We’d all like to have a step-by-step guide to creating super-fantastic blockbuster children’s books. I’d buy that guide in a nanosecond. But I’m beginning to think that no such guide exists. I’m beginning to think we all have to figure things out for ourselves. In fact, I’m beginning to think it’s most important that we each learn to understand our own creative process, and when we understand our own unique ways of working we can each make our own unique “guide” to creating our own unique children’s books. Here’s what I’ve done to understand my creativity, and to devise my own “guide” to making children’s books—
Many of us have strong reactions to particular works of art. We’ll walk around a museum and say “Oh I love that painting SO MUCH” but we don’t always explore WHY we like it. So every now and then I make color copies, and tear out magazine pages, and print pictures from the internet, and I plaster my favorite images onto boards that I can move around my studio. I might dedicate one image board to my favorite color palettes, and another to my favorite compositions, and another to my favorite drawing styles. I surround myself with my favorite artwork.
I always notice patterns in my tastes. I seem to love Folk Art and Indian court paintings. I love Lizbeth Zwerger and Kay Nielsen’s work, among others. I ask myself what it is, exactly, that I love about each of my favorite pieces of art. Slowly but surely, I develop a list of qualities that I love in other people’s art. The list of qualities is constantly changing, but it usually looks something like this…
QUALITIES I LOVE IN OTHER PEOPLE’S ART
- Naïve drawing (from Folk Art)
- Flat Perspective and Muted colors (from Indian Court Paintings)
- Compositions with areas of openness vs. areas of detail (from Lizbeth Zwerger)
- Repeated patterns (from Kay Nielsen)
With my list of aesthetic qualities I love most, I then try to make art that incorporates those qualities. As I’m sketching a book dummy, creating final art, or simply doodling in my notebook, I keep that list in mind. If I stay focused, those aesthetic qualities will begin to appear in my work. Sure, I’m borrowing artistic styles, but by blending those qualities in different ways an entirely new art style emerges: MY style. My tastes are always changing, and so my style is always changing. I imagine someday I’ll settle into a consistent style, like most of my artistic heroes, but for now I’m quite happy making art that represents my current tastes and interests…however fleeting they may be.
I use the same process with writing. It’s a little different, because image boards don’t really work with writings, but I can still analyze what writing I love and why. I make lists of the writing qualities I love most, and I try to incorporate those qualities into a new, unique writing style.
My process for determining HOW I want to write and illustrate is hugely helpful in determining WHAT I want to write and illustrate. If I know I want to combine spare, funny, dry language with flat, graphic, colorful illustrations, I can eliminate all of my picture book ideas that would involve muted colors, syrupy sweet morals, and complicated plots. My style helps me filter my ideas. I can focus on developing the two or three story ideas that will be complemented by my art and writing styles.
Of course, none of this matters if I have zero story ideas. But ideas are everywhere. So I always keep a little notepad with me, to jot down ideas when they pop into my mind. Sometimes the ideas come quickly. Sometimes I go months without having a single idea. But the ideas accumulate over the years, and whenever it’s time to begin a new project, I have my own little “guide” to determine HOW and WHAT to make my next book.
So get to know your own style and tastes. And when you have a better understanding of your creativity you can begin to make your own unique “guide” to creating your own unique children’s books.
P.S. If you’re a writer but not an artist, consider exploring what art styles would complement your writings. You might even want to modify your writing style to better match the style of art you’d like in your books.
P.P.S. If you’re an artist but not a writer, consider exploring what writing styles would complement your art. You might even want to modify your art style to better match the style of writing you’d like in your books.
Peter Brown writes and illustrates books for young whippersnappers. He grew up in Hopewell, New Jersey, where he spent his time imagining and drawing silly characters. He studied Life Lessons at the School of Hard Knocks, and then got his B.F.A. in Illustration from Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California.
After college Peter moved to Brooklyn and spent several years painting backgrounds for animated TV shows. And then in 2003 he got a book deal to write and illustrate his first picture book FLIGHT OF THE DODO, which is a story that involves bird poop…in case you’re into that kind of thing. Since then he’s written and illustrated three more picture books, and illustrated several other books for young whippersnappers. His books have been adapted into plays and animated short films, they have been translated into a dozen languages, and they include the 2010 E.B. White award winner, Children’s Choice Award winner, and New York Times bestselling book THE CURIOUS GARDEN.
You can find out more about Peter and his books at PeterBrownStudio.com.