Illustration Station, Kidlit County

Processed Magic: the Vague Art of Picture-Book Making

processMy friends and family must wonder what I do all day. Sometimes I worry that they’re sick and tired of my only update being “I’m working on the book. The deadline is end of April.” I’m sure some of them have mental images of me waking up in the morning to a big yawn, hopping into my bunny slippers, eating a muffin (aka breakfast cupcake), brushing my teeth, then sitting at my drafting table and whistling while I work all the live long day. How cute! I wish my life could be like this. I know that I am blessed to have a career doing what I love and working from home, but I wouldn’t say it’s been that easy.

Last night, when I was on the edge of tears after a disastrous affair involving perspective, ice skaters, and historic costumes, I shrank away from my studio and sat across from my husband, Dan, for some much needed consolation. He’s very good about listening to all my whimpers and moans. “Maybe you should leave it and work on another piece for now?” I mumbled and nodded. “I mean…I don’t really know what your process is.”

“Ha!” I exclaim, “I’ll let you know when I figure that out!”

Everyone knows that Artists have a process. We revel in learning about how the greats set about creating their masterful and prolific bodies of work. I have personally OOOHed and AAAHed in many a lecture while feverishly taking notes about different artists’ almighty process. After all this time in the creative field, I don’t think I have a process. I feel somewhat like a hack, especially now that I’m “legit” with a three-book deal. While I do have a style and form of executing a drawing, I don’t think this has anything to do with process. I think process happens more in thinking and concept than in execution.

Maybe instead of a creative process, I have a creative struggle. Now, I’m not trying to be dramatic, and I certainly do not want anyone’s sympathy. I am trying to use the word “struggle” in the most humble sense, as in it’s hard. It’s really hard!! Sometimes I sit at my desk and I look at all of my reference and my sketches, and it’s not enough. I’ll stare at the desk or the wall or out the window and think, think, think. Sometimes I can draw and draw, and it’s just not right. It’s tricky. One can be very accurate in their rendering of something: everything looks like how it should look, the perspective is spot on, the composition is ideal. And yet, it doesn’t work because it’s lacking magic. That’s what I’m up against every day. How do I create that magic?

There are some pieces I’ve made that do carry magic, and I’m so grateful for that. I know without question when I look at them that they are special. But, I can’t tell you where that comes from. It’s not something that I can pull out of a hat, it just happens. Meanwhile, I have deadlines, and whole books that I’m supposed to fill with said magic. Last night I felt like I was waving a plastic stick in the air and chanting abracadabra, waiting for someone to throw a tomato at me.

I asked Dan, “What was I like last year when I was working on book 1?”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, was I a mess like this? Was it coming together easily but just took a long time? I can’t remember! Why can’t I remember!? It was my first book, one of the most defining moments of my life, and it’s all a blur!”
“Umm…I just remember you were in the studio drawing…a lot.”

(Lesson #928357: I need to keep a journal.)

Dan was right though. I was drawing a LOT. While I can’t remember much from creating book one, I do picture a fuzzy image of my desk and a pencil moving. There is a lot of magic in book 1, and there have been magical moments making book 2. All I can do is keep creating opportunities for the magic to happen by continuing to draw, and allow mistakes, and redraw, and complain to Dan. Perhaps that is my “process.”

In any event, it’s time to draw.


For more information on my book, Little Elliot, Big City, please visit


67 thoughts on “Processed Magic: the Vague Art of Picture-Book Making

  1. “Struggle” is a good word to describe the artistic process. I remember a professor telling me that art was merely problem solving with some inspiration thrown in for good measure.
    But hey, don’t let me hold you up, remember you have a three book deal…you really need to draw! 🙂

  2. Bryan says:

    No process? I think you’re onto something here. What with two books and all. When I think of process, I think of something so reliably repeatable that its outcome is a matter of time and inputs. You simply can’t have all this magic from a repeatable process. But may the pressures of time and the enjoyment of success be a resource for your creative struggle, as you term it. I loved reading this, by the way.

  3. Graduate school didn’t leave me with much except for maybe that great quote by someone somewhere, “art is life.” If art is indeed life, then perhaps that is why the creative process is such a blur. I’ve been away from studio for five days now. It hurts. It feels like a big hole and yet, I find that I need to be spending time with my wife. All 33 weeks worth of pregnant of her. Life happens and we grow as people, but really we grow as artists too then. We work sporadically, perhaps methodically, perhaps only in our heads at times, but it is always a struggle. It is a productive struggle and one that I would never trade for the world. And I may be more legit now than I ever was before as I teach class to a younger crew of artists, but there is no way that any of it is easy. I’ve been carrying around a key in the pocket of my hoodie. It is the key to success. It is just as likely a tool for success as all of the advice or wisdom anyone can give you. I suppose we all need to be ourselves and struggle our own struggles. Can’t wait to grab all three of your books for my little boy.

  4. I stumbled on your blog in “freshly pressed.” I am looking for an illustrator for a read-to-me-book. I plan to use the book as part of a crowd sourcing campaign. Do you have contacts that might be interested?

    • Hi Adela,

      Have you heard of SCBWI? (Society of Children’s Books Writers & Illustrators) You could try reaching out to your local chapter, or peruse their gallery of illustrators. Good luck!

  5. I don’t draw – I mean, I do as a hobby, but not professionally – but I do write, so I sympathize. Just because I can craft a sentence doesn’t mean it’s…the right one.
    I’m pretty positive my process involves crying to my husband and insisting that I need to print out my manuscript, pour gasoline on it, lie down on it, and light everything on fire. I’m positive that bemoaning failures is a part of the process for several artists, of many different mediums. So you’re probably on the right track.

    Thanks so much for sharing – it’s always a comfort to know that in feeling…like a wrung-out sponge or something isn’t something that’s just limited to me, or writing, that it’s something every artist knows.

  6. I think blogging about your struggle might be part of your process. You struggle with acknowledging characters that magically exist for you and you have to write about them as if you KNOW them but you have to sort of “meet” them and let the personalities of the characters, sort of, reveal themselves to, maybe. Maybe that’s MY process. 😉

  7. I always feel it’s harder to create with a big deadline looming in the way, it sucks all the creativity out of me! I find it helps to take a step back and create something just for fun, then when I go back to it everything flows more easily. Good luck, and remember every great master probably had a bin full of ‘rubbish’!

  8. New Things! says:

    Ignoring the struggle, this sounds like such a perfect life, im an art and design deploma and would love to go working like this!:) x

  9. pandapawz90 says:

    Reblogged this on A Graphic Artists Blog/Journal/Diary….thingy majiggy whatsit –doohickey.. and commented:
    Dude you are seriously so right about this.
    It most certainly is a struggle.
    And its extremely tiring too.
    I work part time 15 hours.. (5 hours a day, 3 days a week) at a Design and Print company two buses away from ny that’s not much, but I’m constantly on my feet.. running back and forth front to officw to paper room to printer back to office, to front desk to bathroom sometimes.. and I do overtime too!

    Now you are probably thinking.. that ain’t That bad.. in my “spare” time that I like to class as my days off when I get them off..I mean, I freelance! And I am constantly thinking up new designs.. putting them from brain to pen, and I swear.. 5 days outta 7 I have creativeblock. Can’t think of a damn thing to make, how it’ll look, etc.

    Here’s to having the same problem, man.

    Let’s hope it will pass and we can get past this!

  10. How wonderful it would be to be a full time written although I have written 2 poetry books i am just getting to blogging and I could relate because when my friends ask me what I’m up to I respond the same way :::: working on the book :::: thanks for the great post

  11. Mike, you describe this so well! After two novels I kept a daily record of my process for the next one, only to find that my “process” was every bit as haphazard as before. Still haven’t finished it…

    • I tried keeping a journal to no avail. I did write down a few valuable things, but I think writing/illustrating each book is like having a child. Just because you have one doesn’t mean the next will be the same. It’s whole different person! I guess my advice to myself for book 3 is “buckle up and enjoy the ride!”

      • Have you read Austin Kleon’s “Steal Like An Artist”? There’s a chapter entitled “Keep A Logbook”. It’s less daunting than keeping a journal, but will still allow you to track how far you’ve come and remember what you did and consumed on those days when magic comes calling.

  12. Thank you for penning what has been swirling around in my mind. I can relate to your first statement; my friends/family are definitely tired of hearing about “that book” that I’m working on. But the key is “working, ” moving forward, even if that progress looks like cloud watching or feels like reading tea leaves (or waving plastic magic wands). For me, the “magic” happens only after I stop worrying about it. 🙂

    I look forward to your book 1 in August!

  13. I am unable to describe with words how much I appreciate this post. Perhaps I should have taken video with my computer camera in order for you to see the LOLZ and lightbulb face expressions with silly nods of recognition! (In hindsight I would have done that for sure…) I am constantly feeling like a faux artist because I am unable to pin down a “Process” or even a “theme for my works”. Not only that, but I have had craft and art ADHD for most of my life. I just can’t seem to pin down a favorite, concentrate on it and master it. I am getting closer as I am about to exit my 40’s out of necessity more than preference…. but alas, I was here to say Thank you for giving me the moment in the bliss of not feeling alone in my struggles…… I owe you one!

    • Thanks for such a sweet note, ValerieK! I just went to your site, and you should be very proud of the beautiful work you’re creating. You’re helping to keep alive an art tradition that is quickly dissipating. I hope you continue your work, and teach others the craft.

      • Thank you again! I needed that note also. following in the footsteps of the mentors I so admire, who have laid the groundwork for me, lends me a sense of duty to do exactly that. I just hope that through hard work, and my own voice, I may give the work the contemporary that current generations of natives crave. Your site is inspiring to me. You will see me again 🙂 See you soon!

  14. Pingback: Curate the Web | My Writing Woes

  15. Thank you for your words, it is refreshing (lack of better words) to hear the struggle others have with the balance between the life of an artist and the logic the world applies. I am in no way saying I like that others struggle, It is nice to feel your not alone sometimes. Again thank you!

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