Behind the Scenes: “Knowing the Why, Finding the How”

Got the luck o’the Irish this month with an extra guest post! In anticipation of her debut picture book bursting into the world on March 19, Elizabeth Brown shares a bit of the story behind the book:Elizabeth Brown Dancing Through Fields of Color Book Birthday March 2019

DANCING THROUGH FIELDS OF COLOR: THE STORY OF HELEN FRANKENTHALER by Elizabeth Brown, illustrated by Aimee Sicuro (Abrams Books for Young Readers, 2019). [Be sure to stop by next week when I feature this book for Perfect Picture Book Friday!]

It’s clear that Elizabeth had a personal connection to her subject, but when she sat down to write, she had to figure out how to tap into the artist’s life.  Thank you, Elizabeth, for this peek behind the scenes…

I love colors. Reds, blues, yellows, greens! Any shade, any tone. It’s one of the reasons I decided to write a picture book biography of Abstract Expressionist artist Helen Frankenthaler (1928-2011) who was known as a “supreme colorist.” I know children love working with color in their art projects and paintings. I know they want to express their feelings and emotions through the use of color, like Helen did herself. Because of this, I wanted to bring her story to young children. DANCING THROUGH FIELDS OF COLOR focuses on Helen’s young life and how she was inspired to express emotion and nature through color. Helen overcame many obstacles on her path but ultimately developed her own method (the soak-stain method) to create very large scale paintings, especially through the creation of her Mountains and Sea (1952). Her work inspired other artists after her, and she is said to have sparked a new wave of Color Field artists in the 20thcentury.

Elizabeth Brown Dancing Through Fields of Color One of my daughter's paintings using Helen's style when she was about 3 years old(2)
One of my daughter’s paintings (age 3) using Helen’s style.

My daughter used Helen’s soak stain technique in some of her art classes from preschool through her current elementary school years. I have added a couple here just to show some of the art projects done in schools and art classes for children using Helen’s methods, styles, and ideas of painting. When I saw my daughter’s art inspired by Frankenthaler’s style, I remembered my own love of Frankenthaler’s work from my modern art history courses in college.

Helen Frankenthaler’s striking use of colors was and still is unforgettable. I knew I needed to see how she worked. Luckily, there was a superb film showing Helen working in her New York City studio which I was able to view thanks to the Helen Frankenthaler Foundation whose help and support in both my research and in vetting the manuscript has been wonderful. The film allowed me to see exactly how Helen created her soak stain paintings.

Elizabeth Brown Dancing Through Fields of Color March 2019 One of my daughter's pitnings in Helen's style when she was 5 years old with popsicle sticks added
One of my daughter’s paintings (age 5) using Helen’s painting techniques (popsicle sticks added!)

After watching Helen painting in the film and seeing how children use Helen’s method in their own art, I actually tried Helen’s soak-stain method myself so I might understand how to depict her method with words and be able to show her art making process in an interesting way. It was definitely a fun method of research! I reached in with my arms like Helen. I worked around the canvas as she did, and pushed the paint with tools like Helen did. This really helped me in writing the book! Sometimes one just needs to do something to understand it better!

Elizabeth Brown Dancing Through Fields of Color One of my daughter's painting done with some of Helen's techniques when she was 8IMG_2349
One of my daughter’s paintings (age 8) using Helen’s soak stain techniques.

At the same time, I tried to work in one big concentrated time frame like Helen did when she first painted Mountains and Sea. I wanted to feel what she may have felt when she was so inspired and created the painting in one day. Doing so also really helped me in finding a way to express her burst of creativity in making Mountains and Sea and to then be able to show this in a fun way in the manuscript which young children could relate to.

Helen’s painting method is often used in art education and fine arts programs for all levels and ages. Children can try out her method with the art project in the back matter, and this project can be done individually or as a larger group art activity. What better way after reading Helen’s story in the book to fully experience her life through making art! Helen’s paintings and her story can inspire children to experiment, to create in their own way, envision new possibilities with art, with paint and their imagination, and they can have fun doing so! And in a world that may often stifle their artistic inclinations, hopes, and dreams as they grow up, it was important to me to bring Helen’s story to all children. I hope readers will feel the joy of creating art and be inspired to follow their own path. This was the idea behind bringing this book to life!

Elizabeth Brown is a children’s book author, professor of writing and the humanities, and a professional violinist. She lives in the Chicago area with her family and three cats. DANCING THROUGH FIELDS OF COLOR is her debut picture book, and she has other forthcoming picture books to release soon after.
Website: www.elizabethmbrown.com
Twitter: @ebrownbooks


8 thoughts on “Behind the Scenes: “Knowing the Why, Finding the How”

  1. This was delightful and inspiring. As a novice trying to learn watercolor, I am excited to learn more about Helen Frankenthaler. Congratulations Elizabeth on your debut picture book!

    Liked by 1 person

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