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Robert J. Blake: Letting the Book Come to You

The secret to writing and/or illustrating picture books is that there is no secret. The path to picture book enlightenment comes from eliminating the detritus of everyday life and becoming acutely aware of your immediate surroundings. Many an artist or writer will tell you that because they were able to get into some creative zone that they connected to an intuitive conduit, and then the project “made itself.” I’ve heard this many times. I do believe this space may exist—and that’s where we all want to get to. There will always be distractions, problems, and situations to deal with— dogs that have to go out or dishes to be done—so how do the best artists get to that creative state and hold it long enough to create the piece?

Maybe they don’t. Maybe they cultivate the ability to move in and out of it. There is a time to be wildly creative, a time to deal with life, and then a time to organize the art. We need a place to suspend our creativity without losing it. So I suggest you have this holding space for your musings: A sketchbook.

I have kept sketchbooks since second grade. I now have 143 and most have about 180 pages, so that’s…let’s see, about 25,000 pages. There are some good passages, many creative ideas, some organizing streams, but also a lot of junk. Still, my sketchbooks are the most valuable art pieces that I have.

Robert Blake's sketchbooks
Robert J. Blake’s sketchbooks
You should keep a journal or sketchbook. Bring it everywhere. And I mean EVERYWHERE. When going out, it should be in your hands before your front door keys are. It can be small or large, any shape or size. Do this and soon your sketchbook may become an alter ego that you can’t function without. When you hear or see anything that catches your interest, even if you do not know why, make note of it in the sketchbook. Before long you will accumulate years and years of thoughts and ideas. And they are your thoughts and ideas.

Keep others from looking at your sketchbook, even if you have no deep dark secrets. Let them think you do. Put everything down, every day, because you want to feel free to put ALL ideas in there: good, great, silly, weird, beautiful, opinionated, doubtful–you want to be able to put in anything and not worry about the value of it. For example, sometimes a very pedestrian idea may keep coming to you. Once you put it in the sketchbook, the boring half of your mind thinks it is in safekeeping and will stop nagging you with it. Then you can get on to the next thing.

The creative life is a messy business. Stuff and ideas are everywhere. The trick is to understand which of these things resonate with you. And it is best not to worry about “why,” because that’s probably the voice of your doubt mechanism kicking in. Better to calm your mind, daydream, float, and to let the idea build itself. You may be amazed where your mind may go.

At some point, though, you must be able to flip over to the organized side of your creative life. You must put your idea into a form that everyone else can connect to. And this process need not be uncomfortable or complicated. Maybe at first you just want to put it in a form that has a beginning, middle, and end. Then perhaps you might work out the high and low points. Then the flow. And then, finally, the language—your language. Through the organizing process your idea begins to reveal itself, and that is when the pleasure of invention begins.

"We want inventors all through life; the only people who ever succeed in writing, painting, sculpture, manufacturing, in finance, are inventors."—Robert Henri, THE ART SPIRIT.

Join Robert Blake and some special guests (to be announced) for Creating Picture Books, September 30-October 4, 2015

Posted on: August 18, 2015

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