“Speak the language.” Children’s book illustrator E.B. Lewis shares his emotional work and words

Earl Gradley Lewis demonstrates at the Austin SCBWI conference

“Art is a language,” Children’s book illustrator E.B. Lewis told a roomful of illustrators, aspiring and professional. “Speak the language.”

What is a language, Lewis asked. “In spoken language, it’s the letters of the alphabet that join together to form words, then paragraphs. And finally stories and jokes,” he answered his own question.

The mark of fluency? Maybe not what you think. “Telling a story is not the most important part. It’s telling the joke,” he said.

“Being able to tell the joke — and everybody in the room gets the joke and laughs — is when you know you’ve mastered the spoken language.”

The conference had reserved this informal session for those who’d submitted portfolios in the Austin Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) 2013  Conference, Kick it Up a Notch. 

In this same conference room at St. Edward’s University the year before, the group had listened to Senior Art Director Patty Ann Harris of Little, Brown Publishers. The year before that,  illustrator, designer and SCBWI advisory board member David Diaz had huddled with the illustrators.

Now it was Lewis, one of the finest watercolor artists in the U.S. and an illustrator since 1992 with 58 picture books and many awards to his credit, including a Caldecott Honor and the Coretta Scott King Award. A few hours before he’d delivered the conference keynote address. Now he was hunkered down with his art colleagues, discussing…hmmm, of all things, languages.

The Caldecott Honor winning "The Other Side" by Jacqueline Woodson, illustrated by E.B. Lewis.

The Caldecott Honor winning “The Other Side” by Jacqueline Woodson, illustrated by E.B. Lewis.

So what was the basic building piece or element of a work of visual art, he asked the gang. “For writing, it’s the word. For music, it’s the note, right? For dance, it’s the step,” he said.

“For drawing, it’s the the stroke. A painting is a string of strokes. With these building blocks, basic units there’s a thought process that takes place, right?

“Most of you are just learning the language. You can’t tell a story yet. You definitely can’t tell a joke.”

Fluency in a language demands practicing what you love, investing those requisite 10,000 hours into your craft — even if it’s at the price of sleep, Lewis said.

For illustrators fluency means knowing your story characters — their thoughts and sensations, “nuances and small movements,” he added.

From "The Other Side", watercolor illustration by E.B. Lewis
From “The Other Side”, watercolor illustration by E.B. Lewis

“Take your characters to lunch. Research your scenes. Immerse yourself in your subject and dig in the dirt until you can smell it.

“For every composition you’re developing an entire world. Because we’re storytellers.”

EB Lewsi watercolor demonstration

At a special workshop session on Sunday, after the conference he was pressed to demonstrate his watercolor technique, off the cuff and handed paints, a palette and some magazine photos for ideas. That’s what you’re seeing in the videos. Sorry I couldn’t get in closer. I didn’t want to disrupt him or the attendees packed 360 degrees around him.

EB Lewis talking to elementary students at The Legends School

A few days before the conference at a private K-12 Classical Christian school in West Austin called The Regents, Lewis had told a library teeming with first graders “The reason you come to school is to discover your passion and prepare yourself for it.”

“Meet your tribe,” he exhorted the 6th and 7th grades. Not a false tribe, like a gang they had to conform to, but their “true tribe,” the group who shared the same passion for a subject that they did. Students seemed to hang on his words.

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“Each Kindness” by Jacqueline Woodson, Illustrated by E.B. Lewis

His message to the kids stayed consisted that day about self-direction, finding one’s own way, never settling or giving up or feeling badly about coming from behind. Perhaps because that’s his story. He didn’t really find his way as an artist until his thirties. The children’s books came even later.

Not one of his youthful experiences suggested the success he enjoys now in the arts and publishing. Lewis is quick to describe himself as an elementary grade under-achiever. Dyslexia made it hard to read or study and his clowning antics did a poor job of masking his lack of confidence in the classroom. He flunked the third grade. The problems with teachers continued through middle school. But Lewis credits a college professor uncle for getting — and keeping him in Saturday morning art classes, starting in the sixth grade. In those museum classes, under the tutelage of painter Clarence Wood, Lewis discovered drawing and painting.

For another, recent picture book by Jacqueline Woodson, "Each Kindness." Illustraiton by E.B. Lewis

For another, recent picture book by Jacqueline Woodson, “Each Kindness.” Illustration by E.B. Lewis (Putnam)

He found his way, eventually to voracious reading — nonfiction and literature. The arts became his passion and those who painted, his tribe. After high school, he pursued graphic design, illustration and art education at the Tyler School of Art at Temple University.

Still the road was slow. He worked for many years in the public schools, first as a teacher’s assistant, later as an art teacher. The watercolor work he did on weekends and late at night, while his family slept.

Illustration by E.B. Lewis for "Each Kindness" by Jacqueline Woodson (Nancy Paulsen Books, Penguin)

Illustration by E.B. Lewis for “Each Kindness” by Jacqueline Woodson (Nancy Paulsen Books, Penguin)

So a long, roundabout journey of working quietly behind the scenes, perfecting his art.

One day a children’s book artists’ agent, Jeff Dwyer contacted Lewis. His agency partner Elizabeth O’Grady had read a feature about him in and seen his watercolors in The Artists Magazine.

“I don’t do children’s book illustration. I’m a fine arts gallery painter,” Lewis responded (in my distillation of their conversation.)

From "Each Kindness", illustration by E.B. Lewis

From “Each Kindness”, illustration by E.B. Lewis

“Yes. Have you looked at any children’s picture books lately?” Dwyer replied before tossing out some names — Jerry Pinkney, Barry Moser and Chris Van Allsburg — for Lewis to check out.

The rest of the story you can find on the book blurbs and Lewis’s website.

It’s that meandering come-from-behind journey I think that informs his striking empathy for children — in the ways he depicts them with such vulnerability in his pictures and interacts with them in life. It’s something special to see. Even the seventh graders listen intently and believe when he tells them, “Mediocrity is self inflicted. Genius is self-bestowed.”
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My plaque for serving three years as Austin SCBWI Illustrators Coordinator and the special surprise that came with it -- the first two books in the Critter Club series by Callie Barkley, illustrated by Austin SCBWIer Marsha Riti, whom I met in the children's book illustration class I teach at AMOA/Arthouse Laguna Gloria. Marsha will be illustrating the entire series being published by Little Simon.

My award for completing a three year term as Austin SCBWI Illustrators Coordinator and special surprise that came with it — the first two books in The Critter Club series by Callie Barkley, illustrated by Marsha Riti, whom I met a few years ago in the children’s book illustration class I teach at AMOA/Arthouse Laguna Gloria. Austin SCBWI’s Marsha will illustrate the entire series being published by Little Simon, Simon and Schuster.

The Critter Club books (first two) illustrated by Marsha Riti of Austin SCBWI

Award winning author Cynthia Levinson reads from her hit nonfiction children's book "We've Got a Job"(Peachtree Publishers) about the  1963 Birmingham Children's March. It was one of several readings and talks at the "Kick It Up a Notch" pre-conference Friday receptionat the Austin Children's Museum.

Award winning author Cynthia Levinson of Austin SCBWI reads from her hit nonfiction children’s book “We’ve Got a Job”(Peachtree Publishers) about the 1963 Birmingham Children’s March. It was one of several readings and talks at the “Kick It Up a Notch” pre-conference Friday receptionat the Austin Children’s Museum.

Picture Book author Shutta Crum and SCBWI Crystal Kite Award-winning illustrator Patrice Barton talk about their collaboration on the picture book "Mine!" (Knopf)

Picture Book author Shutta Crum and SCBWI Crystal Kite Award-winning illustrator Patrice Barton talk about their collaboration on the picture book “Mine!” (Knopf) at the Austin conference.

I'm joined by SCBWI author friends Julie Lake, Cynthia Leitich and Liz Garton Scanlon at the Friday reception. (Photo by Greg Leitich Smith)

I’m joined by Austin SCBWI author friends Julie Lake, Cynthia Leitich and Liz Garton Scanlon at the Friday reception. (Photo by author Greg Leitich Smith)

EB Lewis talking to middle schoolers at the Legends Schoolo

Redesigning lost treasures

Hardy Boys, "The Tower Treasure

Students of the Make Your Splashes – Make Your Marks! online course on children’s book illustration are busy re-designing covers for the first-ever Hardy Boys book or the first ever Nancy Drew mystery in a mock assignment given them by art director Giuseppe Castellano of Penguin/Grosset & Dunlap, which was the original publisher of both series. Students have until April 20 to complete their final art, following Castellano’s specifications. Many thanks to Marks and Splashes student Pooja Srinivas for digging up some of the original covers for class reference!

Nancy Drew Covers

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Talking Dummies with Wendy Martin

Then let us all with one accord…

Stepping away from the news and business this evening, I poked around on YouTube for a nice Christmas video to share with you.

For some reason I started wondering if Sitka, Alaska, where I’d spent 2-3 of my childhood years still celebrates Christmas.

I remember how Christmases there would light up the dark Alaskan winter. One year it seemed like half the town turned out in the late afternoon to skate on frozen Swan Lake late and roast marshmallows around a bonfire.

Sitka lies a little closer to the North Pole than central Texas does. I hope the Davis family will not mind if I share their public video of a beautiful carol sung by them for their congregation at Sitka’s Grace Harbor Church.

And I hope Nate and Genelle don’t mind my sharing their sighting of a breaching humpback whale in Silver Bay last Christmas Eve.

Somehow these beautiful recordings say exactly what I wanted to express to you this evening after a terrible week. I wish for all of you and your loved ones a wonderful, restorative holiday and a joy-filled New Year.

World touring sketchbooks

Have you drawn in your sketchbook today? It’s a question that humbles every aspiring children’s book illustrator.

But in our “high touch era” where the handcrafts site Etsy numbers near the top of online marketplaces and scrapbooking became so cool that it inspired the social media phenomenon known as Pinterest, sketchbooks and the art of filling them are no longer restricted to fine artists and commercial artists and hobby painters.

It’s a more general cause celebre and maybe even a craze, if popular blog groups like SketchCrawl, Urban Sketchers and Everyday Matters are an indication. Since 2009 the Brooklyn Art-House Co-Op has been gathering up sketchbooks and sending them on national tour in a traveling library. This year the effort extended across the Atlantic to include London. Hence the name,  2012 Sketchbook Project World Tour

“The Sketchbook Project is a global, crowd-sourced art project where participants from all walks of life are sent a sketchbook and have until January 15th to fill the pages and return it for inclusion in a traveling exhibition and permanent collection at The Brooklyn Art Library,” the co-op’s website says.

You can see some 500 photos on the Facebook page. And some more cool photos in this Instagram gallery on Tumblr.

Sketchbook Tour stops in Austin

Our children’s picture book critique group under the Austin (Texas) Chapter of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI), the Inklings decided to take part in this year’s tour with a group sketchbook mosaic.

It’s all explained (twice) in this riveting cinéma vérité documentary. Notice how the camera is not only hand-held in the respected auteur tradition, but often entirely neglected as the chronicler starts talking with his subjects and the lens tips to study T-shirts and shoes, picnic tables and dirt on the ground…

Austin (September 12-16) was the last North American stop before the books moved on to London. Starting from Brooklyn they’d already traveled to Chicago, Portland, Vancouver, Los Angeles, Oakland, Lynn, Portland (Maine), Toronto, Philadelphia, Atlanta and Orlando.

Co-Lab Project Space on Allen Street in East Austin was converted into a library replete with signage,  computers, workers, loaded bookshelves and waiting lines.  According to the Brooklyn ArtHouse archive, 2,435 books were checked out and viewed during those four days in Austin and 300 new Sketchbook Project library cards were issued.

The sketchbooks, new ones will be back in Austin next year — at Co-Labs again and at the SXSW Festival scene on March 15-17  for the 2013 World Tour.

Maury Tieman, Martha Carleton, Mark Mitchell, Joyce Chambers-Selber and Allissa Chambers of the Austin SCBWI Inklings — with “Willie Lisa.” Other “Inklings” who participated in the mosaic project included Margaret Jonon Buford, Martin Fry, Ann Hartman, Jeff Crosby and the late Louise Shelby.

November events

The biggest news of recent weeks? No, it wasn’t the U.S. presidential election. It was Disney buying LucasFilm/LucasArts and all Star Wars rights for $4 billion. Here’s a Forbes take on the purchase and more particulars and videos from Mashable. It means more Star Wars movies to come, a re-thinking and possible scrapping of Star Wars games currently on the boards and a new (apparently long overdue) Disney line for boys.

No, Star Wars didn’t start off as a children’s book, but it could have. The Disney purchase evidences the staggering value of an intellectual asset and of what sometimes can happen when a story with good characters ascends to the status of a meme.  This was not a freak occurrence, either. In 2009 Disney paid $4 billion  for Marvel Comics.

The other news of course is the publishing merger. Two of the “Big Six”, Random House, owned by the conglomerate Bertelsmann and Penguin, owned by publishing giant Pearson announced joining forces in a deal exptected to close sometime next year (to counter the threat of Amazon, some industry watchers suggest.) Combined companies willl have a fourth of the English-language consumer book sales, asserts the Publishers Weekly story on the announcement,

The merger takes the “Big Six” down to five:  Random House Penguin, Hachette, Holtzbrinck/Macmillan,  HarperCollins,  which is a subsidiary of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation and the CBS owned Simon & Schuster — with those pesky 21st century publishing upstarts Amazon, Apple and Microsoft nipping at their heels.

November is Picture Book Month and author Dianne de Las Casas with co-founding author-illustrators Elizabeth DulembaKatie DavisTara Lazar and Wendy Martin have assembled this this delightful blog where author-illustrators guest post and the joys and significance of this peculiarly demanding literary art form.

November is also Picture Book Idea Month, if you didn’t know. It’s what PiBoIdMo stands for, writes children’s author Tara Lazar. “Tired of novelists having all the fun in November with NaNoWriMo [National Novel Writing Month]? That’s why I created PiBoIdMo, as a 30-day challenge for picture book writers,” she says.  “The concept is to create 30 picture book ideas in 30 days. You don’t have to write a manuscript (but you can if the mood strikes).” The PiBoiMo part of Tara’s blog  is  loaded full with super “process posts” and tips from practitioners, along with some great author-illustrator “war stories” that will move and inspire you.

On the storm front, Chronicle Books editor Melissa Manlove is offering what is truly a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for an aspiring picture book author — a FREE PASS to one of her company’s editorial meetings, along with a private  critique before yourstory goes to the meeting. It’s one of many neat auction items touted for KidLit Cares, a Hurricane Sandy relief effort. Read all about it on organizer and children’s book author Kate Messer’s blog.

E.B. Lewis to headline Austin SCBWI conference

Caldecott honor-winning illustrator E.B. Lewis will keynote the conference, Kick It Up a Notch as well as conduct a special illustrators’ intensive on Sunday after Saturday’s main event.

In the video below Lewis speaks compassionately on his painting exhibit Lotto Icons, which began as scribbled ideas in his (what else?) sketchbook.

Drawing in Photoshop

Steve Connor is an abstract fine arts painter, former art director, Adobe CS-6 certified instructor and CEO of Deep4D Digital Media & Training. He demystifies the PS tools and the difference modes of drawing and painting with them in this free 90 minute workshop, Vector and Paint: An Intro to Photoshop.

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Award-winning author-illustrator Mark Mitchell wrote this post. Get on the blog mailing list and see some short videos on  “the best secret” to good drawing.