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Studio Views: A New Freedom

sv_Bean_wheel I began using ink and watercolor at a time when I was trying to break some of the rules I learned during a very good but rigid high-school art education. The studio I attended was based on a classical master/apprentice model. My teacher was blunt: he wasn’t teaching you to be an artist; he was teaching you to draw. And he did. Year after year, using a unique academic system and brutal honesty, he turned out students who drew astoundingly well and got impressive scholarships to art schools.

It wasn’t until much later, in grad school, that I felt it was time to start breaking some of my former teacher’s rules, or at least trying to. Why? Simply put, I wasn’t getting picture book work. Worse still, editors observed that my illustrations seemed a bit too stiff or chilly for kids’ books. This was a conundrum because, as steeped as I was in a particular approach, I couldn’t see what those editors saw. If true, though, I knew it was a problem. So I began looking at work that felt emotive. I thought warm thoughts while drawing. I tried to identify emotionally with my characters. I strained to soften my hard-edged style. And I switched from pastel pencils to watercolor and ink.

sv_Bean_brushesThat switch turned out to be very fortunate. Pastels still held a strong association with my early training, and I had a formula for how to use them. Where pastel pencils were predictable, watercolor was unpredictable. Where pencils were sharp and solid, the brush was unstable and wobbly. Where pastel marks stayed put, watercolor had the maddening tendency to bleed and run and, well, be watery. In short, I switched media and began making a mess. But then something unexpected happened. I began loving parts of those messes, those wobbles and runs and accidents, those moments when something other than my own skill asserted itself.

I enjoy ink and watercolor because it has a strong mind of its own. It only partially does my bidding; the rest of the time, it’s off on a lark. In other words, watercolor opened my mind to the idea of collaboration between hand and medium, rather than mastery of hand over medium. In this spirit of collaboration a new freedom, warmth, humor, and joy began inhabiting my work (at least, this is what I was told!). These are things, I learned, for which no formula exists. They are gifts graciously given, often through the clumsy slip of a brush.

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

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