by Steve Barr
I can’t really begin to pinpoint where my inspiration comes from. When people ask where I get my ideas, I don’t tend to have an answer ready. Ideas just seem to leap into my head out of nowhere. My best guess is that there’s some faulty wiring in my brain. That’s most likely due to the regular “thumpings” my older brother gave me on a daily basis as we were growing up. Perhaps he knocked a few screws loose.
I can get inspired by all sorts of things. Some of my best ideas pop into my mind when I’m driving down the highway with no music on, just daydreaming. Or when I’m laying in bed drifting off to sleep. If I had music blaring inside the truck, the lyrics would be too distracting and I’d just end up singing along with them. At home, when I’m locked away in my studio, I do listen to music. But it’s usually jazz, classical or new age. Anything that doesn’t have words blasting into my mind. I want all of the words that are rushing through my head to be my own.
I OBSERVE. By that, I mean I tend to truly look at everything around me. If I’ve hiked miles away from civilization and I’m sitting on a mountaintop watching a hawk fly above me, I’m usually thinking “Oh….THAT’S how their wings are shaped when they’re drifting!” and I incorporate that into my work later. You may sometimes see me sitting in a mall somewhere, and it will appear that I’m gawking at people passing by. Sometimes I stare. But what’s actually going through my mind is “So, that’s how the wrinkles on a coat look when someone bends their arm” or “What a crazy hat! I need to remember that and draw it later.”
I also LISTEN. When other people are talking, I really want to hear what they have to say. Their problems, their frustrations and the things that make them laugh. Because, after all, any of those conversations can be the foundation of an idea for a book or a cartoon. Inspiration is all around us, and we just need to learn how to harness it in our own way.
For instance, a friend was recently telling me that he was concerned that his wife was thinking of getting rid of him. On my ride home, the idea for a cartoon about that popped into my head and I drew it the next day.
Yet another acquaintance was complaining about having trouble getting to sleep. As I was approaching my cabin later that night, a raccoon darted across my path. Those two subjects merged in my mind, and another cartoon was born.
The process of creating books and cartoon ideas are very similar. It’s just that cartoons are compressed into images and thoughts that can be expressed quickly, while books use pictures and words to give a longer, more complete story.
But, like everyone else involved in creative endeavors, there are those days where I’m stopped dead in my tracks by a severe case of “writer’s block”. What do I do then? Well, sometimes I give myself a break, walk away from my work and let my batteries recharge. But if I’m faced with a tight deadline, whether it’s self-imposed or from contractual obligations, I do have a backup plan. I use a technique taught to me by another successful cartoonist when I was young. I take a sheet of notebook paper and divide it into columns. The columns are labelled “Main Character”, “Setting”, and “Supporting Characters”. I fill the columns with all sorts of possibilities, then either close my eyes and randomly circle sections from each column or I simply pick combinations that I think might work. This creates unique combinations I may not have thought about otherwise, and can help trigger new ideas and possibilities.
Cartoonists, like authors, are doing the same thing as a movie director. They created a cast, give them their lines and put them in the right surroundings.
Here’s an example of the chart:
Once one of the combinations begins to trigger ideas, I roll with it….trying to think of what the characters might be saying to each other or how they would be interacting. This method would probably work just as nicely for inspiring writers as it for helping cartoonists. I ask myself what the characters would have in common, or what issues they might be struggling with. And here are the results of combining a dog, a restaurant and a woman on a date:
So, my creative process is very similar to approaching a railroad crossing. Stop. Look. And listen!
Sometimes it results in wonderful inspiration. And other times it results in a train wreck. If the latter happens, I just dust myself off, tuck that idea away for a different time and start on another.
As the late great cartoonist Gil Foxx once wrote in a book he signed to me, “Persist. Over…..and over….and over…and over.” Just keep chugging away, and eventually you are bound to end up on the right track.
Another great source of inspiration can be your editor. (Or an agent, if you have one.) Something I think that many writers and artists tend to forget is that your editor is your best friend. They’re your teammate. You both have the same goal. You are both trying to develop the best product possible. I know quite a few people who like to argue with their editors when they’re given input, because they feel a bit insulted that someone is trying to change part of their creation.
I’ve never looked at it that way. I have been blessed with the opportunity to work with some of the finest editors in the field, and I would always listen to their suggestions because I knew they had my best interests at heart.
Do you know that Maurice Sendak had originally intended to call Where the Wild Things Are something totally different? Yup. He was going to title it Land of the Wild Horses. But when he started working on the illustrations, he realized that he wasn’t very good at drawing horses. It was his editor’s suggestion to change it to “WIld Things”, inspired by a Yiddish expression that referred to boisterous children.
Can you imagine the world of children’s literature without Where the Wild Things Are in it? I can’t. And it may never have happened if he hadn’t been willing to collaborate closely with his editor.
Christina Richards, my editor at IMPACT Books, edited my books perfectly and seamlessly. By the time I received the galley proofs for Draw Crazy Creatures, I could not tell which words were mine and which ones were hers. She had removed unnecessary and redundant text during the editing process, and had made minor changes to some of my sentences that had a major impact on them. A major impact that made them better. She made the book flow smoothly.
So I’d highly recommend that folks in the creative end of this business open themselves up to constructive criticism, helpful suggestions and any input from the editorial staff they are working with. These people are in the positions they are in because they know what they are doing. They are the inspiration behind the scenes, and when they’re done helping you, they will have played a huge role in making you and your work shine.
Steve Barr is the author and illustrator of Draw Crazy Creatures and Draw Awesome Animals from IMPACT books. He’s also written and illustrated a series of 11 books in the 1-2-3 Draw line from Peel Productions.
Steve’s cartoons have appeared in a variety of newspapers and magazines, including “The Complete Idiot’s Guides” and the “Chicken Soup for the Soul” series. He’s also done a lot of art for a wide variety of educational products and publications. You can take a peek at some of his work on his website SteveBarrCartoons.com.
Steve is giving away two signed copies of Draw Crazy Creatures!
Two winners will be randomly selected at the conclusion of PiBoIdMo. You are eligible for this prize if:
- You have registered for PiBoIdMo.
- You have commented ONCE ONLY on today’s post.
- You have completed the PiBoIdMo challenge. (You will have to sign the PiBoIdMo Pledge at the end of the event.)
Good luck, everyone!