Each month, we ask one distinguished author or illustrator to write an original post that reveals insights about their process and craft. Enjoy!
Brian Lies designed the “Dream Big–Read” 2012 Collaborative Summer Library Program’s (CSLP) posters. Please enjoy seeing how he does his work in his post below.
Searching for More
by Brian Lies
A new book or project always starts with an idea. My participation in I.C. Springman’s More (Houghton 2012) actually began in 1995 with an idea I had for a story about a crow that collects too much stuff, builds multiple nests in a tree, and ultimately feels worn down by the sheer number of objects he has to curate. But the tale was way too long and hopelessly preachy. I don’t like message-forward books, and although I had a suite of sketches I was eager to turn into finished paintings, I never got around to submitting them. Over the years I went back, searching for a better way to tell the story, but I couldn’t find a way in.
Then, in 2010, I was offered Springman’s wonderfully spare text to illustrate, a collection of quantitative words and phrases—“nothing,” “something,” “a few,” “several,” “more and more”—that boiled away myidea’s didacticism. Springman had imagined a book about “mice who rescue their friend from collecting,” and it dawned on me that I could merge my tale of an acquisitive crow—now transformed into a magpie—with the author’s mouse group.
I began with sketches—some pulled from those early sketchbooks, and some from later years—and began to fill out the visuals. As rough compositions and images began to take shape, and I contemplated drawing dozens—if not hundreds—of the magpie’s treasures, the job suddenly felt exhausting. The whole point of the story was to not care too much about objects, and yet if I didn’t—if it was just any pocket watch or any earring I drew—the images wouldn’t convey the energy or caring on the part of this insatiable accumulator. So I decided to gather items from which to draw, literally.
I scoured boxes of childhood memorabilia in the attic and basement and poked through various drawers and corners where life’s stuff accumulates. I scouted hardware stores and toy aisles in grocery and drugstores for cheap, shiny things. Eventually, I had several plastic bins filled with items: my great-great grandfather’s pocket watch, my first cell phone, old apartment keys, a harmonica, my Cub Scout troop patches, Monopoly and Mousetrap game pieces, an old Austrian schilling, dice, a ceramic crow whistle brought to me from the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City, and a baby pacifier that appeared on my front lawn. The objects piled up, and I began to draw them into the story.
At last I had my drawings, and was ready to paint—almost. The first and final pages in the book are simple and background-less; I intended them to be spare. But as I started visualizing the finished illustrations, the white pages I had imagined seemed terribly stark. I wanted bare, not blank. Then it hit me: Why not paint on handmade papers that would provide texture and visual interest? I turned to the Internet and ordered more than 57 samples of beautiful sheets embedded with bits of mango leaves, threads, newsprint, denim, hay, and grass. From these, I pulled eight or nine pages that offered a progression echoing the bird’s collecting frenzy—from plain, light pages to darker sheets, and back again to the original, unembellished papers.
My studio overflowed with handmade paper, boxes of objects, sketches pinned to walls, and illustration notes.
Each item in the artwork, jumbled together with lots of other objects, had to look real, and color and light bouncing and reflecting off of it. As I painted, I felt I was echoing the magpie’s experience—the simple pieces were joyful to render, but the more complicated the scenes became, the heavier I felt working on them, just as I’d imagined the psychic weight borne by the avian hoarder.
When I sent the completed illustrations to Houghton, I felt like the magpie at the end of More. Pulling the sketches from my studio walls, clearing surfaces that had become heaped with paper, and putting away the objects I’d assembled, made me feel lighter and freer than I had felt in a long time. Less is more.
This material may not be used without the express written consent of Brian Lies. Images courtesy of Brian Lies.