Sunday, 21 September 2014

The Story behind Winter Ghost

The ghost dog came about one cold winter afternoon when I was sitting in the kitchen. I started writing on the 1st of December in 2011, inspired by this strange encounter and my winter observations of a snowy Lithuanian capital city. It later turned into a collection of random scenes from the life of a lonely girl, living in a weather-beaten shed-like rooftop flat on a high concrete building with her imaginary dog friend. The girl was originally much older than she ended up being in my picture book, with the targeted audience of 5-7 year-olds. The ghost dog underwent as much transformation, but stayed quite close to my original vision.

I took inspiration from the magic of real life, as well as Saint-ExupĂ©ry's “Little Prince” and Miyazaki's “Spirited Away”. I had anthropomorphic characters such as Time, Winter, Wind, Darkness, Cold and Silence, which acted as secondary characters in the background. Such concepts would be difficult to comprehend for a very young audience, so eventually they were left out from my picture book. I visualized my text as a comic or an animation, but left it aside because I did not have the skills to realize it back then.

Three years later, I returned to this project in Cambridge, UK, where it did not snow during all winter. Disney’s “Frozen” came out at that time and I also had a pretentious Winter character, just like Snow Queen, who freezes all the buildings and brings snowstorms. My other influences included surreal and atmospheric picture books like Raymond Briggs's "Snowman", Levi Pinfold's "Black Dog" and Komako Sakai's "The Snow Day". I knew it would be challenging to develop this project since I didn’t have an actual story. Nevertheless, I felt motivated because I had worked with environment during the first semester at Cambridge School of Art. "Winter Ghost" was centered around the relationship of the main character with her bleak and cold surroundings.

At first, I had too many characters and struggled with the storyline. I was advised to focus on the two main characters instead. It was a big relief, but I still needed a good story to fit into the 32-page book. Storyboards are useful when working out the plot. I made one, but there was no conflict or turning point. My heroine was stuck in a frozen room after a snowstorm. At that point, I was kindly advised to illustrate Snow Queen instead, but I was too involved with my characters, a lonely girl with supernatural powers and her friendly ghost dog. After a winter break, it was spring already and seasonal change influenced the "Winter Ghost" narrative. The ghost dog, which now represented winter, desperately seeked shelter in the small rooftop flat at the return of spring. I made a new storyboard and small dummy books with text. You can see the different stages of my progress below.

Character development was an important part of my creative process. Contrasting characters created tension and explained the unexpected resolution of my story. The interaction between the lonely girl and the ghost dog changed during the process from a quiet friendship into an angry rejection. The unwelcome visitor scared and angered the heroine, but also encouraged her to take action.

I started exploring the emotional world of my main character. Mixed emotions add depth and realism to a fictional character. Humans are complicated beings who constantly balance their thoughts and emotions. Animals are more direct and instinctive about their responses. Small children may sometimes act like animals while they are learning to be civilized and obedient. We usually admire their sincere and exuberant reactions to life, but sometimes forget that children also have their own complex inner worlds.

The lonely girl chased away winter together with the ghost dog. Winter comes to an end, whether we like it or not, just like Briggs's Snowman, which melted away at the end. The finale of my story is open-ended. A happy-end for the lonely girl, who can finally escape her small apartment. How about the winter ghost? There is some space left for the reader's imagination to fill in.

Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Storytelling in Words and Pictures

This year, I took some time to analyse my fictional stories. I did a lot of research while writing my MA dissertation about biographical impact on picturebook artists, such as Maurice Sendak, Raymond Briggs and Shaun Tan. These great artists influenced my creative career and encouraged to experiment with my projects. I spent the last three years learning about storytelling, storytelling with images and words to be exact. All of my stories were influenced by personal experiences, including moving, searching for identity and exploring new places. They were all visualized as picturebooks, but differ in their usage of word and image. Telling stories in both pictures and words is a great challenge. Sometimes you don't need any words at all and a single drawing can tell a whole story. Something is left unsaid and the reader has to find out the rest of the story. I have tried different ways of telling a story. My visual language changed along the way. Below is a short analysis of each project, starting with the oldest.

1. "About Spider in a Block of Flats" was created at Vilnius Academy of Arts in 2011 and was my first venture into children's book illustration. The story was dedicated to a real spider with five legs, which was living in my room at that time. I was living on the top floor and imagined how this little spider had gone through all the flats to reach my place. I created a fully painted illustration for each imaginary flat and a short poem, which explains the character's struggles of settling down. Each floor is numbered and has a different colour palette. At this stage, I knew nothing about picturebooks and story pacing. I envisioned this project as an interactive counting book, where the reader had to match the numbered lines of text on a separate flap with the right illustrations, e.g. "A strange snake tried to swallow me up too" related to the picture below.

2. "Little Frog from Trash Kingdom" was my first attempt at making a picturebook dummy during the Children's Book Illustration summer course at Cambridge School of Art. The story originated in Lithuania, when I was cycling on a road full of tiny frogs after a rainy summer day. So small, yet so persistent and adventurous. Where did they come from? Will they reach their destination safely? Such  thoughts inspired my environmental adventure story about a curious little frog. It was the first time I used a standard 32-page picturebook format. I had to shorten my text and reduce the number of characters. It was challenging working with both words and illustrations and also the design of the book. The use of white space in images was unusual for me, but it added clarity and focus on the characters. The result for a week's work was quite pleasing and gave me confidence to continue creating books.

3. "A Book about…" was part of the collaborative picturebook "TWO", which was created for a French picture book competition and was later selected to be exhibited during the Children's Book Fair in Montreuil. It was based on my struggles of working together with my twin sister. The book was unique as it revealed the differences of twins rather than their similarities. I was telling my story as a dialogue between twins, who decided to make a book together. The text was designed to contrast the two characters. The bright colours emphasize the main figures while bold black brushstrokes add tension and drama.

4. "Main Character Wanted" was my final project at Vilnius Academy of Arts. The story reflected my creative process of making this specific book. The author was looking for the main character and also for his own identity. I shared my journey on this blog and analyzed it along the way. I continued experimenting with the text until I found balance and unity in this book. The white of the page was the setting for the bright and imaginative characters, which all wanted to be the main character of the story. Maurice Sendak’s “Wild Things” indirectly influenced this project, which also depicts emotions as mysterious monsters.

5. "Mysterious Book" was my first book created for MA Children's Book Illustration at Cambridge School of Art in 2013. Unlike my previous projects, this one was influenced by direct observation and that is why place plays an important role in the story. I challenged myself to draw people and backgrounds using monochromatic tone, which allowed me to create a spooky museum atmosphere. Technically, it was very different from my previous work, although it retains the same picturebook format, consisting of twelve double-page spreads. The narrative sequence was wordless but playful and dynamic as the previous ones. I focused on the image sequence and body language. The main character was unique because he paid no interest in his surroundings. Since the story is wordless, the reader is left wondering about this mysterious book, which raises many questions.

6. Winter Ghost was created during the second semester of the MA Children’s Book Illustration course. After drawing people interacting with their environment in this course, I became interested in human reactions and their psychological world. My own narratives gradually became more complex. For this project, I revisited my text, written during the first few winters spent in Vilnius, Lithuania's capital. It was influenced by the freezing cold, snow and the experience of living on the top floor of a high building. I had no plot in the beginning except for the characters, a girl and her friend, the ghost dog. The development of the characters and their interaction was my main focus during this project. The dog character changed a lot during the process and from a cute imaginary friend turned into a scary winter ghost. The story was based on my memories of the bleak winter environment and depressive moods. The lonely main character is waiting for spring in her little roof flat. Winter ghost pays her an unexpected visit and makes a mess. By chasing it away, she brings the spring back. I started using vignettes in the latter book, which changes the story’s rhythm and pacing. I experimented with soft pastels for this project to combine tone with colour and painting with drawing. It was difficult, but suitable for this poetic story.

Overviewing these stories, I see some similarities in the plots. The first two projects are about animal escapes, the third and fourth focus on the creative process and the latest two stories explore childhood fantasies and imagination. The main character is always being attacked by someone. Fight and struggle add drama to the plot, but in the future I'll be searching for other alternatives in storytelling, something more subtle. Some of my characters survive by running away while those in "Main Character Wanted" and "Winter Ghost" fight back. In my latest book, the main character attacked the ghost dog by chasing him away. The story is told through the interaction of these two characters, just like the twins in "A Book about" but without a dialogue. I explored different characters in my stories - from kids to animals and even invisible characters and imaginary creatures. Narrator is the main character in three cases, but Little Frog's journey is told from a third person's perspective and the twins engage in a dialogue without any narrator at all.

Place is important in most of my narratives. The first and the latest story are very different but related by place - a block of flats. Only one story took place outdoors, "Little Frog", but it doesn't mean that home is a safe place either as can be seen in my first or the latest story. Shaun Tan’s and Raymond Briggs’s surreal worlds inspired my two projects at the Cambridge School of Art, the wordless museum story "Mysterious Book" and the poetic "Winter Ghost". Place enhances these two stories in contrast to the previous two projects, which had a white background and focused on the playful shapes of characters. The visual aesthetics of my earlier works were inspired by Asian ink paintings and Western graphic designers and illustrators, such as Bruno Munari, Eric Carle and Lane Smith.

My stories focus on themes such as home, journey, identity search and loneliness. My last two BA projects, about twins and my creative process, were experimental and conceptual. I did not rely on observational drawing or research. I combined spontaneous emotional sketches with playful text on white background. Without words, the stories could not be understood. I base the main characters of my picturebooks on real people or animals. However, stories about my own experiences, like the collaboration with my twin or winter isolation, are more personal to me.

These books are visually quite different. For the first three, I chose a square format while the last three had portrait and landscape formats. The first four were painted in ink, while the last two were drawn with charcoal and pastel. The tools should help tell the story, whether it is drawn or painted. All of them were action based and dynamic, intended for younger children. The bright colours add playfulness too. White background emphasizes characters while tone adds depth. I will seek to balance these two aspects by varying the sizes of my illustrations and their arrangement in a book. I am starting to use vignettes, but still need to work on using white space around illustrations. I am learning a lot and becoming more confident with each book. I realized the importance of observational drawing and research of the subject matter. I have a lot left to learn and explore, including different book formats and storytelling techniques. The most important thing is to know yourself and be true to yourself. 

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Bologna Children's Book Fair 2014

This year, Bologna Children's Book Fair was special for me. I got to experience this huge event a year ago, but it was this year that I participated in the Cambridge School of Art stand. It took a lot of time to prepare for it, which included submitting two A2 portfolio sheets, an individual A3 portfolio, three dummy books for "Mysterious Book", business cards and the online portfolio. It was an extra work on top of the MA Diploma Project, but I'm glad I pushed myself as I'll know what to expect next year. I did some volunteering in the stand too, although it wasn't so busy on Wednesday morning. On the other three days, it was full of visitors, publishers and agents.

Dummy books of 78 current and graduate CSA students (you can see mine in the first photo)

Digital printmaking discussion with our three graduate students and the course leader

Bologna Ragazzi awards 

Brazilian illustration display

Exhibition of Italian illustrator Ugo Fontana

Illustrators Exhibition (you can find the selected artists here)

Promotion wall with one of my A3 posters (made four different designs)

Meeting with celebrated picture book artist Oliver Jeffers

The new bookstore in the fair

It was exhausting to stay for all four days in the fair, but I spent some lovely time in Bologna with my course-mates and my sister, brought back some beautiful books and memories.

Sunday, 2 February 2014

Mysterious Book

Here is a rather late reflection for my latest picture book project called "Mysterious Book", which I created during the first semester at Cambridge School of Art. I am posting some developmental work to illustrate my creative process.

The first half of the semester of the MA Children's Book Illustration course was dedicated to observational drawing and experimentation. I focused on the interaction of people, animals and their environment during that module as we had to choose a drawing theme. Mine was a bit too broad, but allowed me to discover new places. I challenged myself by drawing people in their environment as much as I could and this prepared me for the Sequential Image module.

I chose museum as a theme for my sequence and decided to do some research in the Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences. The story is based on the interaction of museum exhibits and visitors. The inspiration for the main character of my sequence came from the observation during the first module. A girl reading a book turned into a boy, who was so immersed in his book that he climbed over the dinosaur skeletons without noticing it.

The following are some character studies for my story (family was later reduced to five members):

The story making was probably the hardest part because it was to be told entirely in pictures. This meant that the narrative had to be clear and simple as I found out with the help from tutors. My initial idea was a transformation of a quiet natural history museum into an action packed jungle, where reality mixes with imagination. It sounded exciting, but there was too much going on in twelve spreads. Consequently, I focused on making strong compositions and playing with reader's perception. The exhibits are acting as a stage but they also contribute to the drama and tension in the story. Walking over the dinosaurs doesn't make them happy! Below is my early storyboard, which included exhibits turning into creatures and chasing the boy for his mysterious book. 

After this storyboard, which was actually my second attempt, I turned to making small dummy books. I used them to work on the pace and flow of the story and how it reads with the page-turning. It was quite hard to come up with interesting compositions and angles so the sequence doesn't look static. I tried breaking it up in panels, but stayed with large double-page illustrations in the end.

The sequence didn't have to be narrative, but I love storytelling so I wanted to challenge myself and create a wordless story. This required more detailed drawing and an intriguing sequence to hold the reader's attention. I wanted to explore the landscape format and emphasize the continuous linear story. To create a dark and mysterious atmosphere of the museum, I used charcoal and created tonal drawings. I experimented with sepia at first as you can see in the observational sketch below. I tried drawing on tracing paper too, but found it too messy and decided to focus on black and white drawings on paper and worry about colour later. The end result had a sepia tone added digitally. The main character with a red hoodie contrasts with his environment, which he is not aware of until he finishes reading the book. Eventually, the family is reunited and coloured to suggest a happy end.

Here you can see more spreads from this book. The title "Mysterious Book" describes this wordless story quite well since everything in it is mysterious, the boy with a hood, his intriguing book, the museum and the fact that he was not noticed by other visitors while wearing his bright red hoodie!