Sharing My Process
By Barbara DiLorenzi
When Lynne Dorfman kindly invited me to share my writing/drawing/bookmaking process with the Pennsylvania Writing and Literature Project Blog, I was thrilled. But then I remembered that writers will be reading my words. Despite publishing my debut picture book in 2017, and with another in 2018, I continue to feel like an imposter in the field. An artist, yes. An illustrator, yes. But if someone refers to me as an author, I feel inadequate. I should have a degree in English, or better command of language. Or at least grammar. I’m forever using too many commas.
Part of the reason I don’t feel like an author is because my books don’t start with words. Like most authors, I start with an idea that grabs me. But instead of opening up Word, and typing a draft, I sketch. I doodle characters. I think about the conflict, and how that would look in a spread. Sometimes these doodles take months. If I don’t have the arc of the story in my mind, I just keep tugging at the characters, asking them to reveal themselves in my drawings.
At some point, whether the arc of the story is satisfying or not, I start to organize my thoughts with tiny thumbnail sketches, plotting out the entire book in a basic 32 page format. (Though my first book is 44 pages, and the second, 40 pages.) This way I can see if the pacing will work within a picture book format, and if the plot has any hold on me. This stage can take a long time. I made close to 20 thumbnail storyboards for QUINCY over the years. With RENATO AND THE LION, I can’t even count how many drafts went into this story.
Along the way, I share my work with my trusted critique friends. Some are authors only, some are author/illustrators that struggle as much with plot as I do. They give me feedback and encouragement, and aren’t afraid to say, “I just don’t get it.” Although hard to hear, it’s so valuable to know something is very off right from the beginning. Once they all agree it’s worth being made into a book, I continue.
After the thumbnail stage, though I may not have solved my plot problems, I try out a finished piece of art with my characters. A publishing team wants to see a sketched dummy and 2-3 pieces of final art to show the style. It’s important to consider the tone of the story at this stage. Is it humorous? Is it sweet or sad? I made art that looks remarkably different for my two books. QUINCY is funny, so the chameleons have big expressive eyes to help each joke have more impact. The colors are also more vibrant and fun. With RENATO, there was so much architectural detail and emotional impact that I decided to give a little distance to the characters with simple dot eyes. And the color palette is more muted, to reflect World War II Florence, Italy. I looked at a lot of John Singer Sargent’s watercolors for inspiration, so there is a level of representation but fluidity to the paintings. I also took care to ensure the illustrations of real locations at different points in history were accurately represented. Sculptures in the main Piazza were correctly covered at various points in the historical context. I made absolute sure that I had the details right–which included a trip to Florence for research. With QUINCY, since they are talking chameleons that go to school, all I had to do was have fun and enjoy the ride. I had already departed from the structure of a real chameleon to ensure the character could walk on two legs. From that point, I just played with color and expression.
At the point where I feel the story has heart, and I connect with the main character, I begin to pull my sketches into InDesign, and map out the story on a bigger scale. At this late stage, I often try out words. I place them, move them, delete them. I play with where the images carry the narrative, and where words are needed to elevate the story. It feels like a collage, swapping one image out for a bit of text, then swapping it back because it felt right the first way. Many times these sketches are still very rough. But by being rough, I don’t get too attached to something that may not work. If it looks pretty, I hold onto it too long.
When I feel like I have a beautiful mess of sketches, story and a few finals, I send the whole package to my agent with the hope that she gets this is a work in progress, and I still know how to draw. My expectations used to be that my agent would immediately send it out, and it would immediately get picked up! But now I know better. Usually the critique comes back with a major plot revision that causes me to toss half my work. I don’t like that, as I want to feel that just once I can do it well, by myself, the first time. Once that feeling has its tantrum, then passes, I jump into the changes and realize that my agent is absolutely right. I make changes, send it back, get back more changes, make those, etc… etc… This stage can take awhile.
By the time my agent is ready to send out the dummy, I feel fantastic. I feel that we’ve worked together to make an amazing book, and the editor will scoop it up as is. But again, this isn’t so. Sometimes an interested editor makes changes that cause me to toss out over half of this new work! And the cycle of changes and back-and-forth collaboration begins again.
When the book is finally a book, I am a little numb to the project. With RENATO, I handed in my final artwork in person, and said to the art director, “I truly have no idea if this work is any good.” You have to have faith in the process, in your team, in your critique partners, and your instincts to write the book in the first place. And though I still don’tfeel like an author, I truly do feel like a visual storyteller. With too many commas.
Barbara DiLorenzo is the author/illustrator of RENATO AND THE LION (Viking, June 20, 2017) and QUINCY (Little Bee Books, April 3, 2018). She received her BFA in illustration at the Rhode Island School of Design and studied painting at the Art Students League of New York under Mary Beth McKenzie. In 2014 she received the Dorothy Markinko Scholarship Award from the Rutgers University Council on Children’s Literature.
She is a signature member in the New England Watercolor Society as well as the Society of Illustrators. Currently she teaches at the Arts Council of Princeton, and is co-president of the Children’s Book Illustrators Group of New York. Barbara is represented by Rachel Orr of the Prospect Agency. www.barbaradilorenzo.com