Illustrators: Responding to the Text

After 100 posts about picture books, I’m yearning to add other voices. I’ve begun to invite illustrators to answer a few questions about how they respond, relate to, and expand a text they didn’t write themselves. In other words, how do illustrators respond to our manuscripts.

Our first illustrator is Richard Jesse Watson.

#1. What elements of a manuscript first capture your attention? Plot? Language? Imagery? Tone? Sound? Theme?

What a clever question, George.  The first thing that captures my attention is the envelope (that is, if it arrives by mail). Things are changing so fast, that the traditional form of mail may be obsolete by the time you get this response. But I’m sure you remember what mail is even though your readers may not.  So, to clarify for you readers of George, I was referring to Medieval Mail, or Snail-Mail, or Analogue Word Transfer, or in other words,  The Hob-Nobbing of Wizards, using paper and ink made from walnuts. .  What was the question? Oh, right, am I intrigued by envelopes?  In a word, yes.  The fact that someone sent me an envelope with yummy words or story, is so exciting.  And the possibility of illustrating those words sends me into a little orbit. An orbit of imaginings.  Ahhh, what might I do with these words?

The tone of the words is what hits me at first.  Does the writer grab me by the…uh,  medulla. Am I intrigued? Is this writing fresh? Not like, Slap!!>>fresh, but original voice fresh. Then the other things follow: Imagery. Sound. Plot. Theme. Etc.

#2. What elements of a manuscript inspire your choice of style, line, and palette?

For example, your illustrations in THE LORD’S PRAYER, THE HIGH RISE GLORIOUS SKITTLE SKAT ROARIOUS SKY PIE ANGEL FOOD CAKE and THE MAGIC RABBIT are at once related, yet still different from one another.

 The final emotional delivery of the manuscript will inspire me to want to illustrate the story or not. As an illustrator, forsooth, even as a reader, I want to be led down a garden path; hopefully one with pretty flowers, and ripe fruit. Some lizards would be cool. Maybe I could be wearing a Davy Crockett hat.  It sure works if you surprise me with your thoughtfully arranged words, maybe startle me!  Amuse me? It does me-the-reader wonders if you can emotionally nudge me, or even wrench me  in some lingering way.  We could also just have fun.  “Good clean fun,” to quote Bill Murray.

But all that to say, a good story will compel me to experiment with medium in some unique way. My goal is to be true to the text but to explore the text and as N. C. Wyeth said, “To paint between the lines.”


 #3. Is there a picture book text that you would love to re-illustrate? What about the text excites you toward doing this?

I would love a chance to re-illustrate THE STORY OF FERDINAND by Munro Leaf. Actually it is so perfect the way it is. Forget I said anything. Ixnay on the what I saidnay.  But I love the anti-war sentiment, and the idea of letting each person be true to their unique gifting. Hard question to answer because I love so much in literature.  I am currently illustrating The Twenty Third Psalm. I would love to illustrate some Washington Irving, some Edgar Allan Poe.  THE WIND IN THE WILLOWS is a book I have always wanted to illustrate.

#4. As an illustrator, what is it that you most want writers to understand about your creative process?

 That illustrators cry real tears. We bleed. We put our pants on one leg at a time.  We eat turkey one leg at a time.  An illustrator’s job is to create a sub-text to the writer’s text.  A children’s picture book illustrator will be telling HALF of the story. One half, your words, one half, our pictures. It is an intimate collaboration. A perfect marriage of text and art. Or like the bishop says in THE PRINCESS BRIDE, “Mayowage…”

THANK YOU, RICHARD for sharing your thoughts.  For a fascinating look at Richard’s work and life please visit his website: <>

THE MAGIC RABBIT by Richard Jesse Watson

 Picture Books Referenced Above

Moore, Clement C. THE NIGHT BEFORE CHRISTMAS. HarperCollins, 2006.

Watson, Benjamin James. THE BOY WHO WENT APE. Illus. by Richard Jesse Watson. Blue Sky Press, 2008.

Watson, Richard Jesse. THE MAGIC RABBIT. Blue Sky Press, 2005.