Monday, February 23, 2009

Art Day Interview: Illustrator Laurie Allen Klein - Part One

Today’s Art Day Interview is a two-part interview with illustrator Laurie Allen Klein. Read on to find out more about Laurie and her art in part one. Read part two here.

Q: How did you get started illustrating for children?
A: In a way, I have always illustrated for children; or perhaps, more accurately, always illustrated with stories in mind. As a little girl I loved picture books and the work of Walt Disney and I would make up stories in my head and draw pictures to accompany them. As I got older I grew to appreciate the wonderful art of a wide range of illustrators and just always knew that was what I wanted to do. In school I was always the one doing the art for the class newspaper or yearbook or literary publication so it was just a natural progression.

Q: Tell us a little bit about the recent book you illustrated.
A: My first children's book (for Sylvan Dell, and first children's book in general) was “If A Dolphin Were A Fish” by Loran Wlodarski. I met Loran when I was showing my portfolio (looking for freelance work) and he mentioned a children's book he'd written. He was looking for an illustrator and I loved the story - a dolphin imagines herself as different animals, morphing into them to demonstrate different physical features and adaptations - so happily jumped at the chance to work on it with him. It was Loran's skill (as a science writer) that eventually brought him in contact with Sylvan Dell. They liked his story and they liked my drawings, all of which were done with Prismacolor color pencils. “Dolphin” won the 2007 Florida Publishers Associations President Award.

My second book, “Little Skink's Tail”, came about as a result of my work on “Dolphin”. The story concerns a little skink that loses her tail in a tragic crow encounter and winds up imagining what she would look like wearing the tails of other animals found in her forest. The little skink doesn't technically morph fully into other animals, but her tail does change each time until, at the end of the story, her own tail has grown back. Sylvan Dell asked me to use paint so all the illustrations for “Skink” were done with acrylic paint on banner canvas. To date “Skink” has won four awards: 2008 The Florida Publishers Associations Best Picture Book and Best Overall Book Awards, 2009 Learning Magazine Teachers' Choice Award, and, most recently, the Mom's Choice Award.

The third book, “Where Should Turtle Be?”, comes out in February. This story is about a baby sea turtle that gets confused by the lights and winds up crawling away from the beach. He gets lost in a variety of different habitats and is unsure of just what kind of turtle he should be or where he should live. Other animals suggest different kinds of turtles, such as a Box Turtle, a Painted Turtle, and a Diamondback Terrapin but eventually our little hero discovers his true identity and returns to the sea. There was an obvious danger that this story could become yet another “morphing” one but fortunately both Sylvan Dell and I agreed to approach the illustrations differently, with the sea turtle meeting the different turtles but not turning into them. The illustrations for “Turtle” were done with a combination of color pencil and acrylic paint.

Q: What are you working on right now? Do you have any other books or art projects you’d like to talk about?
A: At this very moment I am waiting, with crossed fingers, to hear if Sylvan Dell has a new title for me to illustrate but I have a ton of things to keep me occupied in the mean time. I am the on-staff artist for the education department of a local marine park and my desk is full of projects, new and on going. It's a dream position because I am called upon to do such a huge variety of things: everything from outdoor wall murals of life-size whales and polar bears (right now I have a life-size wood cutout of a mother polar bear that needs some touch up leaning against the wall in my hall), to 7' x 22' stretched canvas Florida landscape paintings, to activity book illustrations, camp field guides, and birthday cards. Currently I'm in the process of painting an arctic scene for a behind-the-scenes viewing area, working on a poster illustrating rainforest and ocean depth layers, and soon I'll be starting my first residential home wall mural (of undersea reef life). Loran also has several new stories he'd like me to illustrate and I have a couple of my own I'm trying to finish. And when I'm not drawing I'm always on the lookout for more freelance work and promoting the books I have done. Actually, figuring out a schedule to squeeze it all in is the hardest part!

Q: Do you do non-children’s book art (licensing, fine art, etc.) or art just for fun? Is that art similar or different from your children’s book art?
A: As noted above, I do a wide variety of art and I have illustrated a few books that are more adult or science-oriented (the “Out To Pasture” series would be an example of the former, “Killer Whales: Creatures of Legend and Wonder” an example of the latter) but my overall style is still very much in the children's book vein. Even my “serious” stuff has a kid-friendly look and story-telling quality, that's just the way I draw. Though I often talk about doing some fine art or gallery-type work (and I love all sorts of different styles - abstract, surreal, primitive), I always seem to be too busy to try it. The only time I actually sit down and take time to do a drawing that might be considered just for fun, non-children's book work is at Christmas when I design my annual Christmas card - but really that's just like a book illustration in a smaller form - at least the way I do them (my Christmas cards always wind up with a long and involved story, whether fact or fiction, behind them).

Q: When someone else has written the text for a picture book or novel, how do you decide what scenes and details to draw?
A: It often comes down to the Art Director. Sometimes the AD has a very firm idea of what they want, or at least some suggestions, other times it's left entirely up to me. I'm comfortable either way, but in all cases I do rough sketches first and submit them for approval, making any changes the AD or publisher may request before going to finished art. When the decision is totally mine I tend to read the manuscript a few times and make little written notes on the side. Generally the selection winds up being determined by how many illustrations are needed. Obviously if the publisher only wants 4 illustrations, for example, I have to decide what are the 4 most important or dramatic scenes to illuminate. In the case of children's picture books, at least those that I've worked on, where there are words on every page, I just try to go where the narrative dictates.

Q: When illustrating picture books do you include a visual storyline that’s not in the text or include animals or people you know?
A: Oh there is certainly more going on in most of my illustrations then simply following the text, at least when possible. “Dolphin” wasn't a traditional story, so there really wasn't the opportunity to put in any subtext storyline drawings in that book, but I did include special little visuals when possible. In the illustration of “If a dolphin were an octopus”(that describes how a dolphin has bones and an octopus does not) I put coral and jelly fish in the background, to further illustrate the concept of hard vs soft bodies. Also the St. Augustine Lighthouse can be seen in the background of another picture.

In “Skink” I purposely included a little caterpillar that wasn't mentioned in the text but who shows up every few pages building a cocoon. At the end of the story, when the skink grows a new tail, the caterpillar becomes a butterfly. Also in “Skink”, every time the skink tried out a new tail the next animal that was going to be featured was tucked somewhere on the proceeding page. I live by the state park, a salt marsh and the beach so a lot of Northeast Florida flora and fauna winds up in my illustrations simply because that is what is right outside my back door (or living in my garage) and an easy reference.

The “Turtle” book, for example, features quite a bit of St. Augustine landscape because each of the habitats mentioned in the story could be found in my neighborhood. As far as including people or animals I know, I often use my friends and family and pets as models and it is also well known that I hide my daughters name somewhere in the murals and paintings I do. Her name can be found tucked in one or two of the illustrations of all three books.

Q: Can you explain your art process?
A: I go into a huge and lengthy description of my mental and philosophic process in the Meet the Authors and Illustrators section of Sylvan Dell's website, but the shorthand technical description can be summed up with thumbnails and tracing paper. Whether I'm designing a wall mural, coming up with my annual Christmas card, or roughing out book illustrations I always start by doing small, loose, very (very, very) rough thumbnail sketches on tracing paper, attempting to figure out the best angle or layout. It's often the hardest part, I guess because I'm trying to be instantly creative and pulling ideas out of the ether. Once I start getting some scribbles on the page it gets easier, with ideas building on each other and I enlarge the thumbnails to full size (or as large as reasonably possible, either way the picture is enlarged in proportion to it's final size). Inevitably I hit a technical snag and have to go on a reference hunt but when I finally have some ideas on paper I love the editing process of cleaning up and fine-tuning the sketch. All the preliminary drawing is done on tracing paper because I like being able to lay alternative ideas under the rough sketch to see how it looks and it's a quick and easy way to make changes ( I think I started doing that after watching how old hand-drawn animation was done) and when the rough pencil sketch is right/approved it is transferred to the final material (canvas, paper, a wall) for the finished product.

Q: What is your favorite color?
A: I suppose it would be a cop-out to say I like ALL colors because that's not the question (nor is it entirely true since there are some shades of perfectly wonderful hues that are just ghastly) but my first response is to say I DO like pretty much all colors. However, for a specific color in particular, I guess I would have to say my all time favorite color is blue with the strict understanding that there are a huge variety of blues out there and I like several of them (with variations of slate and blue-grey being top on the list).

Q: What is your favorite medium to work in?
A: My absolute favorite tool is my trusty #2 pencil (specifically Mirado Black Warriors that I find at Publix). Early in my art career, I did most of my personal drawings in pencil and am probably still the most comfortable in that medium. One of my dreams is to illustrate a children's book or YA or adult novel completely in black & white pencil, so I guess I'd better write one. Over the years, however, I have learned to use (and grown comfortable) with other mediums and techniques out of necessity. Learn by doing (and the more you work in something the easier it gets). Prismacolor color pencils are my go-to tools for color work, particularly for small, fine detail pictures. Acrylic paint is what I use for all my faux work, trompe l'oeil and mural paintings. Paint washes work best when I need to cover large areas and while I have worked in oil and water color I happen to like acrylic the best. I also like working in ink and have done a fair number of line art that way. And just recently I rediscovered scratchboard and am now having a lot of fun with that technique (I originally learned the technique in high school but had little need to use it again until a large scratchboard project prompted this new interest last year). My 2008 Christmas card was done in scratchboard.

The Ghost of Christmas Who and Other Relative Dimensions: This is my scratchboard Christmas card from last year. The explanatory story that accompanied the card filled a full sheet of paper (and even then was set in the tiniest point size so it would all fit). For those interested I'll be happy to explain all the details!

All images in this post © Laurie Allen Klein.