Friday, December 6, 2013

An Ode to the Art Director (et. al.)

I usually fill this space with news about my illustration career. In this post, I’d like to change focus to take a moment to celebrate some of the unsung heroes of children’s books. I have newfound appreciation for these brilliant, indispensable folk who can can so often be overlooked in the complex maze of the publishing process. 

For the past five weeks, I’ve been filling in at a New York City publisher for an art director on leave. It marks the first time since I left my job at The Metropolitan Museum for grad school that I’d spent any extended time in an office. That’s the first thing—it’s amazing how soon you forget as a freelancer what it's like to go to an office every day of the week (full disclosure—I only came in four). My commute is usually about ten seconds to the drawing board within my one bedroom apartment. Sure many of my illustrator colleagues have separate studios, but my point is, you’re going to a place where for the most part you get to control your day. In an office, not so much. The books in the pipeline guide you through, and by that, I mean a fast-moving trajectory of projects some with countless complications and many, many hands in them. Slow down, and you’ll get slammed by the unstoppable force of them piling up. That’s your day—along with a bunch of meetings, too much air-conditioning, and the need for a steady supply of snacks.

It took me a while to get up to speed, and by that I mean about half speed of the person I was replacing. Just keeping all the titles straight across six seasons plus was a major challenge. There are so many checks and balances, it would make your head spin if you weren’t just trying to keep up with the flurry of activity. This is both a blessing and a curse, especially if you are not familiar with established systems. It’s easy to forget when you’re not witnessing it firsthand, how vital systems are to the process, and how difficult the job is for the art director, designer, editor, editorial assistant, copy editor, production associates, sales, marketing… to keep it all organized and moving along with aplomb, professionalism, and damn good typography. 

Next time you get revisions from an AD telling you that you didn’t leave enough room for the type or the gutter, or your main character’s left eye had 16 eyelashes on page 5, but just 15 on pages 8, 17, and 29, know that they’re not trying to make your life difficult. They’ve got to answer to a lot of people, and everyone just wants to make the books better. This might be my most important point to my fellow illustrators, especially those just starting out: art directors, designers—pretty much everyone who has contact with you as an author and/or illustrator, bends over backwards to make you feel confident in their shepherding your work into book form. They choose their words very, very carefully so as to not upset or over influence, yet often they need to seriously coax and motivate. It is an art form in and of itself. I was so impressed by the extent of understanding the art directors have of each individual illustrator’s process—whether they worked fast or slow, don’t draw that realistically thus can’t be required to do certain things—the how, when, why to gracefully push illustrators toward their best work. 

One of the biggest misconceptions among those new to publishing is that a book arrives at a house complete with author already paired to illustrator. This is pretty far from the norm in traditional publishing. I’ve always thought of this as the “secret sauce” of children’s books—that inspired pairing of words to art—and it’s the publishing house, usually the art director who deserves credit. That was really fascinating for me to observe firsthand over the last month—who they consider for a certain story and why, which sometimes is completely counterintuitive. When you’re just starting out as an illustrator, you might have a very clear concept of what you do in your own mind, but it might not come across to the people hiring. It takes a while for trust to be established, meaning art directors need to see a broad enough scope of your work to see how you’d fit to a particular project. And they think about it long and hard. There’s so much stuff (and junk) that comes across their desks, we illustrators need to remember to have patience. It’s a long process—I’ve done three books so far, and each took nearly two years from contract to finished product.

So that’s my shoutout—to all the art directors, and designers, and copy editors, production, et. al. I could go on and on. A big thanks to them for answering all my dumb questions, and especially for their patience.

Now with these five weeks behind me, I have the luxury of returning my complete focus to my own books. If you’ve been keeping up with this page, you know I’m in the middle of illustrating two new picture books that will be released in 2015, and—great news—potentially a third. This past month was a great reminder to me of the importance of children’s book publishing as a collaborative process, one in which I’m honored to play a small part.

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