Thursday, January 27, 2011

Interview with an Illustrator - Wendell Minor

& The Art of The Last Train

Author Gordon Titcomb (left) and illustrator Wendell Minor (right) in front of Engine No. 40 - with their picture book, The Last Train

I'm very pleased to feature an interview with Wendell Minor, the award-winning illustrator of more than 40 books for children, including Ghost Ship by Mary Higgins Clark and Look to the Stars by Buzz Aldrin. The Last Train, (Neal Porter Books/Roaring Brook Press, an imprint of MacMillan, September, 2010) based on the song by Gordon Titcomb, takes a nostalgic look back to an era when everyone travelled by train.

Q: Your passion for American historical themes is evident in your work. It seems you're a fan of trains as well. Did the subject of this picture book resonate with you on a special level? Why?

A: I'm old enough to remember the last days of the age of steam. My hometown of Aurora, Illinois is the birthplace of the CB&Q Railroad (Chicago/Burlington/Quincy); later to be known as the Burlington Route. Aurora was the hub of railroad activity since it had one of the largest railroad roundhouses and repair facilities in the midwest. My mother would take me to the Burlington Railroad station frequently to see the "big iron horses" roll into town. I have had a lifelong fascination with steam engines since the age of four and I'm delighted to see a whole new generation of children have a passion for steam engines even though they have never experienced them first hand. When visiting the Essex Steam Train Museum in Essex, Connecticut, all one has to do is look at the excitement on the faces of the children to understand that, although no longer in use, steam engines have a timeless effect on young children.

Q: Were there any special challenges or benefits of illustrating a book for which the text is a song instead of a conventional narrative?

A: I have illustrated numerous books based on poems, for example: Eve Bunting's Red Fox Running, Alice Schertle's A Lucky Thing, and Katharine Lee Bates' America the Beautiful, which as we all know is the basis for the song of the same name. The Last Train, presented as a song, really is, by definition, a poem.

Wendell Minor - Drawing for a spread in The Last Train
Wendell Minor - Finished color spread for The Last Train

Q: For the illustrators who are reading this, please tell us a little bit about your process: How do you approach a new picture book text? How long do you typically spend painting each spread? What's your daily routine like when you're working on a picture book?

A: I spend a good deal of time reading and re-reading the text of a picture book to let the essence of the book become part of what I would call a subliminal process. For example: I listened to the song, The Last Train, countless times, each time scribbling thumbnail sketch ideas for each phrase. Firsthand research is paramount whenever possible, and Florence and I booked a ride on the Essex Steam Train, pulled by Engine No. 40 (which is featured in the book) a preliminary part of my research. While at Essex, I also took numerous photographs to use as reference. 

In addition, I spent a lot of time doing historical research on the web and poring over my own collection of books on trains and steam engines, and all manner of railroad memorabilia. Gordon Titcomb was also extremely helpful in supplying props such as the gold railroad watch case and chain, and even an old cigar box with a train motif. All of my childhood memories played into the imagery; for example: Chessie the Cat - the symbol of the Chesapeake & Ohio Railway. Since first seeing it as a child, I have never forgotten the image of Chessie the sleeping kitten, and thus it is included in the book. As for my daily routine, I have spent the last four decades working 12-14 hours a day in the studio - reading, writing, researching, sketching, painting and designing; sometimes 7 days a week.

Q: I gather you paint mostly in acrylic and gouache watercolor. The Last Train was painted in gouache. Why did you choose that medium for this project?

A: Gouache has been my primary medium, aside from acrylic, because it offers the opportunity to create the brightest palette, and I feel that it is important to create bold and bright images for a young audience. I'd also like to note that gouache is a medium that's been around for approximately 500 years, and has been proven to stand the test of time as an archival medium.

Q: Your cover illustration for Harper Lee's To Kill A Mockingbird has become virtually iconic. The beautifully rendered composition captures a sense of mystery and portends of something ominous. In it, there's an elegant crescent moon - similar to the moon on the back cover of The Last Train. Can you tell us a little bit about the inspiration behind the cover for To Kill A Mockingbird?

A: First of all, thank you for your compliment about the painting for To Kill a Mockingbird, as it is one of my all-time favorites. It seems that over the years I have found myself using celestial icons as metaphors for visual expression. To me, the crescent moon symbolizes the continuum of an ending and a beginning.  In the painting for Mockingbird specifically, the theme of the circle is repeated with the moon, the watch, the ball of twine and the knothole in the Live Oak tree. What better way to symbolize the cycle of events and of life itself?

Q: You have said:

"Children's book illustration is the last frontier of creative freedom for the artist... the last pond of the Serengeti. They are the one place we go to drink for inspiration."

Compared to creating fine art, some artists might feel confined by the parameters of text and format when illustrating a book. What a wonderful discovery, that for you, children' s book illustration represents freedom? Please explain.

A: I believe that artists are confined by their own inhibitions and that freedom in the creative arts can be found virtually anywhere, provided an artist has a clear sense of his/her core beliefs. If an artist has a true sense of self, then all the parameters or limitations in the world should not confine their ability to have creative freedom and self-expression to optimal effect. As a (former) teacher, I have found that when students are given "total creative freedom" they truly are at a loss as to where to turn; only by creating certain parameters or a clear set of instructions do students find that their creativity improves. I suppose that's another way of saying "form follows function."

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Currently I'm working on a new book with Robert Burleigh, one with my wife Florence (a sequel to our book, If You Were a Penguin) and the third book in a trilogy by Jean Craighead George entitled, The Eagles are Back.  In addition, I am working on assorted book cover assignments, including an important project for me - the cover for David McCullough's forthcoming book, The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris, 1830-1900).

Thank you for a wonderful insightful interview, Wendell! 


The Pen and Ink Blogspot said...

Great artwork. The first train real train I rode was an overnight train from London to Scotland.
Trainless in LA

Brimful Curiosities said...

My son loves all train books. I think he'd also enjoy this one. Last fall we had the chance to visit a train museum and we took a short ride on a passenger train. It's a fun way to travel!

Joan Charles said...

Thanks for another wonderful interview, Megan. Mr. Minor's art is beautiful and truly inspiring!

Diane Browning said...

Fabulous interview, with your usual insightful questions. I loved Mr. Minor's comments about inhibition, creativity and self-expression. "The last frontier of creative freedom"! Wow!

Book Club Reviewer said...

Wow, inspiration from a real artist! I hope I can use the info you have provided to start my own career in this business. I try to keep the creative juices flowing while working a day job I don't really like and looking for new employment. Any suggestions will surely help. Hopefully my time will come (soon.)

Megan Frances Abrahams said...

Thanks for your comments Trainless and Brimful. I love trains too!

And thank you Joan, Diane and Chica. So glad you enjoyed my interview with Wendell Minor. I found it very interesting to learn about his creative process and the research that goes into his beautiful work.

Unknown said...

Thank you Megan and Wendell for the great interview! Always so very inspiring to hear from the pros in this field.

Megan Frances Abrahams said...

So glad you liked the interview, Eliza. And, thanks for following my blog!

Jacqui Murray said...

What a lovely way to say it--the last pond of the Serengeti. Your word pictures are as powerful as your artwork.

Megan Frances Abrahams said...

It is a beautiful metaphor isn't it? Thanks for commenting, Jacqui.

Kat McD.- No Napping Studios said...

Great interview, Megan! I love his work. Really great to read his perspective on art and his creative process.

Megan Frances Abrahams said...

Glad you liked the interview, Kat. I learned a lot too! Thanks for commenting. I love the name of your studio!