Many months back, sitting in the cozy, fire lit, living room of fellow illustrator friend Susan Eaddy, my SCBWI illustrator's group discussed the possibility of inviting an art director to Nashville for a weekend intensive. At the time I lobbied heavily for Laurent Linn, art director at Simon and Schuster. By the greatest of good fortunes he was available to come for a weekend in the summer, this past weekend in fact.
But my part of this story starts even farther back, more than two days, more than a few months.
My part of this story starts 5 years ago.
In September of 2007 Laurent Linn was the art director visiting the SCBWI Midsouth Conference. At the time he was an assistant art director with Henry Holt. I signed up for all of his workshops just because that's what illustrators trying to catch the attention of NY do. It became clear pretty quickly however, that this guy was in his own league when it came to talking about art in children's literature. For the first time since art school I listened to someone really talk about the art, the craft, of illustration. While I have listened to a great many talented art directors before and since, none have had the ability to so completely articulate why a particular book is beautiful, while also being completely friendly and engaging. I walked away from his workshops rejuvenated.
But the most helpful moment, the moment when the story of this weekend begins, was when he reviewed my portfolio. Up until that point I had been doing good work, getting jobs, but never getting the elusive brass ring of a trade book. And I couldn't figure out why. I knew my work was good... but something was not quite good enough. But what was it?? How did I fix it??? As we sat together on that late summer day looking over my work, Linn crystalized what was wrong. In the same easy manner he'd led the workshops, he pointed out the good and bad, strengths and weaknesses... and a path to fixing it: Get more story in your pictures, think about expressions, everything in the image is a character. After that review, I opened my hand and there was the key, the answer, I'd been looking for.
For the next five years every time I sat down at my drawing table to work on an illustration I hit replay on the memory of that critique. Story, expression, character. Time passed, weeks went by, then months and years. I started this blog partly to journal my progress of rebuilding my work.... story, expression, character. Rejections still came in, at first the same generic ones, then more recently personal encouraging letters, mentioning my illustrations specifically.. and apologizing that there was not a project just now, but they would keep my work. Story, expression, character. Linn moved from Holt to Simon and Schuster and became Senior Art Director. I ran into him at a few other conferences. He was still friendly, and even remembered meeting me in Nashville but I never had another chance to show him my work.
Until Saturday morning.
I got to the intensive early. A few others including Linn were there, we made polite small talk. Then it was time to sit down for the review. I very casually mentioned that I'd really been working on transforming my art since he'd last been in Nashville. "I hope I don't hear the same things again," I joked. He started to flip through the pages. "Wow," he said, and then "this is really nice, you're really getting that cinematic quality."
Then, "these pieces have great story, great character... I love the expressions."
Back and forth he flipped, until finally he said, "you have so many strong pieces here. These are really good."
Instead of pumping my fist in the air, I attempted to be as professional as possible, "well, what should I work on now?" He mentioned a few areas of watching color composition, maybe trying some different colors of line work (but with the addendum, "you know your pencil work is good, it's just something to think about.") I said thank you and that I was looking forward to hearing his thoughts on my piece for the intensive (which I'll post later) and then I stepped onto the clouds and walked away.
I could work in silence again, replaying both critiques in my head, for another 5 years before I ever hear from NY in the form of that trade book job. Or it could never happen. As I write about this happy Saturday morning I realize that is an absurdly real possibility. There are lots of good artists out there and only a few are chosen.
But for right now - in this moment - to hear such high praise from someone I respect so much, to know that the last 5 years have not been in vain, that I figured out how to use the key and follow the path to transformed work, it is enough.
It is enough for now.