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Studio Views: In Service of the Book

brown_mr tiger goes wildIf you look at the children’s books I’ve illustrated, you’ll notice that I like to experiment with different media. My early books were illustrated using acrylic paint, and then I incorporated gouache, and then I experimented with pencil and cut-paper and collage. I like to challenge myself, so I’m always playing around with different techniques.

But my newer techniques all have one thing in common. They are all partially digital. I think it’s taken a while for most of us to accept digital as a legitimate artistic medium. In the early days, digital art was just ugly, with its perfectly repeated patterns and perfectly smooth gradations and annoying faux textures. I knew digital art when I saw it, and I hated it.

Enter Pixar.

Toy Story was released when I was in art school, and it hit me like a ton of Silicon Graphics machines. Those early Pixar films looked digital to me, but there was also something beautiful about their three-dimensional worlds of textures and colors. Pixar was a revelation.

I had always loved the naive, handmade look of folk art. But, suddenly, I also loved the polished, 3D look of Pixar films. And so I tried to combine those two contrasting aesthetics into one new style. I painted dimensional scenes of houses and forests and characters. But my lines and shapes and patterns were simple, almost childlike. I used traditional paints to imitate digital art, with a twist of naiveté.

That basic approach continued through my first few picture books. But over time my tastes began to shift, and I became increasingly interested in modifying my style to suit each particular story. The time had come to work digitally.

Children Make Terrible Pets, my book about Lucy Bear bringing home a pet boy, could have been frightening if illustrated realistically. Instead, I made the characters cartoony, and worked with kid-friendly materials such as pencil drawings, construction paper, and wood grains. I scanned those elements into my computer and layered them to create images I couldn’t have made any other way. My process for Creepy Carrots! was similar, but with a dark, moody palette to achieve a film noir aesthetic. For my newest book, Mr. Tiger Goes Wild, I layered watercolor and ink paintings to make flat, textured illustrations. All of those techniques involve both traditional and digital elements. So I guess that makes me both a traditional and a digital artist.

Using a computer does mean that there is no original art. I can make high quality prints, but there’s nothing like hanging an original piece of art on the wall. But I don’t make wall art, I make books. To me, the book is the original work of art. All of my decisions are in service of the book. Who could argue with that?

So if I had to choose my favorite medium, it would be my computer…but only because my computer allows me the freedom to use whatever handmade materials I want, in whatever way I want.

From the March/April 2014 issue of The Horn Book Magazine: Special Issue: Illustration. Click on the tag Studio Views for more illustrators.

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