Tuesday, March 30, 2010

"A Crazy Day" with Lee White

When publishing a picture book, writers can be either limited or liberated by the pairing of an illustrator. Portland artist Lee White's the kind of artist writers hope for. His imaginative settings and fanciful characters bring a story to life. An honors graduate from Pasadena's Art Center College of Design, Lee is constantly painting and experimenting with new mediums. And his pursuits have paid off. In the short span of four years, Lee has nine picture books under his belt and teaches illustration at The Art Institute of Portland. Over the course of one "crazy day" with food and beer, Lee filled me in on what inspires him to paint and write,  why it's OK he's never learned to speak French, and what he does while others play Farmville. 

AB: Congratulations on your ninth publication - A Crazy Day at the Critter Café! What first made you decide to illustrate books for young readers?

LW: My decision to illustrate children’s books seems like it was made for me. When I was in school, I tried to make “serious” art with drama and suffering, but everything I did ended up looking like art for kids. It’s just my nature. I really do love children’s book art and have always been so inspired by the books on the shelves of bookstores.

AB: Which artists have influenced you? What did you like looking at as a child? What impressed you?

LW: I’ve been influenced by a lot of different artists. When I was in school I was looking at Mark Ryden and Joe Sorren a lot. I enjoy trying to distill what makes an artist good. Joe Sorren is so natural at color and I really liked his brush strokes. The books I did right out of school probably reflect that. I was painting in oil and/or acrylic then.

Since then, I’ve changed my sensibilities somewhat. I now prefer watercolor artists like Lisbeth Zwerger. She’s so awesome. She can keep the work simple and it still has such power. Shaun Tan is my hero as well. 

As a kid I didn’t really do much art, so I didn’t pay too much attention to it. I would rather be outside riding my bike than inside reading. I did like looking at the way light played off the trees at dusk. Or trying to understand how reflections on water worked. I liked studying the way the real world worked.

AB: What did you read as a child? What do you read now?

LW: The books that really stood out to me as a kid are The Pink Elephant with Golden Spots by Philippe and Rejean Fix. Also anything Babar. I had a thing for elephants when I was growing up and still do. I wish I owned one that I could ride around town. It would be so much better than having  a car!

Now I really like reading a lot of kids books. I also like non fiction. It's always interesting for me to discern what works in a book and what doesn't. I like to know that actual events happened and research things. I really enjoyed reading Shaun Tan’s graphic novel The Arrival which was amazing pseudo-historical fantasy.

AB: How did you decide to attend Art Center College of Design? What types of classes did you take there?

LW: Going to Art Center was such a pivotal time in my life. I was working as a graphic designer before that and just decided to try and make it as an illustrator. I had only been drawing for about 6 months at that point, so it was a huge decision. Looking back, it was a pretty foolish decision since I had no idea how illustrators actually made a living. It worked out pretty well for me, but I see now how risky that leap was.

Art Center was like boot camp. From the moment you wake up to the moment you go to sleep it’s constant work. I had such anxiety there because the kids are so good. Everyone is the best artist from their high school and most had been drawing since birth. I tried to use my inexperience to my advantage and just absorb the education. If they told me it was important to draw realistically, I really learned to draw realistically. If they said I needed to learn to mix color properly, that would be the only thing I would focus on.

Because of that foundation, I was able to make a fairly smooth transition from school to the real world.

After the foundation classes, Art Center mostly centered around independent projects. For some reason, I was really into industrial design and took a lot of those classes. 


AB:  Do you stay in touch with any of the teachers or students? How have they (either teachers and/or students) helped teach you how to write and illustrate for kids? What were the major lessons that you took away from Art Center?

LW: I do stay in touch with a small group of friends from Art Center. During our senior year, six or seven of us would meet weekly and critique each other’s work. It was really helpful to have that feedback. All of us from that group ended up becoming published children’s book illustrators. The group included me, Yoko Tanaka, Jaime Zollars, Catia Chien, Wilson Swain, and occasionally Dan Santat. Quite a group if I do say so myself!

We still keep in contact via a private blog. I love seeing how well they are all doing. They inspire me daily with their amazing work!

The big lesson I learned at Art Center is the value of really hard work. I learned how to fully finish a project. That last 10 or 20 percent of an illustration is the most difficult and requires a huge amount of dedication. I learned that almost anything can be made better with a few more hours work and a strong cup of coffee.

I teach illustration at The Art Institute of Portland, and a lot of my students now want to know the “trick” to doing an illustration or painting.  Truthfully, the trick is showing up at your drawing table and doing the work in a focused way. Turning off Facebook and email, and all the other little distractions is essential to getting the work done. It’s getting harder and harder to focus because so little value is placed on really working hard for something. The world is getting noisy with small distractions billed as entertainment. While other people play Farmville, I write or draw.

AB: Could you tell us about your path to publication?

LW: When I graduated from Art Center, I went to New York and thought the path to being published would be easy. Ha! It wasn’t easy at all, although in hindsight it didn’t really take too long. I made some great contacts in New York and ended up signing with artist rep Shannon Associates. They made the transition to published work a bit easier. The first year was a lot of portfolio building and trying out for projects. In the meantime I was doing concept design for various architects around LA. That helped pay the bills until the illustration work started to become steady.

It took about a year of steady advertising to get my first book with Scholastic. That first book is really the most difficult to land. The others came a lot easier and after four or five, it got easier still. I didn’t know much about the business side of being a children’s book illustrator but I’ve learned a ton since then. 

AB: Can you give us a run down of the books you've worked on?

LW: You bet. Here’s a list of my titles in the order that I did them:

I’ll Do It Later (Simone T. Ribke and Lee White, Scholastic, 2006)    
Stop that Nose! (Martha Peaslee Levine and Lee White, Marshall Cavendish, 2006)
Hush Little Digger (Ellen Olson-Brown and Lee White, Tricyle Press, 2006)
The House Takes a Vacation (Jacqueline Davies and Lee White, Marshall Cavendish, 2007)
Brewster The Rooster—(Devin Scillian and Lee White,  Sleeping Bear Press, 2007)
Duck’s Don’t Wear Socks! (John Nedwideck and Lee White, Viking, 2008)
The Library Ghost (Carole Boston Weatherford and Lee White, Upstart Books, 2008) 
A Crazy Day at the Critter Café  (Barbara Odanaka and Lee White, Margaret K. McElderry, 2009)
Druscilla’s Halloween (Sally M. Walker and Lee White, Carolrhoda books, 2009)

I've also been enjoying working on covers for the New York Times best-selling author Laura Childs:
Laura Childs' Cackleberry Club Mysteries (Laura Childs, cover illustration Lee White, Berkley, 2008, 2009)

AB: Could you talk a bit about the stylistic choices you make for your book illustrations?

LW:  One thing that you will notice about all the books, is that the look changed (sometimes dramatically) from title to title. That’s because they are almost all done in a different medium. I started with acrylic then moved to oils, alkyds, digital, and watercolor.

I even used a paint that you bake in an oven on The House Takes a Vacation! I actually made an oversize oven out of wood which my wife wasn’t too pleased with. She was counting the days until I started caught the house on fire (luckily, that never happened).

The reason for all that media experimentation is I have never been satisfied with the art store products. Most of the time they are confusing to use and it’s a struggle to get the look you are after. Watercolor has been my medium lately and I really love it. It’s definitely the hardest of the bunch.

Using watercolor is like conducting a symphony. The paper is constantly drying, so you need to know what to do and when to do it. If you don’t hit it just right or if you try to control too much, it never works out. I’m definitely having fun with it. It’s funny because I’ve tested so may paints, materials, and techniques (to the point of exhaustion!). Now, after all that research, I’m using the most basic supplies possible—water, paper, two brushes, and a few pigments. I’m slowly learning that less is definitely more.
 
AB: Who are some of the editors/ art directors you’ve worked with? 

LW: I’ve had a really great time working with all the different editors, art directors, and designers. I loved working with Denise Cronin at Viking. She is very professional and knows what she is doing. I’d love to do another book with her. Lisa Cheng at Simon and Schuster was fantastic as well. Summer Laurie and Abigail Samoun at Tricycle were very helpful in the design process of Hush Little Digger.

 AB: What about the picture book medium appeals to you? Any interest in exploring the graphic novel format?

LW: I love storytelling! I used to really be swayed by more exaggerated illustration, but now I really appreciate the subtleties of story and nuance. I really enjoyed The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick. It’s expertly written and the drawings fit the tone of the book perfectly.

I’ve noticed that I tend to gravitate towards books with a magical element. Finding an old forgotten object in an attic that turns out to have some sort of magic fascinates me. All the work by Chris Van Allsburg and David Wiesner fall under that theme. 

I like the idea of being able to tell the story in a way that resonates with the viewer. In other forms of illustration, like concept design, the art is made by so many people. In book illustration, the process is much slower and can reflect one person’s vision much clearer.

I’m just now thinking about graphic novels. I have a story that I’ve been pondering for years now. I think it fits the graphic novel format much better than a picture book. So I am definitely open to exploring that option. 

AB: If you could go back and talk to yourself when you were beginning illustrator/ writer, what advice would you offer?

LW: Good question! I think I would tell myself to stay focused and do the work that’s important to me. Over the past few years while I was doing all the books, I was also remodeling two houses and teaching drawing and painting. That’s a lot of work considering I illustrated three books during one of those years. If I could go back I would eliminate all the distractions and keep the focus on producing work that I’m proud of.

Another problem is that it’s easy to get lost in asking “What do publishers want?” The work can become diluted with too much of that kind of thinking. My philosophy is make the book that needs to be made, regardless of whether it’s “marketable”. Nothing very interesting ever happens if you listen to marketing advice. They are so inconsistent anyway. I always hear “never write in rhyme” then I get three books in a row that are all rhyme. So now I just tune that stuff out. I write and illustrate work that makes me happy. It’s strange because that’s the work that people respond to the most anyway.



AB: What is your best tip for book promotion?

LW: I’m still trying to figure that one out. I think the publishing world is in flux right now. It’s changing and we need to be able to adapt. Will self publishing be an option? If so, book promotion could mean so much more to the illustrator/writer. A book tour could earn quite a bit of press as well as be financially beneficial. I’m interested in seeing where the market goes.

Right now, book promotion is difficult because it takes so much time and the publisher doesn’t pay for any of it.

AB: How do you balance your creative life as a writer-artist with the responsibilities (speaking, promotion, contracts, etc.) of being an author-illustrator?

LW: This is a topic that I’m becoming very interested in lately. It’s very easy to get lost in the business side of things and neglect the art. I’m very protective of my time making art, but it’s really a fight. I had to become ok with things like email not being answered as quick as I’d like. I had to make the decision to put the art first and let everything else take a back seat.

I balance my time by being very careful with what I say yes to. I try to block my time in hourly increments and really stick to that. In a typical day I like to have 3 hours to dedicate to writing/sketching for upcoming projects, 3 hours for new paintings, and then 3 hours for business and correspondence. This takes a lot of work, some days I’m better at it than others. It helps if you turn off your TV.
 
AB: Other than your own, what is your favorite recent picture book and why?

LW: I am really enjoying the work of French illustrators Eric Puybaret and Rebecca Dautremer. Their work is so beautiful. They really know how to tell the story and they both have a great sense of design. Of course, some of their books are only in French so I can’t actually read the text, but their images are so great, I don't need to!

 AB: What do you do in your spare time?  

LW: I’m into skateboarding and snowboarding. I used to compete at skateboarding and still really like it. Portland has a ton of free skateparks, so it’s a way to stay active. Illustration is so sedentary that I need to do something active.

My wife and I are expecting our first baby this October, so I’m sure that will be taking up all my time then. I’m excited (and nervous!) about it. I act like a kid most of the time, so I think it shouldn’t be too hard.

AB: Where are you currently exhibiting? Do you have any upcoming appearances?

LW: I’m currently exhibiting at a gallery in Los Angeles called Nucleus. It’s an Alice in Wonderland themed show to go with Tim Burton’s new film. They asked a number of book artists and concept artists who worked on the movie to contribute. It’s a fantastic show!


AB: What can your fans look forward to next?

LW: I have made the decision to write and illustrate my own stories. This has been a long time coming and I’m very excited about it. With all the books I’ve done over the past few years it’s been hard making the time to work on my own manuscripts. I finally had to make the decision and turn down offers to have the time available to do the work. It’s a bit scary because I’m turning down paying work to get these stories done. I’m enjoying the writing process a lot. One of the books is entering the sketch phase which is a lot easier for me than the actual writing. Hopefully it will be on shelves sometime next year.

I’m also doing the cover for the October Ladybug Magazine. It’s a fall theme and should be really fun to illustrate.

Last, but not least, I’m making a concerted effort to market prints of my work. I’m doing more personal illustration which isn’t tied to a story so much (like the books). I’ll be exhibiting at craft fairs like The Renegade Craft Fair in San Francisco, etc. and selling books and the prints. This market has been picking up and I enjoy making the paintings for it. If you are interested, prints of my work are available on my website at: www.leewhiteillustration.com.

4 comments:

hollyherick said...

I was lucky to meet Lee when I took my son to an Open House at the Art Institute of Portland. I had no idea who he was until my son started asking him questions about game design. Lee brought his books out for me and I was hooked. He inspired me to dedicate time to my illustration skills weekly if not daily. My kids may be too old for children's books now, but we will never outgrow them.

Thanks to Lee for inspiration!

Becky said...

I am 33 years old and I still love children's books. In fact there is a great Disney (Fairy) graphic novel titled, "Disney Fairies (Graphic Novel #1): Prilla’s Talent" That I am anxiously awaiting for to come out- scheduled to come out April 13th. I love Tinkerbell, and beautiful illustrations never get old!

A Joyful Chaos said...

Thanks for sharing. I find interviews such as this very interesting.

Ben Clanton said...

Awesome interview! I need to check out more of Lee's books . . . a great illustration style.