If you are ever anywhere near Jerry Bennett’s vicinity, you will know it when you hear his boisterous and unmistakable laughter. His is a personality that fills up a room and yet graciously makes plenty of space for others to share in his bright light. Jerry is the Regional Illustrator Coordinator for Oklahoma SCBWI and recently he did a fantastic presentation for our Tulsa group where he walked us through the illustration process of a picture book manuscript. One lucky soul had her words chosen at random for Jerry to bring to life right before our eyes as he talked with us about his process and his history of being an illustrator. I don’t know about you, but I couldn’t write a story while telling others how I write a story.
He should be talented; he started drawing at the age of two and never stopped. His dad worked at Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma City while he was growing up so some up his very first drawing were of airplanes. Then came Star Wars. He knew right away that would be a life-long obsession. As he is a part of the JediOKC, an Oklahoma City Star Wars fan club that does some awesome charity things, I guess you can say that was an accurate prediction. Other things influenced his art in his youth – Transformers, Spiderman, Garfield (really? Okay, he’s a fuzzy cat person). Then came a seminal moment when he realized that he might actually make art a career.
It all started with a girl.
It was eighth grade and he was shy. So, how to get her to notice him? By drawing, of course. He drew her portrait and everyone who saw it thought it was great. That gave him the confidence to ask her out.
She turned him down.
His first rejection. He took it in stride and thought about how he might actually be able to make money with his art. He was on his way to becoming an artist. He developed an even tougher skin in art school where he learned to accept critiques of his work weekly. Meanwhile he had begun working on t-shirt designs during high school, something he is still doing to this day. His top seller, the Star Wars/Ghostbusters mash-up “It’s a Trap” has sold over 3,300 shirts. Marvel even licensed him.
More recently, he’s done some illustrations for a self-published series of books, The Pirate Bride and its sequel, The Lost Crew. He has also done the illustrations for the comic series Nadir’s Zenith.
We were ecstatic that Jerry was going to share his talents with us.
He began by reading the text aloud.
The first step is to read the story.
Here is all he had to go on:
“Two hippos sailed a sky blue boat.
Jack wondered how they stayed afloat.
They only had one ruby oar,
Which made it hard to get to shore.”
(Thanks to Linda Mai for allowing me to share her text.)
You have to understand the plot, the characters, and the details before you can begin to illustrate. Jerry reads through the story several times. He’ll read it aloud with different inflections, using different voices – some funny or silly – to get a range of ideas. He said just as readers get images in their head when they read a novel, so do artists, yet artists are able to translate those images into illustrations.
One thing Jerry mentioned that made the inner editor in me cringe a bit was the reminder that if you’ve received the manuscript from a publisher, you won’t have much say in changing the text. You are stuck with the words you are given. Your job as the illustrator is how to best interpret the words and how to make the biggest impact on the story with images. You have to remember that in the author/illustrator partnership, you have two completely different artists, two owners sharing the same creation, yet working independently of each other.
As an illustrator of picture books, you should always be looking for ways to enhance the story. In the example that Jerry chose, there were hippos in a boat with only one oar. He decided Jack was the observer of the story and the illustration should focus on the hippos. He also thought that it would be funnier if the size of the oar and the boat were exaggerated compared to the hippos to make their predicament seem more outrageous. Nothing in the text said anything about what type of boat or how big it was – that was left up to him, so he took advantage of it to add something visually enticing for the reader.
The second step is to create a thumbnail layout.
For picture books, this is usually a layout of thirty-two pages of quick and simple sketches, just to place things. This can be in any format that works for you – a simple sheet of paper with thirty-two boxes marked out, a mock dummy with pages, etc. Jerry now does this digitally on his Wacom tablet. This purpose of the thumbnail sketching is to figure out the best possible way for the story to look. All aspect of the text is included as well as the imagery.
The third step is creating the individual pages of art for the initial layout.
When drawing free hand, he starts with the lightest sketching. Normally at home his work starts out on his Wacom tablet, then he moves it over to a pro tools program. His workstation is set up in an easel so he can draw naturally. Jerry usually listens to music, often movie soundtracks, while he is creating. The amount of time it takes him to complete a project can vary. For a comic, it takes him about a month while working eight to ten hours a day.
The fourth step is to send layouts to the editor.
If any changes need to be made, the editor will send it back with notes. He will rework it before the final layout. This step can be repeated as needed, just like with novel revisions.
Until at last everyone is happy with the end result.
Not bad for less than sixty minutes while giving a presentation, eh?
Stay tuned for PART TWO, the Q & A with Jerry!