By Bill Mayr
To keep up with illustrators from CCAD, just peruse the bestseller lists.
A good place to start is the Children’s and Young Adult categories, where three illustrators with CCAD ties — graduates Tim Bowers and John Jude Palencar, along with faculty member C.F. Payne — have helped propel books to the top of the market since 2011.
To be sure, they aren’t the first CCAD-related illustrators to make the lists, and it’s a safe bet they won’t be the last. But the varied experiences of this trio reflect the opportunities, challenges, and joys of illustration, especially with works created for a younger crowd.
Tim Bowers (CCAD 1979) made the New York Times and Publishers Weekly lists in the middle of last year with Dinosaur Pet, a picture book by Marc Sedaka with a CD recorded by his Grammy Award-winning father, Neil Sedaka. That project came on the heels of Bowers’ 2011 success with Dream Big, Little Pig, written by figure-skating champion Kristi Yamaguchi.
Bowers devotes his entire practice to children’s books, a focus that started forming years ago. “The things you need to develop a picture book are things I’ve been interested in for a long time — storytelling, humor. Basically I’m a very narrative artist. Character expressions — I’ve been fascinated with that since I was a little boy,” he says.
Bowers has illustrated more than 30 children’s books. Usually, publishers who have accepted book manuscripts will seek out the illustrators. When he is offered a project, Bowers says, “I read through the manuscript and let them know if I think I’m a good fit.” Then he starts creating characters with pencil sketches, later transferring them to canvas or illustration board to paint with acrylics or oils.
John Jude Palencar
Bowers’ experience contrasts with that of his friend John Jude Palencar (CCAD 1980), a leading book-cover illustrator who spends only part of his time on young-adult books. Every cover in Christopher Paolini’s bestselling four-book Inheritance Cycle series — about a teenage boy, Eragon, and his dragon — has carried an elegantly rendered Palencar painting of Saphira the dragon.
Palencar says he has declined offers to illustrate entire children’s books. “You have to live with it for a while, trying to develop a character. I’m mostly a cover illustrator. I enjoy the variety of each new manuscript. I like doing symbol and allegory.”
Palencar has some 300 book covers to his credit and has worked with big-name authors like Stephen King. He knows the ways of the world, but his illustrations for young adults have a special resonance. “You don’t realize how some people hang on to your image for the cover. Everything is kind of mulled over by these young kids. Being a freelance illustrator, we work somewhat isolated in our personal studios… [but] you never know, you may be influencing the illustrators of tomorrow.”
His paintings have a suave, 21st-century sensibility to them, but, the illustrator says, “I’m still an old dinosaur; I paint traditionally. I still think there is something noble and almost monastic when you work with your hands. I feel like an old Jedi knight: Don’t forget the old ways.”
C.F. (Chris) Payne, CCAD’s illustration chair for a decade-plus and now distinguished professor of illustration, assuredly hasn’t forgotten the old ways. Payne created animal and outer-space scenes for Mousetronaut, a number-one bestseller written by retired astronaut Mark Kelly.
A widely published editorial illustrator, Payne holds a can-do attitude and works in varied media: oils, acrylics, watercolor, colored pencils. “It is getting the drawing and color down right and making the picture look as good as you can possibly make it look,” he says. Payne says he and the other Illustration faculty teach that approach.
“I’m really proud of the department we’ve got. We have solid people who care about what they do. We want to be honest. Being an artist of any kind is a challenge, but it’s worth it,” he says.
Challenges — and Rewards
So don’t make the mistake of thinking that illustrating books for younger readers is a piece of cake.
“A children’s book comes along and you have six months, three months, a year, and now you are in a crazy marathon and have to manage that time along with the other projects you’ve got,” Payne says.
“For most of them you’ll do 16 to 18 images. For an ABC book, there are 26 letters plus the cover and the title page, so it ends up being 28 images. It’s a grind, a ton of work. You make a dozen pictures and go cripes, I’m not halfway there yet.”
Such a big investment of time and effort has its rewards, though.
A magazine illustration might have a shelf life of a week and poof, it’s gone from the newsstand. “Whereas a children’s book can be around for a long time,” Payne says. He adds, “I’ve not walked out of too many children’s books saying I’ll never do that again.”
Being on the children’s book bestseller lists is a “wow” experience, Bowers says, but the real payoff is deeper. “The best confirmation I receive is when I visit a school and the kids are really excited, familiar with the characters, and love the book. The bestseller list is great for my career, but the real joy is seeing the kids enjoying the book and enjoying the characters.”
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