When did you realize that you wanted to be an artist?
I realized I wanted to be an artist when I was in first grade. I was working on a vowel worksheet, and was doing the word nose. The sheet said N-blank-S-E. I filled the “O” in, and then I drew a face in it. And that's when I realized I wanted to be an artist.
When did you start drawing?
When I was about six years old. I got my first pad of paper and began drawing.
What were the first things you drew?
I probably started off drawing animals. I did a lot of birds and dogs and trees. Gradually, I began doing people. All kinds of topics — whatever struck my fancy. I think back then I used a lot of pencils and watercolors and pastel crayons.
How do you decide what mediums to use?
It varies from book to book. Normally I'll use ink, pencil, and watercolor, though I did do a book on the computer once. What I try to do is make the illustrations as appropriate to the manuscript and the text as possible. So the best solution varies from book to book.
How do you decide what color scheme is appropriate for each book?
With each book I try to create a palette of colors that will repeat throughout before I start painting. I try to give each book a different color scheme. The color scheme has to tie into the theme of the book. In Smoky Night, there's a lot of pink and aqua. The book deals with the L.A. riots, so it has bright, garish colors. Wilma Unlimited has more muted colors, because it takes place in the past. The Little Scarecrow Boy is a sweet story, so for that I used very soft colors. It sounds goofy, but all the colors are special in their own way. And when they're used properly, the show their value.
What kind of research do you do to prepare to illustrate a book?
It depends on the book's topic. For Wilma Unlimited, I needed to find pictures of her and pictures of relay runners. But for other books, I haven't needed to find any references at all. I mainly use the people I have in my head. It depends on how much the story relies on a certain setting, or on other elements.
Where do you get the inspiration for your illustrations?
From the world around me, sometimes from a painting or a photograph, or a story I've read. It's a difficult question because it can come from different places! Sometimes it's from a beautiful building, or from another illustrator's work. There's no one source that I go to for inspiration — a variety of exciting influences just comes along.
What's the first thing you do before you start illustrating?
I sketch a book out before I start drawing. That's the first stage. I figure out what part of the sketches will appear on which page. And then I do simple sketches and talk about those sketches with the author.
What do you do if you have difficulty drawing something?
If there's a particular animal or other subject that I don't know how to draw, I'll usually find a book about it. But my favorite thing to draw is people. For me, it's the most challenging thing, especially when capturing the expressions on their faces. Like anything else, the more that you practice the better you get. I went to art school, but in addition to that it's best to practice your craft as much as possible. The best training is to paint and draw and explore whatever medium you're comfortable in.
Where did you study art and illustration?
I went to the Fort Lauderdale Art Institute. There's a design and illustration program there.
What did you do after art school?
Let's see. I worked in illustration after I got out of art school, design work and illustration. Before that, I worked at a newspaper and at a sculptor's studio. I did book covers, advertising, newspaper illustrations, logos — I worked on the Olympics in Atlanta in 1996. I worked for Atlantic Monthly and various other companies. I still do that kind of work. Illustrating books takes up about 60 percent of my time, and the rest is doing various other projects that come into my studio.
When did you start working as an illustrator?
Well, I lived near San Diego, and Harcourt Brace has their office near there. So I did some book covers for them over the years, and then they asked me to do some books. The first book was Gary Soto's Neighborhood Odes. I won the Caldecott Award for Smoky Night, and after that I did a lot more books. Right now, I'm working on my 13th book.
Of the books you've illustrated, do you have a favorite one?
Let's see. Normally what happens is that the book I'm working on becomes my favorite. When I'm working on a book, it'll be in the studio for about a year. Then it's another year before the book is published, and by then I'm working on a new book. I try to have the book I'm working on be my favorite so that I can maintain as much enthusiasm for the project as possible. But, my favorite book would have to be Smoky Night, which received the Caldecott Award. The award really means a lot to me. But I do try to make each of my books different from the previous ones. So there's an evolution to my work.
What was it like winning the Caldecott Award?
It was so great. It was really exciting, and it was a shock, because it was my first picture book. It's quite unusual for that award to be given to a first-time illustrator.
Are those real photos in Smoky Night?
Yes, those are real photographs, the cereal in one, and the shoes in another. They are real elements that were photographed.
Where are you from?
My mother is from Puerto Rico, and my father was from the U.S. I grew up in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, but we moved to San Diego when I was fourteen.
How does your heritage influence your work?
I think that any artist, writer, or creative person will draw from their experiences. They'll use their background, their heritage, and their culture in their work. But what I try to do in my illustrations for children's books is make them as appropriate to the manuscript as possible. When I did Going Home, which is about Hispanic families going home to Mexico to show their children where they had come from, I was able to draw on my own experience and heritage in the book design.
Do you find that your heritage influences your work too much?
Not that I'm aware of. One of the great things about being an illustrator is that it relies on how well you illustrate and not what your background is. My training in high school was very effective. I think there's a certain amount you can learn in school, but when you work in a creative field, you need to spend a certain amount of time developing on your own.
Do you think it is important to know more than one language?
It's always useful to have a second language. My brother speaks five languages, which is very helpful! It's a great way to communicate with people from different cultural backgrounds. I think it's important for children of different ethnic backgrounds to be brought up to speed speaking English. And in the interim, between being bilingual and learning English, I think that it's important that they be able to speak in their native language.
Have you ever had the chance to work in a different language?
There have been opportunities for me. Most of my editors are English speaking, but it's helpful when trying to be aware of the diversity in culture.
Do you ever receive any help from your family?
Yes, my wife is an artist too. She experiments in different media. She's done painting, woodblocks, and woodcuts, different types of things. She helps me with the books — with direction and so forth. She helps me pick out which manuscripts would be good to illustrate. I also have three children, and they've helped out with some of the books. My oldest son created the background illustrations for Just One Flick of a Finger.
How old are your children?
My kids are six, ten, and sixteen. The ten and sixteen yearold are interested in artwork and are always drawing and illustrating. And they're always filling up their sketchpads with drawings.
Are your children bilingual?
Somewhat, but not completely. They take Spanish in school.
Have you met many of the authors whose books you've illustrated?
Yes, I've met Eve Bunting — I've illustrated three of her books. And I've met Kathleen Krull, Gary Soto, and Eric Kimmel. Eve and I didn't meet until after the Caldecott was announced for Smoky Night. Kathleen and I met before we published Wilma. And Eric and I met after we published our book together.
How closely do you and the author work together on a book?
Normally, in every book that I've worked on, the author doesn't contribute any type of art direction to the book. The editor is very involved, and works with the author to refine the manuscript. The editor does the same thing with the illustrator. As far as collaborating with the author, that's never happened with any of the books I've worked on. There's not much interaction between the two camps. It's the editor's job to pick an appropriate illustrator for a manuscript, and he or she tries to do a good job!
Do you have any favorite authors of children's books?
Well, Eve Bunting would be one of my favorites. Sarah Weeks is another favorite. Oh, and I almost forgot Bill Joyce. He's great.
Who are some of your favorite artists? What artists have influenced you most?
William Steig and Genady Stirin. Edmund Dulac. They're all children's book illustrators, too.
Are you working on any books right now?
I just finished working on Nancy Willard's book The Shadow Story. So right now I'm kind of between books. I've had two books released this fall — The Little Scarecrow Boy, which is about a scarecrow boy and how his father teaches him to scare crows. And the other books is called The Disappearing Alphabet. It goes through the whole alphabet and asks what would happen if the letters began to disappear, if there were no As or Bs.
Do you seek out authors to illustrate their books?
I don't — authors don't try to connect with me to do that. They contact the publisher. And if the publisher likes their story, they'll contact me through the editor.
Do you do any other art besides book illustration?
I do artwork on a computer, painting, and drawing. I do do ceramics as well. Most of the ceramics goes to collectors. It started off as a hobby and is something I like to pursue as well as the illustration work that I do.
Do you ever display the work you've done?
I did have a show that was just at the Dallas Museum of Art. I had about 60 pieces of art displayed. And the next show will be at the Indianapolis Children's Museum in July of 1999. It's paintings from about seven of the books that I've illustrated. Sometimes the paintings are the same size as the printed page, sometimes they're about 1 and a half times as large.
How would you describe your work?
It continues to change. Right now the types of drawings I'm doing are pencil and watercolor. When I started, I used acrylic paint — like with Smoky Night. But I'd say my illustrations have gotten softer.
Are there any similarities in your work?
One thing that's very consistent throughout all the books that I've done is the way that I draw the faces. They're very similar shapes. I might use a watercolor in one book and a pastel in another, but the way the faces are drawn is fundamentally the same.
What was your favorite subject when you were in school?
It was art, for all the obvious reasons! Back when I was in school, art was taught in class, so we'd always have an art project going on with our math and English projects.
What type of inspiration did you receive when you were younger?
During high school, I had a great art teacher who helped me a lot. She encouraged us to enter competitions so that we would have experience working on real projects and illustrating real assignments. She encouraged me to apply for a scholarship to the art school I went to, and I did receive the scholarship. She really helped and inspired me.
Have you ever taught what you know about illustration?
I've taught classes with design students, but I'm not an art teacher per se. Those are classes for college-level students.
Who is your favorite artist?
Diego Rivera, of course. He would be the primary one. And Goya. They are both painters.
What's one of the most enjoyable parts of your job?
Getting to meet the teachers and librarians who work with the books in the classroom. That's the most enjoyable part. Most of the time I'm just working in my studio, so it's nice to get out and meet the people who enjoy the books. And I get to meet the other authors and illustrators too.
Where do you do your work?
I try not to work when I'm on the road. My studio is a mile away from my house. It's a complete house on its own! I have two assistants who come in and help me. I do all my artwork and ceramics there. I think it's better to have my studio separate from my home, so when I'm home I can focus on my family and when I'm at work I can just work.
Do you have any hobbies?
Ceramics is one. That's pretty much my only hobby. Besides painting and doing ceramics, I spend time with my kids. And that takes up a lot of time!
If you weren't an illustrator, what would you like to do?
I would want to be a potter or a sculptor or doing ceramics. Definitely a career in the arts.
What advice do you have for people interested in an a career in the arts?
Well, the advice I have is to expose yourself to much of the kind of work that you like. If you like children's books, I would spend a lot of time on that. And of course, working on your drawing and painting skills.
Do you have any final words for the audience?
If you are interested in artwork, or whatever your creative outlet is, you should pursue it. Don't let anyone discourage you!