Watch this before reading the great interview with Peter below!
Author and Illustrator Peter Brown On His Process from School Library Journal on Vimeo.
And now that we're all on the same page, the interview...
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Lee: Congratulations, Peter! Can you tell us about finding out you'd won the 2014 Golden Kite Award for picture book illustration for "Mr. Tiger Goes Wild”?
Peter: Well, it started with a game of phone tag. Lin Oliver and Stephen Mooser were trying to get me on the phone, but I was super busy that week. Lin left me a mysterious and giddy voicemail, and I still had no idea what was going on. We finally connected and they told me the great news. Of course I was surprised and thrilled! SCBWI has meant so much to me over the years, and to have my picture book win its highest honor means the world to me.
Lee: In addition to attending #LA14SCBWI - The 2014 SCBWI Summer Conference - to accept your Golden Kite Award, you'll also be on faculty, giving a keynote during the Monday Illustrator Intensive, "Great Artists Steal: Getting the most out of your artistic inspiration." Will that be along the lines of how you were inspired by the work of Alice and Martin Provensen, Mary Blair and Eyvind Earle - and yet created a visual look that's uniquely your own?
Peter: You are correct, sir. During the illustrator intensive I’ll discuss some of my artistic heroes, what lessons I’ve learned from them, how I’ve incorporated those lessons into my work, and how the attendees might learn from their own artistic heroes.
Lee: It seems like you were trying new techniques and approaches in illustrating "Mr. Tiger Goes Wild." What do you see as the role of experimentation in creating art?
Peter: I look forward to the day when I really enjoy and approve of my own art. But so far, that isn’t the case. So I experiment with my art, in the hopes that I’ll stumble upon better ways of doing things. I experiment with color and texture and composition and design and technique. Some experiments work, other don’t, but with each artistic experiment I learn a little more about who I am, and how I want my art to look and feel. I usually need to sit with a finished book for a while before I can decide what I like and don’t like about it. Then I incorporate those lessons into my next book, and I experiment some more. Using this process, I’m slowly learning what I truly want to do with my art. Eventually, when I’m an old man, I hope to finally know myself well enough that I’ll have no need for further experimentation.
Lee: Even the pinks of the fish and butterflies and the blues of the water are muted compared to the vibrant orange of Mr. Tiger -- and the sun on the reconciliation/Mr. Tiger returns to the town page. Can you talk about developing the color palette you went with?
Peter: In Mr. Tiger Goes Wild, things start off boring, so I designed those early scenes to have a more muted palette. The story gradually gets more exciting as Mr. Tiger acts wilder and wilder, and so I designed the later scenes to be more colorful. It was a pretty straightforward approach. But the color palette also owes a lot to the production of the book. We wanted the book to feel good to the touch, so we printed it on a textured, thick, uncoated paper. Uncoated paper absorbs inks in a way the reduces color saturation and contrast, which had the effect of muting the palette of the entire book. But my publisher and I really wanted Mr. Tiger’s color to pop, to reinforce the idea that he was unique. So we decided to use a fifth ink, for the special orange of Mr. Tiger (and of the sun). We picked a very vibrant orange for Mr. Tiger, and so by comparison, the other colors in the book seem even more subdued. Altogether, a number of factors combined to create the book's color palette, a palette that I hope reflects the concept of the story in an aesthetically pleasing way.
Lee: It does! At the end of the book, there's an "about this book" section that explains it was printed "with a fifth color, orange." Can you explain what that means?
Peter: Most books are printed using only four colors of ink: cyan, magenta, yellow and black. Printers use the somewhat confusing acronym CMYK, for those four standard inks. Using a “Fifth color” literally means the printers added one extra ink to the printing process. So when Mr. Tiger was being printed, the presses inked each page with the four standard CMYK colors, plus a special orange ink, which was the fifth color. There are thousands of different colored inks to choose from, but we chose a vibrant orange ink to make Mr. Tiger pop off the page.
Lee: The endpapers, being gray bricks for the beginning of the book, and a 'wild' field of ferns and flowers for the end, have an arc of their own, and there's a surprise under the paper dustcover. Is this part of a book-design philosophy that every visual aspect of a book is an opportunity?
Peter: I want my books to reveal something new with every reading. I mostly try to achieve that goal by incorporating different layers of meaning into the story. However, there are many opportunities to add value to the book itself. My publisher and I felt that Mr. Tiger really leant itself to those kinds of extra details, so I designed a special case cover, and end pages, and we printed with a fifth color on a special uncoated paper. The hope is that these little details added up to enhance the overall experience for my readers.
Lee: With all these anthropomorphized animal characters, did you find yourself using visual references or going to the zoo, or is that not so helpful in depicting elephants in sunhats standing upright and wearing lace-edged frocks?
Peter: I’ve spent a lifetime drawing animals. When I was seventeen I sent a portfolio to art colleges that consisted almost exclusively of animal drawings. And I've continued drawing animals ever since. So I often don’t need visual reference for animals. However, it never hurts to refresh one's memory, and I did look at some animal books during the design phase of Mr. Tiger Goes Wild. But more important were the books I studied about old London and Victorian era clothing, as I designed the city and the costumes.
Lee: When did you first join SCBWI, and can you share how that's helped you on your journey as an illustrator and author/illustrator?
Peter: I joined SCBWI in 1999, but my membership lapsed when I spent a year in Europe, so if you look on SCBWI.org it says I joined in 2002. Anyway, in college I focused on children’s books, and developed a number of stories and illustrations, but I had no idea how to actually pursue publication. When I joined SCBWI I felt like I was let in on a secret. I suddenly had all kinds of useful information about editors and agents, and which publishers were looking for what kind of work, and how to approach them. SCBWI gave me the tools with which to take the first real steps toward getting a book deal. Not only was that helpful, it was encouraging. I felt like, if I was smart about it, I might actually be able to get a book deal. My goals seemed attainable. That boost to my optimism made all the difference.
Lee: What advice do you have for other illustrators and author/illustrators working on their own picture books?
Peter: If you’re reading this you’re already off to a great start. Joining SCBWI is the first thing anyone should do if they’re serious about making children’s books. But aside from that, I think the best thing authors and illustrators can do is learn to think visually. That seems obvious, but you’d be surprised how many authors fill their picture book manuscripts with description, and how many illustrators simply depict what’s already explained in the text. The best picture books don’t rely on words to tell the full story. Authors need to put breathing room in their text, strategically placed gaps in their story that the illustrators can expand with their pictures. And illustrators need to learn how to enhance a story with their art, and not simply reiterate what’s been written. Visual storytelling is not easy, it’s a special art form, but by working conscientiously people can become better at it. I know I’ll be spending the rest of my career honing my skills in visual storytelling.
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Thanks so much, Peter!
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To find out more about Peter and his books, visit his website here.
And to meet, learn from and cheer Peter on in person, join us for the 2014 SCBWI Summer Conference, August 1-4 in Los Angeles, California. Information and registration are here.