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Studio Views: For the Fear of Failure

sv_ruzzier_penandinkI don’t like to experiment.

I know it sounds timid and uninspiring, but I’m just being honest: I don’t like to experiment because I am afraid of failure.

But at least two times in my life — at the very beginning of my artistic life — I found enough courage and determination to take risks. I was a fearless teenager then.

Being already passionate about picture books and comic strips — in particular those of Maurice Sendak, George Herriman, Elzie C. Segar, and Charles Schulz — it was clear to me how important it would be to master pen and ink if I wanted to be in that business.

Each of those artists had a very sophisticated and personal way of using the pen, and I wanted to find my own.

I remember going to the stationery store to buy my first two nibs, one very flexible and the other stiffer; then returning home and trying them on the paper, keeping my hand from trembling; realizing I had to go from upper left to lower right to avoid smudging; understanding how different pressures produce different lines; learning what kind of paper had the best surface for the kind of line I wanted to make.

In time, I did find my own way to handle pen and ink, which became my favorite and, for a few years, only, drawing technique.

Most comic strips then, at least the dailies, were done in black and white, and so were Sendak’s originals for the Little Bear books — a crucial source of inspiration for me. Because of all this, I didn’t think the lack of color in my drawings would be an obstacle in my future career as an illustrator.

Of course there was a hidden reason why I didn’t use color: the fear of failure. I had a fascination for Hieronymus Bosch, medieval frescoes, and illuminations, so how could I not have realized how important color can be for an artist? In fact, I had timidly attempted one or two small acrylic and a few oil pastel paintings, with very disappointing results, at least according to my overpowering superego. Those painful experiences kept me from seriously trying for years.

Once I became more conscious of the necessities of a professional illustrator, I couldn’t hide anymore and had to face the challenging task of finding myself a method to add color to my pen drawings.

The most natural way to do that is with watercolor, and so one day I went to an art store, bought a few half-pans of Schmincke watercolors, a brush or two, and some Arches paper, and began testing the technique and my own resilience.

Maybe one day I will venture into buying a new kind of nib or a new brand of watercolors, or even be audacious enough to try a paper with a slightly smoother surface. Who knows? For now, more than twenty-five years later, I’m still recovering from that initial double stress.

From the March/April 2014 issue of The Horn Book Magazine: Special Issue: Illustration. Click on the tag Studio Views for more illustrators.

Sergio Ruzzier About Sergio Ruzzier

Sergio Ruzzier is an author and illustrator of picture books. His most recent, This Is Not a Picture Book!, was published by Chronicle last spring. He was a recipient of the 2011 Sendak Fellowship.

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