Illustrator Roundtable – Part 2

This is the continuation from Part 1 of the Illustrator Roundtable that previously posted, with questions from Jennifer Baker.

When it comes to illustrating people what should artists keep in mind to stay away from stereotypical physical depictions? For those of you who teach. how do you go about directing illustrators-in-training to see these issues?

Jerry Craft: Go around those people. If you look at other books, then you’re already basing your characters on someone else’s representation of those characters. And look at real people, not photo shoots or ads in magazines. You have to do the work.

Pat Cummings: I strongly believe that if you can sign your name, you can draw. The same amount of motor skills and control are required. The difference is in seeing. Anyone who LOOKS at a face will see differences between cultures. It requires turning off the default view that we all may have. Drawing stereotypical racial features is usually the result of NOT looking.   

Robert Liu-Trujillo: What I would ask is how they’re drawing/illustration is different than existing artwork. I’d ask if it tells an aspect of Black life for example that is not often highlighted or never highlighted before. If it is a “go-to” version of a story that has been told many many times before–Martin Luther King, slavery, Rosa Parks, Michael Jordan, etc–it could make for a stereotypical depiction. My advice to young artists is to dig deeper. Who have we not seen or heard from before? This makes it more challenging yes, but I believe readers everywhere are hungry to see and learn about a specific and niche society.

Rebecca Mock: For me, I try to avoid the traditional default of the nondescript white man, or the pretty white woman, as my subject. Unless the job or story calls for it, I think it’s my duty as an artist working now, to try to change other peoples’ defaults, and my one power to do that is through my work. I keep myself conscious of the people around me–in my working field. I am white, able-bodied, cis-gender, and it would be easy for me to forget that many other working illustrators don’t fit that mold, and that because of that they are so often overlooked. I need to listen to them and help them be heard and seen by others in my industry. For me it’s not just about bringing diversity into my work, but also highlighting and respecting the diversity in my industry.

Arigon Starr: Artists, do thorough internet and library research. However, if you can reach out to someone who is actually from the community you’re illustrating (like I did with “Laguna Woman”), you’ll be providing your audience with a richer experience. Stereotypes are shortcuts. Don’t be a lazy artist.

In terms of inclusivity, do you think it’s enough in author-illustrator collaborations to have the illustrator be marginalized but not the author? What kinds of perspectives can surface in these types of collaborations when both illustrator and author may be from different backgrounds?

Jerry: Well the white author/Black illustrator pairing is like the old cop buddy movies. I think the author always gets the most credit and for the most part the illustrator feels like the sidekick. I would like to see more of us telling our own stories. And I would like to see more Black illustrators get jobs drawing mainstream books. It’s not like we can only draw people of color. I just don’t like to see us ONLY (or at least mainly getting jobs illustrating historical fiction). For one, I think that the market is very limiting. Why can’t you hire me to do Captain Underpants, must it be yet another book on Frederick Douglas?

Pat: The culture or race of the author or illustrator may inform their work but I don’t believe it necessarily limits them. I’ve illustrated Chinese New Year’s cards, Aboriginal fables, and stories by authors of different races. I don’t want to encounter restrictions on subject matter, so by extension, I feel writers and illustrators should have the world as their palette without limitations.

Robert: No. Overall, there are not enough books written and illustrated by people of color from that specific community together as a team. Although I’m happy for my fellow European American writers/illustrators who may have grown up with or intimately know a culture, I need y’all to step back. I need publishers to step back. I need the industry folks at the conferences and in their offices to do more than ask their staff and friends who they know. I need them to do more than a Google search. I need them to make a concrete monthly effort to go to HBCUs, Asian American film festivals, Latino markets, non profit organizations serving young adults, hip hop and Bhangra festivals and ask who do you know who has a story! It is clear to me by the sheer number of folks I see self-publishing here in the Bay Area that you are not specifically saying to people of color “Do you want to work with us?” What your submission policies, agents, etc are saying is “We want a story that we relate to, from our experience, that we understand, and that we are comfortable with.”

In terms of issues surfacing, I’m sure there can be some interesting dialogue. I’m sure that collaborations between white authors and illustrators of color can make great books and vice versa. I think it is great that all kinds of people work together, especially when you have a team of multicultural folks from the editor to the marketing expert pushing a book, because this gives a book more power and insight. But, I need y’all to understand that there are people of color doing the work (writing/illustrating) on their own who are not being seen, and there are people of color who have stories right now and would not consider writing or illustrating a book with the bigger companies because the world of publishing is closed off to them. For those who are already doing the work: Thank you. I’m speaking to my European American family in the industry with power. Do more. A lot more.

Rebecca: I can’t speak to this personally, since both Hope and I are white. We do discuss diversity in our books, but are both sensitive to not improperly depicting characters whose stories are so different from our own. I think that there is merit in teaming up writers and illustrators with varied backgrounds, because they can help enhance each other’s perspectives. Or pairing a writer who has been given a lot of advantages, for example, because they are white, with a younger artist-of-color as a way of helping pull them into the industry. But the question stands, is that enough? Of course not. I really want to see more work written AND illustrated by teams of marginalized artists. Their backgrounds may still be very different–everyone has unique experiences, but their similarities will allow them to share a story that’s less diluted. It will allow them to create characters who have more depth. New combinations can create new, true, compelling stories, and we desperately need that.

Arigon: It’s important to keep communication open between author and illustrator. Because I’m an author AND an illustrator, I’ve been in both seats. When I have been the writer on a comic project, I have been able to direct the artist working on my project to accurately portray the tribal people in the story. As an artist, right now I’m working on a history project with a group in Colorado. I’m fortunate that the comic scriptwriter included lots of written and visual background research.

For those of you who have collaborated with authors on projects what has that experience been like? Is it a true collaboration in the sense that you speak closely with one another or is it more static?

Jerry: When I help other authors publish their books through my company, then we talk every day. But when I do a book for a big company, like the Scholastic book, I don’t think that I spoke to the author, Patrik Henry Bass, until the book was done.

Pat: Although I’ve illustrated work by so many authors, my husband included, these haven’t been collaborations in the purest sense. I don’t look to have input on the manuscript and don’t expect input from the author about my illustrations. In one case, for a nonfiction picture book, the author did supply photographs which was helpful. But, traditionally, there is no collaboration between author and illustrator. I’ve known of a couple of teams that have worked that way but I haven’t. However, with a manuscript it is a different story. I collaborated with my sister in writing, compiling and editing Talking with Adventurers for National Geographic … and it was a fabulous working relationship. Having someone to discuss every aspect of the work with stretched both of our visions for the book. All of the choices–editorial, conceptual, and technical–were up for discussion and having another point of view made the resulting book stronger.

Robert: So far with more traditional publishers, it’s more static. They give me the manuscript, I illustrate it. For the smaller independent houses I would say there has been a little bit more back and forth. I honestly would love to do more in-depth back and forth. Possibly even do the illustration and have the writer riff off of that. But, so far, most of the people I’ve worked with have been extremely professional and respectful.

Rebecca: I have been very lucky to work with Hope as my writer. Hope has worked as both a writer and artist, and has written and illustrated many of her own works, so she’s able to see the project from my perspective, which makes discussing the visuals very easy. Our arrangement started out more static, only because I was uncertain how to contribute, but as I tested out asking questions and offering opinions, Hope was very receptive. Our system was basically that she would send me the full script, and I would send her my thumbnails, sketches, and inks for her approval. Now our system is a bit more collaborative, with me contributing research materials and ideas here and there as she writes the script. I’ll still be doing all the drawing, but I will have a much deeper understanding of the text, and we can chat about a lot of details as I move into drawing it.

Arigon: So far, I’ve been fortunate to work with some fantastic authors. We were in close communication throughout the project and I’ve been able to fine tune my illustrations with their helpful feedback.

For those of you who have written and illustrated your own books how much additional work has that created and do you find it harder to edit yourself as an illustrator when you’re also the writer?

Jerry: I think that I’m definitely very critical on my own work. And I also surround myself with other artists who are not afraid to tell me if a page doesn’t work. And as far as the extra work that was generated, I think because I’m always working, I continue to see improvement. So if it’s not directly that the books themselves have gotten me jobs, then they’ve definitely contributed indirectly by improving my craft (no pun intended).

Pat: It doesn’t seem like additional work to both write and illustrate the book because the words and pictures are so integrated. It may even be easier. Determining the balance between words and text is in my hands whereas illustrating another author’s words locks me into the space left for images. It is harder to edit myself, hard to step outside the story and art and be as objective as I might be when looking at work that others have created. Fortunately, I’ve had great editors with keen sensibilities, some who are writers themselves.   

Robert: This is a tough one. When I wrote and illustrated my first self-published book it was quite challenging. I found the writing to be the hard part, and the illustration easy. But that is because I’m a visual artist first and a writer second. After doing the whole process now, I understand much more the value and need for an editor; someone with experience to look over the work. I think if you are self publishing it is more challenging budget wise to hire someone, but I do think it is necessary because if it is your baby you stare at it too much to see the flaws in grammar or story continuity. And self-publishing is more challenging in general because you have to wear a lot more hats than just writer and illustrator. You become public relations, the printer, the fundraiser, the designer, etc. But, I wouldn’t change a thing because self-publishing got me to where I am, and I am honored to share what I know with others who share this dream. And I’m thankful to mentors in and outside of the industry who were open and kind to me.

Rebecca: I don’t have much experience here. I will only say that Hope and I have discussed our writing styles, and they differ in that she will often start with a finished script or clear outline, while I start with thumbnails and think of the script as a loose framework that shifts as I draw. This makes the process a lot less structured for me when I’m working alone. I find it very easy to edit myself, although i think the overall process takes longer. I think being able to write and draw when working in comics is important, so I keep working at it, but I like the structure of a solid finished script, too. Thus I really like working with a writer.

Arigon: Doing my own project, Super Indian, has been brutal. Being an author/illustrator has been the hardest, yet most rewarding work I’ve done. I’ve published two 64-page books and I’m working on the third volume. Fun fact–you never get bored doing both jobs. When you get tired of staring at a page layout or panel, you can write another story. If you can’t color one more page, there’s always another page that needs layout and line art. The editing process is something I enjoy, so taking out a line here or there or scrapping an entire panel isn’t a problem. I always read my work like a fan with a super short attention span.


About the Illustrators:

Jerry Craft has illustrated and written close to two dozen children’s books and middle grade novels including The Offenders: Saving the World While Serving Detention! An adventure story that teaches kids about the negative effects of bullying. It was co-authored by his two teenage sons. In 2014, Jerry illustrated The Zero Degree Zombie Zone, for Scholastic which earned him recognition from the Junior Library Guild. He is the creator of Mama’s Boyz, an award-winning comic strip that was distributed by King Features Syndicate from 1995-2013. Jerry has won five African American Literary Awards.

Pat Cummings is an author and/or illustrator of over 35 books, Pat also compiled and edited Talking With Artists, a series featuring notable children’s book illustrators. Her Parsons and Pratt classes list a growing number of award-winning children’s books creators.  She frequently lectures at schools, libraries and conventions and conducts an annual Children’s Book Boot Camp that connects writers and illustrators with agents and publishers. Pat serves on the boards of The Authors Guild, The Authors League Foundation and SCBWI, is a member of The Writers Guild of America, East, and Chair of the Society of Illustrators Founders Award committee for the annual Original Art Show. Her latest book, Beauty and the Beast (HarperCollins), was translated and retold by her husband Chuku Lee.

Robert Liu-Trujillo is the author and illustrator of Furqan’s First Flat Top. Born in Oakland, California and raised all across the Bay Area he is a visual artist, father, and a husband who employs the use of illustration, public art, and storytelling. These stories manifest in a variety of forms and they reflect his cultural background, dreams, and political / personal beliefs. His motivation to the work is to unearth beautiful and un-told stories, to be a positive and nurturing influence on his son, and to honor the ancestors and family who worked so hard to get us here. He loves music, nerdy things, and can get along well with most people. He seeks fun, ice cream, and justice. He’s also a co-founder of The Trust Your Struggle Collective, a contributor to Rad Dad, and the founder of Come Bien Books.

Rebecca Mock is an illustrator and comics artist. Her work has appeared in various publications, including the New York Times and the New Yorker. She is co-organizer of the Hana Doki Kira anthology. Compass South is her first book.

Arigon Starr is an enrolled member of the Kickapoo Tribe of Oklahoma, and a multi-talented and award winning musician, actor, playwright and artist. “Super Indian” began as a nationally broadcast radio comedy series for the Native Radio Theater Project and Native Voices at the Autry. In 2011, she penciled, inked, colored and lettered the webcomic version of “Super Indian.” Starr is a founder of the Indigenous Narratives Collective (INC), a group of Native American comic book writers and artists. “Super Indian Volume One” was published in 2012, followed by INC’s “Generation INC #0” and “Super Indian Volume Two.” She was the editor and a contributor to “Tales of the Mighty Code Talkers, Volume One” released in 2016 by Native Realities Press. Her work has been featured in several art exhibits across the country and she was named a 2017 Tulsa Artist Fellow, sponsored by the George Kaiser Family Foundation.