Loren Long: Illustrating The Picture Book

Why do you want to write and illustrate picture books? Illustrator Loren Long, began his keynote speech at the 2010 LA SCBWI Conference with this question. The following notes are an overview of what he had to say about his process, creating emotion in art, and the importance of leaving something behind for the next generation.

Illustrating the Picture Book – My Two Cents:

Ask Yourself:

  • Why do I want to be published?
  • Why do I write children’s books?
  • Is it to make a living?
  • Do I just like kids?
  • What do I want to give this world?

The Author/ Illustrator Relationship:

  • It is a non-collaboration collaboration.
  • You don’t really talk to one another at all.
  • As an illustrator I want authors to know that when I accept your manuscript I’m paying you the highest compliment I can. I want to make your book mine too and I want to share it with the world.

How Do You Start Illustrating a Picture Book?

  • How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. How do you start a picture book? One drawing at a time.
  • One sketch per day. Make one drawing today and then forget about the rest of the book till tomorrow.
  • If someone else can illustrate a book. Why not me? Get your John Wayne on!

My Painting Technique:

  • I paint with acrylics.
  • I paint thin washes of paint on illustration board. I build up the layers slowly until it becomes opaque.
  • I used gouache paint for my book Otis.
  • I spend 2 to 3 months on the sketches of the book, and then 4 to 6 months on the paintings.
  • I do about two books a year, but it usually takes me about a year and a half.

My Background and How I Got My Start in Picture Books:

  • I started out working in greeting cards. (Gibson greeting cards).
  • I went to art school in Chicago.
  • After greeting cards I moved into editorial work and magazine work. I worked for magazines like TIME, Atlantic Monthly, Readers Digest, and Sports Illustrated.
  • I worked for 12-15 years as a freelance illustrator before I discovered publishing and children’s books.
  • I said yes to every job that came along.
  • Dave at Night was the first YA book cover I did.
  • I didn’t do my first picture book until I was 38. (Frank McCourt didn’t write Angela’s ashes until he was 66, so don’t worry, age doesn’t matter!)

Some Career Highlights:

  • Working for Madonna was kind of a dream job. But Madonna did have to see every sketch for the book. But she loved them. I really loved the world of that book.
  • I re-illustrated The Little Engine that Could. What an honor.
  • One book always informs the next book you will do. If I didn’t work on Truck Town I wouldn’t have found the inspiration for my book Otis (which he wrote and illustrated).

Infuse Your Illustration with Emotion:

  • Always search for the “emotional hit.” Find the one spread, the one image that really captures the impact of your book. That’s something I am always searching for in every book I do.
  • When I was a child I loved books. It wasn’t just the stories and the characters but the books themselves became my friends. I would carry them around, take them places with me, etc. Reading was always like visiting a good friend. One of my favorites was the Pokey Little Puppy.
  • Mood and emotion are key in art.
  • Look for the emotional moments in the story like you’re a film director.
  • I like to imagine the music that would go with a particular scene. Like the music in the Last of the Mohicans  – brilliant!
  • The emotion comes through the character. It is more than a smile or a facial expression, it’s the heart and soul. Feel the picture!
  • Trust, loyalty, and security – these are all things a child is looking for in a picture book.

The Mystical Sketch Phase:

  • The intellectual part of the illustrating comes in the sketch phase. This is when I am choosing my moments.
  • I want the reader to feel the art, not just look at it.
  • It all starts with the mystical sketch phase. If only my paintings could live up to my sketches.

Some of My Artistic Influences Include:

  • Grant Wood
  • Thomas R. Benton
  • Edward Hopper
  • George Bellows
  • N.C. Wyeth
  • Become a student of art! Become a student in your field!

“Set sail for a new horizon in your artwork!” – Long

Loren Long is the #1 New York Times best-selling illustrator of Watty Piper’s The Little Engine That Could and Madonna’s Mr. Peabody’s Apples. Other books by Loren Long include Toy Boat, Angela and the Baby Jesus, I Dream of Trains, When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer, as well as Otis and Drummer Boy which he wrote and illustrated.  Loren lives in Cincinnati, Ohio with his wife and two sons. You can visit him at www.lorenlong.com