by Floyd Cooper
I find inspiration in the oddest of places, at the oddest of times. Looking back after having illustrated about 100 picture books, of which only five I have also written, I find that I have been most inspired by things visual. Early in my developing years my mom told me stories or read to me and I would visualize her words. Picturing the tales as she spoke was easy and second nature. It would not change for me, the visualizing, as I began to read myself. I would also digest and consume visual media such as magazines like the Saturday Evening Post, Life, and Ebony. Comic books didn’t escape my attention, in particular Mad Magazine, DC Comics and Marvel.
Movies and television also provided visual stimuli to my budding imagination and I consumed everything within my orbit. There were periods in my youth when my household had no TV or the money for a movie or a new book. My imagination was forced to fly solo, on automatic pilot as it were. Seeking ways to keep the entertainment going, I would look at my surroundings in unusual ways like hanging my head over the edge of the sofa upside down and imagine walking through the house as if it were turned topsy- turvy.
I would zoom in real close to a clump of grass and dirt and visualize moving through this landscape as a tiny scout until a lazy beetle or hasty ant would come by and chase me from my daydream.
And I would draw and paint!
I would construct scenarios in my head about my siblings and gain revenge for perceived misdeeds and come out the hero in the end. My imagination didn’t skip a beat! These exercises helped develop the ability to easily and without much effort, create a narrative from nothing. To keep my imaginative acuity stretchy and fluid. But with all of this early cognitive stimulus, my career as an illustrator and the field in which I now work and make my life, making picture books, presents such pressure on the imagination, taxing the ability to produce day in, day out, book to book, original fresh ideas and visions on demand that eventually it became more and more difficult to stay inspired.
It began to take longer and longer for the muse to come.
Deadlines, editorial demands and even the trim size and gutters of the book became limits and hindrances to the creative process. The pressure of producing art in a stifling environment became the norm and began to take a toll. One day I sat down at my table and could not move forward. I had reached the point of burn-out! My instincts told me to get away. This is how I discovered the powers of walking outside at midnight. A midnight walk outside in any given season you’ll find the mind takes a rest from the pressures of production and allows the doors of the brain to fling wide open with the breezes of inspiration! It matters not whether country or town, noisy or quiet, as long as you can see the sky in it’s velvet caress. You may even catch a glimpse of the Muse’s own shadow, flitting about on the peripheral. Try it! Think hard about what you want to produce be it picture or prose. Then get up! Walk out into the night giving it not a single thought more. You will find upon your return, the sprouts of fresh ideas ready to grow and…
I can be inspired sometimes with a single image that will be so full of emotion as to lead to several more paintings and even the entire book.
I can be inspired by a visit to a museum or gallery with masterworks on display.
I can be inspired with rejection of my idea.
The image above was to be cut from the book when my sketch was unclear and the editors thought the ballet master’s hands belonged to the little girl. I poured a little more into the art after that!
The one thing that inspires me most, more than midnight walks, more than a museum, even more than rejection is……
A text that sings, that embraces my imagination and injects it with energy. Good story inspires great art!
Floyd Cooper has illustrated more than 100 children’s books and has been honored with the Coretta Scott King award for his work. He recently released MAX AND THE TAG-ALONG MOON, one of only five books he both wrote and illustrated.
On being a children’s author Floyd says, “Giving kids a positive alternative to counteract the negative impact of what is conveyed in today’s media is a huge opportunity.” Floyd lives in Pennsylvania with his wife (and agent) Velma and two sons.
You can view the full scope of his work at FloydCooper.com.