• RECAP: My Little Pony: The Dragons on Dazzle Island Lecture at the National Museum of American Illustration

    Believe it or not, Vernon Court was built for $300,000… in 1900.

    Mary Jane Begin does not get anywhere near enough recognition for her contributions to the My Little Pony franchise. Which to date include My Little Pony: Under the Sparkling Sea, My Little Pony: The Art of Equestria, and My Little Pony: The Dragons on Dazzle Island.

    So when I heard the National Museum of American Illustration was hosting an MLP lecture by Mary Jane Begin on Saturday August 26th, I hopped into my car and drove the two and a half hours to get to Newport, Rhode Island.

    After the break, you'll be able to find a full recap of the event, a few pictures of the presentation, and insight into the creative process of Mary Jane Begin. See you in a bit!

    While the photo doesn't show it, by the time the event began, the room was standing room only.

    The museum's owners—husband and wife team Laurence S. Cutler and Judy Goffman Cutler (pictured above)—opened the event by giving an introduction to Mary Jane Begin. They provided brief highlights of MJ's recent career. Like how she is an adjunct professor at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). Or how she recently toured through China as a guest lecturer for art students in the country. And how she was previously selected to create a Christmas ornament to represent the State of Rhode Island on the White House Christmas Tree.

    Yes, I did pick up my jaw from the ground after hearing that. Why are you asking?

    Anyways, before the pair yielded the room to MJ, they announced that her original artwork—which to my knowledge is still on display and available for purchase in the second level of the museum—would be discounted 25% in honor of today's event.

    MJ began her lecture by showcasing some of her earliest drawings. The first one she showcased (pictured above) is from when she was in the first grade. It was a drawing of herself and her teacher. She took a second to point out to everyone who was colored in the illustration.

    She has always loved art and characters. Especially animal characters. Her first application illustration to RISD featured zebras. Which, while technically skilled, her application instructor suggested her revise the piece so that it told a  story. It was this piece of advice which bit her with the bug to tell stories in all her illustrations.

    She draws her inspirations from the Golden Age of American Illustration. A fitting comment since the lecture is taking place at the National Museum of American Illustration, which happens to have one of the largest collections of artwork from the Golden Age of American Illustration in the world. She tossed up a couple of examples from Beatrix Potter (The Rabbits Christmas Party) and NC Wyeth (Old Kris) on the screen. At this point, I glanced over to the wall next to me and found a painting by Norman Rockwell from the Saturday Evening Post staring back at me.

    Looking at the illustrations in person gives her insight into how they were constructed. Even after forty (40) visits, she is still excited to come and always learns something new. Like for instance, early in her career, how to use light to tell a story.

    The first fifteen (15) years of her career she spent strictly as an illustrator, using her skills in visual storytelling to bring other writers stories to life. It was when she was painting an adaptation of Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows she was struck with the idea of telling the childhood story of Toad and Badger. This in turn lead her to write a new children's book series called Willow Buds.

    Hasbro noticed her work on Willow Buds—the series is published by Little, Brown and Company—and brought her in as a trade illustrator for their hot new girls toyline—My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic.

    For the first book, Hasbro sent her a ton of toys and the scripts—this was before the series had premiered and before any of the animation of the series had come out—to be used as development/reference materials. So she read all the scripts, got to know the characters, took all the toys out of their packaging, played with them a little, and tried to come up with an idea for a story.

    Well a month went by. Then another. And then another. And she still hadn't come up with anything.

    It was at this point, MJ paused the presentation for a second to ask the little girls who were sitting up front if they could tell her who the toys were. They got all of them right, including the pink Princess Celestia toy.

    The point she was getting at by relaying how difficult it was to come up with the idea for her first MLP book is that inspiration comes from anywhere. And potentially in unlikely places during the most unlikely of times. Like during a family vacation to the Golden Nugget Hotel in Las Vegas, Nevada. She took this picture of her kids swimming in front of a giant aquarium—yes that is a water slide going through the shark tank. For some reason this image stayed in her mind when Hasbro started contacting her to find out what was going on with the book.

    She was still working on it, and still coming up with nothing usable, when time came to take her family on a second family vacation. A camping vacation this time. Where it unfortunately rained. And while she was lying in the tent, watching the water stream down the sides of the tent that she was struck with inspiration! Take the ponies on an adventure under water.

    So after she got back form her second family vacation, she pulled out a sketchpad and started drawing out designs for fantasy sea creatures. Pictured above you can see her playing around with some of the more exotic sea creatures that actually exist under the sea. If you look closely at the middle of the screen, you'll notice that there is a preliminary design for something you call upon when you're in distress.

    She put together an outline for the story, sent it off to Hasbro, and was off to the races once the approval came in.

    From there MJ went into her process for designing fantasy creatures. Which for her involves taking already known creatures, like for instance a hawk, a manta ray, and a shark, and combining them into something unique which uses the most recognizable attributes from each animal. Like the Manta Hawk seen above.

    It was at around this point—where MJ was showcasing her finished illustration of the ponies riding a manta hawk to Aquastria—that the reason why the National Museum of American Illustration is the perfect venue for this event struck me. Every single artist in the museum wasn't the idealized "starving artist." They might have been starving, but it wasn't because they were just creating art for the sake of creating art. Each and every single piece in the museum—with a handful of exceptions—was a painting which was created under a work for hire contract/agreement.

    The artist produced the art, but the ultimate copyright and publication rights rested with the client. Which is exactly the same type of process MJ's MLP work was created under. Basically Rockwell's paintings for the Saturday Evening Post are the same as MJ's work on the MLP story books.

    After she had turned in the first book, The Dragons on Dazzle Island was supposed to be her second. However, it was just as she was hammering out the story with Hasbro that a new job opportunity came up. One that she jumped on. After all, how often does one get to put together an art book for a major television franchise?

    MJ briefly discussed how this job assignment came about, how she only had eight weeks to put it together, what it was like going through thousands of images, and interviewing everyone involved with the show. For a more in depth look at her process at this book, you can check out the interview I conducted with MJ last year!

    After going through the art book, MJ brought up a picture of her desk, which as you'll notice is completely covered in reference materials. She keeps those at hand when working out how feather/scales are supposed to work, and general inspiration.

    It was insightful to see the desk of an artist at work really is the textbook definition of an organized mess of creativity!

    And speaking of references, MJ's daughter had custom made for her a poseable model of the standard MLP Pony body type. This was an invaluable tool for her to work through tricky quadruped poses in her illustrations.

    MJ then proceeded to go through her process for creating a illustration painting. The first three steps, layout, rough pencil sketch, and final pencil drawing were shown on a single slide. She explained how for each step she would add more detail until she became happy with the final design.

    From there she would make a scan of the original pencils, print out a copy and start applying a base color layer of water color paints.

    Yes, my jaw fell to the floor and then down into the basement when I heard she painted her paintings with water colors.

    Anyways, in this case the base color of the painting was blue, which she used to signify how cold the atmosphere of the island had become for two reasons in the story. The first because of the conflict between the ponies and the dragons sharing the island, and the second because of the windigos lowering the overall temperature. This was a subtle method for showing—before it was revealed in the story—the cold was keeping the dragon eggs from hatching.

    Slowly but surely she would add more details.

    Like Spike being blown away by the mother dragon, which was the story MJ wanted to tell in this illustration.

    Some ponies were added along with even more details. Just look at that scale work on the—wait. I know that yellow and pink pegasus in the background!

    And finally the finished cover illustration! This piece was on display during the event in the presentation room. It really is something to see if you ever get the chance.

    MJ then finished off the presentation by… showing a recently completed painting in a new potential project. The project in question is a retelling the Emperor's New Clothes using pigs as the characters in the story (and the emperor specifically). The painting was hilarious, but unfortunately I wasn't able to get a picture of it because I was laughing way too hard. Trust me though, it is a gem and I hope the project is picked up by a publisher.

    However before MJ got to that point she brought up once again how inspiration can come from anywhere. Like how this painting of Ruby Redheart and the newly hatched baby dragon was inspired by this famous picture taken of British primatologist, ethologist, and anthropologist Jane Goodall. This is a fun little way to incorporate history into your work. Absolutely incredible.

    There was a signing event after the presentation. Both of MJ's illustrated MLP Books were available for purchase at the museum, which MJ would sign and personalize with a quick sketch.

    And pictured above is the price book for the original art. This book listed only a small fraction of the pieces that were available for purchase at the museum. And by fraction, I do mean a fraction of the pieces available at the museum were listed in there. Basically all of MJ's paintings for both Under the Sparkling Sea and The Dragons on Dazzle Island are on display in the lower level of the museum and are available for purchase.

    As I had mentioned before those pieces were all 25% off in honor of the day's event. Prices ranged from as little as $500 to as much as $10,000. So the 25% off deal would actually save you quite a bit of money… assuming you had some to spend at the event.

    While signing the books, MJ would always open to that page. Almost as if she's done this many times before at various other signings throughout the northeast.

    …actually that's exactly what she's been doing since The Dragons on Dazzle Island was released.

    Overall, this event was fantastic! Laurence and Judy Cutler host several of these lecture events every year at the museum. To say they are invaluable to everyone—and especially those who are studying art as either an art student or an artist looking to expand their craft—would be a massive understatement. The museum's collection is priceless, and the lecture series contains invaluable insight into the creative process for those visiting.

    This has been The Illustrious Q. Thanks for reading!