1. Tell us about yourself / What makes you tick?
I’m an illustrator, writer, and teacher, and love all three aspects of what I do. I moved from the east coast to LA in my early twenties and studied illustration and painting at Art Center in Pasadena.
I lived in Los Angeles until 2007 when my wife Anissa and I moved to Maine, and just recently we relocated to Canada. I have taught illustration at Otis, Art Center, Maine College of Art, and now Emily Carr University here in Vancouver. It’s a wonderful and inspiring school to be a part of, as is the city. I really enjoy having a varied career and I bounce around between writing and illustrating children’s books, doing all sorts of freelance work, participating in gallery shows, and teaching.
We have two young kids and I feel lucky that I can work at home and they’re so close, although I have to sequester myself too to get work done. Two cats. A bunch of guitars and a banjo that Anissa and I have much less time to play these days. Exploring a new city, which is great for getting around on a bike. Reading lots of bedtime stories– some of the same ones I was read. Not getting enough sleep.
2. How did you get started as an illustrator?
When I graduated I was pretty focused on doing editorial work. I moved to New York for a year, then went back to LA and started getting some magazine assignments, as well doing freelance jobs for the record companies there. For some of my first gigs I was hired to do illustrated hand lettering, something I didn’t really expect, but is fun and I’ve always liked doing hand-drawn type.
I just gradually built up a mailing list and would do small edition promotional pieces whenever I had time. I got a rep after about 4 years. In 1996 I tried my hand at creating a children’s book – something I had always wanted to do, and in ’98 I had my first one published by Houghton Mifflin – Polkabats and Octopus Slacks. I have written and illustrated a bunch more since then. Most recently Boy Wonders and Pirateria: The Wonderful Plunderful Pirate Emporium for Atheneum Books, and a drawing activity book for Chronicle that I talk about later.
3. How did you find your style? Has it changed since you started?
I found my initial style from doing a lot of experimenting after I got out of school. The portfolio I had when I graduated was kind of all over the place, and i didn’t really have a way of working or a medium that clicked with me. There was some collage, pastel, ink drawings…
I think that once I found a process that suited my interests and temperament I was able to focus and make a few leaps. With acrylic paint I could revise and layer paintings and was much more comfortable with working the paintings up, making adjustments, rather than a more step-by-step process or using a less forgiving medium. There was room for improvisation, and finding color schemes as I went.
4. Can you briefly explain your creative process, mediums, etc?
Well, I try to draw and write a lot in sketchbooks. My children’s books come out of playing with language and spending as much time as i can just brainstorming and sketching.
For creating final art, whether for books or freelance jobs, I work sketches up to a place where I feel the composition and elements are worked out, then quickly transfer the sketch and dive in. I usually have a pretty good idea for a color palette in my head – and like to let it develop, but sometimes I’ll do color studies beforehand. I usually work with the flat areas, and larger shapes first, pull the basic color scheme together, and work towards linear detail last. Basically painting with large to small sizes of brushes as I go.
A while back I started doing pen, and brush and ink drawings that were about line, rather than the silhouette-shape and color qualities of most of my work. I love sumi ink.
In my third children’s book – Flamingos on the Roof, I started integrating graphic line work in, along with the full color paintings. I’ve illustrated four of Daniel Pinkwater’s great novels, and did small ink drawings for the chapters. I enjoy having assignments that involve quick direct drawing, as well as longer projects with full color art that takes more time and a different kind of concentration.
Recently I’ve been experimenting with gouache and watercolor, and am interested in mixed media approaches. This year I had a drawing activity book for kids published by Chronicle. It’s called Dragon, Robot, Gatorbunny, and it’s one of the most satisfying and enjoyable things I’ve done. This is because I was able to take the fun process of creative messing around in a sketchbook and transfer it over to a book for kids that’s about the same thing: drawing freely, creating new characters (or versions of my characters), letting the mind and pen or pencil wander, playing with words to go with the images. Along with the print version, it’s just been published in an electronic edition for for the iPad. The viewer can draw with their fingers or a stylus. I’ve been noodling around with it the past couple of days– a lot of fun.
5. How do you come up with new ideas? Do you have a process?
I can’t say that I have a set process. For writing I do a lot of free association exercises, then try to extract ideas that seem to want to be explored further, and work on those.
I seem to get some ideas from overheard conversations, or phrases, song lyrics. I’m a fan of making lists, and a lot of the stories and poems in my books have started with writing all the phrases and words associated with a subject that I can think of, then following connections – like putting together a puzzle that’s forming as you solve it.
For art and illustration, I like to look to lots of sources for inspiration – painting, sculpture, architecture, music, design, photography… I think it’s good to be aware of what’s happening in the realm of illustration and the wider art world, but you have to be able to come back to your own ideas and interests and be rooted there. Sometimes that’s difficult.
6. Do you ever have creative slumps? What do you do then?
I do. Usually due to being tired, and by extension, feeling less inspired. I just do my best to relax and not be too self-judgmental about it. Try to recharge. It helps to shift gears too, if I’m feeling stuck with drawing, I move to writing, or try a new medium.
7. Best / most fun part of your job:
I guess just being able, daily, to be creative in one way or another.
8. Worst / most difficult part of your job:
The business side of it, along with promoting myself and all that.
9. Do you have side projects you work on?
I do have some side/pet projects including a few books that may be too odd for the picture book market that I would like to publish myself in one way or another. One is a sleepy time/anti-sleepy time book for kids called Snoozefest!
10. What’s on your horizon? Any current/future projects and plans/dreams you can share with us?
I have a book coming out in January that’s inspired by the theme of love and friendship. It’s called We Go Together! The concept of the book was suggested by my editor Margaret Raymo at Houghton Mifflin. It was a challenge to try to write and illustrate some verses in that mode that were not too cute or corny. I wanted it to be heartfelt and genuine — but also funny, offbeat. As with all of my books I tried to make it have appeal for both kids and grownups.
I’ve also just finished 2 manuscripts for picture books that my agent is sending out. I am creating some pieces for the yearly Post-It juggernaut show at Giant Robot in LA. And on the freelance side, I’m doing drawings for a series of animated commercials.
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5 things inspiring you/your work right now:
Ben Shahn, Art Tatum, Mervyn Peake, Comics, Landscape painting
3 constants in your day:
Green tea, My kids, Music
Your #1 art tip or words of wisdom:
Be serious about enjoying making art.
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Many, many thanks for doing this interview, Calef! Your work is so fun and whimsical. We are all inspired!