By Sarah Lynne Reul
(Note: this is a re-blog of a guest post that originally appeared on The Late Bloomer’s Book Blog. Coordinated by reading teacher Gigi McAllister, the blog who discusses books, reading & classroom practices.)
On the jacket flap of many picture books, I’ve seen countless illustrator bios that state, “so & so has been drawings ever since she could hold a pencil”. I very much admire people who have been able to consistently draw since childhood, but . . . that wasn’t the case at all for me.
When I first picked up a pencil as a child, I absolutely, unabashedly loved to draw. I was even one of those arty kids in elementary school, drawing on every surface of my binder, in and out of art class. However, sometime around middle school, I started to hesitate – why didn’t my drawings look “real”? Why couldn’t I draw exactly like my favorite artists? I had no idea how to get better. It felt like maybe that was as good as I would ever be, and that certainly didn’t seem like it was good enough. At a certain point, I put the pencil firmly down, and it took me a long time before I could confidently hold it again.
Perhaps it was a lack of formal instruction – the schools I attended were known for science and math academics but had limited funding for arts education. I can’t recall taking any visual arts classes in high school, and I didn’t have access to mentors who could help me figure out how to break through issues of perspective, shading, color, linework or any of the other foundations of representational drawing and painting.
In college, my undergrad degree focused on life sciences and agriculture. I loved the small handful of drawing classes I was able to squeeze into my schedule. As part of one class, I studied Betty Edwards’ wonderful book DRAWING ON THE RIGHT SIDE OF THE BRAIN, and it helped me start seeing the issue differently. Rather than continuing to believe that some people are simply born with a natural talent for drawing, I began to understand that drawing accurately is a skill that can be taught, just like reading or a foreign language. Just like any of those pursuits, it’s not impossible to make progress on your own, but it’s quite difficult to attain proficiency without someone to teach you the basics or to help you break through plateaus. With the help of an excellent instructor, I felt at last that there was a small potential that I could actually get better at drawing, but I wasn’t quite sure how, or what value learning to draw would bring to my life.
When I graduated from college, I spent nearly a decade working for non-profits & social ventures, fondly remembering the art classes but not really finding the time to practice my drawing skills. It wasn’t until a personal event upended my life that I started to reconsider the value of drawing again.
I eventually decided to go back to school to pursue a Master of Fine Arts degree in hand-drawn, traditional animation. I’d always found “pencil tests” of early animation to be fascinating – you can truly see how drawings have been brought to life (some excellent pencil test examples can be found here http://www.penciltestdepot.com/). I wanted be one of the people who got to create that magic. At the time that I started the program, there were several sizable animation companies in the Boston area where I was hoping I might be able to work. However, just as I graduated, about half them happened to go out of business, and I realized that I needed to pivot – to use the skills that I had gained in another field.
Becoming a picture book writer and illustrator seemed like a perfect fit – throughout my life, I’ve loved to read, and a good illustration always feels like magic. Many of the skills that I gained in my MFA have transferred into the kidlit world – character design, storytelling, layout, drawing skills, color theory, to name a few. I quickly learned as much as I possibly could about the field, attending SCBWI conferences and other events, joining critique groups, reading any blogs or other articles I could find, and then just practicing writing, drawing, revising, creating book dummies, sharing with my critique groups – rinse and repeat.
I still struggle from time to time with picking up my pencil – procrastination is a constant companion and with a family to manage, there are always other things that need to get done. To avoid putting it down for too long, daily practice and projects like Storystorm, Inktober & the 100 Day Project (including my current #100daysofmakingtinythings) all help keep me honest and creating in between projects (as well as sparking ideas for new projects). THE BREAKING NEWS was sparked in just this way – an idea that flowed from my pencil as I attempted to jot down thirty picture book ideas in thirty days during my first Storystorm in 2015 – and I am so pleased to be able to share it with the world this month.
Do you have a similar story? Have you ever reconnected with something as an adult that you used to love doing as a kid? I’d love to hear about it in the comments.
Sarah Lynne Reul is an illustrator, writer and award-winning 2D animator who likes science, bright colors and figuring out how things work. Learn more at reuler.com.