Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Illustrator Spotlight - Paul O. Zelinsky

In my last post I reviewed one of my favorite new titles named to the Texas 2x2 Reading List, Z is for Moose written by Kelly Bingham and illustrated by Paul O. Zelinsky. Mr. Zelinsky is quite a character, I must say. After reading a number of articles about this wonderful artist I would have to say he could be a comedian on the side. For more information on Mr. Zelinsky, read my post from July 18th

I am very excited to have the opportunity to share a little more insight into Mr. Zelinsky. He has graciously taken the time to answer a few questions about his art, books, and cats.

You have illustrated 34 books to date. Six of these books you have also authored. 

How do you choose the stories you are going to write, like The Lion and the Stoat or retell, such as Rapunzel?

I don't know. Luckily, I don't think I have to know. The way I see it the stories chose me.

What kind of research do you do before beginning work on a project?

My research happens after I begin working on a project, more than before. I won't know what I need to know until I start trying things out. Then I do every kind of research I can possibly do in order to put off the day when I start making finished art. Plus it can be endlessly interesting to learn things you never knew you didn't know or would want to. For instance, in Europe, hand mirrors were convex in shape until the middle of the sixteenth century, because they hadn't developed the technology to make flat glass panes smooth enough for a good mirror. Since I set Rapunzel around the year 1500 I had to give her a convex hand mirror.

Rapunzel's convex hand mirror on table
(from Mr. Zelinsky's personal collection)
Wow! That is very interesting. Details like this make me want to go back and study your illustrations in Rapunzel even more. I think it is very important for people to understand a great deal of research has to go into writing and illustrating books. The smallest of details may seem unimportant to some, but can stand out to others. These are the elements which separate the good from the great.

I have read you have a very different style for each of the books you illustrate. I have also seen a number of different mediums used in your illustrations.

What is your favorite medium in which to work?

Yes, I've used a lot of traditional art mediums, because they all give you different feelings when you look at the art. There are still some I haven't used, such as collage. I think probably oil is the one I'm most at home in, because it doesn't pop as many surprises on you as watercolor or gouache, and mistakes are almost always reparable. The Horn Book once asked me to write something about using different mediums, and I wrote this - Studio Views: Why I Use Oil Paints So Much

I understand both of your daughters appear in The Wheels on the Bus and the little girl carrying the miller's daughter's train when she marries the king in Rumpelstiltskin is your daughter, Anna.

That’s true.

Being a lover of animals, I was wondering if the cat in Rapunzel is modeled after your Siamese cat Skimbleshanks?

Yes, indeed. That cat was Skimby, who unfortunately died young of a heart condition. I don't consider myself a very good cat artist; without a model my attempts to draw cats often look more like dogs or goats or some unidentifiable mammal. In Dust Devil I gave Aunt Essie two small cats that I based on ones my daughter had when she lived in the Marshall Islands. The black-and-white one came back and still lives with her; the yellow one was killed by a wild dog. The cat in Z is for Moose is imaginary. Any similarity to any other cat, real or fictional, is purely coincidental.

Aunt Essie's cats
(from Mr. Zelinsky's personal collection)

On a side note, I would like to tell you I too had a cat named from T.S. Eliot’s classic book of poetry Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats. My black cat’s name was Mistoffelees.

I imagine Mistoffelees and Skimby would have got along famously!

Are there any artists who have been a great influence on your work?

Yes; other than Maurice Sendak, who was my inspiration to do illustration, I'm influenced by so many painters there's not much point in making a list. And I think the list would be different from day to day anyway. It starts in prehistory and ends probably in the 1950s.

I neglected to mention Mr. Sendak in my previous post. I’m sure he was a huge inspiration to you, especially after attending his course on the art and history of the children’s picture book. It is not surprising you have following in his footsteps as a Caldecott winning illustrator.

Thank you. I consider myself unbelievably fortunate. I was asked to write about that class for the new Sendak book - Maurice Sendak: A Celebration of the Artist and His Work hat accompanies the current exhibit at the Soceity of Illustrators in New York, if anybody wants to check it out.

Rapunzel sketch
(from Mr. Zelinsky's personal sketches)
Do you have a favorite illustration from any of your published works?

I don't do well at deciding on favorites of anything, but a favorite among my own works is a choice I don't even like the idea of making.

I'm sure it would be like choosing your favorite child. I completely understand.

I used to think exactly that, until I had a couple of children. Then I noticed that there were in fact some differences. But the idea is right.

Maybe this will be an easier question. 

What book was the most fun to illustrate?

Lots of them have been fun, and for different reasons. I can tell you which one was the easiest: Jack Prelutsky’s book Zoo Doings I just filled a lot of pieces of paper with animal doodles and gave them to the art director to try to fit them somehow onto pages. But easy and fun aren’t the same thing. Some books have been no fun at all, but rewarding enough to look at the art as it got finished that my travails felt like they'd been worthwhile. If you guessed which was which, you'd probably be right.

That is a daunting task, and one I don't think I want to ponder, simply because I am amazed at your talent. I am not an artist, but I appreciate great work, especially when it has such fine details as seen in your work.

What do you do to help inspire you when you reach a creative block?

One good thing I've found is to get new art supplies Even a color of paint I've never had before can work, but best is a different kind of art-making tool. This will make me want to start playing again.

Watercolors, including new ones
(from Mr. Zelinsky's personal collection / drawer)
It sounds to me like you could be compared to a kid in a candy store around art supplies. I can relate when around books. I also love that you refer to your profession as playing. It shows your passion for your craft.

I understand publishers usually pair an author and illustrator for a project. It has also been my experience the two rarely communicate during the production / publication process.

Is there anyone with who you would like to collaborate?

I don't really think about this. I've been tremendously lucky in the authors I've been able to illustrate. There isn't anyone else I have in mind, but ideal would be someone who is not only a spectacular writer, but also has a fan base that numbers in the billions and yet is happy to split royalties with me. I have tried never to make decisions about my books on the basis of what would or wouldn't sell, but only on what I think is the inherent quality of the work. But I'm more than willing to make a pretend decision in an interview on that basis.

How many books do you have in the planning stages? Are you willing to share any information at this time?

I'm largely done (I think) illustrating a second book about Moose. Then there is a picture book by Emily Jenkins about the same toy characters in the Toys Go Out books, StingRay, Lumpy the buffalo and Plastic. After that it isn't clear.

I am so excited to hear there will be another Moose book. He is a fun character a lot of children (and some adults) can relate to.  It is also wonderful to know the Toy characters will be coming back for a fourth book. I can't wait to see what these charming characters will do in their next adventure.

What was the last book you read?

Lately I've been reading middle grade novels by people I know. Just finished Peter Lerangis' Seven Wonders Book 1: The Colossus Rises; before that Better Nate than Ever by Tim Federle. Before that I read The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood, whom I don't know and which isn't a middle grade novel.

New books to add to my ever growing list of "Want to Reads". Thank you for sharing these titles. 

Jeff Kinney (Diary of a Wimpy Kid) loves to sing 80s hair band songs while doing karaoke.

What would be your featured song?

I only did karaoke once, at the Kindling Words retreat this January, and the choices were very limited, so I don't really know. In fact I don't listen to a lot of music; I listen much more to talk radio and podcasts. Maybe I'd sing made-up lyrics to the NPR theme.

Is there anything else you would like to share about yourself?

Beats me. Thanks for these questions. They were extremely useful in allowing me to put off making finished art.

Thank you, Mr. Zelinsky. I appreciate the time you took to answer these questions. 


Elizabeth Rose Stanton said...

Great interview, TLL! I have long been a POZ fan, so getting to read this has been a treat. I am especially intrigued, and impressed, by the convex mirror! Also, I happen to own a copy of "The Story of Mrs. Lovewright and Purrless Her Cat" and you can bet the cat is spot-on (I detect absolutely no resemblances to dogs or goats)! :)

Texas Library Lady said...

Thank you, Elizabeth. It was very exciting to get to work on this project with Mr. Zelinsky. I feel extremely fortunate. I was also fascinated with the mirror and loved having the image to go along with the story.