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Studio Views: Watching for Accidents

sv_meade_scissorsThe boards of my studio floor are strewn with scraps of paper like so many flower petals let go from their stems following an abrupt wind. The eye of that wind storm is where I like to work. The discarded pieces of paper swirl to the floor and make a lovely mess around my feet, sometimes with more success (as far as pictures go) than what’s happening above on the table.

Collage is the medium I use most frequently when creating pictures for children’s books. I move from the words of the story, to line drawings, to cutting or tearing and assembling shapes of colored paper. With ink, gouache, and/or colored pencil I add detail and texture. I like how this process moves along. The initial drawings are most challenging. They involve answering a lot of important questions like: What to take from the text to the picture? What to add to the picture that’s not in the text? How to compose the picture in the most exciting and pleasing way? How to stay true to the spirit of the story?

Choosing the papers, considering weight, color, and texture, knowing whether to cut or tear — all this is guided by that part of my mind that feels its way along, seemingly bypassing linear thought. It’s tactile and intuitive and immediate. I find it difficult, but more like serious play than serious work. Actually handling scraps of color and moving them about to a satisfactory end recalls early days of puzzles and Colorforms.

Watching for “accidents” is part of the collage process (and I suspect an aspect important to embrace in every medium). The shape I cut off and around from the shape I wanted ends up being the most interesting…the shape I tried so carefully and deliberately to tear is not at all the desired one but is nice and could be used like this…that odd shape on the floor discarded two days ago leads me to a new idea I hadn’t thought of.

In both the drawing and the piecing together of the final pictures, the most creative time is in the eye of the storm. It’s that place where the picture directs me, not me the picture, and the medium itself tells me how, not vice versa. It’s where the play is most serious and most satisfying and, somehow, least dictated by me. The blowing winds of endless creative possibility, and in my case, endless paper of every color and every snipped and every ragged shape swirl around. A storm worth braving to get to the eye!

From the March/April 1998 issue of The Horn Book Magazine: Special Issue: Picture Books. Click on the tag Studio Views for more illustrators.

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