Illustrator Brian Selznick was interviewed by Scholastic students after the publication of The Dinosaurs of Waterhouse Hawkins, written by Barbara Kerley and illustrated by Brian Selznick.
Do you like being an illustrator?
I love being an illustrator because I get to read really great stories, work with amazing people, travel and see places I never would've seen. And I get to draw all the time.
What was your favorite book to illustrate and why?
That's a very hard question because I love all of the books that I've done. Since I spend such a long time making each book, I only choose books that I'm really interested in and that I really love. But I would have to say, if you really wanted to know, that The Dinosaurs of Waterhouse Hawkins was probably the most fun because of the research I did, and I got to go to England and see the dinosaurs. Making the paintings and the book was fun. But I do love all the other books too.
How did you get involved with illustrating this book?
It started because I got a call from my editor, Tracy Mack. Tracy had just gotten the story from Barbara Kerley. And she described the story to me over the phone; I had never heard of Waterhouse Hawkins before and I immediately said, yes I'd love to illustrate this story.
What was it like to see the original Waterhouse drawings?
After I first found out about the story, Barbara had done a lot of research and she told me there was a scrapbook that was in Philadelphia that used to belong to Waterhouse Hawkins. So I first went to see the scrapbook in Philadelphia. The scrapbook was filled with pictures of Waterhouse's studio and photographs of him and drawings he had done of the dinosaurs. It was really incredible to flip through these pages and touch these pages that Waterhouse had touched. I knew I had to go to England to see the dinosaurs for myself. So I flew to London and I went to the Crystal Palace Park, but I wasn't sure where in the park the dinosaurs were. But luckily I saw this big sign that directed you to different places in the parks, lakes this way, bathrooms that way, and one of the signs said monsters this way. And you walk down this path and there is this little man-made island, and on the island are all of Waterhouse's dinosaurs. You are supposed to view the dinosaurs from across the water. But I got special permission to go onto the island with the dinosaurs. And so I spent three days going back and forth onto the island, photographing them, drawing them, and climbing into them. It was incredibly exciting and fun — sort of like going back into time.
Did you have an interest in dinosaurs before doing this book?
I always liked dinosaurs; I remember when I was a kid one of the first things I had ever made was a tin-foil sculpture of dinosaurs. There was a county fair in the area that I lived, I made a giant diorama and it was filled with trees, dinosaurs, and mountains. And in fifth grade my teacher asked me to paint a mural on our class wall, and I painted a giant green brontosaurus, which would be called apatosaurus. I painted the big dinosaur on the wall, and there were circles in the dinosaur of all the things we've been studying in class. So I guess I've been studying dinosaurs my whole life.
What media did you use to illustrate The Dinosaurs of Waterhouse Hawkins? Pencils? Paint? Acrylic?
The drawings all start as pencil sketches, and I do lots and lots of different versions of what I want the drawings to look like. I show them to the editor, Tracy Mack. And then Tracy would show them to the author, Barbara Kerley. We would show them to the designer of the book, David Saylor. And then I would make lots of changes; it was good to use pencil so I could erase and change things. After we decided what we wanted all of the sketches in the books to be, then I would sometimes do a sketch with colored pencils, to check what the colors might look like. Then I did all of the final paintings of the book with acrylic paints. I first outlined everything in pencil, and then filled it in with acrylic paints. They were all painted on watercolor paper.
Were there some illustrations that you liked, but they didn't make it into the book?
There were so many changes to almost all of the drawings that it's hard to say, but I do remember there was one drawing that I wanted to do at the very end of the book. That was going to be a gigantic close-up of the iguanodon's face. And it would have been the last picture that you would've seen in the book. But we had to make some changes, and decided that the last picture should be the one that shows Waterhouse painting the different versions of the dinosaurs, what he thought they looked like in the 1800s and what we think they look like today. So I had to take out the big giant close-up of the iguanodon's face.
How did Waterhouse get an idea of how dinosaurs looked like, if no one had ever seen one before?
He worked with a scientist named Richard Owen. Richard Owen invented the word dinosaur. And he used what was called comparative anatomy. They found a few fossils, let's say a tooth, a rib, a jawbone and they would look at the giant fossil tooth and think this looks like an iguana tooth. And since there are still iguanas walking around they would go and look at a living iguana, and if the fossil tooth was 40 times bigger than the iguana tooth, then they would say this creature must be 40 times bigger than an iguana. That began their idea of what the creatures looked like. So it was based both on living animals and on their imagination.
When you were illustrating this book, did you feel like Waterhouse Hawkins?
Sometimes I did feel like Waterhouse Hawkins. Not only did I get to go and see the actual dinosaurs he made and get to touch them, but when I was doing the drawings, I needed to imagine what Waterhouse Hawkins was thinking and feeling. When I drew the picture of Waterhouse in his studio when Boss Tweed destroyed all his dinosaurs, I had to imagine how sad Waterhouse must have been to discover everything destroyed. I tried to take those feelings and put them in the painting. So if I'm painting Waterhouse sad, then I'm feeling sad when I was painting it. When I was painting all the people coming to see the dinosaurs for the first time in London, I knew that would be very exciting. So I tried to feel excited when I was painting it, and then paint that excitement into the picture.
How much of the illustration ideas are yours and how much are Waterhouse's?
All of the drawings in the book were my idea or worked on with Barbara Kerley, Tracy Mack, or David Saylor; but within the drawings there are many things that are inspired by Waterhouse Hawkins' drawings. In the drawing where Waterhouse's studio is destroyed, you'll see a picture of St. George killing the dragon that is falling down to the ground, that's a drawing that Waterhouse did himself. Almost all of the pictures of dinosaurs and bones that are tacked to the walls in all of the drawings of his studios are copied directly from Waterhouse's drawings. The bookplate in the very front of the book, which says, “This book belongs to…,” is written on the wing of a pterodactyl. That drawing is based on the original invitation that Waterhouse drew for the dinner party in the iguanodon. There is only one tiny difference. If you look closely in the background there is a man on a ladder and in the book, you'll see that what he is doing is reading to everyone in the iguanodon. But in the original, he was serving them wine.
Does anyone know where in Central Park Waterhouse Hawkins' dinosaurs were buried?
Nobody knows where they are buried. We did a lot of research to try and find out where they were. We even heard there was a convent up above Central Park in New York, and the nuns knew where the dinosaurs might be buried. But when we contacted them, they said they did not know.
What is your favorite dinosaur illustration that you've made?
I would say one of my favorites is the picture of the scientists having dinner inside the iguanodon, because I would have loved to have been there that night. It was really fun to imagine what that dinner would have been like with all of the candles glowing, the waiters serving all of that food, and all of the scientists making up songs about dinosaurs.
Was it hard to draw illustrations knowing that so many people can ask you to change parts of it, like the editors and authors?
The fact that I worked very closely with the editor and the author actually made it more fun. Sometimes I would get a really good idea and everybody would say, “Yes! That is what we want to have in the book.” But sometimes, I would draw something that would give other people an even better idea of what should go into the book. They would tell me and I could make changes and the drawing came out even better than what I had first tried. Since the goal is to make the book as good as possible, it was always really exciting to listen to everybody else's ideas. Even though sometimes it was difficult or frustrating I really like all the people I was working with and I thought that everybody was really smart and everybody really loved the project. So I knew if we all listened to each other, then the book would just get better and better.
Are you happy with the way the book came out?
I am very happy with the way the book came out. I worked on the illustrations for about six months and then we worked on some of the design elements for another few months, like where the words would go, the fancy letters in the front of each section, and the gold letters on the cover. The book ended up coming out even better than I had hoped it would.
Are you working on a new book right now? Can you tell us anything about it?
Yes, I just finished the paintings for a new book by Pam Muñoz Ryan. She and I did Amelia and Eleanor Go for a Ride. And I also illustrated a book for her called Riding Freedom. And the new book is going to be called When Marian Sang. It's about the opera singer Marian Anderson, who was the first black opera singer to sing on stage at the New York City's Metropolitan Opera House, and she gave a very important concert in Washington, D.C., in 1939.
What kinds of research did you do for Amelia and Eleanor Go for a Ride?
I went to Washington, D.C., and I lived there for six months. I lived about seven blocks from the Capitol. So I got to go and do a lot of research in the buildings where the story takes place. I went to the White House and saw the Red Room. I went to the Smithsonian Institution and I saw one of Amelia Earhart's real airplanes. I saw some dresses that Eleanor Roosevelt used to wear. For the drawing where Amelia and Eleanor are driving down the street, I just walked outside and drew the street I was living on. So you'll see that on the left side of the drawing there's a big lit-up window — that's where I used to live.
When did you realize that your artistic talent was more than just a hobby?
I think I always knew that I would do something with art because it was the one thing that I knew I was really good at. And everybody was always very supportive; my parents let me take art classes after school and I went to an art college called the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). I just didn't know what I was going to do with art. My dad is an accountant and so he was always asking me what I was going to do to make a living, because sometimes you hear people say, you can't make a living if you are an artist. But I always knew that I would somehow. It wasn't until after I was finished with college that I decided I would try to illustrate children's books and I think that was the right thing for me to do.
What kinds of classes did you take at the Rhode Island School of Design to prepare you for your career?
When I was at RISD I didn't know that I was going to be an illustrator. I thought I was going to be a set designer for the theater. Because I used to love to act in shows and I used to love to build and design the sets for the different shows. So I took some classes to learn about theater, and then I took a lot of classes just to practice drawing. At RISD there are some very famous illustrators that teach there like, Chris Van Allsburg and David MacAulay, but since I didn't want to be a children's book illustrator when I was in school I never took any classes with them. I took lots of drawing classes, some conceptual classes where you learn about lots of different ideas and how to draw your ideas. So when I finished college and decided that I did not want to be a set designer and that I wanted to be an illustrator for kids' books, I had a little problem. I had not studied children's book illustration in school, but luckily a friend of mine suggested that I get a job at a children's bookstore because then I could read all the books and learn about children's illustrations and stories. So I got a job at a place called Eeyore's Books for Children in New York City, and that became my real education into children's books.
What advice would you give to students who are thinking of pursuing a career as an artist or illustrator?
I think the most important thing you can do is to keep drawing no matter what. And to not be afraid of drawing whatever interests you. If there is something that you want to draw, to make, then I think you should pursue it and not let anybody tell you that you can't do it. I know sometimes I got in trouble in school for drawing monsters, but I really loved drawing monsters, so I kept at it, and then eventually I made a book about a kid who loved monsters. No matter what it is that you like to draw, I would say keep drawing it.
How old were you when you started drawing?
The story in my family is that when I was around three or four I would go to my grandmother's house and her maid would give me tinfoil to keep me out of trouble, and that's when I started making the dinosaur tinfoil sculptures I told you about earlier. Even in kindergarten I remember drawing and having the other kids gather around because they liked what I was drawing. I recently found my kindergarten report card and it says, “Brian is a good artist.” So I guess I've always been drawing.
Do you still make sculptures?
Yes, a lot of times I make small sculptures to help me make my drawings look more realistic. When I was doing Amelia and Eleanor I was having trouble drawing the back of Eleanor Roosevelt's head because all of the photographs I had of her were taken from the front, so you could see her face. But in a few drawings for the book I needed to draw the back of Eleanor Roosevelt's head. So I made a little clay sculpture of Eleanor Roosevelt's head and then when I was finished and after I baked it in the oven to make it hard, I was able to hold it up to the light and turn it around and see what the back of Eleanor Roosevelt's head looked like.
Do you have any other artistic abilities besides drawing, like photography?
The one photograph I took was published in a magazine. I take photographs of models for my books, after I get my ideas for the different drawings for the books I will find people who look like the different characters in the books and I will ask the models to pose for me. So I'll put them in the position that I want the character to be in. Sometimes I'll even dress them up a little, then I'll take a lot of photographs and hopefully there will be at least one that I can use for reference, when I'm drawing the pictures in the book.
The finished pictures are made up of the photographs that I have taken, research that I have done for the clothing, or for other important parts of the picture, and then other things I'll make up from my imagination.
What kind of books do you like?
I like lots of different kinds of books, I love looking at picture books and seeing the beautiful drawings that other artists make and reading the stories. I love chapter books for older kids and every now and then I read some books for grownups. But mostly I read and look at books for kids.
What kinds of things do you do to keep your imagination lively?
I draw all the time. I like to go to art museums and science museums and learn about new things. I love to see movies, read books, and just walk around and listen to people and experience new things. I think that definitely helps keep your imagination lively.
What is your favorite dinosaur movie?
I think one of my favorite dinosaur movies is King Kong. In the original King Kong, when they go to Kong's Island, he battles a Tyrannosaurus rex and triceratops. The special effects were all made with stop-motion animation, with small moveable models of the dinosaurs. The movie was produced by a man named David O. Selznick — and David O. Selznick is my grandfather's first cousin.
Do you ever illustrate non-children's books?
I mostly illustrate stuff for kids, but I've done all different ages from picture books for very little kids to chapter books for older kids. I've done a few pieces of art for friends of mine who are musicians, and I designed a logo for their band, which is called Ida. I did a collage that is on their CD cover.
Anything you would like to add?
I get to travel around and speak to kids at schools and libraries and it's one of my favorite parts of the job because it's always nice to hear what kids have to say, since the work I do is for them. Mostly I just sit in my apartment by myself and draw. That's why it's nice to hear what you kids have to say. The questions that you've asked today have been really great and have made me think a lot about the different projects I've done. I have to thank you for thinking of these good questions.