Where I visit a school and draw some pictures

Author John Lechner

This spring I had the pleasure of visiting the first grade classes at the Newman Elementary School in Needham, MA, to talk about my books. I started my presentation by drawing a big picture of a frog, then asking the children what other animals and objects we could add to the picture. They had a lot of great ideas (fish, tadpole, lily pad, bird, caterpillar, snail) and I drew as many as I could fit. I told them one of the fun parts about drawing is that there are so many ways you can draw a picture, it’s up to your imagination.

Author John Lechner

Then I read my book A Froggy Fable, which is always fun to read aloud. I talked about how I wrote the story in my notebook, then revised it many times before it was accepted by a publisher. I showed them some of the rough drawings and the final paintings, and some of the paintings that I had to do twice, because I didn’t like how they turned out. Illustrating a book takes a long time.

Author John Lechner

After that, I did a story activity where I divide the paper into four squares and the children help me create a story on the spot. First we think of an animal to be the main character (animal stories work well with this activity.) Then we decide where that animal lives and what could happen to them in the story. I draw the pictures as we go, and in the last square we try to resolve the story into a satisfying ending.

This story in the photograph below was about a lion, a monkey and an elephant, and the students came up with lots of creative ideas, too many to count. I told them at the end that this story could have turned out a hundred different ways, that each one of them could have written it differently. That’s one of the great things about storytelling, that everyone’s story is unique.

Author John Lechner

Author John Lechner

A few weeks later I received some lovely thank you cards from the school, all tied together with yarn. There are a lot of creative kids there! I hope they found the experience inspiring and fun. Many thanks to the teachers and volunteers who helped arrange my visit.

Letters from first graders to John Lechner

 

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New paintings and new projects

The year is speeding by, and I’ve been busy with all sorts of things. But in between other projects, I started doing a series of small paintings using ink pen and sepia watercolor. All of these are just a few inches wide. Monochromatic painting is a unique challenge, because you can’t rely on color to delineate objects, you have to focus on composition and value. I’ve been learning a lot doing these, maybe someday I’ll do a whole story in this style.

Girl in a Tree, by John Lechner

Painting by John Lechner

Trouble at Sea, by John Lechner

You Shall Not Pass, by John Lechner

In other news, I had a great time at the NE-SCBWI conference this month, learning new things and meeting cool people. And on May 5th I’ll be participating in the Needham Open Studios, so if you’re in the area, come on down. (I will be there Saturday, not Sunday.)

Also, I may be announcing a new project in the next few weeks, so stay tuned!

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Page-A-Day Flip Book – finished!

Page-A-Day FlipbookAt the beginning of last year, I started my Page-A-Day Flip Book, and I’m happy to say it’s finally finished! The aim of the project was to draw one page every day, and see where it led. Although I missed a few weeks here and there, I managed to keep it going all year, and finally finished it up last month.

The project had its challenges. For one thing, if a flip book gets too long, it becomes hard to flip. This animation filled three tablets, so I could never see how the entire thing looked. I also made a rule that I could only draw one page at a time, so I didn’t do any keyframing or storyboarding. And I didn’t allow myself to go back and change drawings, other than minor cleanup. This made it difficult to control timing, but it was a great challenge.

I photographed each page with a digital camera and assembled the images in Flash before exporting as a Quicktime. I worked out music on the ukulele that would fit the piece, and put it all together. It was a fun project, and I hope you enjoy watching it!

 

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The Artist, a silent film for the ages

The Artist movie posterI don’t usually write about films here, but I wanted to comment on The Artist, which is like a breath of fresh air in today’s movie landscape. As you probably know, it’s a silent film based on the style of classic films from the early 20th Century. If you’ve seen the trailer or previews, you know that it’s about a silent film star who struggles to make the transition to talking pictures. It’s comedy, melodrama, and film history rolled into one visually stunning package.

Silent films have a unique visual language all their own. The director of The Artist, Michel Hazanavicius, writes on the official website “As a director, a silent film makes you face your responsibilities. Everything is in the image, in the organization of the signals you’re sending to the audience. And it’s an emotional cinema, it’s sensational; the fact that there is no text brings you back to a basic way of telling a story that works only on the feelings you have created.”

In this way, silent films are a lot like picture books, where the images have to convey so much. And since the viewer has to interpret the images to understand the story, it’s a more internalized, intimate kind of storytelling than a film with audio.

But what makes this particular film appealing isn’t just the clever visual storytelling, it’s the story itself — about an artist, the fictional actor George Valentin, who falls down on his luck and must find his way back up again. The director states, “To me, it’s interesting to think of George’s story in terms of a human being in a transition period. The world is always moving, and you might be looking in another direction. One day, the world says to you, ‘you’re part of the past.’ It can happen in your own office, in your factory, in your relationship. It’s a feeling any person can understand.”

It’s rare for such a unique film as The Artist to receive such commercial success, and this in itself is worth cheering. It’s a great film if you’re a fan of classic cinema, silent films, or a good old-fashioned story. And if you happen to be an artist who feels a little bit discouraged with your life or career, well, it’s an inspiration.

Scene from The Artist

Scene from The Artist

Scene from The Artist

Scene from The Artist

Visit the official website for The Artist

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Winter arrives in Burrwood Forest

Sticky Burr waits for snowWinter is here, a time for snow (depending on where you live) and cold temperatures, and a tendency to hibernate until spring. I think it’s a very inspiring season, because it makes you stop and look around, and see things a little more clearly.

Here is a short animation I created to celebrate the arrival of winter, starring Sticky Burr and his friends, who are also featured in two of my books. The music was composed by my brother Tony Lechner, who also wrote the music for the Sticky Burr theme song. I hope you enjoy it, and I hope you all have a happy and safe holiday season!

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My books in schools and libraries

Sticky Burr fan artI’ve had great feedback from parents, teachers and librarians over the years, about how they have used my books with children. There was the 2nd grade teacher whose students were inspired to write stories about nature after reading The Clever Stick, and learned to better appreciate their classmates on the autism spectrum. Or the elementary classroom in Australia who drew pictures inspired by Sticky Burr after reading the book. Or the notes about struggling readers who were so excited about Sticky Burr that they read it cover to cover. It’s so gratifying to know that my books are inspiring children.

I just created a new page on my website called Educator Resources, which lists ideas and activities for using my books with children, including discussion questions and activity sheets. I hope to add a lot more in the future, so if you have any ideas you would like to contribute, please let me know.

In another bit of good news, my book Sticky Burr: Adventures in Burrwood Forest was just included in the American Library Association’s core list of graphic novels, which is a great honor. Thank you to all the teachers and librarians who have been so supportive over the years!

Enthusiastic students

My visit to an elementary school in Pennsylvania last spring

 

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The Prisoner in the Dungeon – a short comic

The Prisoner in the Dungeon, a short comic by John Lechner

Recently I wrote about a new comic I was working on, and I am pleased to present it here in its entirety. It is eight pages long, and was included in a new anthology called Minimum Paige published by the Harvard Book Store.

The story evolved as I wrote it, and although it was conceived as a short comic, I would like to expand it into a full-length book someday. You can read the comic here.

Below are some images showing the process I went through to create the comic. It was a new process for me, using traditional and digital methods. I started with very rough sketches to write the story and map out the pacing.

Rouch sketch

Then I did a more detailed series of sketches to figure out the final layout, pacing and text.

Rough Sketch

I scanned the sketch and brought it into Adobe Illustrator do to the typesetting, and see exactly how much room I would need for all the balloons.

Rough Typesetting

I printed out the sketch with text, and using a light box, traced the final pencil lines on good paper, also refining any details that were missing in the last version. All the word balloons were drawn by hand to fit the text.

Final Pencil

I drew the final ink lines over the pencil using a Micron pen and brush, then erased the pencil.

Final ink

I scanned the ink drawings into Photoshop, painted the shading, then brought the image back into Illustrator, where the type was already set. (I could have also done the typesetting in Photoshop, but this is just the way it happened.)

Final ColoringSo there you have it! It was a new process for me, but I think it worked pretty well, and it was a fun project. I hope you enjoy the final product!

 

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New comic, and exhibit

I recently finished a new short comic, which will be coming out this month in a new anthology called Minimum Paige, published by the Harvard Book Store. This comic was a new kind of challenge for me in many ways. It was eight pages long, it was black and white, and it needed to appeal to older readers. I drew it on paper and colored it in Photoshop, which was a new technique for me. It was a learning experience, but I’m happy with the way it came out, and hope to do more projects in this style.

Below are the first two pages. You can click on the images to see them full size. I don’t want to give away the ending just yet, but maybe eventually I’ll post the whole thing. There will be an opening reception for the anthology’s release on Thursday Sept. 22nd at the Harvard Book Store.

The Prisoner in the Dungeon - Page 1 The Prisoner in the Dungeon - Page 2

In other news, I have a painting in the art show Comic Art New England, at Lesley University. It is part of the Massachusetts Independent Comics Expo (MICE) happening next week. My artwork is an original watercolor from my book Sticky Burr: The Prickly Peril. There is an opening reception for the exhibit on Saturday Sept. 17th. More information here.

By the way, I’m still working on my Page-A-Day Flipbook, even though I’m a few weeks behind. I’ll try to post an update soon.

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Books, exhibits, and what’s new

illustration by John Lechner

Here’s a little sketch I did for the Creative Juices blog, for the “What The Doodle” feature. The word this time was “roose” which means praise. See what all the other artists came up with!

I’ve been busy working on miscellaneous projects this summer. If you haven’t been keeping up with my weekly webcomic, you can check it out here. In the latest adventure, Jasper the snow moth is trying to get back to the Arctic, with the help of Sticky Burr and Mossy.

Speaking of Sticky Burr, one of my paintings from the book Sticky Burr: The Prickly Peril was accepted into the exhibit “Picture This!” at the Danforth Museum in Framingham, MA, and also won an Honorable Mention. (Congratulations to Scott Magoon who was the First Prize winner!) The exhibit only runs until August 7, so catch it if you can.

Here are some photos from the exhibit, with my painting at the end.

Danforth Museum exhibit 1

Danforth Museum exhibit 2

Danforth Museum exhibit 3

 

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Spiderman the musical: why superheroes have a tough time on Broadway

Spiderman comic 100The new musical Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark has been all over the news lately, more for its production budget and offstage drama than its story or music.  As it makes its official debut this week, I’ve been thinking a lot about why this whole concept has never appealed to me, from a creative standpoint.  I love musicals, and I love superheroes — so wouldn’t a combination of the two be completely awesome?  Or is there something about these two ingredients that just doesn’t fit together, like oil and water?

I’m not saying it could never be done, I’m just saying that the superhero genre has unique characteristics that make it less easily suited to musical theater. Hence the lack of hit musicals based on superheroes.

Spiderman comic 121Musicals can really be based on almost anything, from Tales of the South Pacific to Romeo and Juliet. So what do all successful musicals have in common? Besides good songs, which is a given, they all have a central human conflict. They can all be boiled down to a core struggle between two (or more) characters — Anna and the king, Henry Higgins and Eliza Doolittle, the Sharks and the Jets, Galinda and Elphaba.

Superhero stories do have human conflict, but it is played out on a colossal stage, filled with larger-than-life villains and monsters, fireballs and explosions; at least, it is in the new age of Hollywood superheroes, who have become blockbuster techno-stars, leaping digitally from building to building. The longer, more complex stories of the original comics have been condensed and flattened into epic battles that leave little room for characters or ideas. (Who wants those during the summer?)

Spiderman comic 145Not that superhero movies can’t be serious or artistic, but they have all morphed together into a new mutant beast that is redefining superheroes in the public eye, pulverizing the memory of their comic book ancestors.

But this post isn’t about movies, it’s about Broadway musicals.

Yes, Virginia, it is hypothetically possible to make a musical out of a comic book. But here is the trick – it must be written in such a way that it would work without costumes, without flying, without any special effects. In other words, the story and characters must stand on their own. Despite all those chorus lines, musical theater is really about character and emotion more than spectacle, and upsetting that balance has destroyed many a producer’s dreams.

To work on stage, the story must be stripped down to its bare essence. Ironically, costumes and epic battles are such an integrated part of the superhero genre, it’s nearly impossible to extract them without losing the essence of the genre, and there’s the rub. The things we love about superheroes are what make them an awkward fit for the stage.

Would the movie version of Spiderman work on an emotional level without costumes or special effects? Maybe the first half, probably not the second half. Would the new Broadway production of Spiderman work without costumes or special effects? That is the seventy-million dollar question, and that is what will determine whether this super-musical soars or plummets to the streets of Manhattan.

‘Nuff said!

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