Wow—what an honor to be included in this group, but let’s clear the air straight out: I ain’t no author. I’d like to be…could tell you all the close calls…but all of us have war stories.
I was the kid who did horribly in school. I was always doodling in the back of the class. My parents even had me tested to see what the heck was wrong with me. So I’m probably the least likely to succeed as an author. Writing is definitely a second language—but I’m working on it.
But perhaps I can help the illustrators in the room by sharing how I approach a picture book project—and maybe give authors an idea of the considerations illustrators make on their manuscripts.
I remember watching one of my favorite flicks years ago—Glengarry Glen Ross—starring the amazing lineup: Al Pacino, Jack Lemmon, Alec Baldwin, Alan Arkin, Ed Harris, and Kevin Spacey. It mostly takes place on one set, in one room, with no special effects and I was amazed that these actors owned their parts enough to carry the story. I tried to imagine what it would be like to play the part of a fictional character. I remember listening to an interview with Morgan Freeman (one of my all-time favorites) and he talked about getting into character and preparing to become another person with motivations that were foreign to him. It stuck with me.
It was about this time that I started illustrating some of my first picture books and I realized that the characters I would be illustrating had a life before and after the few pages I was going to be illustrating. They had a story…and if I was going to be able to capture them I was going to have to figure out who they were before page 1. What were they proud of? What were they afraid of? What did they want? What did they need? …etc…
I’ve tried concepting at home in my studio but there are usually too many distractions (three boys), so when I get a new manuscript I take it to my “board room”—what I’ve named the mountains that surround me out here in Utah. I’ve been an avid hiker/ backpacker for many years and if you’re a Facebook friend, you’re probably sick of all the photos I post from my walks. But it really is the place I go to be alone with my thoughts. If you really want a good laugh, hide behind a tree as I’m passing by and you’ll sometimes here me speaking in the voice of a character I’m working on. At first I felt like a freak but now I know I am, so I just go with it. You really can accomplish a lot if you’re willing to get up out of your chair, change your environment, and act out scenes in your book. Narration is about gesture and it’s hard to get good gestures sitting at the computer.
Like the rattlesnake from SENORITA GORDITA by Helen Ketteman—he was especially fun to imagine—the trick was to make him a little scary but not too scary. My theory on kids is that they like to be scared a little—just not frightened. You see it all the time. You’re in line at the bank and a two year old is hiding behind mom’s legs peeking out at you. I always make a little face. The kid hides again—but not for long—he/she wants that little uncertainty. Capturing little scary expressions in my characters has been a goal. How much can I get away with?
The lizard in SENORITA was another really fun character to concept. I figured he had to be opportunistic and subsequently lazy, resting under his bush and not wanting to become to easily roused. He’s not the type to act to hastily but would prefer to talk his prey into coming closer and doing most of the work.
Then there’s Macky the blue bird from ARMADILLY CHILI by Helen Ketteman. I thought Macky had to be somewhat sophisticated because he wasn’t that good at flying, so I dressed him up in a vest, bolo tie, and hat.
And the big-bottomed boar from THE THREE LITTLE GATORS by Helen Ketteman was a big bully. He was really easy because I had done my time in middle school. I knew the big-bottomed boar right off and couldn’t wait to illustrate those grill stripes in his butt at the end when he sears his back side going down the chimney! I had to edit from a very long list of bully smirks provided by my public school education. Butt again (pun intended) I had to make sure he didn’t cross over in to the “horrifying” realm. I didn’t want my audience to identify with him but I also wanted to keep him on the comical hillbilly, the “I don’t know any better” side of bullies.
So there you have it—not too complicated, but I do enjoy putting a little thought behind the characters I draw and paint. And speaking of painting, I’ve been illustrating in acrylics for the first 18 years of my career but switched over to Photoshop 2 years ago. I was so excited about working digitally because of control and speed that I made a video tutorial on my process! It’s available at folioacademy.com.
Will Terry has been illustrating for 20 years. He grew up just outside the beltway of Washington, D.C. wondering why the hell there were so many cars?! So he moved to Utah and the rocky mountains where he and his boys snowboard & hike. His work has appeared in publications such as: Time, Money, Wall Street Journal and ads for Sprint, Pizza Hut, M&M Mars, Fed Ex, and Master Card. He has illustrated over 25 children’s books for Random House, Simon Schuster, Scholastic, Dial, and Albert Whitman, plus 3 ebooks, 1 app, & co-founded a video tutorial company called folioacademy.com. He’s an avid blogger and currently teaches illustration at UVU.