Monthly Archives: January 2013

Small Favors

Every so often I am contacted by someone, a student usually, who is working on a project and wants my input or advice. A few months ago, I got another such request.

The subject line was “small favor…”


I was wondering if you might be able to help me. I’m an illustration major at Brigham Young University and I’m taking a Business Practices for Illustrators class. For that class we’ve been asked to contact an illustrator whose work we admire and who we consider to be a successful illustrator and interview them (either through e-mail or on the phone, whatever works best for you) about their techniques and get their thoughts about the business side of illustrating and how the illustration business has changed in the last few years in particular. This would only be shared with the class, it wouldn’t be published on the internet. Does that sound like something you might be able to help me with? I completely understand if you’re too busy, please just let me know.

Thank you for your time,
                                         . . . . .

In spite of the fact that one should never assume that any favor being requested is “small,” (though I’ve done the same myself – don’t we all wish that the favors we ask of others not be perceived as big?), the articulate and complimentary prose won me over. When I was in college my university didn’t even have an illustration department, much less practical instruction for making a living in the arts. I could have learned a thing or two the easy way if it had.

The questions the student asked were broad but insightful. I tried to answer them as succinctly as possible. I’m including the interview here to perhaps inform others looking for input on the same topics. Disclaimer: I am not an expert, I’m just speaking from my own, personal experience. And this was my opinion a few months ago. My ideas might be quite different in another year! Feel free to let us know what answers you might have given if asked the same small favor!

Q: From your point of view, how has the illustration industry changed in the last decade or so (if at all)?
A: It changed significantly in the ’90s due to the proliferation of online stock images for sale. The effect of technology advances has made it easier for non-illustrators to create images using software like Photoshop and Illustrator. It also has changed the style of illustration, as technology has made some techniques possible that would have been too difficult to produce manually. The market has gotten narrower. Fees have gone down or stayed stagnant for many. Clients expect quick turn-around, with availability 24/7.

Q: What do you do differently now than then?
A: I don’t work as a commercial illustrator much anymore. I have focused on children’s books, so I am not really active in the market these days. Children’s books are a smaller arena on which to focus.

Q: What do you see happening to the industry in the next decade?
A: Things will continue to tighten, I imagine. It will be harder for illustrators to keep rights when negotiating. Clients will want more for less.

Q: It seems that currently digital media is taking over, yet from what I’ve seen you have stuck with traditional mediums and methods in your work. Has the abundance of digital media affected the way you work much at all? What do you see as the advantages or disadvantages of digital versus traditional media?

A: I am a printmaker, working mostly with relief printing methods. I do use software to make alterations to images after I have completed them, but only to fix flaws or assemble pieces that would have been too hard to create manually (such as placing very small figures in a full spread – in that instance I might create the art for the figures separately at a larger scale so that I can get the detail in, and then digitally reduce them and place them into a scan of the background image afterwards). The ability to fix things after the fact has removed some of the stress of making images for books. For example, if a glob of ink gets on an image as I’m printing something, I don’t necessary have to print the whole thing over again, I can make the repair in Photoshop. Also, if the editor requests a change to an image after I’ve turned in all the artwork (a situation I always try to avoid) I can make the change and alter the finished art digitally and not have to reprint the entire piece.

One down-side to technology that I’m aware of these days is that artists who create digital images can work much faster than I can. Some art directors and editors have come to expect that.On the other hand, digital art often lacks evidence of the artist’s hand. There is too much control of the medium. It’s too easy to be slick. There is no opportunity for happy accidents which is why I like the process of making my art by hand.

I am an old-school craftsperson at heart. I enjoy getting my hands dirty,  and doing computer graphics requires too much time sitting on one’s butt staring at a screen. That’s not my style.

Q: What advice do you have for new illustrators just starting in the industry?
A: Be assertive. Don’t let a fear of failure keep you from trying. Look for inspiration everywhere. Don’t look at your competition for inspiration.

Always work with a contract. Don’t do “work-for-hire.” Keep the rights to your artwork unless the client is willing to pay substantially for a total buy-out and unlimited usage. Run your business like a business. Be polite but be strong.

The Word “Distinguished” – A Mock Caldecott Discussion

College Hall, VCFA

College Hall, VCFA

I’m writing from lovely Montpelier, Vermont – more precisely, from the lovely (and snowy) Vermont College of Fine Arts Winter 2013 residency.

We’ve had some brilliant lectures by faculty (special among these was Sarah Ellis’s opening lecture about classic books with different kinds of “flight” – including flights of fancy; Kathi Appelt’s Singing the Blues; and Alan Cumyn’s Inhabiting Your Character, during which we all sang Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.”) But an unexpected pleasure was the Mock Caldecott presentation by faculty-member emeritus (aka for life) Leda Schubert, who brought in a stack of picture books, all of the Multiple-Starred-Reviews variety.  Leda read us the set of guidelines given to judges of the annual Caldecott medal, a few of which involve nuanced understandings of such words as “distinguished.”

The Caldecott Medal

The Caldecott Medal

What does “distinguished” actually mean? Does it suggest that the artwork follows in a rarefied tradition; that it is somehow Serious Art with a capital S and capital A; that it is imbued with importance due to the subject matter around which the “distinguished” illustrations orbit? Or does “distinguished” imply freshness of imagination and technique, originality of vision?

We looked at several books. Granted, the list was limited to books Leda had at home on her picture book shelf. You might not see your favorites, but here are the books we discussed:

Green – written and illustrated by Laura Vaccaro Seeger

Inside illustration from Green

Inside illustration from Green

Unspoken – written and illustrated by Henry Cole

Cover of Unspoken

Cover of Unspoken

We March by Shane W. Evans

Inside illustration from We March

Inside illustration from We March

And Then It’s Spring by Julie Fogliano, illustrated by Erin Stead

Inside illustration from And Then It's Spring

Inside illustration from And Then It’s Spring

A Home for Bird – written and illustrated by Philip C. Stead

Inside illustration from A Home for Bird

Inside illustration from A Home for Bird

Island: A Story of the Galapagos written and illustrated by Jason Chin

From the Endpapers of Island: A Story of the Galapagos

From the Endpapers of Island: A Story of the Galapagos

Z is for Moose by Kelly Bingham, illustrated by Paul Zelinsky

Cover of Z Is for Moose

Cover of Z Is for Moose

Homer by Elisha Cooper

Cover of Homer

Cover of Homer

Extra Yarn by Max Barnett, illustrated by Jon Klassen

Inside illustration from Extra Yarn

Inside illustration from Extra Yarn

Apparently Caldecott committee members have to speak up and make a strong case for their favorites, fighting to get that medal for the books they love. But what a lot of things to think about! Though the medal doesn’t go to the text, you have to consider whether anything about the text diminishes the accomplishments of the illustrator – in other words, it can’t JUST be about the pictures. And do judges consider quality of paper, quality of jacket art, words on the cover flap (all yes) and the history of publication by the artist (no)?  We talked about double-page spreads that had gutter problems, and about how humor is a difficult sell when the word “distinguished” comes into play.

Our winner? The 2013 Mock Caldecott Medal for Vermont College of Fine Arts goes to Unspoken by Henry Cole. Congratulations, Henry!

Readers, what do you think deserves the Caldecott Medal this year?

Inside illustration from Unspoken

Inside illustration from Unspoken

My Sister’s Novel Ideas

When I was growing up, I always looked to my oldest sister, Susan, to see what was ahead. Because she played the guitar, I was sure I would someday. Because she went to Prom in a dress with a boned bodice, I was planning on that, too.

sue danceI am lucky to have her example in this matter of writing as well.

Years ago when I began drafting my present work-in-progress, she sent me a list of ideas about writing a novel. I read it every so often for its distilled wisdom, and want to share it with you, verbatim:

Dear L –

Here’s what helps me most, spewed out in not any order at all:

1. See the story like a movie in your head. Write down what you see, even in a broken way, fast. (Fix later.)

2. See the story like a movie in your head with the sound turned off. Then where is the story? Edit to make the story powerful even with the sound off. This is a way to heal the talking head syndrome.

3. Think: What can I do to raise the stakes?

4. Not everything a writers’ workshop says about your story is right. After being workshopped, put your story away for a time, maybe a month. Reflect. Only then tackle again.

5. Choose concrete words, words that cause the reader to imagine as exactly as possible what you imagine. Look for words which create accurate images which are value-loaded.

6. Leave out everything the reader already knows.

7. The story is in the telling.

8. Run all details through the backpack test. (The idea is from my wonderful teacher Sands Hall: Remember that when you give a significant-feeling detail, the reader packs it into her memory and carries it through the whole story expecting her labor to pay off at some point. You must make sure there is a pay off.)

9. Staying in the same pov, you can roll the ‘camera’ in and out. It’s easier by far to start far out and roll camera in — at beginning of chapter or scene.

10. The end is in the beginning. The seeds of the conflict in the story must be present in the beginning. The beginning is often the last thing you know. Drop into the beginning advertisements for the future — foreshadowing.

11. Tense spots are a good place to dump in necessary history.

12. Dialog should never be people agreeing with each other. If they agree, use indirect discourse.

13. The tone of the story establishes it, creates expectations in the reader, as much as anything else — plot, genre, etc.

14. Henry James: “We only care about people in proportion to how well we know them.”

15. When a character walks into a place, how they see it establishes their character. They walk in with a bag of metaphor.

16. Beginnings: have to give the look of things early, or the reader fills in, and then is unpleasantly surprised to have to repaint the picture. Have to foreshadow the major plot strands, so reader can sense them unconsciously.

17. The end is often the reverse of the initial situation. The best endings are implicit, not explicit. They force the reader back into the story and themselves, looking for meaning.

18. Madeliene L’Engle in Walking on Water, Reflections on Faith and Art: “All they (children) require is a protagonist with whom they can identify (and they prefer a protagonist to be older than they are), an adventure to make them turn the pages, and the making of a decision on the part of the protagonist. We name ourselves by the choices we make, and we help in our own naming by living through the choices, right or wrong, of the heroes and heroines whose stories we read.”

19. There should be something in the near and in the far distance that the protagonist wants (long and short plot strands).

Do you have a copy of Hans Christian Anderson’s fairytales? There is this wonderful fairytale about storytelling, The Elder Tree Mother. Among much else, the Elder Tree Mother, sitting in her elder tree which grows from a teapot says, “For out of the truth grow the most wonderful stories, just as my beautiful elder bush has sprung out of the teapot.” and later, “The little boy lay on his bed and did not know whether he had been dreaming or listening to a story.”

Love,  Susan

 The Treekeepers by Susan McGee Britton, published by Dutton Children’s Books in 2003, is now available electronically:  It is a wonderful fantasy novel about a fierce heroine, Bird, whose life-or-death quest sparkles with ingenuity and wit. And I’m not just saying that because the author is my sister.

ImageHere’s a more recent photo of Susan in her role as Granny Skeeter to Max, Benn and Jake.

This weekend I will be speaking at the Whidbey Island MFA in Writing residency. I plan to share my sister’s wisdom.


Happy New Year 2013!

I am thinking about beginnings – beginning this new year and beginning new projects.J. PaschkisSummer Birds p24-25

Starting anything is exciting but scary. I have to overcome rational and irrational fear to begin. Mainly I am afraid that a new idea is stupid and not worth pursuing. I have to ignore that fear until the idea is big enough to stand up for itself.Julie Paschkis, Root 2004

I am used to riding out the doubt when I am painting.

Julie Paschkis, brown deer












But writing is less habitual and my foundations are shakier.

Julie Paschkis, Illustration from Twist












I have been beginning to learn Spanish for several years now.   My Spanish is halting but improving slowly. I love learning the words and grammar. This fall I have been writing poems in Spanish and English. I work on the poems in Spanish first. My lack of fluency somehow frees me from my fear of starting a poem. I wander around the words, look at them as strange and wondrous objects and pluck them for my poems. I am distracted from the amorphous fear of creating something from scratch.

Julie Paschkis, Inko












After I have written a poem in Spanish I work on the same poem in English. I go back and forth until both versions work. My final step is to have true Spanish speakers look at the poems and point out the egregious errors: thank you Fernando and Julie Larios, and Marta Seymour.

Punctuation, 19th century engraving

New ideas are skittish. They want to run away, like deer. Here is a sample of one of my bilingual efforts, illustrated with words and image.

Julie Paschkis, Venado

What do you do to keep your ideas from running away?