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Class Introduction

Lesson 1 from: Illustrating Characters and the Stories They Tell

Mary Jane Begin

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Lesson Info

1. Class Introduction

Lesson Info

Class Introduction

Today, I want to talk to you about storytelling because storytelling is one of those essential parts of imagemaking. And actually, we're all born with story in us, everyday we have a narrative running through our heads because we wanna tell a story about who we are. So today, what I wanna do is walk through how to elicit story in yourself, to get that out onto the page, to think about how your own, sort of, things block and keep you from being creative and telling stories. We're gonna walk through character development as a way to access a story, because when I'm illustrating, I often start with character. So we'll go through things like character expression, we'll talk about things like body movement and body gesture, we'll work through things like anatomy and costume. So I'm really excited to have students today and to work with you all, this is really exciting. So I'll get started with the Keynote. Telling Stories. So we'll begin at the beginning. What I'm showing you here is someth...

ing that I did back in first grade. My mother wisely saved all of these things and this is supposed to be me, and this is supposed to be my teacher. Notice who gets to be in color. (students laugh) At the time, you know, I'll just read this out, "I am Mary Jane Begin, my eyes are blue, my hair is blonde, I am very good, I think. I like to be writing at home. At school, I like to work and when I grow up I want to be a teacher." Well, I am a teacher, I teach at Rhode Island School of Design, so that worked out. But the writing part, I forgot all about that. This was there from the beginning. But like a lot of times, those things sort of go away, we forget what we love. So, I try to tell young children, when I show them this slide and I do presentations for kindergartners, I try to tell them, remember what you love now, hold onto that thing. So one of the things I want you to think about is feed your head with visual stimuli. It's one of the best springboards for storytelling. Now, this is fast forward to my college days at RISD, I had a teacher who gave an assignment to all of the students and it was to illustrate a letter from the alphabet. And I got Z. So I sketched out this really nice picture of a zebra, it was very realistic and it looked good. And I showed it to my teacher and she said, "Mary Jane, tell me a story." And I'm like, "What do you mean tell me a story?" She goes, "Tell me a story about the zebras." And I was like, um... I didn't have a story in my head, and I had not thought about storytelling, I was an artist, I was drawing. So I went back to my studio space and I put pictures of zebras all across the wall of my room, taped it up, and I just stared at them. I kept looking at the zebras, looking at the stripes. And suddenly, it was probably an hour or so later, I started to imagine, oh, what if those stripes were painted on? (snaps fingers) There's my idea. There's an artist zebra who paints all the different zebras and that's why they're all different. So what I realized is I needed to feed my head with visual stimuli, and as artists, that's really critical. So as I said, I didn't really think of myself as a writer. I was the artist, I wasn't the writer. So I worked with a lot of different writers and I also worked from some classic tales, like The Wind in the Willows, and this is a 19th century poet, Thomas Hood. And that made me feel confident. I could look at the words and the words, when I read them, were the springboard for me. I could imagine the pictures but I wasn't writing for quite some time. But this really helped me get into the active writing and thinking about story beyond just making the pictures, but writing as well. Sometimes, riffing off of a classic tale, fairytale or fable, can be good for a jumping off point for creating your own story. And you've seen that in the marketplace, you see people who riff off a classic and that's not uncommon, or they do a, sort of, redux. If you have a story structure already, it can make it easier to think about the visuals and write for yourself. Now The Wind in the Willows actually, this story inspired some stories for me because when I was asked to illustrate this, it had been illustrated over 90 times. This story is over 100 years old. And there were some really, there were luminaries who'd illustrated this book, like Ernest Shepard and Arthur Rackham, my hero. So I was a little intimidated to be illustrating a classic but I decided to take a, kind of, American view and make it very lush and colorful, which was a little different than some of the other English versions. But I love this story so much. I've read it 13 times, lucky 13. And I just fell in love with the characters. And so the main characters here are Toad, Ratty, Mole, and Badger. And what I got into was the idea like, these characters are really different one from the other. They're opposites, Badger is really shy and Toad is very outgoing and extroverted. And I thought, how do they become friends? So years passed and I kept thinking about this. You know how you become a little obsessed about something? You can't let it go? Well, I started to imagine that maybe they met when they were little, that maybe that was when they started to get to know each other, and that was the springboard actually for a story series. So I started off just sketching the characters, imagining how old they might be, they might be five or six. And because the story was written at a particular time, I went back in time thinking how old they must be in the original tale, maybe 30 or 40. So I went back to their childhood, which would have been like late 1800s, so that was why the dress was appropriate for that time period, I played with different gestures. I started to think about how they would actually have come together. And at the time, this is the perfect place to let stories unfold, I was looking at the ocean, my kids were little and my mom was playing with them. So I was watching her and I was sketching, I was like, (gasps) I know how all these characters came together. They had a nanny, Mrs. B, Badger's mom was the nanny for all these characters. Oh, that's how it came together. So I started to think about that and then I did a little sample piece and I pitched this project to my publisher. And... She loved, you know, my editor just loved the images and she loved the concept. They went to contract without stories written, so, that was an interesting thing. I was like, okay, now I have to write a story, an actual tale and that was the stumper. Once again, it was like the zebra moment. What am I gonna do with this? So I thought, oh, I'll just come up with a simple tale. I started to work through, well, what if they had a story about catching a big fish? I tried a couple things and my editor said, "You need a real conflict here. The story won't be interesting without some conflict." So, in thinking about that, I was like, well, I don't know where to find this conflict, where will this come from? So I went back to my childhood.

Class Materials

Bonus Materials with Purchase

Shadow Shapes
Exploring Character Development Workbook
Illustrating Characters Keynote

Ratings and Reviews

Tracie Hawks

I loved this class. The exercises are fun and inspiring. I was actually doing research to help me develop my own class when I bought this course and I'm thrilled I did. Bonus for me: I am going to work on developing a character and story I've left on the shelf for about four years thanks to this experience. I highly recommend to anyone of all skill levels.


I didn’t pay enough attention to the description so was surprised by the focus of the class — but in a definitely good way. As a member of SCBWI, I’ve learned a lot about illustrating characters by going to conferences and participating in our active local group. Most of the instruction I’ve received, as I suspect is also the case with most formal instruction, has been from the point of view of being given a character from a story to illustrate. This class covers creating a story based on the characters you draw, placing the drawing first and finding the story as you work. Of course there is overlap in the two approaches — overlap that emphasizes important steps. The creativity process is demonstrated clearly and in depth here in a gently encouraging way. However, while I, like the instructor, believe that everyone can be creative, I also question whether this approach would work for all illustrators: not all have time to write the stories that go with the characters they create, as ours is usually a business driven by clients who already have a story and characters. I’m not saying that this would not be a valuable class for them, just mentioning the different take on the subject. I had expected more of the usual angle of how to create a page of character sketches for your portfolio or how to develop the illustration of a character from a manuscript. Though help with these topics is partially covered in the progress of the class, they are not the main focus. All-in-all, the different approach is to the credit of the class — encouraging and expanding a student’s horizons. Also, plenty of little gems are thrown in during the lecture and demos, from techniques to the psychology of creativity. The instructor is competent, clear, and pleasant. She conveyed a lot of information that I didn’t realize until I was thinking about it later. One note: the titles for the breakdown of the demo are not exactly accurate, The demo is of the instructor creating one character as she draws. I understand that the producers wanted to segment it, but really it’s one continuous process, and some of the titles for those lessons are misleading.

Michelle F. Alexander

Wow... Thank you so much, MJ! What an absolute superstar! I really appreciate your artistic transparency in all of your examples of work + your thought process. It has made a HUGE difference to my creative mindset. And for that, I am very grateful. I can't wait to see what I can now create with all of these new skills that you given me. Good things! Michelle -x-

Student Work