Interview: Don Tate- Illustrating Children’s Books
Don Tate is an award winning illustrator of children’s books, a graphic designer, and sought-after speaker on the subjects of writing and illustrating. And, though he’s currently keeping his writing projects quiet, rest assured he will be adding published ‘author’ to his professional resume very soon. Don graciously agreed to an interview based partly on questions kids have asked during my own time in classrooms. Whether you’re a teacher, a young reader, or a budding picture book writer or illustrator, I’m sure you’ll find Don’s responses insightful. And speaking of teachers, go ahead and share this with your students. After all, most of the questions come from young, curious minds.
Don, congratulations on your latest books, RON’S BIG MISSION, written by Rose Blue (Dutton, 2009), and SHE LOVED BASEBALL: THE EFFA MANLEY STORY, written by Audrey Vernick (Harper Collins, 2010.)
When did you know you wanted to be an artist?
I’ve been drawing since I was old enough to hold a pencil in my hands, so I’ve always known I’d create art of some kind. At one point, I said I’d be a toy-maker because I loved making things from junk found around the house. I also thought I’d grow up to be the Black Jim Henson (creator of the Muppets), because I loved making puppets from socks and thrown out materials.
Don Tate looking over his Duke Ellington sketches
A high school drafting teacher encouraged me to become an architect, but I didn’t like the constraint of drafting tools, and I certainly didn’t like anything having to do with numbers. Of all the avenues for illustrations and art, why did you decide to illustrate children’s books? Children’s book creation is in my blood. My aunt, Eleanora E. Tate wrote (still writes) teen novels. She inspired me. Through her, I found the perfect outlet for my drawing skills. In addition to illustrating for children’s books, I also license my art to product manufacturers — t-shirts, scrap-booking, textile, wallpaper, calendars.
How many books have you illustrated? I’ve illustrated somewhere in the neighborhood of 40 to 45 books, trade and educational. I’ve illustrated 10 trade picture books, including Say Hey: A Song of Willie Mays; Sure As Sunrise: Stories of Bruh Rabbit; Ron’s Big Mission; She Loved Baseball: The Effa Manley Story. Most recently, I finished Duke Ellington’s Nutcracker Suite, written by Anna Celenza. It’s the story of how Duke Ellington Billy Strayhorn collaborated to remake Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite into a jazz version. It will publish with Charlesbridge in the fall.
Are you illustrating a book (s) right now? I am illustrating several books right now. I’m illustrating a series of chapter books for Magic Wagon, and I’m illustrating a trade picture book written by Eve Bunting. It’s a bit early to discuss the subject matter, but I can say that Eve has written a brilliant book.
What other kinds of art do you do? My art has been used in many ways. Primarily, I’m a commercial artist. That means that I create art that will be used as a product or to sell a product. My art has been used on t-shirts, billboards, greeting cards, fabrics, calendars, restaurant menus, television commercials, advertising, almost everything you can think of. I also work as an artist for the newspaper, so many of my illustrations appear in the Austin American-Statesman.
Okay, inquiring young minds want to know: How do you illustrate a children’s book? The first thing I do is read the manuscript. As I read, images come to mind, which I quickly sketch on to paper. These are called thumbnail sketches. I use the thumbnail sketches as a guide for creating tighter sketches later. I spend lots of time on the internet, in the library, and in book stores researching images that I can use to paint from. I also take lots of photographs to draw and paint from. Sometimes I create clay models of the characters I need to create, or build models using 3D programs. Once my tighter sketches are approved by my editor and art director, I paint my final art using acrylic paint on paper.
Do you work for one book publisher like a regular employee? I work for several publishers, and I’m not considered an employee like the editor and art director. Publishers hire me as an independent worker.
How does an illustrator get an assignment? Depends. Some illustrators get work on their own. Others use an agent, who finds work for them. I’ve worked both ways.
Can you say no to a project if you don’t like it? That’s what I like about working for myself. I get to say no when I need to.
Do you think through the entire book before beginning sketches? Yes, I read the entire book, and think about how the story will pace out. I try to create interesting angles so each page is different.
Do you choose where the page-turns will be or does the publisher? I’ve worked both ways. Sometimes the publisher decides how the pages will break. With Duke Ellington, I designed the layout and page turns, for the most part. With some other books, I receive a layout and I pretty much stick to it. With the Eve Bunting book, my art director has sent a layout. But she’s also sent galleys that I can cut apart, should I decide I want to deviate from the layout.
Why doesn’t a picture book begin on the first page of the book? It does. It begins with a title page, which sometimes includes small icon-ish art that best represents the story. Other times, the title page can be used as a lead-in to the story.
How much time do you spend on each book? Usually it takes about three weeks to illustrate 3 to four spreads, and about 8 months to a year to complete a book.
When you finish illustrations for a new book, what happens then? I send the art to the publisher, where it is scanned and made digital, so that the book designer can lay out the entire project on a computer. Because the images are digital, revisions can be completed in Photoshop. Computer files are sent to printers on the other side of the world, China, Singapore, other places. Several months later, I get to see color proofs.
What medium do you prefer? Oil, watercolor, etc? Both. I use many mediums. But I especially like oil and acrylic paint. With the Duke Ellington book, I used acrylic watercolors and ink.
What are some other common mediums used by illustrators? All types of mediums ‘ colored pencil, chalk, watercolor. Computer art is becoming more popular. Many artist are now drawing directly into the computer.
What other art tools do you use for illustrating? I think the tool I use the most is my Sharpie. I like to sketch with a Sharpie marker because I can block in large areas and quickly see how shapes relate to each other. And because I’m still old-school, I use my t-square, triangle and Exacto knifes. How do you use a computer for planning and illustrating books? I use a program called InDesign for page layout. A program called Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop for drawing and painting. Sometimes I take digital photos of my paintings along the way, and then upload them to my computer where I can experiment with colors.
Do you have a favorite subject to illustrate? For example, do you especially like illustrating people, or sports, or animals, or nature, etc?
I enjoy painting almost everything, but I think my favorite is faces. I see faces in just about everything.
What kind of education is best for someone who wants to be an illustrator? I went to a two-year community college. There, I learned about commercial art and advertising. I was trained to be a commercial artist. But I’d recommend getting a four-year degree. I didn’t get much math and English, and I’ve found it to be so important later in my career. Any advice for kids who may want to pursue this art form? Just draw. Draw every day. And make stuff from things found around the house.
How do you, as illustrator, research your subjects so that your illustrations are historically accurate? I spend a lot of time on the internet — Google searches, historical photo archives, online museums. I also check out books and DVDs.
Has any subject been especially difficult to master visually?
For me, sports subjects are always difficult because I’m not a sports person. My copy editors at Harper Collins kept telling me, “That’s not how you hold a baseball bat.” With the Willie Mays book, one of the designers asked me to flip an image for better presentation. It never occurred to me that that would make Willie throw with his left hand. Those kind of things trip me up.
Have you ever been asked to redo an illustration? Oh, yes, please, many times. Not necessarily at the painting stage, but I redo sketches all the time.
You are also an author. Please tell us about your current writing projects. I don’t feel comfortable talking about them in detail. But almost all of the stories I write involve little-known, everyday people who do great things in the face of big obstacles.
As an author/illustrator, which comes first- images or text? I’m sure that varies from illustrator to illustrator. But I tend to write first. I perfect my manuscript, and then I start to draw. At that point, the words have to be rewritten.