Tuesday, 30 June 2015

I don’t know much about art, but… Lari Don

I’m a writer because I love telling stories with words. And those are two of the few things I’m particularly experienced or skilled at. Stories. Words.

But as a writer, I’m frequently asked to do things that I’m not really qualified to do.

In the box of things I’m not qualified to do, I would include moving heavy furniture to make the best space for an author event, and judging fancy dress competitions on World Book Day. But one thing that I definitely don’t feel qualified to do, yet I’m regularly expected to do (three times in the last month, for example) is comment on the work of visual artists.

Sketches for the Tale of Tam Linn, by Philip Longson 
(My comments were limited to ‘ooooh, isn’t that lovely’ for most of this book!)
As a writer of picture books and a writer of collections of myths, legends and fairy tales, I’m often sent roughs, layouts and proofs of books, and asked for my comments on the illustrations. And I know that the editor doesn’t just want me to say ‘oooh, isn’t that lovely’ (though it usually is!) They want something a bit more … professional.

But at school, I was never taught to look at art, to discuss it, to assess it. I was taught to draw still lifes of teapots and make pottery owls. Now I’m asked for comments on the art of proper professional artists. And my comments might (or might not!) affect the final look of the book.

I have no qualifications or experience to prepare me for this responsibility. Yet, 16 of my 22 books so far have illustrations, even my 6 novels have cover art, and I’ve been consulted, to some extent or another, on every single one of them.

Why? Why ask the writer about the pictures? Initially I thought it was because the publishers wanted me to be happy with the pictures. (!) Lately I’ve realised that it’s probably because, as the writer, I know the story better than anyone.

Striking early illustration from Girls Godddesses and Giants
by Francesca Greenwood, with illegible scribble by me…
I’ve realised that the comments that are most useful aren’t the ‘oooh, I like that’, or ‘oh dear, I don’t like that’ but specific comments actually related to the story. Pointing out that there are three rabbits in the picture when there are only two rabbits in the text, or the fish looks more like an goldfish than a salmon, etc. Not opinions, but facts. Not whether I like it, but whether the illustration works for and with the story.

So perhaps, as the person who created the story, I am qualified to comment on the pictures after all!

And I should say loud and clear that I am always, without exception, bowled over by how illustrations add to the story, and bring it to life. I’ve been privileged to have words of mine appear on pages beside pictures by wonderful artists. And my comments almost always do start with a deeply unhelpful but entirely heartfelt ‘oooh, isn’t that lovely…’

Lari Don is the award-winning author of 22 books for all ages, including a teen thriller, fantasy novels for 8 – 12s, picture books, retellings of traditional tales and novellas for reluctant readers.

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Sue Purkiss said...

Having just seen the illustrations to something I've done, I can only echo what you say, Lari; I'm just lost in admiration!

Joan Lennon said...

So amazing to be able to take the pictures in your head and make them actual pictures!

Pulau harapan said...

I don’t know much about art, but… Lari Don

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

I had to smile at your remark Joan... without denegrading illustrators (I started life as an art teacher) but what about: so amazing to take the pictures in your head and make them into words!!!! Having said that, I love all my different illustrators' work... because they bring another edge to the story.