she worked very hard to develop her little proclivities into admirable skills.

          Everyone is born brilliant. Not every person has the cadre of encouraging family and friends. We ALL encounter disappointments and red herrings and false starts and obstacles, rising tension, conflict, villains.

          We ALL have the ability to work hard.

          We are the writers of our life stories.

          We choose the happy ending.

          We choose whether to succeed.


In any case, whether we inherit our talent,
or develop it because of good nurturing,
or develop it in spite of our home life,
we probably owe our parents thanks.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

It's RhyPiBoMo! Rhyming Picture Book Month -- time to rhyme!

My blog post is up!

This is RhyPiBoMo -- Rhyming Picture Book Month, designated and developed by Angie Karcher, author.

It's a month of blog posts about picture book rhyme -- written by authors who excel at rhyme (and then there's me, a newbie). You'll find lots of tips, ideas, how-to's -- really great stuff taught by people who know how to do it well. It's all free, of course!
So check it out!

Find my post here:

And then go read all the other days!

I'm thrilled to be included in RhyPiBoMo. I've written lots and lots of rhyme, tried many stories in rhyme over the years, and, after all that work, I have exactly one marketable manuscript in rhyme.
The story is about music.
I'm not really a musician. I play harmonica pretty well, but that's about it. I remember a little from organ classes, I know how to put together and hold a clarinet and make awful sounds come out. On days when my voice isn't husky from allergies or exertion, I can sing moderately well. I can sight-read music well, though slowly. I can figure out how to play a song I heard, on harmonica, after a couple tries. I'm in a band composed of authors, and we sing and play music -- much of it original -- at agency retreats. I'm no musician, though.
My husband sings beautifully.
Our four kids are all musical. Two sang on stage in high school. One's a real musician, performing for pay -- he and his wife play duets together, songs they write and sing with their own instruments. It's beautiful, heartwarming, inspiring -- intimidating. Seeing how well some people play with (and work at) music makes me realize how far behind I am.

When this idea for a music picture book hit me, I first wrote it down. Then I emailed my son and asked for his help writing the book (really, I wanted him to write it and me to illustrate).
He said no.
He said I could do the job, and he would send a few ideas. His ideas were really great, but I sure was disappointed at first. The story was too big for me to let drop or give away, so I started to tackle it. Piece by piece, stanza by stanza, line by line, word by word, image by image... The story came together. I'm very excited about its potential.
I'm working on the art.

Figuring out one of the characters:

These are early sketches. I have no idea how much of this will be in the final book.

Just like the writing, creating the art of this book scares me.

You never know what you can do until you push yourself, right?

My whole life I've done things that scared me.
It's always paid off.

My page on Angie Karcher's blog has my post and lots of great extras, collected and organized by Angie:

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

New art!

As my brother said upon seeing these, it doesn't always have to be a doll or a stuffed animal...

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Spring Break 2014

Picture this:
a 15-passenger van
filled with
Charlie and me (the drivers),
Lisa (our daughter and person in charge of the food),
her four kids (ages 11, 5, 3, and 1),
Emmy (our high school daughter and person in charge of the menu),
and Dan (her boyfriend),
on a 21+ hour road trip from Michigan to Austin, Texas.
We stayed at my sister's house
(some of us in tents),
flew another daughter in from Seattle,
traveled around Texas,
kept a group journal about it all,
and came back home safely,
no injuries,
no fighting,
no regrets.
In fact, we want to do it again.
I'm thinking Florida (Disney!) after I sell a few books, and upper Michigan too.

While in Texas Charlie and I presented writer workshops at four schools in Round Rock, and we attended the Texas Library Association conference in San Antonio where we handed out these Texas READ posters:

It was a great working vacation -- but also intense fun.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Rhyming Picture Book Month starts TODAY!

Join Angie Karcher all through April as she brings in 35 guest authors to divulge their secrets on what makes great rhyme and how to write it.

Sign up here.
It's easy and fast.
Then read Angie's blog all month.
Soak in the wisdom of such rhymers as -- well, name someone in the industry.
They're probably on the list.

Read the posts, follow the lessons, comment occasionally so you are eligible for prizes, and -- did I mention this part? IT'S ALL FREE.
Join us. (My day is April 23)
By the end of April you'll be on your way to becoming an expert in writing rhyme for picturebooks.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

I'm part of Sketchables!

I always thought blog collectives were pretty cool. I belong to a few of them and rarely take part.
The incongruence of those two beliefs made me hesitate when The Sketchables asked me to join their rebooted effort of blogging sketches.
My worry was that I wouldn't keep up.
I tend to get very busy with deadlines and school visits and new projects.

This spread from my sketchbook was drawn
at the NY Public Library's fantastic exhibit,
The ABC of It: Why Children's Books Matter.

But I knew it'd be good to get into the habit of posting my art online regularly. I have probably 500 full sketchbooks at my house. Some of that work is worth sharing.
So I said yes.

Here's my latest Sketchables post. It shows a page of first draft art for my next Ellie McDoodle book.

Check out the Sketchables blog. See cool, fun sketches by
Priscilla Burris,
Heather Powers,
Nina Crittenden,
Joy Steuerwald,
Steve Bjorkman,
and me.

And, if you're inspired, get sketching!

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

MRA Poster by Matt Faulkner and me

Michigan Reading Association held its 2014 conference this past weekend, and I got to do some presentations at it. At the huge general session on Sunday they unveiled the poster for next year's conference and -- ta-daaa! -- I helped create it.

Fellow Michigan author-illustrator and dear friend Matt Faulkner drew the MRA lettering scene and that gorgeous, intricate calligraphy of the words Honesty, Diversity, Unity, and Equality.

I did the Michigan readers pen/watercolor art and the layout.

These posters were distributed to teachers and librarians and will hang in schools around the state.
I've already seen a few in schools, actually.
This is a busy season for author visits-- I'll watch for more in my travels to schools around the state.
Pretty heady stuff!

Monday, March 10, 2014

Take your journal everywhere!

I take my sketchbook/journal everywhere with me.
To school visits.
To field trips.
To family vacations.
To any place where I think I'll have to stand in line for a while.
To my kid's (and grandkids') sports events and concerts and award ceremonies.
To weddings, births, funerals, parties.
Even to church.
I used to be squeamish about that. I'd get my priest to bless each new journal, figuring that was his tacit permission to sketch during Mass.
I'm not squeamish about it anymore. One of the priests brings his journal to Mass! And the children in our church's school are encouraged to bring theirs.
Often a kid in church will recognize me (from a school visit, or because I donate art to the religious education program). I try not to be conspicuous -- I don't want parents to think I'm a bad role model.
Writing and drawing during Mass helps me to remember the important things (and some trivial stuff too).

Thursday, March 6, 2014

March is Reading Month -- and Author Visit Month

Aside from whenever the tight book deadlines fall, March is my busy time. In Michigan, March is Reading Month.
That means in March lots of schools like to bring authors in to talk with their students about writing and reading.
Ohio's big month for school visits is in May, so we'll be busy then, too.

Charlie and I do a great workshop presentation.
It's interactive and educational and -- bonus! -- kids always, always, always exit our sessions excited about writing. That's because we create an illustrated story right there with them, with their help.
We also leave all the papers with the school so the students can revise the story or create something new, and they have all the tools and knowledge they'll need.

Last year we were at a new school pretty much every day in March (sometimes more than one school in a day).
This year we encouraged teachers to schedule our visits in the other months, Sept through February and also in April and May, so we'd be less busy in March. It's rewarding to connect with kids all through the year -- I'm sure it helps me understand my kid characters better.
And we love the work!
Kids respond well -- we change our presentation to fit any level, age 3 up through high school, always with fabulous results. Teachers give fantastic testimonials.
Charlie and I have the best job I could imagine.

Here's a sketchbook page from our visit to Frankenmuth, Michigan, at the end of February/beginning of March. Our hotel lost water and internet service for part of a day so Charlie and I bundled up and explored the town.

One completely unexpected, amazingly great thing happened in Frankenmuth Thursday night: I thought of a brilliant new picture book idea. It's one of those stories that comes complete with a title already thought up, and the characters almost fully developed. It'll take a while to be ready to share with the world, but I'm excited, and I'll always remember this book had its roots in my school visits.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014


Just returned from the big international SCBWI conference in New York (or, as I keep telling people it's supposed to be pronounced, "nyork"). 
I'm motivated and inspired and excited. I have a full sketchbook of 150 sketches of the journey -- both to, from, and in New York, and also my personal, emotional journey to new and renewed literary friendships and improved work.

Three great things I heard at the VIP party -- all from editors:
- You can DRAW! I love your card! 
- I know Ellie McDoodle -- YOU do that series??
- I am THRILLED to meet you!
That last one is my awesome editorial team at Bloomsbury! I have a new editor and she introduced me to some of the great people there. Really, seriously, fantastically great people -- it was a thrill for me to meet them, too.
(I wrote these things down verbatim in my sketchbook because I want to remember them forever.)

I'm sharing two spreads of sketchbook pages here.
This page is one of the most exciting moments of the conference, on the left. It started small and turned into a life-changing opportunity. More on this in a future blog.
And on the right it's one of my favorite little bits of the national conference, where Lin Oliver talks about the funny contest entries and Tomie dePaola talks about the Tomie contest entries (YAY for Michigan writer-illustrator Nina Goebel who placed and who also came to this conference) and the air is buzzing because of all the great stuff that's already been shared in the previous days, and Sunday's our last big day at the conference.

This is a little part of the return trip to Michigan

I pushed myself at the conference. 
I acted like an extrovert even when I didn't quite feel like one.
I walked miles around the city every day even though I'm still nursing a Hapkido knee injury from a year ago.
I worked -- volunteered -- as SCBWI-Michigan's Illustrator Coordinator, even taking on extra jobs at the conference, and pushing myself to become more familiar with the people who (expertly, beautifully, sacrificingly, exhaustingly, fantastically) run the show.
I made up a great postcard before coming and handed it out everywhere, with this image on the front and an Ellie McDoodle image on the back (and of course all my contact info) --

After 9 years of concentrating on 
highly-illustrated middle grade novels,
I'm getting into picture books now.

I introduced myself to everyone around me again and again and again (not the same people three times!).
All that pushing paid off.
I'm so thrilled to have gone to NYC and this conference and I got SO MUCH out of it that I have vowed I am ***definitely*** going to the next international SCBWI conference in Los Angeles, this summer.

First order of business: Sell a book. I have 5 great picture book ideas percolating. Some of them my agent loves. I have a plan. :)
It'll be tricky working on books while I'm doing school visits -- we're at a new school 4 times per week and sometimes on the weekends. But I am motivated!!