I grew up in a home where everyone seemed to be making something with their hands. As far back as I can remember, I was always putting things together, cutting, stitching, pasting, or pounding. The feel of the object I made was as important as the look.
My mother, a good seamstress, shared her fabric scraps with me and taught me to use her sewing machine when I was about eight years old. My dad had a basement workshop, which supplied me with scrap lumber and nails. So I always had a ready supply of art materials, but not necessarily traditional ones like paper and paint. In fact, colored construction paper was pale in tone compared to my bright cloth scraps. (To this day I prefer to paint my own papers to create just the right color or texture.)
While growing up, I worked on a folding table. My mom and dad allowed me to leave my projects spread out on this table so I could continue to work in my free time. It was my own spot. Today I have a large studio to work in, with a huge drawing board and cabinets filled with art supplies. But itís still my spot. If you are creative, you need to find your own spot to work in. You wonít do much drawing or writing if you have to hunt for a pencil each time you get an idea.
If you look closely at my books, you will see that I still
use simple art materialsóand that Iím still cutting and pasting.
Itís an art technique called collage: cutout pieces of paper,
fabric, or objects glued to a backing. Sometimes I paint white
paper with watercolor washes and then cut up the paper, and
sometimes I use paper with just one tone or texture. I usually
start out by making a dummy book with sketches. That way I
can figure out what I want to illustrate on each page. Once
I get that figured out, I start to really research my subject.
I spend a long time checking my facts before I begin to paint.
I guess I feel I can never know too much. After I decide what
to illustrate, I start cutting out each little piece and gluing
it on a board.
If you are an artist or a writer like me, sometimes it is
difficult to know just where ideas come from. Thatís a question
people ask me all the time. Now that Iím grown-up, I realize
that I write and draw things I know and care about. Yes, a
squirrel really did sneak in through my window. Yes, I do
enjoy gardening. Yes, Iíve made snow creatures, and each year
I press beautiful maple leaves in my phone book. The ideas
for my books develop as slowly as seeds I plant in early spring.
Ideas and seeds both have to be nurtured to grow. I study,
sketch . . . and sit and think.
Then I begin to paint, setting the mood for the book. Iím
messy when I work. When ideas are coming, I donít clean up
my studio every dayóI keep working. I know there will be days
when I have no ideas, and then I will have plenty of time
to clean up and empty my overflowing wastebasket. I splash
paint on my shoes and get glue under my nails; scraps of paper
lie strewn all over the floor and stick to the bottom of my
shoes. I wear old clothes and a denim apron when I work, an
idea I borrowed from watching my dad. I leave the paintings
scattered around my studio; if I run out of space, I even
use the floor.
Then I begin to write. As you may have noticed, in most cases my writing complements my art. I work on writing for a while and then go back to the artóback and forth, until I get just the right balance. It takes me a long time to make a book, and it is difficult but enjoyable work. It looks so simple if you get it right.
Iím often asked why I chose to become an artist. I think it may be the other way around: Art chose me. If you are creative, you know what I mean. No one has to make you paint a picture. I think being creative is a part of a personís makeup. Itís something I feel very lucky about. Iíve worked hard to make this gift as fine as I can make it, but I still think I was born with certain ideas and feelings just waiting to burst out.
Copyright © 1998 Harcourt, Inc.
Illustrations copyright © 2005 by Lois Ehlert. Used with permission. All rights reserved.