Most artists return from a prolonged sojourn in Paris with a new way of seeing things. Their art, their writing, their lives burst with deep insight and robust creativity. Their subsequent work points to an enriched philosophy that changes the artist and all who behold their wondrous, brave, challenging new experiments. Paris has made them better, and, in return, they have made the world better with their efforts.
I took pictures of signage with my smartphone.
Sorry about that.
But, when having to concentrate fully trying to grasp a new language and culture, even the things that make should sense, like signage, don’t. “What if I’m misreading this?” a middle-aged cartoonist spending a confusing year in Paris might ask. “That would be embarrassing, dangerous, or worse, force me to miss getting to the cheese shop for the six minutes it’s open every week,” a similar middle-aged cartoonist could be forgiven for thinking.
When I decided to take a year in France, I thought it would be fun to make a few drawings and doodles of what I saw. Inexplicably, the folks at GoComics thought it would be fun to post them. It certainly was fun, which is why I’m continuing with them after I’ve returned home.
From the very beginning, my stated goal in life was to be a syndicated cartoonist. When I was 5, I wrote to Charles Schulz (Peanuts) asking if I could have his job when he died. As fate would have it, syndication would remain out of reach while I struggled as a stand-up, then television writer and animator, and ultimately began publishing books for children. I am as happy as I am lucky that I get to spend my days writing for kids, and I take great pleasure in the struggle of finding ways to hide how much work goes into my books. My goal is for my work to seem fresh, as if it’s just been written and drawn, a task that involves a large amount of planning and preparation.
A sampling of sketchbooks.
This is where the sketchbook comes in. If I am stuck (that is to say WHEN I am stuck) for a solution to a problem in one of my stories, I’ve discovered it is helpful to step away and do some doodling and sketching. Freed from the need to make useful drawings, I can instead allow my sketching to become playful. Usually, the solutions to those pesky problems can be found in loose sketching; that’s where the fun is.
The author hard at work negotiating with a character.
I believe this is true not just for illustrators. I think drawing and doodling is a freeing experience for everyone. It allows the mind to wander, it engenders empathy (you have to think about the character you are doodling), but mostly: it is fun.
I’ve broken down From The Mo Willems Sketchbook into a regular pattern (for now).
The roll of dining room doodle paper.
On Mondays you can expect an abstract or pure experiment in color and shape. Our family lays a big piece of craft paper down on the dining room table and doodles every night (which I post on Wednesdays). It’s great fun, except for some guests who have “sketch-fright.” With a little encouragement (reminding them that there is no such thing as a “wrong drawing”), they take up their crayon and begin with small shapes and designs. In a word, abstracts. I love seeing their forms, and over the past year have enjoyed mucking about with color and shape myself.
My wife makes wonderful abstracts during dinner.
At a café in Paris.
Tuesdays and Thursdays feature drawings from the sketchbook. Particularly when I travel, I like to find a quiet spot and sketch those around me. While my drawings may not always seem flattering, I’m looking for the type of person and trying to figure out what makes them happy to be them.
Sometimes my crayons get away from me …
Wednesdays are my dining room doodles, usually characters that arise spontaneously. Some of these characters may later find themselves in books. Elephant Gerald of the Elephant and Piggie early readers was born in a year-long series of evening sketches.
There is a gag in here somewhere …
Fridays can be mislabeled photographs of signage (Photo Phridays), paintings I had fun making, or gag comix from my archives.
I hope you enjoy popping by and visiting my efforts. I’m excited when I hear of people doodling and drawing because of what they see on the strip. If one of those people is YOU, thank YOU. If not, please pick up a crayon soon and have a doodle. It’s fun.
If you’d like some more Mofo’, here are some videos and articles that can give you a background on myself and my work:
CBS SUNDAY interview with Rita Braver. A nice piece that chronicles my career, my work in theater, philosophy, and why Paris.
TODAY show interview with Al Roker. We had a blast doodling all over the place, plus Al gives a nice overview of my work.
A Rival for Pigeon (NPR's Morning Edition) A fun chat about Pigeon, Duckling, Death, and Why Parents are Cool.
Mo Willems is the go-to author for children — and their parents (Washington Post) A lovely feature piece about my work and career with great pictures of kids yelling.
Guilt for dinner: The MoWillems interview (Time Out Chicago) Fun interview on my writing philosophy.
Zena Sutherland Lecture: “Why Books” (Horn Book) A transcription of a speech I delivered in Chicago.
Seriously Funny (Northampton Gazette) My local paper writes one of the best features on me yet.
You can find out more stuff at mowillems.com, and, yes, some of my original drawings are available via the R. Michelson Gallery.
Read From the Mo Willems Sketchbook here, follow Mo on Twitter, visit his blog or check out his website!