Follow Your Passions: Advice from Illustrator E.B. Lewis

Children’s book illustrator E.B. Lewis doesn’t refer to himself as a fine artist or an illustrator but as an Artistrator. He gave a keynote speech at the 2010 LA SCBWI Conference about his journey as both fine artist and illustrator, and the passion behind his craft. The following notes were taken during his talk:

The Role of the Artist/Illustrator/Writer:

  • This is an amazing job. But do you realize the work that goes behind it?
  • We are artists.
  • We are critical thinkers.
  • We are in constant observation of the world.
  • We change minds.

The Sacrifices We Must Make For Our Craft:

  • Whenever there is an overthrow of power, the artists are the first to see persecution.
  • A lot of work can lose you relationships.
  • You lose time with all the hours you spend in your studio.
  • It takes hours to make something look simple.

The Elusive Goal of Perfection:

  • What happens when we talk about passion? We try to reach perfection, but it is not possible.
  • What happens when inspiration dies?
  • There were 2 ½ years when Lewis wasn’t able to paint (fine art). He felt like h is work wasn’t important, it wasn’t relevant. At least not in his own opinion.

The Difference between a Fine Artist and an Illustrator:

  • An illustrator takes written words and turns it into images.
  • A fine artist takes a philosophical issue and makes something, in whatever form it must take.
  • Artists document life.
  • Some of the best art in the country is in children’s books.

A Gift of Support as a Child:

  • Lewis’ Uncle was a huge influence on him as a younger man. He was the only person who talked to him in an adult manner. He would look at his artwork and ask him “What is your patience.” At first Lewis didn’t understand, and later he realized his uncle was asking him about inspiration. Every month his uncle would give him a new book. His uncle helped him to discover his passion for art.

Starting Out In Children’s Books:

  • An agent saw Lewis’ work in a magazine about watercolor painting and called him up and asked him if he would be interested in doing children’s books. Lewis was initially not interested, but the agent asked him to go to a book store and look up some illustrators, such as: Barry Moser, Chris Van Allsburg, and Pickney.  Lewis went to the book store and was blown away. He agreed to sign with the agent. A few weeks later Lewis had nine book contracts.

Chasing the Monster (Doing the Work):

  • Lewis loves to work for about 2 hours on a piece, and then he can’t wait to get a new blank piece of paper.
  • He loves the excitement of putting a mark on a piece of paper and seeing what will happen.
  • Chasing the monster is what drives you, but you never quite catch it.

Technique and Process:

  • Lewis uses lots of photo reference for his books. He finds someone in his community to play the part and then sets up the images with photo shoots.
  • In the Jacqueline Woodson book about two girls of different races living on two sides of a fence, he used the gutter (book binding area) as a metaphorical fence. He never let the two girls be on the same page until the end of the book when they climbed over the fence.
  • Lewis discovered a whole new style for the book When You Were Born. He felt that it needed a new style, or visual language for the book.
  • At 10pm at night, Lewis calls an artist friend who is also painting late at night. The two of them will talk for hours as they both work.

When the Inspiration Well Dried Up:

  • Lewis would still go into the studio every day. He needed to feed that side of him, even if he wasn’t creating anything.
  • He goes to a museum in every city he visits/goes to speak. To help find inspiration in someone else’s work.

His Lottery Ticket/Child Project:

  • He found inspiration in a lottery ticket project, where the image scratches away to show children beneath. “We spend all this time scratching for wealth, but if we scratch past the lottery ticket, what do you find beneath? A Child.”
  • We don’t dig deep enough to find the true value of our children. They are more valuable than gold.
  • Our lives are like lotteries – you never know.
  • Don’t scratch too deep or you can destroy.
  • Fill yourself up to overflowing and then give it back!

E.B. Lewis was born on December 16, 1956, in Philadelphia, PA. He attended Temple University Tyler School of Art, and there discovered the medium of watercolor. Lewis is presently an instructor at the University of Arts in Philadelphia. His illustrated 30 books including Talking About Bessie, The Negro Speaks, The Bat Boy and his Violin, and the Caldacott Honor Winner Coming On Home Soon.

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