Illustrators: Responding to the Text

Craig Orback

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


The easy answer would be to say all of the above, which for me is also true. More specifically though I get a lot of enjoyment from the setting, whether it’s historical or not and also the characters. For my picture books THE CAN MAN and NATURE’S PAINTBOX: A SEASONAL GALLERY OF ART AND VERSE both were set in the present which made for a nice change of pace from my typical historical projects. NATURE’S PAINTBOX does not really have a main character; the four seasons were my main characters. Bringing out the fun distinct elements of each season and letting my imagination run wild was really rewarding. It was also my first time illustrating poetry so that brought its own unique challenges. For the book I worked in pen and ink, pastel, watercolor and oil paint to depict each season. Typically an illustrator works in only one consistent medium for each book. For THE CAN MAN it was very character based and deals with serious and topical subject matter like homelessness and wants versus needs as seen through the eyes of a young boy. Tim lives in the city and comes from a family of limited means. He wants a skateboard for his birthday and decides to earn the money himself. I wanted my visuals to be grounded in reality. Living in Seattle at the time I took visual elements from the city but not in any obvious way then put them in the artwork. Traveling around the city with my camera was great fun.


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

For example, your illustrations in PAUL BUNYAN, NATURE’S PAINTBOX and THE CAN MAN are at once related, yet still different from one another.





For THE CAN MAN I knew I wanted to work in my usual medium oil to capture the richness and detail of Tim’s life in the city.  Oil painters like Edward Hopper and Wayne Thiebauld among many others were and continue to be an inspiration and I felt that oil paint best captured the urban realism depicted in that story. As I mentioned earlier, in NATURE’S PAINTBOX the poet Patricia Thomas in the text makes comparisons between the seasons and the four different mediums so the decision on what medium to use was made for me. I did however have to practice with pen and ink and pastel, two mediums I hadn’t used much since art school and much earlier. I felt a lot of pressure with that book to make all the different mediums look equal as far as skill level. For PAUL BUNYAN I wanted something flatter and more cartoon like so I worked in acrylic paint and used a lot of line work, which gave me the effect I was looking for. I wanted less realism and a more playful quality.

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


They aren’t really picture books but I love a lot of the classic adventure stories that N.C. Wyeth illustrated a hundred years ago like TREASURE ISLAND, KIDNAPPED, ROBINSON CRUSOE and others. His images are so burned in my brain though it would be pretty hard I think to come up with something new or that wasn’t too influenced by his work. KIDNAPPED is a favorite story I have reread many times. I love the setting of the Scottish Highlands in the 1700’s and the main characters Alan Breck Stewart and David Balfour. The tale is so vivid in every way.

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


That we take these stories to heart very deeply and try really hard to bring them to life visually. Reading them over and over multiple times, acting out scenes in order to help you sketch the characters better and capture their feelings brings the illustrator into this world the author has created. Along with the satisfaction of completing a project I do feel a little bit of sadness and even a mild depression when it comes time to say goodbye to the world the writer created and I immersed myself in. If you’re lucky though another story awaits just around the corner!

THANK YOU, Craig, for sharing your thoughts and reflections. You can find out more about Craig’s work and books at:


 Picture Books Referenced Above

 THE CAN MAN by Laura E. Williams. Lee & Low, 2010.

NATURE’S PAINTBOX: A SEASONAL GALLERY OF ART AND VERSE by Patricia Thomas. Millbrook Press, 2007.

PAUL BUNYAN adapted by Stephen Krensky. Millbrook Press, 2007.