Thursday, April 26, 2012

Sentiment vs. Sentimentality in Children's Books

Sentiment is feeling. It's emotion that's immediate and genuine. But "genuine" is a loaded word. There's no universal measure of what's genuine and what isn't. What is authentic to us, rather than manufactured when it comes to emotions, is purely intuitive. You can talk around what's authentic but you can't define it. You might say to yourself, "I know it when I see it," and there might be some concensus to back you up among people you respect, but that's about the best we can do. So what I'm going to say here about sentiment is  my own subjective view. I can't tell you what sentiment is, but I can attempt to describe, at least on some level, what it isn't, and I can try to talk around it in such a way that at least points towards what I'm trying to express.

Sentiment is Not by Definition Romantic

Sentiment is often associated with romanticism. Intuition, love, aesthetics, are all thought to be romantic ideas, but I would contest this. Romance is idealism, but ideals cannot be achieved, they can only be strived for. People with a literal belief in their own ideals tend to run at windmills, and can never be satisfied with anything they achieve, because what they want is fundamentally intangible. A little romance, and a little idealism is healthy, but too much is self-destructive. Romance and idealism represent sentimentality; they're the stuff of revolutions, and unfortunately, most revolutions don't end well. 

The Prince Charming Myth

Girls often are attracted to the princess archetype. Princesses are special individuals who receive attention for their station and beauty. It's a great romantic fantasy for girls. It does tend to reinforce gender stereotypes, but I don't think it's necessarily a harmful fantasy. What is harmful, is the prince charming myth. 

Prince Charming is charming. He's charming, and romantic, and handsome and, well, not much else really. He's as simple an embodiment of the romantic idea as you can get. He's not a person, he's an object not only to be revered, but to come to the rescue. The fantasy of prince charming is that he will provide everything that the princess needs to be happy. He will provide love. The only problem is, little girls don't quite know what "happy" is. They're still learning how to have friendships. They're still learning how to love. 

There's the love of your parents and family, which, under the best of circumstances, is unconditional, and then there's the love you have for your friends, which is entirely learned. Again, this is an intuitive process, a non-rational process, but it's still a function of the intellect. There are aspects of friendship that contain logical concepts that can be taught in a straightforward manner: to express mutual respect, kindness, generosity--the behavior can be taught, but the understanding behind the behavior comes with time. Love must be modeled, and experienced, and cannot be explained.

So girls are given this false archetype of love, and it's very attractive. Its an archetype of pure sentimentality--it's not an experiential kind of love, but an intangible idea of love, intangible for a very good reason: it doesn't exist. The problem is, many girls never learn the difference. It's an important developmental step for girls to recognize this ideal for what it is. And of course, boys aren't immune either. The heroines in boy stories are objects of beauty, not to be rescued, but to be attained, which is essentially the same thing. This is why I think romantic relationships have no place in stories for early readers. Kids aren't developmentally ready for them, and romantic relationships can be easily misinterpreted by children.

Stories of Friendship and Real Sentiment

This is why stories of friendship are so important in children's lit. Real stories of friendship that contain real sentiment are invaluable to the process of learning how to be a good friend, and how to have good relationships. The best children's stories about friendships, like Winnie The Pooh, Babar the Elephant, and Frog and Toad Are Friends, are not sentimental. The love in these stories is genuine and immediate. It's not a nonexistent romantic ideal, and it's not nostalgia, it's an expression of the understanding that comes with acts of kindness, generosity and mutual respect, and it's an expression that takes place in the present of the story. It's not simply being, but doing. It's not reflecting, but experiencing.

Objects of Antagonism in Children's Stories

Unsympathetic villains, objects of antagonism, are no better than objects of imaginary romantic love. They carry no weight. In their own way, they're a kind of romantic ideal. Bad guys are to be condemned and vanquished, and when kids are still learning about friendships and real love, this kind of condemnation of another human being is just as confusing. They end up confronting the people in their lives, both in person and in media, and thinking, "is this a bad guy? Or is this a bad guy?"  Now there are certainly people that it's best for kids to stay away from--bullies or anyone at all who might cause them harm, but the bad guy archetype is often applied a little too indiscriminately. People are complex. In life, we don't stand at the gate and ask, "friend or foe?" As we grow older, we tend to have complex feelings about people. Kids also deserve this opportunity. Kids deserve to see that there are reasons that people do things, and though some people might behave in a way they don't agree with, it's not always black and white. This is a lesson every bit as important as learning about love and friendship; to empathize with people we don't necessary like or have a connection to.

Sentiment in My Own Writing

If I accomplish anything in my writing, I want to achieve this: to make sure that my characters are presented with sensitivity and insight. That they're people, not objects of idealism or malice. I'm not going to be able to achieve this with every story I write, but when I'm at my best, this is what I will try to offer.

Illustration by Gustave Dore

Monday, April 23, 2012

Ladybug and Gentleman Beetle Sequence, Illustration vs. Sequential Art

Two vignette samples for Ladybug and Gentleman Beetle. Here Ladybug is telling Gentleman Beetle that she saw something that scared her in the garden, and Gentleman Beetle pours her a cup of tea and reassures her.

This is intended as an early reader book in the tradition of Frog and Toad Are Friends. I anticipate a lot of sequential action like this, scenes that really make the characters come to life and you can take advantage of some of the more subtle aspects of their expressions and body language. This is, in essence, comics to me, or at least, what I call comics. 

Why I Don't Reuse Art Work

the furniture and rug are not reused artwork, but carefully light boxed and retraced. It's subtle,but I still think it has a different feel that people notice, at least on an unconscious level. I really like sequential action, where figures are moving in front of the same or a similar background as if in animation. You particularly used to see this in old newspaper strips. It can really bring the characters to life. Cutting and pasting a background or any repeated element outright is so easy now with the computer, but can really make the scene feel static. A lot of cartoonists I know who do small press comics are anal about this, and I used to fight it, but now I get it. No matter how precisely you duplicate the image, it's going to be just a little bit different, just enough for it to have a little bit of life. There is no good objective reason why this is better, but it works for me. 

Sequential Action in Comics and Picture Books

Sequential action is comics, and Frog and Toad are Friends, is comics. The Cat in the Hat is comics. The Invention of Hugo Cabret is comics. Panel borders, word balloons and captions do not a comic, make. It's about pictures and words that are completely dependent upon one another to tell a story. You can call it comics. You can call it sequential art, you can call it a graphic novel for all I care, but it all amounts to the same thing. 

Why does this distinction matter? Illustration, by its nature, elaborates in some way on the text. In the early days, when manuscripts were decorated with images by the monks who hand copied the text, it was called "illumination," and I think in a different way, this is a very apt description of what good illustration is. It illuminates and brings out the text, rather than simply ornamenting it. But this isn't the same as sequential art. In sequential art the words and text are combined almost seamlessly to the point where the two are so closely associated that the images are the story. If the very nature of the way the story is told, of how the story is expressed through the images, make it hard to conceive of anyone else drawing it, that's as good a measure as any that it's sequential art. 

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Thomas Kinkade: a Reevaluation. Or: What is Kitsch and Why is it Bad Exactly?

Or is it bad?

As you probably know, the popular painter Thomas Kinkade died a couple of weeks ago. Popularity on the scale of Kinkade is something few artists experience, but most artists I know hated the guy, or at least, resented the hell out of him. 

The first thing I noticed when he died was how carelessly the obituary on Yahoo had been written. More accurate information could have easily been found on Wikipedia. The author of the obit described Kinkade's paintings as,  "brushstroke paintings," whatever that means. As far as I know there are few other ways to paint a painting than with a brush, unless digital media has become so prevalent that the author felt that a distinction had to be made, but I doubt it. Maybe they meant impressionist? Though his paintings weren't entirely impressionistic either.  But "brushtroke paintings" was simply lazy.  The article ended with how much his paintings sold for, "$100 to $10,000" except this wasn't how much his paintings sold for at all. He didn't sell his paintings. He sold his prints. He sold them in his own chain of stores in malls all over the country. You probably all ready know this, at least the part about his chain of stores, but the author of the article couldn't be bothered. It wasn't even logical: how could the most successful painter in the U.S. sell his original work for $100? So even though I didn't care for the guy's work, I felt that Yahoo had done him an injustice. He deserved better.

Why did people hate him? They hated him because he appeared to be an mercenary opportunist. He  was unapologetically arrogant. I once read a New Yorker profile about him where he described his resentment for art academia, and how they had rejected him. He thought he should be in all the greatest museums in the world, and that time would show his true value as an artist. He once said, "The concept that an artist would be revered by popular culture is an immediate dismissal of his relevance as an artist." I can't deny the essential truth of this statement, at least in contemporary art academia. And time has won out for a lot of popular artists. Through his pictures, Norman Rockwell invented an undeniably unique portrait of american culture that has become such a powerful argument, that his work has entered both the popular and academic vernacular to describe a particular vision of American culture. However you feel about his work, his impact on our collective imagination in undeniable. Kinkade loved Rockwell. He once said, "We've found a way to bring millions of people an art they understand." Supposedly, one in twenty American homes contain a piece of Kinkade's work, so maybe he had a point. One out of twenty people can't be wrong.  People like what they like, and to say that it's because they lack sophistication is too easy. "These paintings are easy to call insignificant by a critic, but they are precious to the people who bring them into their home," said Kinkade, another difficult point to argue.

I don't doubt Kinkade's essential sincerity. If he capitalized on his work, it was out of his own faith that it had value. He knew how to exploit it, and he did. The kind of success that he generated was equal parts artistic ability and business acumen. He used every opportunity to sell his work in every venue possible. There were dish towels, and commemorative plates. There were even TV movies and housing developments. This pissed a lot of people off. Not only did they feel his work was kitsch, but he was making a bundle. Success on this scale has a way of justifying what you do, of proving, on some level, that your work, and by extension, you, are loved. But it didn't seem quite enough for Kinkade. He didn't only want to be loved by the people who loved his work, he wanted to be legitimized by the cultural elite. Clearly this was a point of huge contention with him.  

 He was a deeply, almost aggressively religious man, and he considered the work he did an act of reverence, and that his inspiration came directly from god. Who can argue with that kind of conviction? If god is your muse, who cares about the cultural elite. But apparently Thomas Kinkade, did. At least enough to be vocally resentful about their perceived rejection of him. 

In the last few years, since I've been doing children's material, I've been reassessing what I think about the idea of kitsch. The polish author, Milan Kundera once defined kitsch as "a denial of what is unacceptable about reality." He used the concept to describe the failure of communist idealism, and of idealism in general. One of my favorite books of Kundera, Life is Elsewhere, is about a communist poet who tries to live every aspect of his life by what he supposes to be his ideals, but can't get beyond his own vanity. The gap between what he wanted to be and who he was, was inescapable, and since he could not accept who he was, he became a living example of the concept of kitsch. I don't know if this applies to Kinkade personally, but it's one definition of Kitsch, and Kinkade's work can be easily argued to be Kitsch.

This is pretty typical of the kind of work we associate with Kinkade:

Quintessential Kinkade

 I'm not going to deny that there's something about it that's very enchanting. Intellectually, I want to reject this thought immediately, but there is a part of me, the part of me that liked Disney's Snow White as a kid, that is very attracted to the image. On a technical level it's competently painted. Kinkade is no amateur. His paintings take quite a bit of skill to execute. But it's not simply the way they're executed that's appealing, and there are many other painters who have more technical skill than Kinkade.

Everything in the picture is arranged in a way that reminds me of a manicured and very cared for garden. When I see people with a garden like this I don't think kitsch, so much as, "wow, they really take care of their garden." The cottage is about as enchanting a cottage as you could imagine. It's got a thatched roof, arched door, and cobbled stonework. There is not one, but two smoking chimneys, which seems a little impractical for the size of the house, but its cozy size is also appealing. It is the kind of place you might expect a little elf to live. The bridge, too, is the image of a quaint little bridge. You've got a stream, you've got a little serpentine pathway, and of course, Kinkade's trademark glimmering light and misty background. The whole scene is surrounded by brilliant pastel colored flowers and blossoms. It's a collection of charming and idyllic nouns, all crammed into one painting.

It's hard to see images for their own merits. We tend to pick out the nouns. Tree. House. Car. When we look at a picture, nouns are the first things we think of. Aside from simple expressions of desire and affection, simple nouns are the first things we learn when we learn about language. Our conception of these nouns is elaborated on over time as we learn more about "tree," and "house" and "car." Our collective understanding of a given noun is called it's schema.  Each of these symbols has its own schema and cultural association, and these associations are similar if you share that culture. Kinkade succeeds in evoking a psychological response of quaintness and nostalgia by tapping into that collective schema. Someone who has not been exposed to our cultural idyls will likely not have the same response. There's little denying that Kinkade is very good at this. By effectively illustrating these symbols in combination, he's able to evoke an emotional response, whether or not, intellectually you would like to have that response. I think it's this involuntary emotional response that causes even more resentment in people who don't like Kinkade's paintings. It's like when you watch a movie that you know is emotionally manipulative, that you know is pressing your emotional buttons, but you can't help but feel what the movie is trying to make you feel. When I see a movie like that, afterwards, I feel ripped off. I feel lied to. But as mercenary as Kinkade seems to be as a businessman, I don't think his intentions as a painter are mercenary at all. He doesn't intend to manipulate. I think, by combining all of these elements, he's pleasing himself. It makes him happy to paint this stuff, and he can see that it makes other people happy too.

When I look at Kinkade's paintings and enjoy them, part of me feels like I'm looking at something elicit. It's enchantment porn. But then I go from being enchanted, to feeling ripped off again. I once read pornography described as something that's only purpose is for you to want it.  I think there's some of this in Kinkade's paintings, but to say that this is their only aim is an oversimplification. But he's not Norman Rockwell. While Rockwell illustrated his world view by telling a variety of stories in a variety of ways, Kinkade tells the same story over and over again. Obviously it's a story people like. To enjoy his paintings, you have to have a willingness to allow yourself to feel the feelings of enchantment and nostalgia that these paintings evoke. All it takes is the willingness, and a cultural affinity for the symbols he uses. It's hard for me, personally, to be so willing, seeing the paintings as I see them. Intellectually I can't allow myself to suspend my dislike for this kind of emotional manipulation, even if it's not cynical or calculated. It's also a very traditional and conservative kind of nostalgia, what my wife would call, "grandma." It's the kind of naive charm that we associate with an era less cynical, and perhaps our cynicism denies us the simple pleasure of what Kinkade has to offer. 

Disney, My Own Work, and How Kitsch is Too Kitsch?

I've discussed in earlier posts my ambivalence for and admiration of Disney films. My ambivalence stems from their aggressive charm, similar to that of Kinkade, and my admiration comes from both the craft of them, which goes far beyond what Kinkade ever achieved, and the naturalism and expressiveness of the best of Disney's character animation, most of which happened prior to the 70s. But this character animation, too, can be aggressively charming and aggressively endearing. I find the best Disney films both an inspiration, and a caution. I look at them and think, what in this seems manipulative, or insincere to me? When I talk about insincerity, I don't mean intention. I'm sure the intentions of the animators were very sincere, even if that intention was to cajole. They did whatever it took to make their characters appealing. But sincerity, to me, is to invest in these characters something that goes beyond Kinkade's nouns. Insincerity, to me, is when, over all else, the intention is plainly to evoke emotion, rather than to express character and the subtle commonalities in human beings. When it's no longer about "bridge" but about a specific and unique bridge. 

In recent years, I've thought more about audience than I ever have before. I'm telling stories, and I want the reader to experience identification with the characters. There is also a marketplace that I have to consider. Books have to be sold. I try not to be mercenary about my approach to that marketplace, but I do know what kinds of images are going to make it difficult for me to succeed in that marketplace. It would be disingenuous to say that I haven't catered my work, in part, to what I know I can sell. Illustration is a business, but also an occupation. I want to tell stories in the most effective way I can, but I can't be very effective if no one is buying my work. So to survive in that marketplace, I have to make certain compromises, but the last thing I will ever compromise is my sincerity. 

Without being particularly self-conscious of it, I try to avoid making pictures that are driven by the kinds of nostalgia nouns and specific emotional objectives that I've described. So far this hasn't proven to be much of an obstacle. Generally I do the work that pleases me, with the intention of telling whatever story I'm trying to tell in the most effective way I can. Is it my attention to charm? Absolutely. But charm is secondary to narrative. And if I'm doing my job right, it's the story that you come away with, and not enchanting nouns, or generic emotions. 

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Beetle Inks

Here's an inked figure (so to speak) for Ladybug and Gentleman Beetle, the book I'm working on. This is, of course, a part of a bigger composition, but as usual I'm inking in pieces. Drybrush and ink. 

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Messiah Stories in Contemporary YA Fantasy


Protagonist is born with a special talent because of his/her lineage. His/her parents may be keeping this secret from the protagonist, or they may be dead, or he/she may be adopted, or one parent may be absent, and the absent parent may have a special power or may otherwise be a stand-in for God. Of course, specialness can take on many forms, and doesn't necessarily involve superpowers, but generally, it does.


Protagonist discovers said talent when they come of age, and are initiated by a mentor or mentors. Protagonist discovers that he/she must use said talent against the forces of evil, usually one particular antagonist. Despite the awesomeness of their circumstances, the protagonist is at first reluctant to take on this new responsibility, but eventually they give in. They may be fulfilling some prophesy, or they may be the world's only hope. If the author has decided to just screw it and nail the point home by hitting it square on the nose, the protagonist will be referred to as "The Chosen One."


Usually the evil antagonist is exceedingly boring and lacks complexity. Usually wears a cape. May or may not be horribly disfigured. The disfigured are bad. The color black, is bad. 


Insert love interest here.


When called upon to do so, the protagonist rises to the occasion, conquering the evil with not just their power, but their cunning. 


Repeat for as many sequels as you can draw the sucker out for. 

And no I'm not only talking about that book, the book that must not be named. I'm sure you can come up with at least a dozen others that follow the same pattern, even if you don't read young adult fiction. YA isn't the only guilty party. But seriously, I think we can do better. 

What Would Jesus Do?

So Jesus starts out with circumstance number one, but rather than a stand-in for God, it's God himself. Then there are those missing years. Jesus may have had a mentor. Who knows? What we do know is that he had magic powers, but he didn't exactly use those powers to fight the forces of evil. Jesus mostly just talked a lot. He preached. He told people to be humble, and to be nicer to eachother. And what happens in the end? Does he conquer the forces of evil? Well, not exactly. The Gospels really aren't about the devil. It's a more complex, richer story for its ambiguity. It doesn't take the low road by presenting us with easy villains. People are flawed, and Jesus acknowledges that even he, is flawed.

 There's your messiah story, but it's just not exciting enough. Where are the capes? Where's the love interest? 

I'm not a religious person, but I will say, as messiahs go, Jesus makes for a more intriguing and complex messiah than Harry Potter, or Luke Skywalker, or any number of others. 

No More Villains and Messiahs Please

It's harder to write a compelling story without a villain, but that doesn't mean it's impossible. You don't have to preach to your readers to give them something other than black hats and white hats. Your protagonist doesn't have to be Jesus or any other messiah. You can have all the spaceships and dragons you want--who doesn't like spaceships and dragons? But you can still rewrite the script. That doesn't mean eliminate conflict, but not all antagonists have to be quite so antagonistic. People are more complex than that. People are people. Villains are plot devices. So please, please, write something different. Your readers deserve it.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Writing: The Audience is Everything

When you write, the audience is everything.

The biggest problem with not only beginning writers, but writers in general, is that they forget to be readers. There's always the risk of falling in love with your own words, of congratulating yourself for how clever you are. And maybe you are clever. Maybe you've written a fantastic metaphor, or a great description, but great descriptions and metaphors aren't a story.

There are millions and millions of books and short stories for people to choose from. The reader has chosen yours. This doesn't mean your book is the best they could choose, but for whatever reason, they chose it. There is a lot of emphasis in commercial writing on "the hook," the simple high concept that pulls the reader in, but the hook, isn't the story. A good hook is not what makes a story compelling to read, it's what compels the reader to pick up the book in the first place, to choose your book. This is valuable in selling a book, but not necessarily the most important way to engage the reader.

The beginning of a story is an invitation, or at least, it should be. That doesn't mean that it should be expository. That doesn't mean that it should be "the hook," though it doesn't hurt if it is. A hook is a promise, and the story is the fulfillment of that promise, but all stories don't begin with a bang. The best stories don't necessarily pull the reading in, but lead them. You give them a trail to follow. Once you've invited them, it's time to let go and give the reader something to do, but giving the reader too much to do too early on intimidates them. You're requiring them to work too hard, which isn't particularly generous. In the beginning, work for them, don't make them work for you, but after that, try not to do all the work for them.

Too much exposition is hand holding. The common maxim that you hear over and over is, "show, don't tell," and in the beginning, what you choose to show them should be what makes them want to read on. If you don't give enough in the beginning--and I don't mean exposition--you put the reader out to sea. In the beginning you need to anchor them. Sometimes anchoring the reader means putting them off balance, but not so much that you lose them. When I say, "putting the reader off balance" I mean leaving something for them to do, such as leaving out information that will make them want to continue in order to discover more, but you still have to put them somewhere grounded. Maybe it's an actual place, and in describing that place, the reader is intrigued. Maybe it's a piece of dialogue that implies, but doesn't reveal. But whatever the implication, the place or piece of dialogue has to be given context, and relatively soon. The more you wait to tell the reader what's going on, the more you leave them out to sea.

Don't Give Up All Your Secrets 

When I write, I think about one person, and I'm writing to that person. Of course that person is always me, even if it's a letter, not because I'm selfish (well, maybe a little), but because when I write, I'm alone. When I write, I have to fool myself into thinking that I have this intimate relationship with this invisible person. I don't assume that they can read my mind, that they know what I intend, but I also try not to underestimate them. I assume they are smart, that they will get my jokes, that they will be able to infer what I imply, as long as they have context to do it. I want to engage them, so I don't give them everything. I hold back. I carry secrets. I know more about the story than they do, and when I can, I suggest, rather reveal. If you're writing about characters, all characters have a secret inner life and a history, and these are aspects of the character that the reader can never know fully. If the reader knows everything they can possibly know about the character, if they know everything you know, you give up your secrets, and deny the reader their imagination. What we imagine is more compelling than what is true, but the writer still has to know the truth so that they can suggest it. Give the reader hints, but don't give up all your secrets.

Fantasy and Science Fiction: Showing and Not Telling when World Building

This is often the problem that I have with sequels. Often with a sequel, the writer runs out of implications, and all their secrets slowly unravel until there's nothing left for the reader's imagination. In the fantasy and science fiction genres, there's this concept of world building. What some writers think this means, is to explain as much about the world they invented as they can. When I was a kid I loved the tabletop role-playing game Dungeons and Dragons, but most of all, I loved The Monster Manual. It was a catalog of monsters for the game, and featured a description and a little story about each character. These stories were by their nature incomplete. They told about what the character could do, and what their habits were, but the story they inhabited was entirely left to your imagination.

So in a fantasy story, the writer fills in that blank, but if they fill in all the blanks, we're back to that essential problem: they've revealed all their secrets. Star Wars was best when we didn't know exactly how Darth Vader became who he was. We were thrown into a story that had a million implications, and given just enough to imagine a much bigger world. When Lucas made all those sequels, he began filling in every gap, exposing all his secrets and in effect, killing the viewer's imagination.

And why is the audience everything? Don't some writers say that they write just for themselves? I never believe people who say this. Even if they're their only audience, they still are writing to an imaginary person. If it's a diary, that person is your future self, even if you never read it. Writing is language, and language is a vehicle for communication, but communication is only communication if it is received. So even if no one ever reads it, even if you don't read it, At one time you were writing for an invisible person, for an audience, for your future self or whomever you imagined might read it, but it's always for someone. So be generous. Be gracious. When you write, you imagine that somewhere there is a person who is willing, out of all the choices that they have of things to read, to spend their time reading what you've written, a real person instead of an invisible one.

You Are the Reason I Write. 

So thank you for being that person. You're smart, and you get get my jokes and you make me feel understood. You really contribute quite a bit to my self-asteem. So thank you, thank you, thank you. It's good to be alive.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Wednesday Figures

This is a 5 minute pose:

A 10 minute pose:

Wednesday, April 04, 2012

New Business Cards and Mailers

 Jennifer L. Meyer recently posted her gorgeous new business cards, and so I thought I would do the same! Here are my new business cards and a couple of recent mailers. I apologize for the poor quality of the photos. 

Monday, April 02, 2012

Ladybug Character Design

Here's another character design for my beginning reader book in progress.

I have to say, there is a fine line, when anthropomorphizing insects, between creepy and cute. It took about a week to resolve these two designs so that I was happy with them. There's no telling how many times I'll have to draw these guys, so I took my time getting it right. 

Someone on Google+ asked me about my process in designing a character, and this was what I answered:

Thanks! Well, looking at pictures of beetles, of course, looking at pictures of dapper gentleman, looking a little bit at illustrators from the past, like Grandville and Beatrix Potter, and just trying to give the drawing life and character. My object was to make it not too anthropomorphic, but not too creepily insect-like. I wanted to do something that didn't look like "A Bug's Life," but also didn't quite look as realistic as Grandville. So I suppose figuring out what I didn't want to do was as important as figuring out what I did want to do. I wanted it to have as much real bug anatomy as I could get away with while still keeping him relatable.

The best way, I think, is not to think too much about what other people have done--it's good to look at other people's work, but you have to think about who the character is. In this case he's a polite, dapper, old fashioned guy. There's a sweetness to him as well. When he starts resembling that guy, you're on the right track. Just trying to come up with a cool looking character will probably lead you down the wrong path. Sometimes you get so caught up in making the character look cool, or cute, or whatever, that you forget to make it human. Don't forget who the character is. If you start thinking about other people's characters you're going to draw their character instead of your own. But that's essentially what I keep asking myself--does he look like he could be this guy? What would make him look more like the guy in the story?

Edit: Description of character is for the character is the previous post, as I was addressing an earlier comment.