If negotiating publishing was my nemesis, the process of creating the illustrations for Soaring Soren was my joy. Into the manuscript, I put my ideas, my carefully chosen words and my passion for the story. These were the props ... the rabbit in the top hat, the deck of cards, the wand hiding silk flowers. Seeing the words transform into a story with a life of its own through illustrations, was simply magic.
The very talented magician who envisioned the story in pictures and then made those pictures come to life, is Morgan Spicer of Bark Point Studios. As I have told Morgan before, there are many talented artists who can draw or paint lovely pictures. But the ability to look at words and see a creative and meaningful way to portray the story through pictures--that is a special and unique talent in itself. For me, watching that process unfold was fascinating--the best magic show ever.
Before we began getting into detailed illustrations for the book, Morgan created some concept art to outline her vision of Soren's character. She states that for some of her books, "I start with concept art to see if the author and I are on the same page. Concept art is a great way to sketch things out and discover things you couldnt have known until you started drawing. For example with Soren, I had to make sure I didn't make him too tall or lanky, I have a tendency to do that, but for Soren it was so important to have him squat and short."
Soren's shorter, squatter body type was essential to the story, though I do thank Morgan for making MY character taller and lankier than in real life <grin>.
When the manuscript was complete and edited, I handed it off to Morgan to create what I learned is called the "dummy book." This is a mock up of how the book will lay out. It shows each "spread" (two facing pages of the book), what illustrations will go on each page and what text will go with each illustration. These are just very rough sketches, but they are critical to mapping out how the illustrations will tell and support the story.
Morgan, who does her illustrations digitally on a special tablet designed for that purpose, described her process to create the dummy book: "I have a template that I use for each dummy book. Then I take the text and lay it out over the desired number of pages. The text will sometimes move about as I start drawing, but usually when I place the text, I have a pretty good idea of what each page will look like. I can see in my mind what I will do before I do it, which I think is what makes for a successful illustrator. The image already exists. You just have to put it down on paper-- or in my case a Wacom Cintiq."
We then reviewed and discussed the dummy book, and once we were satisfied, since we were working with a publisher, we handed it off to them to okay. When that process was done, it was time to begin to create the art. Later the publisher would do the work to place the text from the manuscript onto the illustrations, so Morgan produced the illustrations without text.
I asked Morgan how she how comes up with the concepts for her characters. She told me, "If the character is based on a real-life individual, I will start by studying photos." This photo of Alex, a Pyrenean Shepherd, doing the weave poles, was one of the many Morgan used to create characters for Soaring Soren.
"I look for aspects that I can exaggerate, so for Soren it was his big, gaping smile, eyes and ears that really captured him, " Morgan elaborated, adding that once she has drawn a character out a few times, the character "becomes real" in her mind and she can draw them in any position. This ability to envision the character as a real being in her mind is, I believe, at the heart of her unique ability to make a story come to life through her art.
Morgan explained to me how she goes from the dummy book to the finished illustrations:
"I do a very rough sketch of each page in the dummy. Then when I go to work on that page, I already have the basic layout decided. From there I create a new drawing based on the sketch. This one will be more detailed and refined."
"Then I start blocking in color and decide where the light should come from. Then its all about the details, getting the markings of the animals right, and making sure they really look like they are where they supposed to be in the illustration."
Morgan added, "When working on Soren, it was challenging to make sure all the dogs were sized correctly depending on if they were closer or farther away from the viewer. Since I was working off photos of real dogs for most of the book, I had to balance accuracy of character with placement. "
Over thirty "real" agility dogs make an appearance in Soren's book, as well as Morgan's dogs and a special guest appearance from Sashi the Sheltie, a character in another of Morgan's books. Having these dogs in the book is such a cherished remembrance of the many friends who shared my agility journey with Soren, and of so many of the wonderful dogs we had the pleasure to compete with over the years.
I asked Morgan about the challenges unique to book illustrations, like how the gutter (where the book is bound) and allowing for placement of the text impact her design. She replied, "Certainly the gutter is a big consideration. It is a challenge as an illustrator to make sure the page is exciting and well-designed, while also keeping important aspects away from the gutter. Of course, making sure there is room for text is also a consideration. I do not allow the text to dictate the layout, but it does come into play. For example, I do not want the text to be over a character. I try to aim for text in the sky or in the grass when applicable."
In terms of other more generic challenges, Morgan cites motivation as the biggest one. "It can be difficult, when the weather is wonderful, to motivate myself to sit at the computer and get work done. Sometimes I go through bouts of working all night and sleeping all day. When the motivation hits I have to go for it. Artistic blocks are very hard. I would say I have about 3 a year. Sometimes they last for a week and sometimes they last for a month."
While Morgan may find motivation a challenge, it would appear from working with her that it is a challenge she manages well. I have witnessed her going through an artistic block, and her staying up all night to finish an illustration during our project together, and she handles it all with grace and unwavering dedication to the project and the deadlines. I think she and I are alike as far as being driven to work when inspiration strikes, so I can empathize. Two of my very favorite illustrations in Soaring Soren are the product of Morgan's (almost) all-nighters, so clearly that work style suits her.
I was curious about how the need to edit plays into the illustrations, since it is such a large part of writing the manuscript. Morgan had this to say: "Sometimes the edits are very simple and take less than 5 minutes. Other times they are a bit harder. I have had to edit things out that I felt made the illustration stronger. But usually the reasoning behind the edits relates to marketing or the age group. I have been working in children's media for a long time, but sometimes, as a 26 year old, I don't think about how certain things could be viewed by a child, so its always good to have other people review your work and give constructive criticism. Overall, the more people who genuinely care about the book's success, the better the outcome in my experience."
Morgan told me her favorite aspect of illustrating books is storytelling. She said, "I am constantly coming up with stories and ideas of my own, but it is almost liberating to illustrate someone else's story. A professor of mine at Syracuse University once said that illustrators need boxes. We need to be put into a box, so that we can break out of the box, but only slightly. We need rules and guidelines but we also push the boundaries and think outside of the box. Unlike fine art, illustration typically tells a specific story and often has a message."
Early on when we started working together, I sent Morgan a video tribute I had made for Soren, so she could get a feel for "who he was." She had this to say about working on Soaring Soren: "I like this kind of work [children's book illustrations], especially in the case of Soren. I love telling stories that touch my heart, and I fell in love with Soren's story!"
My only regret is that Soren and Morgan never got to meet, as I know Soren would have fallen in love with her right back.
Morgan mentioned that, "Having a positive and constructive working relationship with the author is EVERYTHING. " I could not agree more. From the earliest conversation we had about Soaring Soren (back before it was even called that), Morgan was professional and encouraging. Her enthusiasm for the story and appreciation of Soren solidified my belief that it was a story worth telling. As a first-time author of a children's book, her input on the story, based on her experience with previous projects, was invaluable. I strongly believe that our ability to kick ideas around and springboard off one idea to the next, really added to the book. Morgan was open to and embraced the ideas I had for the illustrations, in addition to the brilliant ideas she brought to the table. And she patiently endured my sometimes tedious requests to make this aspect or that more like real life, and to add in little details that had special meaning for me.
Soaring Soren is such a special story for me, filled with memories of and love for a little dog who inspired me in so many ways, and was an amazing friend, companion and agility dog. I feel so blessed to have stumbled upon Morgan, whose talent, creativity and heart brought out the best in this story, and took it to a level beyond my imaginings. I can't thank her enough for helping me remember Soren in such a unique and treasured way, and I can't wait for kids to have the chance to fall in love with her beautiful illustrations, as I have.
In addition to her passion for art, or perhaps more aptly, at the root of that passion, is her deep love for animals, which shines through in her work and the way she lives her life. She cites dogs and animals as inspiration for her art, and says that she learns a great deal from watching her dogs play together. She is very active in animal welfare and rescue and donates a portion of the proceeds from her illustrated portraits to various rescue groups. The following summarizes her dream to create a sanctuary for animals in need, as well as promote respect and caring for animals among people of all ages. It is quite an ambitious vision, but if anyone can make a vision a reality, I'd put my money on Morgan Spicer ...
I will open the doors to an animal rescue like no other. At Bark Pointé, children and families will see that no animal can just be thrown-away. Everyone deserves a chance at life, including feral cats, dogs with bad manners, puppy/kitten mill survivors and disABLEd pets as well. I will offer art classes for all ages, from Life Drawing, to illustration, to painting, to comic-book art. Kids will learn to get in touch with their creative sides while appreciating nature. There will be a movie-theater, where parents can rent the room for pet-friendly birthday parties and fundraisers. .
The characters from my books will walk among the guests, dressed up humans in animal costumes to create family memories and hilarious selfies! Every Animal that comes to stay at Bark Pointé will be drawn and framed.
Bark Pointé will be a community wonderland, where people and animals are treated with respect and kindness. Children can play, learn and experience compassion on a new level. Parents can instill responsibility and passion in their children at a young age, and enjoy themselves too! At Bark Pointé we will cherish animals, and the people who rescue them, in a positive, whimsical manner. Don't think Animal Shelter, think Animal Oasis --- Bark Pointé will be the Disney World of Animal Rescue.
In addition to Soaring Soren, Please check out these other wonderful children's books illustrated by Morgan Spicer ...
Sashi The Scared Little Sheltie & Sashi Adopts A Brother are available for purchase here : http://www.sashi-the-scared-little-sheltie.com/
Stubby And His Magic Boots is available here : http://www.bionicdogbooks.com/
Benjamin Birdie's First Flight http://michaeldotsikas.com/
Wilson Tries New Foods is available here : https://www.eatwellwithwilson.com/