I still vividly remember the books I had when I was a very young child—the smell of them, the sound of the turning pages. I remember the feeling of wonder and excitement I got when books were being read to me, and can still clearly see the illustrations all these years later. Those stories allowed me to escape from my small-town farming community and gave me a bit of a glimpse of the big world out there. Picture book illustrations made a huge positive impression on me, and now as an illustrator I love that I can give that same kind of joy to a child.
Tell us a little about your process.
I do a ton of research and look at lots of photos (I become a bit obsessed), and absorb it all. Then I put it all away so that my art can be original and stylized, and not a copy of what I’ve seen. For portraits, I’ll look at many photos of the real person and draw a composite so that I get a new and unique image and not a copy of an existing image. For character development, I find it’s helpful for me to identify a real person that I can use as inspiration for the character. Then I start to draw, doodle, sketch, and play until I develop my own characters that feel right. I work in colored pencil, pen and gouache, as well as in Photoshop and recently, in Procreate on the iPad.
Why do you love illustrating historical moments and people of historical note?
I grew up in an historical small town where very little changed from generation to generation. I could reach out and touch the past every day—the old well pump in the yard, the cannonball in the barn wall, the prerevolutionary war stone shops in my village. I found Civil War buttons and arrow heads in my backyard and I wondered what life had been like for the people that last held them. When I was a child, a fun family outing was going to a historical site, or listening to an elder share some folklore. I developed a huge appreciation for history and it still fascinates me today. I suppose if I wasn’t an artist of some kind, I’d be involved in history in some way—three of my family members are archaeologists. My goal is to bring history to life for children so they can “see” history and appreciate all that can be learned from it.
I love to find out how people lived their days—what they wore, ate, listened too, and read. This research informs my art and helps me connect to the subject matter, be excited about it, and find the right vibe for the time period. For instance, when researching for the illustrations I did for the Honest History magazine issue about Tesla and Edison, I looked at many of their personal items, and read about their habits and their communication with each other. I saw that Tesla was a very dapper fellow and owned many gloves to match his custom-made suits, and I noticed a pair of chartreuse gloves in a museum collection about him. To me this color signified his “outside the box” creative thinking, and symbolized how unique he was. So, I used this color for his suit in the whole issue. The color made him stand out on the page, apart from all of the brown and gray dressed folks that were typical of the time period.
What are you working on now and why are you enjoying it?
Right now, I’m writing and illustrating a graphic-novel style book, tentatively called The Night People of Owl Island. This is a mystery book for young readers about a family on vacation and it will contain lots of fun details like a map, some facts about owls, some folk lore, and some “mysterious” people. I’m still in the very beginning stages and am working out the story and starting some character development. I really love organizing and planning a large effort like this one. It will involve the perfect mix of history and nature, and I wake up every day excited to work on it.