A NOTE FROM PHIL BEFORE WE BEGIN: Matt and I actually converse quite often over email. Because of that I’d been wondering for a while how to start an official on-the-record conversation without it feeling awkward or forced. Then I realized we might as well just start in the middle of a real back-and-forth.
So that’s what we’ll do. We begin now halfway into an actual conversation between Matt and I—a conversation not originally intended for publication. Enjoy!
Conversation started 15 August 2014, 4:28 p.m.
MATT: Hey Phil,
I just came into a picture book pickle today and wondered if you might offer up a thought or two. My next Feiwel title was to be about a pegasus named Little Jupiter who believes in humans but none of his mythical creature friends do. No humans have ever been seen in this fairy tale land. Little Jupiter goes far and wide looking for a human and comes up empty. He runs into a pig slopping around in mud and allows himself to believe this thing is a human. Brings pig home and his friends think he’s crazy but they let it slide. Lots of weird humor ensues. Ultimately he admits this thing is no human, but makes a friend of it anyways, etc.
I just found out Amy Krouse Rosenthal has this book called Uni that’s out in a couple of weeks. It’s about a unicorn who believes in girls but no one believes the uni. And, I think, a girl who believes in unicorns, but nobody believes her. Girl and unicorn find each other and become fast friends. It appears to be more of a happily-ever-after and mine is more of a slapstick, ironic, tongue-in-cheek and our two art styles would be obviously totally different. Here’s the B+N link to Amy’s book: Uni the Unicorn
But what if something crazy happened and they made a movie or something out of hers?
What would you do here? Abandon the idea and come up with something completely different? Say screw it, I’m doing my book? I want to just go ahead and do mine, but I fear the whole “copycat!” name-calling stuff that could come from that. Mine would be out 2 whole years after hers…
I don’t know what to do. It sucks, frankly. I was really looking forward to making this book. I might just have to suck it up and go back and brainstorm something different.
How’s everything going on your end?
PHIL: Oh, man, that is a conundrum. It reminds me of something that happened when we were working on Amos. We were a good three or four months into the making of the book when Mastercard came out with this commercial:
(EDITOR’S NOTE: Erin has requested that I not show this video because the whole thing is still too painful.)
We were totally convinced we had to scrap the project. Even though the Amos idea existed before the commercial, no one would think of it that way because the book would come out so much later. In the end we told ourselves it would be no big deal because we wouldn’t sell any books anyway. Oops! After the Caldecott I kept waiting for someone to make the connection, but it never happened.
I don’t think you should scrap the book. Your book is really about the pig, and that makes it a completely different thing. The one thing I would maybe consider is making the book less about “belief”. Could the pegasus just really be into the idea of people in a nerdfan kind of way? His interest could be met with derision not because people aren’t real, but because people are lame. Pegasuses (is that the correct plural?) are clearly the more awesome species and would, I imagine, be quite impressed with themselves generally. Does this make sense at all? Having him find a pig could work perfectly because he’ll end up finding something that’s obviously even worse than a human—and loving it anyway. I love this character already.
That’s my suggestion.
BTW, I’m half tempted to have this be the start to our episode. We’d have to edit out some of the cursing and whatnot.
MATT: Thanks, man, this is good stuff! That’s a good suggestion about the fantasy and belief stuff. And tweaking that would also help to distance our two books I think. I have to figure out how to link all the weird elements together is all. That is crazy about the Amos/Mastercard thing! Wow. I don’t remember seeing that commercial, or it completely vanished from my memory. I think that probably helped in your case. Commercials are pretty damn forgettable and book people are probably caring less about TV ads too.
Thanks for your input here. We could work this into No. 5 Bus, if you like. Could be interesting to read about… crappy coincidences in picture books. And commercials.
Thanks, Phil, and talk later.
PHIL: Yeah, let’s use this. I’ll edit out anything that makes us sound stoopid. Stay tuned, I’ll loop Erin into the conversation and we’ll get this thing officially started. But for now I’m going to bed. I had a long, long week and I’m aiming to sleep waaaaaaaay in and eat pancakes in bed.
Oh, and I don’t know how exactly you’ll fit all the elements together, but it’ll be worth it for the surprise reveal of that pig. That image really makes me laugh. You know, there’s really only a handful of basic story premise ideas anyway. Your idea falls pretty squarely in the category of “Odd Couple”. “Odd Couple” is one of my favorite story starters, right up there with “Quest”. When you put the two together you pretty much have my entire career so far. Including the book you and I did together. But anyway, off to bed…
PHIL: Alright, I’ve added Erin to the conversation now. Hi Erin!
Let’s start with an easy question and see where it leads: Who is your favorite picture book artist, Matt, and why?
Feel free to be vague, noncommittal, and prone to digression.
MATT: Hey, guys! Been looking forward to doing this book talking with y’all for some time now. Well here goes…
I’m usually the worst about choosing a one favorite of any thing. Favorite food, favorite book, favorite movie, favorite time of year, etc. But favorite picture book artist I can handle. Pretty much. For the longest time, my #1 picture book person was William Steig. And I think (I guess) anyone who looks at my work will probably see my adoration for Steig. His loose pen and ink and watercolors. His unhinged cartoon style. And though I don’t write anything like him (ridiculously, I used to try), I also love his storytelling. It is extremely weird and clever and old-timey and beautiful and verbose and dark and also light and uplifting.
Then one day, John Burningham came crashing into my sphere and I haven’t been the same since.
The first Burningham book I saw was (by way of our mutual pal, Jules Danielson) Harvey Slumfenburger’s Christmas Present. I simply could not believe what I was looking at. The story was oddball and funny and witty and dry. Perfection. But it was the art that made the hairs on my arms and back of my neck stand on end. I had no idea that anyone in children’s books had the balls to work like that (pardon the expression). Of course I went digging and digging after that, never ever disappointed. His work is extremely fearless. Loose and experimental. Completely sparse in some places, but very dense and layered in others. But throughout, it is highly unconventional. And what makes it unconventional is that it is fearless. And what makes it fearless is that it is not afraid to go… ugly. I hesitate to use the word ugly because it can be wildly misunderstood. But in my lexicon, ugly, when done right (which in itself sounds utterly ridiculous) is the absolute highest of high compliments. Typically when someone sees art that they consider ugly, it is often regarded as not done well or that the person who made it is inadequate or inexperienced. Which, of course, could be the truth. But sometimes you see something and think it is ugly because you have not see anything like it before. At the very least, you’re not used to it. It is a shock to the system. It is jarring. Ugly. And ugly sure don’t go down easy. For something to take such a risk…that artist, that art, it is absolutely fearless. Fearless to put her or his self on a ledge like that and accept the consequences for doing so. Burningham’s work is raw. And painterly, and technical, and minimal, and strange. Make no doubt about it, the guy can draw and he knows exactly what he’s doing. (So I think. I know very little about him. He’s one of those types that I choose to know very little about because I fear that if I learn the wrong thing, it will all come crumbling down.) I’m also aware that Burningham (or anything in that spirit) is not for everyone. And in my own leftover insolent teenager kind of way, that’s what I love about it too.
Since discovering Burningham, I’ve felt differently about the world of picture books and commercial art and about the work I create. I’ve felt endlessly inspired by what he’s accomplished and continues to do. I’ve felt inspired knowing that our little niche of publishing allows and has a home for work that’s so brave, so fearless (and perhaps not so bankable). I’ve felt empowered to become less inhibited by my own securities, to be honest and true to myself, and to try to inch closer to that ledge that Burningham (and a few others on my list of art favorites) so comfortably resides on.
Man, I’ve really gushed here. It’s a little embarrassing. It’s like a foreward to his biography.
By the way, Steig may be my second, but he’s a VERY close second.
Over to you guys…
PHIL: I had a feeling you were going to say Burningham. That guy really rearranges my brain as well. Someone coming to his work cold could really misunderstand his level of ability. I first got to know Burningham through his relatively more recent, rougher work. Granpa is one of my favorites.
My immediate feeling was: I shouldn’t like this, but I do. So I bought it. Almost all of my Burningham books have been found in discard bins. Coincidence? Probably not. His genius is not easily understood. I’m not even sure that I understand him. But it works, and his books always leave a big impression on me. How does he pack so much emotional force into drawings that are so, well, bad? I don’t know. But he does.
I think my favorite Burningham book is Hey! Get Off Our Train.
Basically it’s a poetic and impressionistic response to the destruction of the natural world. It has a weird power that, I think, would be lost if he’d been more “finished” and less “naive” in his approach. Everything about this book exudes empathy and compassion—if you’re open to it and ready.
A big moment for me, Burningham-wise, was when I stumbled for the first time on some of his earlier work from the 60’s. I think Humbert, Mr. Firkin and the Lord Mayor of London was the first one I discovered.
Previously I’d only known his rough, very childlike drawings. But at this time in his career he was working in a very complex, multi-layered oil painting style.
This is not easy, childlike work. You have to have a real understanding of color and space to paint like this. Knowing he could paint like this really made me scratch my head, because it meant that his later work is not an accident but a choice. I’m still sort of coming to terms with what that means, both for him and for me. Incidentally, Humbert has great endpapers:
Before we move on, I think it’s really interesting Steig has come up in pretty much every one of these episodes. A lot of people working in a lot of different ways seem to owe a debt to that guy.
So what have your drawing tools of choice been lately?
MATT: Yeah, maybe there should be some sort of are-you-cool author/illustrator litmus test based on Steig appreciation. I kid… I think Steig might be another one who is maybe not everybody’s bag. (though he should be!.) Wow…I don’t know the whole Burningham canon, and had not seen Humbert. Another Burny beauty! Yeesh. Granpa is one of my favorites too. It’s funny you say that about finding his books on the cheap. I’ve lucked onto a few at used book sales too! (I don’t know if any guilt should come with that or not…)
I find that I flit around a bit when it comes to drawing tools. Generally, I tend to stick with one or two pen and ink things. One is my trusty ol’ bamboo pen.
This thing is a royal pain in the butt. It’s got the finesse of drawing with an ink-sopped sharpened stick. Because, I mean, that’s basically what it is. Half the time I don’t know how it is going to perform when I go to put a line down. It doesn’t hold ink for too long (you have to dip a lot). It might blob out a chunky line or it might start out nothing, give a little raspy line and then blob. There’s a lot of frightened test strokes done before it hits the real-deal paper. I have no idea. But the thing is, I’ve pretty much embraced that unpredictability. I get into the rhythm of terrified unpredictability. And I love what it does when it does it right. (Ha!) My February 2015 book, Wish, I drew this one in bamboo. I wanted it to have a softness, and a loose and textured look to it. That raspy and sometimes wet line, it worked perfectly here.
The first book I think I used the bamboo on was Hello! Hello!. I can’t use it for everything, though. I mentioned this to you when I was working on our upcoming book, Special Delivery. When there’s a lot of tight stuff, details to draw, the bamboo will not cut it. The bamboo line is, in general, too heavy and, like I said a bunch already… unpredictable. If I need something a little cleaner, tighter, and slightly more predictable, I’ve been drawing with this nib. I like it a lot.
My illustrator pal and fellow pen/inker, Frank Dormer, sent me a few of these years ago out of the goodness of his own heart. He told me that these nibs are a favorite of Quentin Blake which makes me like them even more. They aren’t super sharp (no snagging in paper tooth), and they are somewhat stiff—not too flexible—which I like too. I’m not sure what these things are, but etched into the nib is “MACNIVEN & CAMERON/WAVERLEY/BIRMINGHAM/ENGLAND”
Hey, speaking of Sir Quentin, I recently read that he sometimes draws with feathers. Like turkey, vulture, etc. I seriously want to try this! Have you ever?
Backing up a bit. Interesting factoid…when I did some early sample drawings/tests for Special Delivery, I drew those in bamboo.
Then… I went and sketched the whole book out in pencil, as I always do, and with a pencil you can get in there small. My original intention was to draw the book in bamboo, because I liked the look of the test pieces. But with the detail in my final sketches, bamboo wasn’t going to be possible and ultimately I went with the QB nib. Here’s a few more things that are on my desk right now. Some character studies done for a book I’m trying to pitch. All bamboo.
Line quality and line character has been my thing as an illustrator from day one. And it’s been a huge learning curve. Still is. I’m very hard on myself about it. Trying to figure out what kind of line I want, how to get to that line, and being satisfied with what I end up with. I’ve played around with some other things too. For one book, Gone Fishing, I used about 10 different sharpies, all of which were in varying states of drying up. I used a different sharpie for different parts of a drawing, depending on the relationship I had with that sharpie. I started out doing this, just to get a feel for sketching with a heavier line, because I knew the end result was going to be a heavy line. But then I liked what was happening with these sharpies, so I used my sketches as my final line (with a tiny bit of photoshop doctoring).
I’ve used pencil drawings (sometimes sketches) as final line. I like that too but haven’t done a whole lot with it. I feel that, in general, I don’t have a HUGE amount of time to experiment with stuff from book to book. Maybe one day I will be able to do more of that. Lately I’m feeling like maybe I don’t always have to have a black-black line. Maybe it’s too harsh or aggressive or obvious sometimes. I’m not sure. I have really enjoyed seeing you and Erin experiment with process from one book to the next. It’s very refreshing to see what new things come out of your studio. Bravo, dudes. You guys do a lot with printing and texture and collage and those are things I think I’d love to play around with more.
MATT: Whoops! Forgot to include this one other recent bamboo study (with the others). I’m especially happy with this one since it’s based on my daughter and the line really came together here. I am rarely so pleased with myself… :)
ERIN: I have drawn with feathers! I had a professor make us do it in art school. That’s all I really remember from it—that it happened. Phil and I are beginning a still-secret project soon, and I think it might call for an ink line. Maybe I’ll try using a quill. I love playing around with a bamboo pen but I don’t think I am good enough at it to make a book that way. Ink isn’t my most comfortable language, but with a little practice I might be okay. Now I just need to find the time to practice.
I am most comfortable with pencil and I often struggle with the opposite of what you described with your black line. I am never sure my drawings look complete when they are just done in pencil. I worry there is a lack of finish to my stuff constantly. In the book I just completed I ended up using charcoal pencils, which was black but I’m not sure any more finished in its appearance.
Do you use inks or watercolor? Has this already been discussed?
Also, Phil, if we continue to do this Number Five Bus website, I think we should tell people to be sure to compliment us. Did you cut Cordell his check yet?
(That was very kind of you, really, Matt. Thanks. Often our “experiments” feel like “floundering with the pressure of pending publication” on our end.)
MATT: You know… I had a hunch at least one of you Steads had done some drawing with a feather. You guys are awesome. Wait… I did it again! Next one’s gonna cost you. (And I look forward to seeing some secret Stead pen and ink!)
That is interesting about your opposite insecurity of is-this-too-light/is-this-too-dark. I think we both (or all three of us) suffer from this sort of thing, yes? Speaking of art and insecurities, this brings me to another thing I’ve always liked about you guys. And a thing I like about all of my other artist friends. (Perhaps even a prerequisite before I declare it true friendship.) Which is… self-deprication. For me to get close to or feel a certain kinship with another artist, I think that person has to beat up on his/herself, at least just a little. If someone is too absolutely satisfied with his/her own self and work, I am highly suspect. I don’t know if that makes me a jerk, or a weirdo, but I can’t handle it. At least PRETEND you think your work is not the greatest thing to ever encounter a pair of eyes. Sorry. Insecurity digression.
Oh, and I totally forgot to talk about the watercolor! I think that says a lot about how much the pen/ink side of my process means to me. The watercolor is important, but I’m a bunch more particular about my line. I use watercolor for much of the same reason. It’s messy, sketchy, inconsistent, unpredictable. I do not consider myself a watercolor painter, I guess. I’ve never ever studied it, it’s all self taught. I think that’s maybe worked to my advantage. I’ve seen some amazing strictly watercolor painting, and that’s not my thing. But I certainly admire that stuff. I like to rough in the watercolor, never filling in shapes and areas completely. I like to overlay colors and blend colors. It’s all very loose. I guess I’m just a come-as-you-are random watercolorist. As far as paints and brushes, this is going to reveal another side of me. El Cheapo. For the longest time, I went with the cheapest watercolor and brushes money can buy (well not the absolute cheapest, maybe 1-2 steps above what my 5-year-old would use). I am a creature of habit too, so I was also afraid to try anything different, even if it was allegedly better. Inch by inch, I’ve upgraded to some higher grade stuff. I use these pans a lot.
I used only pans for a long time, and then finally I thought “let’s buy some tubes.” And I bought a medium grade bunch of tubes.
Now I use some pans, some tubes. I’m all over the place. Brushes… I used to use total junkers. They’d be pretty much falling apart after doing 1 or 2 books. Then something came over me and I sucked it up and bought some Windsor/Newton Series 7 Sables. Holy mama I love painting with these things. Smooth as butter. I’ll never go back. And paper… I use—almost always—hot press. I’ve done a bit on cold press which makes a difference with the way the watercolor goes down (to me, not so much for better or worse), but I don’t like drawing on such a tooth. I may dabble on cold press again sometime, not sure. I know a few other pen/inkers who prefer it. I work on Arches and this other one I randomed upon called Lanaquarelle. 140 lb. What paper do you guys use? Other tools and materials you cling to? I know you guys jump around a bit, but Erin what pencils do you draw with? Phil’s kinda everything-under-the-sun, right?
PHIL: Lately I’ve been feeling really sentimental about my old $2 hardware store all-purpose brush:
I think it originated during Erin’s art school years. It’s first function was as a gesso brush. Over the years it’s gotten mangier and mangier, and now it’s got so much character that it can make marks that no other brush in my collection can make. I used it a lot in the book I’m finishing up now for monoprinted images like this:
Here’s a really big monoprint (not for a book) that I made recently of my dog:
This image is roughly 18 x 24 in size. Sometimes it’s nice to work big. Bookmaking can be claustrophobic. Anyway, I couldn’t have made this image without that brush, and without the decade or more of struggles that made that brush what it is.
You’re right, I do jump around a lot media-wise. There are a couple things I’ve used in every book though. Most especially these crayons:
I love these crayons—Caran d’Ache NeoColor II. I’ve been using them since high school. If you’ve never tried them before then you absolutely should. They are very Matt Cordell. One thing I love about them is that they turn to watercolor when mixed with water. You can draw on paper with dry crayons and then add water afterwards. Depending on how loose you are with the addition of the water you can get more or less of the original texture to show through. Here’s the result of a 30 second art demo:
How about you Erin? What are you feeling sentimental about lately?
MATT: Whoa, I am totally going to get some of those crayons! I had no idea such a thing existed. (Thanks, No. 5 Bus!) And before we move on, regarding the excellent dog portrait, what do you mean that is a monoprint? You painted it on a surface and then printed that onto white paper?
ERIN: Not to put words in Phil’s mouth, but I’ll do it anyway with regards to your monoprint question. Phil painted the image onto a piece of acetate and then printed onto paper using my bamboo baren. I bought a special one made with ball bearings that has saved my entire shoulder from the repetitive motion of printing without a press (while also carrying all of one’s stress in their shoulder and neck, which I do). That special baren is made in Japan by some inventive genius and carried here in the US out of this excellent store in Oregon: McClains
Which leads me to the answer to Phil’s last question. I am sentimental about art supply stores. Matt, do you still have one around you? We do not. We have a specialty paper store (which is great, actually) that has started to carry art supplies to fill in the gaps for a few stores that have closed recently, but it’s just not the same. I am very specific about which supplies I like. That’s not to say I only love the most expensive items, but I do tend to veer towards professional grade paints. I miss a good art supply store, though, that I can actually walk into and touch the paintbrushes. Online shopping for paint brushes is a complete gamble unless you already know you love a certain type. Phil and I try to change our process depending on the story and that often leaves us having a conversation that starts with “I know how I want the art to look, but I don’t know how to make it…” It’d be a lot easier to be able to walk into an art supply store than endlessly guess online.
Which leads me to one of my most recent useless rants. I worry that we’re all so convinced we discover everything electronically now that we forget sometimes how and why we should be people. Yes, it is very easy to discover an animal video that makes us happy (be sure to watch the entire thing, since the ending is very important)…
But sometimes you need to get out of your house and talk to someone who knows some things that you don’t know. Or go look around and see how the weather is changing. The Information Superhighway can’t be our only means of discovery or else it will make us selfish, boring, and lazy. All things in moderation. Without the computer, I wouldn’t be talking to my fine friend Matt and I wouldn’t have found a ball bearing baren for my sore arm. But I wish specialty stores in a community still existed so we could test out a couple of pencils and feel some different types of paper.
But seriously, how about Cookie the Penguin?
MATT: OK, first off I had to google “bamboo baren” and came up with this vid which was great in and of itself.
This guy and his enthusiasm… well, it’s good stuff. Interesting… Then I looked into the ball bearing one. Now I get it. You’re going to laugh, but I always pictured you rubbing these things over with the palm of your hand. Or better yet, a big soup spoon. Do you print with these barens (and not with a press) because you prefer inconsistencies in the printing, textures, etc? I would imagine that’s the case. So much more character in that than just a more flat, more solid printed shape/line. I did some lino cut and intaglio in college and we had some real simple crank presses. I never did any hand printing, which is weird because that seems like that’d be the first thing you’d do. Wait… no I did do some hand printing of linocuts in high school. I just lied. (Fun fact: Right around the time I decided to get into doing kids books, I worked as a pressman at a letterpress print shop in Chicago. We worked on these crazy, incredibly intricately engineered old (1960’s, 1970’s) Heidelbergs. For six years I did that while I was working toward doing illustration full time. Yeah. Fun fact.)
Sadly, there are no art supply stores anywhere close to me. We live in a surburb far north of Chicago and the best we’ve got up here in reasonable driving distance are, you know, those chain craft stores that shall go unnamed. I’ve gotten to where I have to order all of my art supplies online. And I feel your pain about test driving and feeling out the brushes, pencils, papers etc. It’s a shot in the dark sometimes. It is certainly sad to see specialty stores so few and far between. What I wouldn’t do for a friendly neighborhood bookstore that’s closer than a 25 minute drive. Anyways, you might have guessed, but that sort of rant is right up my alley. Though I’m certainly appreciative of technology and internets when it works to my benefit (staying in touch with friends, ease in doing business, etc) I find it can be terribly alienating and anti-social in others as well as in myself (see that book called Hello! Hello!). When HELLO! HELLO! first came out, the smart phone boom was just getting its legs, so it wasn’t a hugely noticed or thought about thing. “Take a break from tech, live life.” Now it seems like pretty common discourse, I think. How can it not be? Technology—and the distractions that come with—literally goes everywhere with us now. If you have a smart phone, I mean. Julie and I have still managed to fight off the pressures to get one. Our phones still have buttons. How gross.
Hang on a sec… I think I just saw your rant and raised you a rant.
That is one flippin’ cute penguin! I have not been watching enough cute animal videos. I just watched a vid today of an actor dumping ice and water on his head. (And donating money to charity somehow too? I’m still not clear on what it was that I saw.)
PHIL: Now I’m going to talk for Erin because she’s out having breakfast with her mom while I’m sitting at home waiting to have a phone meeting that I desperately don’t want to have. I hate meetings, especially ones about my books. Creative compromise is not in my nature.
I’m pretty sure the decision to use a baren was originally an effort to be frugal. A printing press costs a whole lot of money, and a baren costs maybe five bucks. Erin was not a printmaker before the making of Amos. She still doesn’t call herself a printmaker, in fact. She needed to figure out some way to add color to her illustrations that wouldn’t detract from her delicate pencil line. So she did one trial image using DIY home printing methods and then from there launched into the making of Amos McGee. The baren definitely brings out more inconsistency in the print compared to a press. That can be frustrating at times because it’s hard to control, but when it works I think it adds to the one-of-a-kind nature of Erin’s work. The processes are very hard to repeat.
I’m all bent out of shape about this impending meeting, so I’m having a hard time thinking of a question. What should we talk about now?
MATT: Hope your phone call went down ok. I have an aversion to the phone in general but now I actually like talking on the phone to people I work with on projects in progress, etc. As opposed to email, I mean, which seems so danged impersonal, which is a problem when the people you work with are way out in New York and I’m way out here in the Chicago burbs. Outside of work calls, I’m still kinda phone phobic. Such is life.
Anyhow, in lieu of a shift of topics, how about I give you guys a virtual tour of the existing state of my workspace? Also known as The Basement. Back in the day, I used to work from one of the bedrooms in our house on the upper floor that has loads of natural light and a good view of our backyard, which was nice to look at on snowy days and sunny ones too. But 14 months ago, when our second child was born and in need of a bedroom, I packed up all my stuff and set up shop down here in the basement. I don’t love it so much, but what can you do? Now… Before I walk you down here, I should explain that even though my work environment tends to already be on the messy side, said mess is further compounded by the fact that most of the junk from our crawl space (10 years amassed) is currently also cluttering up the joint. We discovered we had some elevated levels of radon seeping up from the basement, also known as my workspace, and we had to clear out the crawlspace so that a filtration system could be installed to suck the radon away. Here’s a nice look at a mostly cleaned out crawl space with some things being gradually put back in.
Way back there, that’s a big ol’ portrait I painted of a dear old pal of mine. Circa ’99, I believe.
And here’s a nice look of what I submerse myself in every day at work. I feel kind of like a squirrel down here working in these little pockets of things and stacks and mess. I tend to do an overhaul clean-up once I’ve finished up a big batch of work. But that moment has not presented itself in a while. Big batch of work keeps big batching itself.
Here is a little Aztec-ian sofa I seat myself at when I’m working on sketches. You can see some drawings on top of that blanket there. (A book I’m currently working on with our pal, Mr. Neal Porter.) As you can see, I’d just had my squirrel snack when I took this photo. Kinder Bueno. Bueno.
My drawing table. I’m not currently involved in any final art. That will be coming up in a week or two though. Right now, more sketches have piled up on this table. And a drawing I did of Chewbacca for my daughter.
Computer desk. Scanner is hidden by, yet, more sketches. To my right hangs a poster of one of the finest human beings that ever lived, Mister Fred Rogers. I don’t usually want to meet my heroes, but Mister Rogers is one I really wish I’d gotten a chance to meet. I would’ve loved that. My whole family did meet Mr. McFeely (signed photo as evidence) and he was such a warm, wonderful man. Just as you would expect.
Crap! For real, I just looked down and a massive spider was crawling on my foot. Welcome to The Basement, bro.
All around there’s picture books. I like to decorate the floor with great picture books (this is just the view beneath my desk). If I keep them at my feet, I will absorb their power all the way up to my brain. It’s a science.
Corkboard of goodness and sketches. Underneath that pile of papers (You guessed it… sketches. And drawings) is a large format ink jet printer. I use this sometimes to print my drawings and watercolor on top of. It comes in handy when I mess up a drawing with a botched watercolor job and don’t have time to redraw the whole thing all over again.
In this closet resides years and years of filled up sketchbooks. There could be a lot of great idea generators in there, but I’ll never know. I can hardly stand ever going back to look at old drawings. In the corner, there are some posters that will go back up in the crawlspace soon. Let’s take a closer look.
I acquired that sweet old Frog and Toad poster earlier this summer on Ebay. Actually, that ain’t going in the crawlspace, I’m in the midst of putting it in a frame. Behind F+T are the legs and feet of a signed Lou Ferrigno as Incredible Hulk poster. I am not a big fan of Ferrigno (I am not a not fan either) or the Hulk for that matter, but… years ago, at one of many comic book conventions we go to, Julie and I saw him sitting alone and looking awfully bored at his “sign stuff for money” table. (Lou goes to a good deal of those himself.) Something came over me and I bought a signed poster off of him. He didn’t seem too thrilled about any of it. But we did get this sweet snapshot out of the exchange, and that, my friends, is priceless.
Also going back into the crawlspace are these paintings I did in previous art lives. I never quite know what to do with old art. It feels wrong getting rid of it. I guess I’ll just lug it around from residence to residence for the rest of my life.
Monkey on a toddler potty on a Baker & Taylor box. You know you like it.
Lastly, this hangs by my desk to give me both exhilarated pride and fever dreams.
How was it? Don’t forget to tip your tour guide on the way back up the stairs.
PHIL: That’s Ferrigno on the left, correct?
The old paintings you’ve got there really struck a chord. I never know what to old artwork. After college I did a series of large scale paintings on masonite, which unlike canvas can’t be unstretched, rolled up and stored easily away. The paintings were of empty circus tents. They were part of an elaborate show I organized in Detroit in 2004. I took over the abandoned fourth floor of an old warehouse, cleaned it, painted it in bright colors, pirated electricity, and hosted a one-night-only art show with three artists working with the theme “circus”. Erin was one of the three artists. We had a popcorn machine and live pipe organ music. Erin worked small mostly, which was good long term thinking. I worked big and have been kicking myself ever since. Recently a friend of mine returned one of the paintings that he’d adopted ten years ago. He couldn’t fit it in his car for a drive to California. Now I have to figure out what to do with it. So it’s just taking up space in the studio. I actually still kind of like it, but it was a completely different person who made it. A distant former self.
So should we talk about the book we made together? Now that it’s a few months in the rear view mirror, how was the experience? You can be honest.
MATT: Yeah… I was doing a lot of supplements back in those days. Now I look a lot more like the guy on the left.
That’s a sweet painting. I wish I could’ve seen that show. I was actually going to ask you guys to show a little previous-life artwork too, but you never know who’s willing to pull skeletons out of closets, so I left it alone. Phil, you and I seem to have quite a few parallels going on in past and present… I, too, went through a massive painting phase! When I first moved to Chicago (from South Carolina in 1999), I lived in a great, big loft space with three other grungy dudes. My first impulse was to start a series of paintings (from snapshots I’d taken of my friends) and do them HUGE. (It didn’t seem unreasonable at the time because my new living space was huge.) I’m talking 4 ft. x 6 ft. large. I’ll show you another one, ’cause why not?
I quickly regretted being all Mr. Big Canvas when, after that loft, I moved into a 1 bedroom apartment. Years that followed, I lugged those beasts around as I moved from place to place. I only JUST now (2 weeks ago actually) removed the canvases from those massive stretchers and rolled them up for the rest of eternity. And after a bit of inner debate, two of them I donated to the town dump. I did not unstretch that one that leans against the back wall of our crawl space. I still like that one.
Let’s do talk about our book! It’s called Special Delivery. Coming not-soon-enough to a bookstore near you. (March-April-ish, 2015) But first… Allow me to set the stage a little for the other passengers on the Bus:
I met Phil and Erin at an ALA annual conference in New Orleans back in the summer of 2011. It was at an evening soirée thrown by Macmillan. I had come to New Orleans with my author wife, Julie Halpern, and our then toddler daughter. The three of us were supposed to go to this party together, but it was late and Julie and Romy were running on fumes, so I went alone. Which was highly unappealing to the introvert in me. I knew very few people at this packed party, but somehow I managed to painfully mingle my way through the crowd, meeting a handful of friendly authors and illustrators who endured my awkward conversation. Two of which were Phil and Erin.
The next day, after I woke up and played my mental anguish game of “embarrassing things I said last night” I checked my email and there in my inbox was a message from the Steads. It was a sort of “nice meeting each other” note that I was quite surprised to see. For one, I knew Amos was being awarded the Caldecott that very day, so I was pretty surprised I had any blip remaining on Stead radar. And two, making any kind of impression on anyone that evening other than “he seemed kinda nervous” was a nice achievement, I ain’t gonna lie. So it was clear to me that these Steads were class acts.
After that, we would be intersecting paths at one conference or another, and we found time to sit and talk and sip coffee together. It became clear(er) that we shared a lot of the same likes, dislikes, frustrations, and also senses of humor and phobias. We kept in touch.
Phil, what happened next with Special Delivery? Phil and Erin, am I making any of this up?
PHIL: That all sounds about right. I can’t remember the specific origin of how and why we decided to work together though. I know you expressed an interest in working with my editor, Neal Porter. Neal has a reputation of letting artists do their thing. I won’t bore the people reading this with the inside politics of the publishing world, but let’s just say that getting a book made is not always as easy as getting an author/illustrator/editor together. There are a lot of other personalities involved. I do remember that I greased the wheels by sharing a copy of Hello! Hello! with Neal. He liked it a lot, which I knew he would. For those not familiar with the book, here’s the trailer (with music by yours truly):
I really love Hello! Hello!, especially the line quality. A long, long time ago I read somewhere an interview with Jules Feiffer wherein he said (and I’m paraphrasing here): We were all so jealous of Silverstein’s line. There aren’t a lot of artists that have a recognizable line. I think it should be celebrated when they do.
Skipping ahead a bit, I’m not sure if I ever shared with you the beginning of our now mutual friend Sadie. (For those reading, Sadie is the main character of Special Delivery.) One day my friend Nicole was over our house and she told me about a dream she’d had the night before. In the dream she’d taken an elephant to the post office to be mailed. She realized once she got there that she couldn’t afford the postage. Now, if that isn’t a great set up for a story then I don’t know what is. As an added bonus, Nicole’s dream reminded me of one of my favorite Sendak illustrations from Lullabies and Night Songs:
And thus Special Delivery was born.
Did I forget anything? What about the actual making of the book? How do you feel about it now? Any art we should share?
Fun fact: That friend of mine, Nicole, is pretty much the only friend I’ve known longer than Erin. Her boyfriend used to drive my to school in a ’66 Mustang like this:
Pretty cool, right?
MATT: Thanks, re Hello! Hello!. It remains, I do believe, my proudest moment in print. It’s so personal to me and what I accomplished with my Disney-Hyperion folks, Kevin Lewis and Joann Hill, it was/is a most satisfying book for me to look back on. Kevin is one of my favorites. He really pushed hard on that book, and he continues to be a big advocate of my work and of experimentation. So glad to hear that about the line. Line is my jam. My friend. My enemy.
Back to our book. Ok, yes. That’s it. Hanging out with you guys and then Neal and ultimately finding a way to pour some of everything and everyone into one book! Now I’m remembering…
Special Delivery. It seems like so long ago when we did the book and it’s not even out for another, like, 6 months! I have such fond memories of this project. When I first read your manuscript I knew I was in for a treat. It is a freaking wild ride, this one. I’d never worked on anything like it before. Stamps, elephant delivery, a plane, a train, monkey bandits, an alligator ride, an ice cream truck… Well, it’s manic picture book making, is what it is. I was excited to be doing a book with you and Neal and even more excited that it was this one. It’s a good deal more topsy-turvy than anything else you’ve done, is that fair to say, Phil? I think that’s probably why I felt so right to do it. And it was my first time illustrating a book for someone who is also illustrating books. So I remember feeling a little nervous about that. But once I started sketching, it just flowed. Something about making this book came incredibly naturally to me. So much fun.
Sketches. Starting sketches was intimidating because there’s a LOT of stuff packed into this book. (Also intimidating—I was trying furiously to get through this dummy before our baby boy was born that summer.) But as I worked my way through each spread, it was building more and more and getting better and better and crazier and crazier. I had such a terrific time with the sketches, and I really hoped you guys would like them. I hoped you wouldn’t think I overextended myself. I’d taken some liberties, for sure. When we got on the phone to talk them through, for me, it was one of those hair-raising moments when everything feels… right. I remember it was, I think, a more than 2 hour phone call, the three of us going through that first dummy. I was on my cell phone and the phone was blazing hot by the end of it. I couldn’t hold it directly to my ear. (Is that normal?) Maybe some of that cellphone radiation lent itself to some extra creative drunken magic. Everyone was on the same page, thoroughly enjoying it and collaborating. In retrospect, it sorta felt like… free jazz. And moving forward, there were even more crazy, funny, fun tweaks to come. This is one of my favorite evolutions:
Over the course of revisions, this page:
Became this spread:
Became this totally bananas stretch of final art and lettering:
Cover. I usually procrastinate cover as long as I can on a book. Until someone who is not me says, “um, where’s the cover?” It is, typically, super hard because it has to capture the spirit of the book without giving it away AND it has to please SO many people at the publisher and yourself and everyone else who will ever see it ever. It’s hard, man. Yet, I do enjoy it. Go figure. However… the cover for Special Delivery came to me fast and hard. It reminded me of this Tomi Ungerer quote, “When I draw, it’s a real need. It’s the kind of need like you have to go to the toilet. It’s got to go out.” This light bulb moment came exactly right after that phone call I was just talking about. Right when I hung up the phone. That stamp—that most famous stamp—the Inverted Jenny, it PERFECTLY captured the events in the book and its spirit. I sketched it fast and emailed it right over to you and Neal. Done. (Minus the BEANS.)
Case cover. This was originally going to be the printed endsheets of the book. But because of our page count, that was not going to be possible. So I thought… we thought… we NEED this for something. So it became our case cover. I love this piece. It was tortuously fun to draw. I did no sketching for it, I just drew it outright, pen to ink to paper. No way was was I gonna sketch it and then turn around and draw it all over again. Here it is when it was fully drawn, half-ly painted.
I could say more, more, more about this book, but I have to stop myself because it’s not out ’til March of next year. I will say this: I am so excited (and also a little bit scared again) that we have a sequel to Special Delivery waiting in the wings and under contract. Wow wow wow.
PHIL: I still astounds me that we (mostly you) pulled off the maniacal Chugga Chugga Beans spread. I remember when we were all on the phone talking through the dummy and Neal said something like: Maybe we should expand this moment. Looking back that’s a real highlight for me. That spread would’ve been killed 99 times out of 100 in other editorial meetings.
As I lifelong philatelist I’m especially happy with the cover and case for this book. For anyone not familiar with the source material, here’s the original inverted Jenny, the most famous stamp in the world:
I really love this book. It was sort of magic from my point of view because it’s the first book I’ve had illustrated outside of my studio. When Erin illustrates for me I see every step along the way, and sometimes it can be harrowing. It was kind of nice to have someone struggling hundreds of miles away on my behalf. Let’s do it again!
Now, any final words before we sign off?
MATT: I’ve really enjoyed this week or two diversion of riding on the Bus with you two. Now that it’s coming to a close, I’ll have no excuse to not be more attentive to this rapidly growing pile of sketches on my desk(s). I’m never good with goodbyes, so instead I’ll leave you with the final two lines of Steig’s Gorky Rises. Until we meet again, Steads (which will likely be in a far less public email exchange)…
At last Gorky’s father said: “Well, son, you must be tired after all that flying. Let’s go home and get some sleep.”
Conversation ended 29 August 2014, 2:04 p.m.
Thank you for reading. We leave you today with this fantastic video with Quentin Blake. It is utterly relaxing and inspirational. Until next time…