May 2, 2017

Let's Talk Illustrators #23: Corinna Luyken

Corinna Luyken’s picture book debut The Book of Mistakes is a book better read than summarized, but I'll do what I can by way of introducing my interview with her. It's about celebrating the unexpected paths our mistakes lead us down and embracing that these mistakes are ultimately just a part of the process. They’re what lead us to where we are today. There's no way to predict what will happen between the first and last pages, so the end result is brilliant and breath-taking, and the “mistakes” Corinna makes inspire readers to let themselves go and make as many mistakes as it takes. Let's take a closer look!


About the book:
One eye was bigger than the other. That was a mistake.
The weird frog-cat-cow thing? It made an excellent bush.
And the inky smudges… they look as if they were always meant to be leaves floating gently across the sky.


As one artist incorporates accidental splotches, spots, and misshapen things into her art, she transforms her piece in quirky and unexpected ways, taking readers on a journey through her process. Told in minimal, playful text, this story shows readers that even the biggest “mistakes” can be the source of the brightest ideas—and that, at the end of the day, we are all works in progress, too.

Let's talk Corinna Luyken!!


LTPB: You mention in your bio that you got this idea from doing art activities with children. Can you talk a little more about that? 

Right after college I was a teaching assistant in a multi-age (K-6) classroom. One of my jobs was to run an after school program one day a week. I never knew how many kids I’d have until school was out, so I’d improvise activities depending on which kids were there that day— I’d read to them, we’d play outside, and we also did a ton of art. Whenever they’d get frustrated with a mistake in their drawing (as we all do) I would tell them to turn it into a bush. You can turn almost anything into a bush! Or a tree! 

But there were also days when they just wanted to watch me draw. This surprised me at first, but then it made perfect sense. Watching someone else draw is a great way to learn. Even today I love when other illustrators post videos of themselves drawing. It’s thrilling to watch something emerge from nothing. As a member of the audience, there is also this freedom— because you trust the artist and believe in their ability to transform the blank page—you see the journey as fun.


But for the artist, at some point, the internal dialogue shifts from trust to something more critical. There is a new idea of how things should look, of what you want the drawing to be. Which is also an important part of the creative process. But sometimes that original idea can get in the way of creating something amazing. Something even more interesting than the idea you started with. 

With this book, I wanted to capture that sense of drawing with a group of kids. The trust, the excitement, and the fun of watching something appear from nothing. I also wanted to be honest. I make mistakes all the time when I draw, but I’ve learned tricks for hiding them so that I can keep going. I realized that most kids and adults never see that part of the art making process. They only see the finished product. And many kids don’t have the opportunity to peer over the shoulder of a more experienced artist, to watch them react and adjust in real time to their mistakes. 

LTPB: You were the recipient of the 2013 SCBWI Mentorship Award, which is pretty stellar. What is your art background? How do your other hobbies impact this book?

Yes! I am indebted to SCBWI and grateful for the mentorship award. I’ve also learned so much from the other mentees in my year - Brooke Boynton Hughes, Rodolfo Montalvo, Andy Musser, and Linda Dorn. Their friendship and support has been an important part of my journey. 

In terms of my art background, I’ve always loved to read. And draw. And for the most part, my art education came from reading books, like these: 

Bendemolena, also called The Cat Who Wore a Pot on Her Head 
by Jan Slepian & Ann Seidler, illustrated by Richard E. Martin 

The Other Way to Listen by Byrd Baylor and Peter Parnall 

The Clown of God by Tomie dePaola 

"What Was I Scared of?" from The Sneetches and other stories by Dr. Seuss 

Migrant by Maxine Trottier and Isabelle Arsenault 

I also discovered dance improvisation in college. And dance has probably had a more profound impact on my art making than any art class. 


Through dance I learned about the human body and how it moves, and my drawings became much looser. Dance also taught me about mindfulness, about being absolutely present with the material you are creating. With dance improvisation, you are responsible for being aware of everything that is happening around you on stage— the music as well as the rhythms and motions of all the other dancers, all the time. Whether you are contrasting, disrupting or mirroring their movement, it has to be intentional. One of the rules of improvisation is that you don’t say “no,” because that stops the momentum and energy of the whole piece. So if you want to make a change you say, “Yes, and—” and from there you introduce the next idea. 



I also trained in Aikido in high school, which is a Japanese martial art with a similar philosophy. When someone attacks you, you don’t block the attack, because that just creates more conflict. Instead, you turn and move with them, in the direction they are already going. You look at the world from their point of view. Then you take that energy and momentum and circle it back around so that now they are following you. And you show them the world from your perspective. Only then do you invite them, with all the momentum of their original attack behind them, to fall to the ground. And often, they do. 


This sense of saying "Yes, and—", of taking what you have and working with it, has deeply influenced the way I write, draw and paint. 

LTPB: How long did you work on this one before you decided it was ready to publish? Have you always wanted to create children’s books? 

I would say that ever since I was handed Lane Smith and George Saunders’ The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip (seventeen years ago) I’ve known that making picture books was what I wanted to do. But it took me fifteen years to put all the pieces together, and then two more years (and fourteen dummies) to write and draw The Book of Mistakes. (You can read a bit more about that process over at Design of The Picture Book and Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast.) 


The journey hasn’t been fast, but looking back, I wouldn’t change anything. I think I really needed all that time to develop the skills necessary to make the kinds of books that I want to make. 

An early sketch of a tent on wheels... 

LTPB: What media did you use to create this book and why? 

Ink—because it feels so permanent when you make a mistake with ink. 



And watercolor—because I love how it blooms and creeps and has a mind of its own. 



And also pencil— because pencils, especially dark pencil lines, can smudge and be almost impossible to erase. When my daughter was younger, she’d ask me to help her erase, because it’s so difficult, when you’re small, to hold down a sheet of paper and erase a thick dark line without wrinkling or tearing the paper. And even then, some of the old line usually shows through. Which is what I love about pencil— those bits of early, sketchy line that refuse to disappear. 

The final tree, in process… 

The final tree

LTPB: What are you working on now? Anything you can show us? 

I’m working on a second picture book for Dial about the heart, and how it can open, close, and open again. I’ll also be illustrating a middle grade novel for Candlewick (Weird Little Robots by Carolyn Crimi) due out spring 2019. 


LTPB: The last question I’m asking all illustrators who participate in the series is, if you could have one illustrator (other than yourself!) illustrate your picture book biography, who would it be and why? 

Isabelle Arsenault. Her work is so loose and rough and refined, all at the same time. Her design sense is incredible. And she conveys so much emotion through color, texture, composition and light. One of her early books, Migrant, changed the way I thought about making picture books. 

Want more Corinna? I know I do! Be sure to keep an eye out for her live drawing session with The New York Times on May 9! Thank you so much to Corinna for her enthusiastic interview (look how many images she sent me! I couldn't bare not to include every single one). The Book of Mistakes published last month from Dial Books! It is more certainly not a mistake to run to your local bookstore and snatch up as many copies as you can!

Special thanks to Corinna for use of these images!