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Collaboration on The Wishes of the Fish King

Collaboration is such a powerful thing. When done well, it can bring together two unique visions — each complimenting the other — to form something greater. The process, though, can be tricky because it requires creative compromise. When the project is deeply personal to one of the collaborators, the process becomes even more complicated. I’ve learned a bit more about this while working on The Wishes of the Fish King with Doug McKelvey.

I was a little intimidated when Doug asked me to work with him on this book last November. Not because it would be a collaboration, but because when I read the manuscript I could tell that it wasn’t just another project to him. There was tenderness here and real care wrapped up in the lines of this story.

Doug wrote the book during and about a special time in his life, when his daughter was seeing the world for the first time, and it was all wonderful and full of magic. He wanted to preserve these poignant and fleeting moments, and so he wrote this story. And now I’m stepping into it 18 years later — into an already created story, space, and experience that represent a deeply personal and emotional part of Doug. To illustrate something like this, to bring my own artistic vision to an already established creation, can feel like walking into a minefield.

The Wishes of the Fish King

“A pleasure is full grown only when it is remembered.”

― C.S. Lewis, Out of the Silent Planet

Today Doug McKelvey and I launch a Kickstarter for the picture book The Wishes of the Fish King – a lyrical and wonder-filled story told by a father to his two-year-old daughter in hopes that it will help her to remember this magical season of her life. The illustrations are visual reflections of what she hears, and so are a blend of reality and her blossoming imagination. This project is about capturing and communicating that time in a child’s life when reality is fluid and wonder is born.

On the Easel and on the Horizon

Kickstarting Ellen and the Winter Wolves was quite the exhausting undertaking, so getting the last supporters’ book in the mail was a relief. I’m really happy with how the book turned out and how it was received (people either liked it or refrained from telling me they didn’t), but after five months of all things Ellen, I’m excited to move on to other projects. (In case you missed the Kickstarter and wish you hadn’t, Ellen and the Winter Wolves is available in the Rabbit Room Store.)

I hadn’t painted much since September, so after the Kickstarter responsibilities ran their course, I started a new piece. It’s so good to paint again! It’s called Cloak of Feathers and Leaves and is 30”x40” so it’ll take a while to finish. Here are some of the leaves that I’ve been working on this week. I look forward to sharing the finished painting with you all.


Another project that I’ve begun is a picture book collaboration with Doug McKelvey…

More Story Seeds, Ellen Picture Book, and House Show

I wrote a post this spring about little stories I write (two to three sentences long) that go along with my paintings. These story starters or story seeds are designed to get the imagination of the viewer going and let them catch a glimpse of what’s in my head. Here are a few more for you that I’ve done this year.

sarah escapes the night

The swirling clouds, iron-dark and heavy, reluctantly allowed her to pass. The basket creaked as Sarah leaned forward, peering into the pale light of dawn…

Creating a Picture Book: Part III – Kickstarter and the Final Stages

[This is the third post about the creation of Ellen and the Winter Wolves. You can read part 1 here and part 2 here.]

I mentioned last time that I’m using Kickstarter to fund my picture book, Ellen and the Winter Wolves, so over the past week or so I’ve been preparing the campaign. That means shooting a video and thinking through what rewards to offer folks for helping out. Determining what something is worth is a challenge, let me tell you. It’s been a lot of work, but it’s ready and launches today! Go check it out!

While preparing the Kickstarter I’ve also continued to work on the book, because, hey, it’s still not done. I finally finished painting the images around August 28th. I then began scanning the pictures in order to create the files I’ll need for printing. With scanning comes processing — inevitably dust will stick to the paintings and get transferred to the files, so I had to go through each picture and remove the dust in Photoshop. I also balanced the color and contrast in order to best match the look of the original piece.

Additional processing was necessary for a few of the images, though. I’m using three pictures in the book that I painted before I wrote it, and one of them needed some real work to match the story.

Creating a Picture Book: Part II – Things I Didn’t Think About

[This is the second post about the creation of Ellen and the Winter Wolves. You can read part I here.]

After finishing the text for Ellen and the Winter Wolves, I thought I would simply crank out twelve to fourteen illustrations and be done. (I thought twelve to fourteen would be the perfect number because that seemed manageable with my schedule.) So I sat down and broke the text up, attempting to make the breaks at natural transition points. I ended up with fourteen pages.

A problem quickly became apparent to me, however. As I sat on the floor reading the pages aloud, I realized if I was reading this to a kid, each page would take way too long to get through. They would be bored. This story is somewhat text-heavy (at the time it was around 3,400 words) and so fourteen illustrations weren’t going to be nearly enough.

Creating a Picture Book: Part I – The Beginning

Over the years people have encouraged me to do a picture book. I love to paint and I love to write, so why not put those things together? And I’ve wanted to, but I simply haven’t. Other projects have crowded it out, or I’ve started and then given up, overwhelmed by the enormity of it […]

Creating the Cover for Everlasting is the Past

When Pete and Andrew approached me about the cover art for Everlasting is the PastI was excited. When they told me they wanted a cover with a woodcut look in black and white, I was a little nervous. I hadn’t created a woodcut look before, though I had done quite a bit of pen and ink work, so I figured I’d give it a shot.

IMG_0325 First, I wanted to come up with an idea that reflected Walt Wangerin, Jr.’s main theme. So I read the manuscript, and Pete, Andrew, and I kicked around some ideas. I sent them some sketches. This one is from an early scene in the book, where the author is driving into a storm. They liked it, so I kept working on it.

Mr. Wangerin is driving into a storm, but the storm is more than a physical blizzard. It’s symbolic of a spiritual storm, which was the reason I made the car about to drive into a tunnel. I was trying to communicate the unknown that was ahead.

But the tunnel didn’t quite fit, it wasn’t quite enough, so I changed the tunnel to a tear in the sky. I wanted to get across the bigness of this crisis, something existential, and nothing quite does that like ripping a hole in space.

Story Seeds

Earlier this month I traveled to Albuquerque, New Mexico, for an arts festival. As I prepared my pieces for display, I tried to figure out how I could inject a little more story into my paintings. And so I decided to write a few lines that I would print on the back of the 2.5″x4.5″ title/price tags. These would be story seeds, words to stir the imagination, a few lines to trigger the mind of the viewer.

Well, they ended up inspiring me as well. These lines, written in haste, almost as an afterthought, have helped me (once again) to see that writing is not a massive and unmanageable undertaking.

And so I’m writing. I’m taking a couple weeks off painting (so my Instagram feed is going to be quiet for a time) and I’m going to get a story or two out that I can turn into a picture book. In the meantime, here are a few of my favorite story seeds and the images they accompany.

How The Voyage of the Peacock Came to Be

Here’s a painting I finished last month, called The Voyage of the Peacock. It’s 20″x 20″. I shared an in-progress shot with you in January and so I thought some of you might be interested to see how it turned out. This isn’t really about how the idea of The Voyage came to be, but the formation of the painting itself. Basically I’m going to take you through the different stages of the painting and what went on in my mind as I was painting it. So let’s start, shall we?

(Click on any image below for a larger and more complete view).

On the Easel

This frigid January day finds me working on a number of pieces. I’m rotating them out to let the paint dry and to keep myself engaged. Doing this also gives me time to mentally work through any problems that I run into as I’m painting.

The detail of the ship is for an art festival I’ll be participating in. It’s in Albuquerque in March and I’ll be bringing this and a van load of other paintings to sell, many of which haven’t been completed (or started) yet. I’m having fun with these feathers. I think I’m going to carve up that wood, too.


These last two details are from a pair of constellations I’m working on for my church, and they’re supposed to convey the main themes of the book of Mark. I’m still not sure whether they’re going to work or not, but I think I’m getting close.

My idea is to illustrate the difference between the Messiah the Jews expected and the Messiah that actually came, highlighting those differences through use of imagery and color and line. I used the same star field for both of these paintings, but the oak and the acorn use different stars to make up their constellations – the larger, brighter stars make up the oak, and the smaller, less significant stars make up the acorn. As I said, a work in progress.




On a side note, after I worked up the tree I decided I like painting constellations and so I’m going to do a quick series of them. Not real constellations, of course. Fake ones.

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Christmas Cards, Ellen Storybook, Art Show

Hey all! I wanted to let you know that those Topiary Christmas cards that I’ve been posting about for years are ready for purchase! Pop over to the Rabbit Room Store to get your Merry or Scary cards today.

Since Hutchmoot, I’ve shifted gears and have begun my next project. As you may have seen in a previous post, I’ve been doing paintings with Ellen for some time now. Her story has been vague and unformed, but is slowly taking shape with each new painting I do of her. This last month I’ve done a couple more and have decided that it’s time to tackle the story. This will help direct me with creating the remaining images.

I’ve also been getting ready for my first ever (and possibly last) House Show. My wife is graciously allowing me to clear out the furniture, put a bunch of nails in our walls, and invite a ton of people into our house to look at and hopefully buy some paintings, prints, and cards. This is happening on Saturday, November 15th. So if you’re in Wichita or the surrounding area, I’d love to see you at my house on the 15th. Details can be found on my Facebook site (link below).

Here’s a detail of one of the images I did last month – Ellen with a giant skeleton key. It’s called – you guessed it – Ellen and the Key. I’ll share more images with you as they come.

Ellen and the Key

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Work in Progress – Christmas Cards

Here are the first few cards that I’ve painted. I took a lot of your suggestions and, well, take a look! This has been a fun project and I think I’m going to do more. One of the reasons for this is when I painted the squirrel, several people told me it looked evil—its eye creeped them out. But it turns out that its creepy eye is what made it a favorite among several other friends. You can’t please them all.

Or maybe you can. I figured, why not make another line of cards, a line of slightly odd and creepy Christmas cards for my friends who appreciate the slightly odd and creepy? And so that’s what I’m going to do.


Work in Progress – Christmas Cards

I’ve been working on some sketches for a series of Christmas cards that I plan to make this fall. Here’s the first in my topiary animal series that I started this morning – I thought you folks might appreciate it. I’m open to suggestions for the other animals…

Click the image below to view full size.
christmas cards

The Leaning Stones

I recently had a conversation with my pastor about how visual art might be used to enhance or possibly expand the congregation’s worship experience at our church. He speaks to us every week, but what if I got up every once in a while to explain my visual interpretation of some of the themes that we’re studying? I already choose or create the artwork for our podcasts, so what if I talked about why I choose what I choose? My pastor thought this sounded like a good idea.

And so this week I spoke about this image (click here to see it full-sized). This is a piece I painted years ago, well before we started going through Genesis, and even though the painting isn’t about Genesis, it is about two of the themes that we’ve been studying. This was the first time I had told anyone what the painting was about, and I want to share it with you as well.