“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

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ALA honors for Austin authors; SCBWI conferences and illustration classes for you

It’s been a landmark week for Austin children’s writers.  Three of our gang scored top honors– a Caldecott Honor, a Sibert Honor and a Newbery Honor from the American Library Association.

Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly

Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly

Our Austin, Texas  chapter of the Society of Children’s Book Writers (SCBWI) is a little dazed after last weekend’s 2010 award announcements.  Austin’ s Jacqueline Kelly received a Newbery Honor for her YA novel The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate about a girl growing up at the turn of the 19th century.  The  picture book poem All the World penned by Liz Garton Scanlon of Austin and illustrated by Marla Frazee was named one of the two Caldecott Honor books. (Frazee’s second Caldecott Honor.)

All the World

"All the World" by Liz Garton Scanlon, illustrated by Marla Frazee

The Day Glo Brothers by Chris Barton and illustrated by Tony Persiani

And The Day-Glo Brothers written by Chris Barton of Austin and illustrated with retro lines and Day-Glo colors by Tony Persiani won a Sibert Honor for children’s  nonfiction.  (From the ALA – “The Robert F. Sibert Informational Book Medal is awarded annually to the author(s) and illustrator(s) of the most distinguished informational book published in English during the preceding year.”)

Our SCBWI chapter claims all three of these writers and we’ll claim Frazee, too.  So that makes four.

All four,  as it just so happens  had been scheduled to present at the Austin SCBWI regional 2010 conference “Destination Publication” next weekend (January 30) with an already honors heavy lineup of authors, editors and agents. Marla  is giving the keynote address along with Newbery Honor author Kirby Larson (Hatti Big Sky)

Another Texan, Libba Bray won the Michael L. Printz Award for Excellence in Young Adult Literature for her novel Going Bovine. We’ll claim her, too — so that’s five.

The Lion and the Mouse by Jerry Pinkney - 2010 Caldecott Medal

The Caldecott Medal, the most prestigious award for children’s book illustration in the United States  went to Jerry Pinkney for his wordless telling of the Aesop’s Fable The Lion and the Mouse.

The Theodor Seuss Geisel Award for most distinguished beginning reader book went to Benny and Penny in the Big No-No!, written and illustrated by Geoffrey Hayes. We discussed Benny and Penny and other Toon Books in previous post.

Cheers and tears

Many of my Facebook buds are SCBWI  illustrators and writers. You should have seen how they were afire this week with exclamations, congratulations and jubilations over Austin’s harvest of trophies.

A number of our tribe were out of town at the Vermont College of Fine Arts for a residency semester for the MFA in writing for children and young adults. Their FB reports segued from fascinated discussions of snow and cold to tearful excitement over the ALA announcements (especially pertaining to Texas) which they followed on a streaming net feed projected on a large screen in the venerable campus lunchroom.

There are stories behind the stories as there usually are.  For example —  the 23 rejections for The Day-Glo Brothers before the manuscript was accepted by Charlesbridge then a five year wait before the  book rolled off the presses. You can read a little about its  nine year journey to publication on Chris’s blog Bartography.

Liz has her own story about coming to an impasse in her writing — until an editor’s chance comment got her riffing  again on a string of rhymes and word images, which turned into All the World.  I hope you get to hear or read her account of her process one day.  Liz and Marla will discuss their collaboration on the book at the Austin conference.

Texas Conferences

I keep hitting them here, but here are the links again.  You can download PDF information, schedules and enrollment forms. Austin SCBWI’s “Destination Publication” (January 30th) was nearly sold out, but here  you go; there might be a spot left. At last report there were still a couple of portfolio critique slots open with the wonderful illustrator, Patrice Barton. She’s the other illustrator in the day’s faculty lineup.

The Houston SCBWI conference is February 20 and will feature author Cynthia Leitich Smith, senior editors from Simon &  Schuster Books for Young Readers and Scholastic Inc.  and the art director for Henry Holt Books for Young Readers, Patrick Collins, who will review portfolios.  Collins also will teach a special breakout workshop for illustrators on “Making a Picture Book Dummy” during the day.  It’s an opportunity  not to miss.

Let’s take a break…

And see this fun video that’s remarkable for its characterizations and dialogue.  Animator  Caroline Ting overheard the two boys talking in a comic book store and used them as the voice actors for her little film she titled RAM (Random Access Memory) about…well,  an addiction peculiar to the 21st century (and I’m not talking about Farmville. ) I recognized  myself in it and you might, too.

Animals in the classroom?

For anyone living in the heart of Texas I’ll be teaching spring semester classes in children’s book illustration beginning next week at the Art School of the Austin Museum of Art .  The  six week  “Level 1” class begins next Wednesday evening 6 to 9 p.m.  January 27 — and runs through March 10 (with no class February 17. )

Level II is set for Tuesday evenings 6 to 9 p.m. March 23 – April 20 (five sessions.)  To register or if you have any questions contact the Art School at (512) 323-6380 or go to the website: www.amoa.org/artschool

If you want to take a course but live nowhere near Central Texas,  remember you have an online home-study option,  Make Your Splashes; Make Your Marks! Drawing and Painting for Children’s Book Illustration

Childrens Book Illustration class at the AMOA Art School at Laguna Gloria

Austin Museum of Art Art School at the Laguna Gloria campus, Children’s Book Illustration fall semester 2009.  Left to righ: Anney Rehm, Paula Engelhardt, Laura Smith, Naomi Smith, Halli Hollister, and April Richardson and some guinea pig friends.

Author-illustrator Mark Mitchell hosts this blog.  He teaches children’s book illustration at the Art School at the Austin Museum of Art and through the “Make Your Splashes; Make Your Marks!” online course.

One Illustration Reverie; Two Real Deals

What does this short animated clip have to do with John Singer Sargent or children’s book illustration?

A quoi ca sert l’amour,  a short animation by Louis Clichy, with thanks to illustrator  and animation/game artist Amanda Williams for finding this.  She called  it “brutal and adorable.”

If a child-friendly story had illustrations with these lines — and visual characters as memorable as these  and color the way John Singer Sargent used it in his painted scenes, it would be some picture book, right?

I’m assembling a fantasy football — I mean  illustration project  — team here.

So, starting with the cartoon:  What makes these stick figures tug at your emotions as they do?

The honesty of the emotions depicted?

The “simple” (oh-so-sophisticated) graphics with their varied perspectives and 360 degree “camera revolutions”?

All the fast cutting and the surprise transitions?

The song?  Edith Piaf’s and Theo Sarapo’s singing?

The subject?

Could some of this aplomb be translated into picture book illustrations?

OK,  so let’s add some color and texture.  John Singer Sargent had a knack  for such things. Thanks to Chicago based painter Raymond Thornton for finding this.

I know.  Sargent is the painter who gives all other painters inferiority complexes.  We don’t know a lot about how he made his palette choices. (We know that he looked carefully.)

So enough with dream teaming. We’ve got some news today.

Two power chapters of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) have announced their 2010 pow-wows — both set for early next year.

It’s Time to Mingle in Texas

State Capitol in Austin, Texas

State Capitol in Austin, Texas

Awesome Austin

Austin SCBWI comes first with Destination Publication featuring  a Caldeecott Honor Illustrator and Newberry Honor Author, along with agents, editors, more authors, another fab illustrator, critiques, portfolio reviews and parties.

Mark the date — Saturday, January 30, 2010,  8:00 a.m. – 5:30 p.m.  Get the full lowdown and the registration form here. Send in your form pronto if you’re interested — more than 100 people have already signed up. Manuscript crtiques are already sold out. But a few portfolio reviews are still open at this writing!

Destination Publication features Kirby Larson, author of the 2007 Newbery Honor Book, Hattie Big Sky and Marla Frazee, author-illustrator of A Couple of Boys Have the Best Week Ever, which received a Caldecott Honor Award, and more recently All the World penned (all 200 words of it) by Austin’s own children’s author/poet Liz Garton Scanlon.

Frazee teaches children’s book illustration at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, CA.  She and Scanlon will talk about their collaboration on All the Worldt. You can read each of their stories  Behind The Book at a Simon & Schuster webpage here.

"All the World" by Liz Garton Scanlon and Marla Frazee

"All the World" by Liz Garton Scanlon and Marla Frazee

The  one-day faculty also includes:

Cheryl Klein, senior editor at Arthur A. Levine Books/Scholastic.

Lisa Graff, Associate Editor at Farrar, Straus and Giroux Books for Young Readers.

Stacy Cantor, Editor, Bloomsbury USA/Walker  Books For Young Readers.

Andrea Cascardi agent with Transatlantic Literary Agency (and a former editor.)

Mark McVeigh another former editor who represents writers, illustrators, photographers and graphic novelists for both the adult and children’s markets.

Nathan Bransford, agent.

The conference  will also showcase authors  Sara Lewis Holmes, Shana Burg, P. J. Hoover, Jessica Lee Anderson, Chris Barton, Jacqueline Kelly, Jennifer Ziegler, Philip Yates and illustrator Patrice Barton.

Read more about everyone here.

Happenin’ Houston

Houston SCBWI has announced a still developing  lineup for its conference just three weeks after Austin’s:   Saturday, February 20, 2010.  Registration has just opened.

Headliners here:

Cynthia Leitich Smith, acclaimed author of short stories, funny picture books, Native American fiction, and YA Gothic fantasies. Faculty member, Vermont College of Fine Arts.

Ruta Rimas, assistant editor Balzer & Bray/HarperCollin.

Rosa

Rosa

Patrick Collins, creative director at Henry Holt Books for Young Readers. Collins art directs and designs picture books, young adult novels and middle grade fiction (Baby Bear, Baby Bear, What Do You See?, Old Penn Station and Rosa, a Caldecott Honor book.)

Also featured: Alexandra Cooper,  senior editor at Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, Lisa Ann Sandell,  senior editor at Scholastic Inc., and Sara Crowe, a New York agent with Harvey Klinger, Inc.

Download their bios, more Houston conference info and a registration form from this page. No, you don’t have to be Texan to register for either of these “big as Texas” events.

Mark Mitchell teaches children’s book illustration at the Austin Museum of Art Art School — and online. Learn the best drawing secret free here.