Sunday with Zin: Illustrations

Sharon McGill

Sharon McGill

Hello I am Zin and I am so impressed with story illustrators and how they capture a story! How do they do that? At last I have some answers!

I love looking for art to go with blog posts! But I can not draw! I can not photograph! I can not use Paint! So I have to search for things that comes close to what I see in my head, and it is not easy (and it is sometimes scary)! Sometimes I am very lucky, like with “Shrimp Attack” for a Next Iron Chef episode recap – who knew someone had painted a picture with that exact title which are words one of the NIC contestants said? I did a Google image search and there it was, the perfect art! I used themes once upon a time, black and white pictures, black and white baby pictures, and for the Second Person Study, black and white twin baby pictures! I am not sure I could cope with a blank slate, though, creating something from scratch!

And that is my question today: how to artists come up with illustrations for stories when they start only with the text?

I am not talking cover art for books, which is also very interesting and maybe I will write about that some day! But that has a lot to do with marketing, so it is more complicated! And it has to incorporate the title and the author which story illustrations do not. I am focusing on story illustrations like those that appear in The New Yorker and in online magazines!

I always pay attention to TNY illustrations to see what scene they incorporate. Some seem perfect! Like what Victo Ngai chose for “Casserole” by Thomas McGuane, the woman looking over the edge of the boat.

And some puzzle me, like the choice the same artist made for “Sweet Dreams” by Peter Stamm! It was another wonderful story (I nominated it as one of my picks for best TNY story of the year at Perpetual Folly, the blog Cliff Garstang runs) but there were so many images that seemed more striking to me, I was surprised that was the one she chose! This has nothing to do with the style of her art, by the way (which is beautiful), and I always wonder if someone at TNY or maybe even the author has any input or if it is 100% up to the artist.

Tomer Hanuka showed a tiny bit of behind the scenes development and wrote a tiny bit about the role of the Art Director in his blog post about his illustration for the wonderful story “Means of Suppressing Demonstrations” (I also nominated this for TNY-SotY) but he says the process varies!

When I saw Richard Russo and his daughter Kate talk at the library I was really interested in what she said about the art she created for the stories in Interventions! For “Horseman” she read the story then put it aside to see what would stick. She kept thinking of the poem, and wanted to draw the horse from the point of view of the rider, which is pretty clever!

Then again with “The Whore’s Child” she was struck by the paragraph about the girl being given shoes two sizes too small that crippled her, and she used the black and white of tiles and saddle shoes to echo the habits nuns wear! It is interesting she also thought of blood in connection with “High and Dry.”

I love these thought processes! But I want to hear more! I need to talk to more artists!

So I was very happy when I recently stumbled over Sharon McGill on the Information Superhighway! I am surprised I had not stumbled over her before, she has a wonderful story on Smokelong #35 from last March titled “Benediction” which I have added to the Online Fiction Sampler page!

But that is not all! I discovered Sharon is on Zoetrope Virtual Studios! She is a story illustrator as well as a writer! She did the illustration for her story! And best of all she answered my questions about illustrating a story when I sent her a z-mail!

Sharon has a terrific blog post about the process of illustrating her own story “Benediction“: the conflict between the Writer – who saw the story as taking place under a dull grey sky – and the Illustrator – who wanted bright hot stark sunlight for lots of shadows and angles! It did not make it any easier that the Writer and the Illustrator were both her! And then she realized the Illustrator had “plagiarized” the hot sun and the junkyard from a novel the Writer was working on! It is a wonderful little flash all in itself, the story of this illustration! I love the duality of her arguing with herself! I can understand that!

But I kept asking why that opening scene? The end, with the man in gold, is so dramatic! Is there something like a spoiler rule in illustrating? And here is what she told me:

I tend to pick something that pops out to me and which I feel has the drama, intrigue, and/or immediacy to pull someone into a story. In this case, I think what also happened was that, as a writer I could see this dreary, low sky, but the moment I started actually thinking about drawing it, I knew that would look too flat. There had to be a strong light source. I was also influenced by the editor who selected the story–she said she really loved the opening line. Since I had worked on it a lot, it had a lot of importance to me, too.

I agree that the final scene is pretty dramatic, but I didn’t want to give it away. Also, it’s one of those scenes that I wanted to have exist only in the reader’s mind. I actually got the idea from a guy who wore a costume of gold leaf to a party and the gold kept falling off. He looked kind of scabby, which was a bit gross and not the image I wanted to leave the reader with (!). I figured it would be very hard to depict that kind of figure without it looking totally goofy.

I see – yes, I had a discussion with someone about writing once in which we talked about forcing the reader into a chair when he maybe wants to dance, so it is the same with illustrating, you have to allow some freedom for reader interpretation!

Sharon also illustrated another Smokelong story in that issue, “Everyone Continued to Sing” by Josh Denlow. And she has another wonderful post on her blog explaining “the juxtaposition of the sacred and profane” as well as some more technical art elements like not using outlines for this picture!

I am so thankful to Sharon for taking the time to email back and forth! I am always glad when I learn something! And now I am following her blog so I can learn more about how illustrators think!

This has inspired me to talk to some more people, like art editors at online magazines about how they choose art for stories! So I hope I will have a Part 2 for this post in the future!

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