The Journey to Yesterday — Part 1

The following post first appeared on July 29, 2016 on Mira Reisberg's Blogonauts page for her Children's Book Creatives site. I am re-posting here with her permission. I would encourage anyone who has an interest in children's books to head on over to her site and read the other posts that the other regular bloggers have written. Very informative and inspirational!

Aloha! This is Carl Angel, reporting for Blogonaut duty. When I was approached by Mira about writing for the Blogonauts, I thought it would be best to take the journey into orbit through my process as a visual storyteller with a more recent experience so it would be fresh and relevant. So, I’m kicking off this first and the next few successive posts on the various stages of creating the images for my latest book, The Girl Who Saved Yesterday, written by Julius Lester, published this past May. How convenient is that? ;-)

The journey, of course, begins with the manuscript. When I had first received the manuscript from Creston Books a couple of years ago, I was extremely excited. It was a fable that took place in a non-specific African village, with forests of talking trees and a character in the form of a young girl named Silence. Lester remains one of our great storytellers, and we haven’t had a picture book written by Mr. Lester in a long while, so I felt privileged to have been chosen to illustrate the tale in which he would return to this world. However, after reading it, I instead became extremely intimidated. As an illustrator, I admire tremendously the emotional power a writer is able to invoke with words. I guess this is the “greener grass principle” at work, but illustrators have shape, form, and color to create a picture to illicit emotion from an audience. The writer only has words to show the audience, and those words have to resonate within the reader. Sometimes those words alone are so good that what they evoke requires no visual accompaniment at all, which brings me back to Mr. Lester, who is able to play with words in a way that only one who is able to interpret a deeply lived life in mythic terms can. His words resonate on many levels, balancing the literal with the metaphorical; and there are a lot of words -  so much so that every couple of lines could have its own spread. Besides the multiple levels of meaning, the sheer amount of text presented a logistical challenge for the illustrations, but I couldn’t imagine cutting it further. Currently, there is a trend to have picture books with text numbering around 500 words, and while that presents a creative challenge and many of them are fantastic, I believe there is still a need for old-school “once upon a time” narrative that requires savoring the words, their lyricism and their different levels of meaning, and yes, I will use the analogy of listening to jazz vs. popular music. I hasten to add that I don’t think one is better than the other. Both are enjoyable, but one challenges you to engage while the other allows you to be passive, and Julius’ words had the effect of the former on me as an illustrator. So, when one is faced with sentences like "Trees do not speak with words, of course, but like winds whispering to clouds," and "He sang her the lullaby trees
soothe their children with during storms when winds and rains lash them like undeserved anger," it speaks to a different set of visual instincts.

Again, there is the literal and there is the metaphorical, and I’m faced with the choice of which one to illustrate, or better yet, how do I balance them in the same way Julius is able to? I believe my role is to complement the words, rather than supplementing them, especially if they’re poetic in nature. The ambition is to create something that transcends the sum of its parts, where after reading it, one can’t exist without the other. Where there were different levels of meaning and rhythms to Mr. Lester’s words, I had to do the same with color, composition and choice of imagery. So, how does one start on the journey of creating 16 paintings based on such complexly beautiful language? Well, first you crawl under a rock for couple of days...

And then you begin.

I believe the first important objective is to capture the first fire of inspiration from the manuscript. Art is a form of therapy for me, so I use word association, oddly enough, alongside quick thumbnail images after reading a manuscript. The reason I do this is because as a visualist, sometimes the need to compose and present an idea properly can obstruct the idea itself, and the word serves as a temporary placeholder where even the most basic, quick thumbnail idea sketch isn’t coming fast enough, so I use both words and pictures, whichever spews forth from my head first.

This:

becomes this:

then it becomes this:

 and then this:

and then this:

And so on.

And why not? Even as ideas, there is a connection between words and pictures. They go together. Words give birth to pictures and pictures sometimes require words to explain them so the task of picture book storytellers is to unite the two and create a total greater than the sum of its parts - something that lives on its own as a fully-formed story.

I realize I might be taking up valuable blog real estate with these not-so-specific pictures, but they are part of my, and many other illustrators' process, albeit less interesting graphically. These pictures serve this blog narrative, and the next post will be more specific about the creation of the imagery. Besides, you don’t want to be reading this all day. In addition to being an illustrator and a graphic designer while learning new trade skills, I’m also a stay-at-home dad with all that entails (and I do cook and clean!), so brevity is a good friend of mine these days. If you actually have time to read this (and I'm grateful that you have) AND other blogs, you may consider shifting more of that time to creating! Speaking of brevity, we’ve landed back on Earth! Time’s up. See you next time with part 2!