Corinna Luyken is the author-illustrator of THE BOOK OF MISTAKES, which received four starred reviews and has been praised by Entertainment Weekly, the Wall Street Journal, NPR, and more. She also illustrated ADRIAN SIMCOX DOES NOT HAVE A HORSE, written by Marcy Campbell. And is she the author-illustrator of the forthcoming MY HEART, which will be released January 8, 2019. She lives in Olympia, WA with her husband, daughter, and two cats.
Eighteen years ago, on a trip back home from college, the manager at a bookstore where I used to work handed me a tall thin book with a translucent velum jacket. She said "you are going to love this." And she was right. The book was THE VERY PERSISTENT GAPPERS OF FRIP, by Lane Smith and George Saunders, and it was a gorgeously illustrated, hilarious, sad, hopeful, strange little book with so much heart and soul; a book about a girl named Capable who lived in the town of Frip. The first time I read it I thought "you can do THIS?" And ever since that afternoon, sitting in a coffee shop, reading that book over and over and over, 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 my first book—THE BOOK OF MISTAKES. (You can read more about that process over at the Design of The Picture Book and Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast blogs.)
The journey hasn’t been fast, but looking back, I wouldn’t change anything. I needed all that time to develop the skills and life experience necessary to make the kinds of books that I want to make.
It started with a series of mistakes.
For years I drew with pens because I liked the fluid feel of ink on paper. I liked how, with pen, a line can take on a life of its own. But often that life would lead to shapes and marks I hadn’t intended and couldn’t erase. Because I loved to draw—and loved to draw with ink—I learned to deal with those accidents. If I messed up something in a face, I’d add glasses. If I didn’t like the way I’d drawn a hand, I might add gloves. And somewhere along the way I learned to enjoy how each mistake forced me to find a new way of looking at the world. And I began to wonder if celebrating mistakes was something that could be taught.
In my years working as both a teaching assistant and artist in residence in elementary schools, I started to notice a pattern. In every class there would be one or two kids who, within minutes of starting to draw, were raising their hand asking for another piece of paper. They didn’t like what they were seeing. They wanted to start over. They wanted to make it perfect. It became my job to help them see the possibility in that mistake, to see how they could keep going and transform their drawing or painting into something that they still might love.
This all came home for me when my daughter was four years old. At that age she loved everything she drew. She didn’t see mistakes, only pattern and line and color and texture. And she LOVED to draw. Then one day, while drawing, she burst into tears and threw her paper on the ground. She had made a mistake. She couldn’t fix it. And it broke my heart. Not yet, I remember thinking. Not her. Not already. Not now.
So I wrote this book. For her. For them. For me. For anyone who has ever made a mistake.
I’ve always loved to draw with ink and watercolor. But through the process of working on The Book of Mistakes I’ve fallen in love with pencil as well—especially the smudges and streaks that are left behind when you erase or draw over pencil with ink. While I’ll sometimes use a lighter pencil to sketch out a face, I like dark pencils that are hard to erase (from 5B to 8B) for the rest of the body. That way, I never completely get rid of the history. The energy of those first marks and thoughts will always be visible in the background. I love that.
I believe the best books leave room for each reader to have their own experience. I really don’t want to tell anyone what that should be. That said, for me, this book is about perception. And possibility.
And maybe some questions—How do you see yourself? How do you see the world? What do you see when you look at other people— do you see their imperfections, their mistakes? Do you see their possibility? Can you see both, simultaneously?
And behind those questions, other questions— How do we change how we see? How do we move from the mistake into a place where transformation can happen? How do we learn to see potential? How do we access a vision for what could come next?
And finally— can that change in perception be taught? I think that is a very interesting question!
Almost every time I draw, I make a mistake. Often the mistakes are small, but even then they require an adjustment. First, in my head, then on paper.
Recently, I was making an ink drawing of a lady. She had beautiful, dark, arching eyebrows. I thought the ink was dry— but it wasn’t. And when I went to add detail to the drawing, my hand rubbed over her face and made an enormous streak across her forehead. So I turned her beautiful, dark, arching eyebrows into beautiful, dark, arching glasses.
This is something I’m doing constantly when I draw. When I’m working with kids and they get upset over a mistake I always tell them to turn it into a bush. You can turn almost anything into a bush. Or a tree!
For as long as I can remember I’ve loved to draw. I also remember reading Where the Sidewalk Ends and Rootabaga Stories, written by Carl Sandburg and illustrated by Maud and Miska Petersham, over and over with my mom when I was quite young. I loved the looseness of the ink lines and the silliness of those drawings SO much.
I’ve also always loved to watch the emergence of something from nothing. To explore the shape of what is possible, but still unknown. It’s a dance. And it’s endlessly fascinating to me. And I love color. Mixing color, for me, is pure play.
Art is an immediate way for kids to experience the creative process, whether or not they will become a working artist. Being a creative thinker and problem-solver is an important life skill for everyone.
As far as encouraging kids — I think it’s important, as a grown-up, to show that you also make mistakes when you draw. I was talking with a teacher recently who confessed that she was in charge of an after-school art club … but she was unwilling to draw in front of the kids! She felt embarrassed at the thought of them seeing her “limited” skill as an artist. To me, that is exactly why she should draw with them. Even if you don’t think you can draw well, it is important to let kids see you DRAW. Otherwise, you are sending a message that the only artists in the room are the people who seem “good” at this art thing, the kids who can put pencil to paper and make something that looks semi-realistic. Which is absolutely untrue. I was never the “best” artist in my class, but I LOVED to draw. And that love, more than any skill, is what makes an artist. By modeling that people who can’t “draw well” shouldn’t draw at all, we are teaching our children that creativity is not for everyone. And this couldn’t be farther from the truth!
Likewise, if you are a parent or a teacher and you do have technical drawing skills, it’s important to make drawings that don’t look perfect. We all have a desire to seem good at what we do, especially when there is an audience. But when you are making art with kids, it’s important to model what the creative process actually looks like — and nothing about creativity is perfect! Creativity is messy. It is a constant dance between what you want the thing to look like and what you have actually been able to create. But inside that dance there is SO much possibility and beauty.
So whether you are introducing an art activity to a class or drawing with your own children, I would say let them see you make mistakes, let your art be imperfect. This is how you show them that their drawing doesn’t have to be perfect. This is how you make art FUN. When I am in classrooms, I always try to always make a mistake on purpose as I introduce a project. Then I show a few different ways that I could recover from or transform that mistake. It lightens the mood in the class immediately. A mistake, from the teacher, is like an open doorway that says everyone is welcome.
I’ve always loved to read. And draw. And for the most part, my art education came from reading books. 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.