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Henri Rousseau’s masterpiece The Sleeping Gypsy provides Caldecott and Boston Globe–Horn Book winner Mordicai Gerstein (for The Man Who Walked Between the Towers) with a question: just what is that lion planning to do?
Roger Sutton: What was it about this painting that made you think, “Oh, I can make a book out of this”?
Mordicai Gerstein: I wanted to know the story. Several of my books have begun that way. The painting is a mystery. There are questions we’re looking at. The painting itself doesn’t tell us — there’s a beautiful silence there instead. I wanted to know what was going on, so I had to write the story to find out.
RS: When I was younger, I knew the painting from reproductions, as you say in your afterword that you did. But then my first trip to the Museum of Modern Art in high school, just coming across it, not knowing it was going to be around the corner, was really quite an experience.
MG: Yes. It’s big, too! [4’3″ x 6’7″]
RS: I’m looking at a picture of it now and trying to articulate why it’s such a mysterious painting.
MG: I don’t know — I just take it in. Like all paintings, really, it’s a little world unto itself that you enter into. I look at the textures, surfaces, colors, and the individual objects in the painting. And then I wonder: what are the relationships among them? Those relationships are everything.
RS: And how does that translate into a picture book, where you’re not creating a single image but a sequence of images?
MG: In this case I wanted to know how that sleeping person got to where she is. Why does she have the lute next to her, and so forth? So, I imagined her walking from one place to another. She has a sack. After a long day’s walk she needs something to eat. There’s water in the background, and there’s a jar that she brought to this place, on her head most likely, because it would be hard to carry a jar like that otherwise. And so on, and what happens next?
RS: I really love the way that you sort of challenged the solemnity of the painting by putting comedy right there in the middle.
MG: You mean when the animals object to the way they’re represented?
RS: Right. Rousseau taking his revenge on ungrateful models.
MG: “You made my nose too big.” People have their own ideas how about they should appear, but Rousseau wasn’t interested in anybody else’s opinions of his work.
RS: What did you learn from this painting, both in reproducing it and in expanding upon it? Is there something you understand now that you didn’t before you wrote this book?
MG: I feel like I lived in the painting for all the months it took me to do the book. It was wonderful living with it and in it — all the colors and just the quality of the art. I also worked in a way that is not how I’d been working for the past few years, which was using line, and painting into it with transparent and opaque color. Here, I was working with color and values, which was fun to do — I hadn’t done that for a while.
And, for the first time, I used a computer. All the illustrators I could think of work with computers, to some extent, and I felt like a real Stone Age practitioner because I hadn’t used one at all. And then I thought: I like the computer! It’s a gadget, and I love gadgets. But it’s very complicated and I didn’t think I’d have the time to learn. So I decided in advance what I wanted to do on the computer. I made black-and-white line drawings and scanned them into Photoshop. And then I Googled “How do you turn black lines pale sepia in Photoshop?” so I could use the lines as guides but they wouldn’t be part of the picture. The answer came up, so I learned how to do that. Then the next thing I wanted to do was the background. I didn’t want to have to paint the wash background, the sky and the sand and everything, again and again. It would be very time-consuming and difficult, especially fitting in the figures. I wanted to make a master background in which I could put all the figures. And so I Googled that and learned how to do it. I have a good large-format printer, so I printed out the background with spaces left empty for the figures. In those pictures they were still sepia, little lines where I could paint the characters in. And the woman, too, because her dress is so complex, so many colors and so many stripes. So much going on, you know.
RS: It reminds me of Joseph in the Bible.
MG: The coat of many colors. It’s a wonderful outfit. I didn’t want to have to paint her again and again, so I made one of her, and I dropped that into the different pictures. I could make the figure bigger or smaller, whatever. By learning how to do one thing at a time, the accretion of all these different things — I learned my way around, without too much screaming.
RS: But the paint is actually paint?
MG: Yes, the paint is actually paint, but the backgrounds are mostly printed. It was very exciting, and it was a lot of fun. I was very proud of that, starting as a complete Photoshop dummy. So, this was a wonderful experience in many ways. Every book is a unique experience, but this one particularly.
RS: Well, you certainly do keep going back to that figure out in the wilderness. Do you remember the Horn Book piece you wrote for us twenty years ago, about the wild boy archetype? And the first book you wrote and illustrated, Arnold of the Ducks — I reviewed that back at the Bulletin when I was a tyke. Why do you keep coming back to the wilderness?
MG: It’s wildness. It’s our connection to the rest of the world — that we are creatures like everything else in our world. It’s always wanting to see the world fresh, and imagining. I wrote a novel, Victor, about a feral child. One of the reasons I wanted to write it was to see the world through his eyes, to be inside his consciousness. How does a baby see the world? How does a child see the world? There’s a sense of wonder connected to that. I’ve always loved Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. There’s this wonderful chapter in which we get a first-person account of the monster’s first impressions of the world, being in the woods and taking things in. We’re seeing the world as if for the first time. That’s just fascinating. What are we, and what is the world, and how are we connected to it? Even in The Night World, which is a recent book, I wanted everybody to see a sunrise and be knocked out by the miracle of it, the world being created every morning.
RS: I love the transition in this book’s illustrations, from the title page onto the next spread, of the sun setting to the sun actually going behind the hills. The color palette changes completely from that beautiful golden yellow to the sort of salmon-y pinks and oranges. It’s very dramatic.
RS: So, do you feel like you’ve now seen the world through the eyes of Rousseau? What do you think he’d make of your book?
MG: I doubt whether he’d be very happy with it, or be interested in it at all. He was interested in what he was interested in. Remarkable guy. He had this wonderful self-taught background, his only teacher being nature, and a wonderful assurance of the value of his own work. He thought he and Picasso were the two best painters — himself in the modern style, as he called it, and Picasso in the classical style. Marvelous. An artist has to have that. It took me a long time to stop thinking that someone else knew what a great painting was. I was never sure. Finally, I know that I have to know. I’m the expert when it comes to my paintings. I think all great painters have to have that confidence in what they are seeking and when they’re getting there.
RS: Do you feel like you know when something you’ve created isn’t good enough for you?
MG: Oh, yeah. At this point, if I keep coming back to a painting and there’s a little something that bothers me, I know I’m not going to get away with it. I’m going to have to fix it, change it, whatever it is, to something that I’m comfortable with, that doesn’t make me itch when I look at it.
RS: I love that criteria: “Does this make me itch?”
MG: Well, can I live with it, you know? And if the answer is no, then I can’t. And then of course when I get the printed book, I go through it and I think “Oh shit, I want to do this over again.” I almost always see what I didn’t achieve, to a smaller or greater extent.
RS: But you’ve got to just move on, don’t you?
MG: Yes, onto the next book that I don’t know how to do, that I have to figure out how to do. You have to learn how to do each book. It’s a different world, a different show.
More on Mordicai Gerstein from The Horn Book
- “Who the Wild Things Are: The Feral Child in Fiction” by Mordicai Gerstein
- Horn Book Magazine review of The Sleeping Gypsy
- Five Questions for Mordicai Gerstein
- 2004 BGHB Award acceptance speech for The Man Who Walked Between the Towers by Mordicai Gerstein
- Profile of Caldecott winner Mordicai Gerstein by Elizabeth Gordon