June 23, 2009

Cromwell Dixon's Sky-Cycle #3

I was the guest blogger on the Penguin Blog a few weeks ago... so I thought I'd recycle these in the event anyone didn't see them in this last installment of the blogs.

What are your favorite tools for making art?

My favorite book-making tools are the 2B pencil, the eraser and Adobe Photoshop and InDesign. The pencil and eraser are the basis for any illustration I'd think, including mine. I find that InDesign combined with Photoshop is the greatest thing since sliced bread for bookmaking. It's so much fun once I start adding in bits of drawing and text to turn it into a book. It can be really quite addictive. But I guess it could all be done with just a pencil, paper, scissors and tape. Only InDesign makes it so much quicker and flexible. It's sort of like comparing a pen and notebook to a word processor.

As for drawing... I mostly erase.

What was it like doing a book in both real and digital mediums?

It was a very interesting experiment. When I started painting the first spread I decided to try out using a hybrid technique using both real and digital painting. I painted it first with acrylics on watercolor paper, then scanned it and processed the image with Photoshop. It was evident, as soon as I began adding in new layers with texture and shadows that it would work out just as I had hoped. I have to say I'm completely delighted with how it all printed up.

I think the flexibility of combining real paints with Photoshop is amazing. On some of the pages I'd start out with a blue sky... and then decide to change the sky to yellow for a sunset scene. Moving around the page elements is effortless in Photoshop, but almost impossible once the real painting begins with real paints on paper.

You can see an animated step by step and more about the digital techniques I used at the book's web site.

Were there special problems in a making a book on the computer?

As we all know, computers can drive a person insane. But the world suddenly seems to be entirely dependent on them anymore. Every time my email goes out I almost have a panic attack. I wasn't that way 5 years ago and certainly not that way 10 years ago. It makes one wonder about our futures.

I found that backing up the book became critical. The consequences of losing 6 months of work would be unthinkable. So I'd start keeping DVDs with all the files copied and hidden away in various cupboards and bookshelves... in the event of a disaster. I never do that with real paintings. There are always those times when one questions one's sanity in doing digital art.

What do you like more... real painting or digital art?

Once again I have to say both. I like the magic of digital art and Photoshop, but I think in many ways real art materials are better.

The reason that using both works so well for me is that when I get weary of painting on watercolor paper and re-mixing that same shade of blue for the 137th time... it's wonderful to switch to Photoshop. With Photoshop, mixing paint is just a click away.

And then, when I get burned out in Photoshop and can't stand the stress of layers and zooming in details, it's wonderful to get back to a real painting and real paper. Real art materials can feel so therapeutic in comparison... sort of like working in pottery. And I enjoy the unpredictable element of working with real paints.

But digital art can be a lot more intellectually challenging and flexible. Often I'll get an idea for a digital technique and wonder if it might work. Then, when I try it out, it's always amazing to discover it really does work exactly like I hoped it would.

When I get really burned out with illustration in general, I go downstairs to my painting studio where I can slosh big messy brushstrokes on a BIG canvas. So I guess making art is largely a matter of therapy and escape. I've always thought that illustration is just painting in miniature. So it's nice to do really big paintings to hang on the wall sometimes.

Sometimes I dream about a day when I might paint on canvas for a living.

What new books are you working on?

I've got stacks of new stories... way too many to be good for me. I've got stories with runaway babies and dancing cows... witches, mice and pigs of all sorts. A lot of my stories have never been seen by anyone. I recently spent two days writing up what I think is a hilarious graphic novel. I just couldn't stop writing it was so much fun. No one's read it, but that's okay... maybe some day they will.

Making books can seem like an indulgent luxury I suppose. But often it keeps me from going nuts. Sometimes I wonder how I'd get through the day if I wasn't working away on something. That's part of life as a freelancer I think... getting used to finding a direction completely on one's own.

What are some of your favorite children's book-makers?

I think 'Scuppers the Sailor Dog' is my all time favorite children's book, by Margaret Wise Brown with pictures by Garth Williams.
It's one of the few books I can remember from my childhood. When I look at the page where Scuppers gets his new coat, it brings back a distant memory I can hardly explain. So it belongs in a league of it's own for me.

Other favorites are book-makers are Maurice Sendak, Errol LeCain, A.A. Milne, E.H. Shepard, Janet & Allan Ahlberg, E.B. White... and on and on. It's just about impossible to try and make just one list. Basically any book that creates it's own unique world seems a marvel to me.

I sometimes wonder if my childhood interest in Robert Lawson's book 'The Great Wheel' was responsible for my interest in history.

What are some of your favorite grownup books?

I might choose 'Merry Hall' by Beverly Nichols and 'The Egg and I' by Betsy MacDonald. They both share the same intrinsic quality that I love, best described with the two words, 'beguiling audacity'. They both have a youthful quality that resists the concept of being grown up somehow. Last summer I read almost every book that Beverley Nichols ever wrote. It was sort of the literary equivalent of eating potato chips. I'm not sure if it was a good idea or not. I hope I don't pick up another copy of Merry Hall and start all over again... it could happen!

What do you like and not like about being an illustrator and freelancing?

I think making a living with publishing and freelancing is a bit like Pandora's Box. There are all sorts of awful things about it… unpredictable income, always wracking your brain for a new direction, never knowing where the next project will come from. And then there are days when I literally don't have a clue what to do next. But finally there's always Hope... the fact that sometimes all it takes is one new client and you're happily busy for the next year. But like riding a flying bicycle, I'd say freelancing is not an advisable activity for everyone.


June 21, 2009

Solstice Revels in Fremont

Mid-summer revels at the Fremont Fair...

Possibly considered by some to be the center of the Universe.

A string band was playing 'Lulu's Back in Town'... one of my very favorite tunes.

I elbowed my way through the crowd of scantily clad revelers... making my way to the local bookstore (in the background). I was searching to find my new book, but it wasn't there.

June 16, 2009

Down in the workshop...

I've been busy down in the workshop. A bathroom remodeling project actually. One does what one can with such a multiplicity of talents.

There's been a great lot a lot of measuring, designing, figuring, sawing, drilling, glueing and painting! All cleverly put together by moi... with the lights from Restoration Hardware.

It's nice to finally just be painting more and and more coats of white. The color of the walls is sort of a robin's egg blue of a darker shade.

I think for every hour of working on this project there have been about 6 hours of figuring out what to choose, where to put things, what sort of porcelain to get, what colors for the floor, etc. So many choices to decide on from a blank page.

But the entire complicated project is finally starting to behave and fall into place.

I especially enjoy the opportunity to indulge in a trip to new coffee shops as part of the trips out to the many hardware and plumbing stores on my agendas. Porcelain plumbing display showrooms instead of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. One does what one can in the given circumstances.

I guess it's a working vacation...

June 9, 2009

Cromwell Dixon's Sky-Cycle #2

I was the guest blogger on the Penguin Blog a few weeks ago... so I thought I'd recycle these in the event anyone didn't see them.

Is this your first book of historical non-fiction?

Yes. I seem to be attracted to certain parts of history that captivate me. Sometimes history can seem like a big museum filled with amazing wonders... and it's entirely my own to freely wander around in. I think it all depends on how history is presented and whether one can feel any direct connection to the past.

I've always had a fascination with historical photographs. I'm a firm believer that a picture is worth a thousand words. Photographs from a century ago can seem almost magical to me. So many things in the world have altered completely... photographs from history seem like another world.

I remember my history class in high school was quite boring. Memorizing all the dry textbook dates for the exam was awful and I've forgotten everything. No doubt the Ken Burns approach to presenting history would be far more interesting.

I find that words and photographs of the past can be a source of reassurance against the precarious future.

What do you find so interesting about the period of 1907?

The time when Cromwell Dixon's Sky-Cycle took place was like today, a time of tremendous change. The changes might even have been faster than today's world. To imagine that there were still horse drawn carts and gas lamps in 1907. Electric lights were a rarity, refrigerators or telephones scarcely existed. The automobile was a novelty.

But electricity changed everything... in the same way that computers are changing everything today.

I guess the world seemed much more romantic and heroic 100 years ago. The excitment of big city skyscrapers climbing to the clouds... ocean liners racing across the Atlantic… it all seems so romantic. Edison was inventing machines that could talk and make photographs dance on a screen.

I'm always struck by how the first skyscrapers seem so tall, but really, compared to modern buildings they're almost tiny. Somehow the modern age leaves out the romanticism and clouds in the turrets completely. It's also interesting that many of the first cars from 100 years ago were electric.

You can see more about the history of 1907 at the book's web site.

What about the age of early aviators?

The dawn of the age of flight was probably the most amazing age of all. People could fly for the first time in history. It’s easy to be taken in by it all. I think that early flying machines made out of canvas and wood are aesthetic marvels. Their simple elegance of form seems so perfect.

I was thinking about the many similarities between flying airships and pirate ships. Pirate ships were dear to my heart as a child. I would draw sailing ships for hours on end as a child. The rigging, rope ladders, sails and all fascinated me. I hope that Cromwell Dixon's Sky-Cycle might capture some of that feeling.

Flight is taken 100% for granted now... but just consider how it scarcely existed just a century ago. It was a romantic, swashbuckling, daredevil time, for sure.

Do you like stories with a bit of danger?

I think (as a parent of two boys) that sometimes boys would rather climb a tree or escape beyond bounds than submit to another day confined in school. There's nothing quite like breaking out of bounds now and then for a little excitement and boy-type adventure. I'm sure Mark Twain would highly agree with this speculation.

I like that Cromwell Dixon's Sky-Cycle is a real 'boy's book'.

But this is a boy's book with daring, adventure, danger and amazing inventions... all built by a boy in his own backyard. I'm hoping the same audience that liked 'The Dangerous Book for Boys' might like it.

I'm always afraid that many kids might think old-fashioned stuff is a bore. I hope not, since I think the subject of the age of early aviation is fascinating. I tried to cast the whole book more along the lines of Jules Verne.

The theme of the flying bicycle is intriguing... what's that all about?

Bicycles lend themselves to a certain fantastic quality. Of course the movie E.T. had a flying bicycle, but Cromwell Dixon made his bicycle fly the old fashioned way... without any magic. I think children have a special relationship with bicycles. They are the one mode of transport available to children where they can almost fly, at least in their imaginations. But to actually build an airship, powered by a bicycle seems really extraordinary.

And of course kids love building things out in the backyard. Hopefully they still like to do that even in this digital age. I think some of the best childhood memories are times when kids build memorable things… rafts, tree-houses, soap-box derby racers… that sort of thing.

As a child we spent one summer building our own rafts that we would paddle in the lake in a city park. One day we were out paddling and discovered a stolen car at the bottom of the lake! Our discovery even got us a story in the newspaper.

There's no stopping the raw talent of children. My son used to build his own cars. He knew exactly what he wanted it to look like, so he'd start with the fender and then add more and more parts... until it was all done.

I take it you like bicycles?

Indeed I do. Bicycles are a fantastic invention if ever there was one and it was a revolutionary technology 100 years ago. I read that bicycles caused a huge social upheaval. For the first time in history, people who couldn't afford a horse could now get around on a bicycle. This made it possible for people to shop at new stores that were farther than they could walk before and work in new locations.

For me, a bike ride is usually the favorite part of any day. A bike ride with a notebook to a cafe is perfect. Bicycles are totally 'human scale' compared to cars. I can bicycle around on for errands a lot faster than in a car. No pollution and its great exercise.


June 5, 2009

Seattle sights #17

A golden edifice... this structure is like none I've ever seen. It's amazing from the outside. Each side is very different. It was built by one of our local billionaires, designed by Frank Gehry (who I understand doesn't know how to use a computer... he just uses a pencil).

The Sci-Fi Museum at the Experimental Music Project. A sight that captures one's imagination. The monorail runs right through the museum on the way to downtown.

More scenes from last week's Northwest Folklife. Barefoot women, top hats and silver guitars.

And since it was a lucky day, I wandered into the lobby of the opera building and came across this fabulous Fay Jones painting, a Seattle painter. It's a very large painting, so it was fascinating to see it up close... all the reworkings and patches. A masterpiece by a major American painter. I went to one of her art talks here... very interesting how she begins with a small thing and makes it very big. In person Fay Jones seems as unassuming as she is remarkable.

June 2, 2009

Cromwell Dixon's Sky-Cycle #1

I was the guest blogger on the Penguin Blog last week... so I thought I'd recycle these in the event anyone didn't see them. Sort of a 'summer vacation' for the blog while I work on some summery projects around the house.

What led you to create Cromwell Dixon's Sky-Cycle?

It all happened quite accidentally. One day at the library I came across a book of photographs from 1907. It was so captivating I couldn't put it down. Looking through the book at home I was stopped in my tracks by a photograph of Mrs. Dixon in her victorian dress and hat out riding hundreds of feet up in the air on a crazy looking dirigible! The surreal effect of this photo was the spark that started me down the long road to the book Cromwell DIxon's Sky-Cycle.

I thought to myself, 'Someone simply must do a children's book about this story! It's too amazing not to!' I guess that someone turned out to be me. One sunny afternoon I sat in a lawn chair in the backyard and wrote out 12 pages that eventually became the book.

The cover to Cromwell Dixon's Sky-Cycle is striking. How did that come about?

The cover was very much a collaborative effort. We did several versions... the one that was chosen is amazing. This cover was re-worked by the excellent team at Putnam. They really captured the vintage era exactly. Cecilia Yung and Katrina Damkoehler created the design framework and the wonderful lettering. I did the background artwork. Timothy Travaglini helped to refine the simplicity of the concept with key suggestions like… 'add more blue sky... simplify the outline... make the buildings farther away'. It's interesting how little nudges like that helped to guide the final outcome. It was a fun collaboration. Because I can work with both real and digital mediums, I was able to suggest changes with Photoshop. I'm not sure if I'd have felt so confident if I hadn't also been the author. Because I did this book in a final digital format, it was easy to be flexible about everything.

And of course the editor, Timothy Travaglini made the initial choice by inviting me to do this book in the first place. So my gratitude is without bounds in that regard. It's fortunate to find editors who share your own interests.

Did you do much research for the book?

Yes, and it was all very exciting. I know that sounds odd, but my days spent at the Seattle Public Library looking through old magazines from 1907 seemed like an adventure. The things I found were just amazing. I was fascinated by the many magazine references to flying that were precursors to the actual fact... before anyone really could fly. The fiction preceded the reality.

It was fun to read the accounts of the early aeronauts. Back in those days there would be a newspaper article with all the details about every balloon flight... who was on board, how the landing went, etc. And everywhere in the newspaper there were so many very odd stories by today's standards. It was such a different age. The advertisements were highly amusing and informative.

I love going through old magazines like that. I call it 'spelunking in history'. What's especially intriguing is that I often feel like I may well have been the last person who opened this same page in a book in over a century.

What's your favorite part of working on a book?

My favorite part of any book is always creating the first rough sketches… the process of discovering new ideas and characters, when it's all so flexible and anything is possible. That's when making a book has a feeling of discovery. It's like going on a treasure hunt. It's exactly the same feeling of fun I used to have as a child when we'd go treasure hunting for junk in the alley. That's my favorite part of making any book. Then, with each revision and finishing step afterwards, the open-ended joy tends to get narrowed down.

What part of book-making do you like more... writing or illustrating?

I think for an author-illustrator, making a book is like paddling a canoe. We have to paddle on the writing side a bit and then paddle on the drawing side a little to get where we want to go. Generally the words come first, but I can hardly separate the two. I think it's funny that there isn't even a word for book-makers who do both. Maybe there needs to be a new word... 'Illustriter' or 'Writeastrator'. I also think it's odd that on the titles of children's books by author-illustrators it often just says 'by' so and so. I figure after all the work of making the pictures from the blank page, at least it ought to say 'written & illustrated by'.

What other books have you done lately?

One recent book I both wrote and illustrated is 'One Smart Cookie' with Albert Whitman. It's a fun story about a dog who reads in a family of non-readers... a very important topic, in my opinion. The modern phenomenon of kids preferring electronic gadgets to books is a topic that has been in the headlines a lot lately.

Also I did the the illustrations to 'The Grandma Cure' with Dutton Books. It's a fun story about two grandmothers behaving like kindergartners, quarreling over their grandchild.

I'm currently writing and illustrating a new travelogue sort of book, which looks to be very fun. I can hardly wait to start the artwork. I've also recently done books for Kane Press, Mundo and a fun chinese folk tale 'The Dragon Painter', with Usborne. I recently did a licensed character book with Rosemary Wells. Most of my books are online at my website... www.johnnez.com.

Were you trained as an artist?

Not really. I think most artists are self-trained, since it's something that no one can really teach you. I had four months of formal art school at the Parsons School of Design, which I really enjoyed, but I couldn't afford more. I guess going to art school was an excuse for moving to New York. I did get to take a class with Maurice Sendak, my artistic hero, so that was fabulous. I already had a big portfolio of illustration and I had already had a degree in English. I was impatient to get out and begin freelancing in New York City. In the years since, I've been lucky to apprentice with Mercer Mayer. It was a great experience to be able to work as his 'ghost illustrator’ on many of his 'Little Critter' books. That was sort of like art school and an honor for me since I used to study his work when I was first beginning to dream about becoming an illustrator.

You can see more about my new book and a video book trailer at the book's web site http://www.cromwelldixonsskycycle.com/