It’s day four of our week-long launch celebrating Tamara Ellis Smith’s Another Kind of Hurricane! We’re rolling out the red carpet to welcome multi-talented artist Christopher Silas Neal. Is there anything he can’t do? I don’t think so! He creates book covers, illustrates picture books and articles for magazines, makes animated videos and exhibits his work in galleries. Today, Chris is stopping by Emu’s Debuts to tell us about his process for designing Another Kind of Hurricane’s cover, his creative processes within various artistic media, and the life of an artist.
You’ve illustrated so many stunning book covers. What were your first impressions of Another Kind of Hurricane? Did that lead to any immediate images or sketches?
Thank you so much for saying so. Rather than tell the story with an image, I think the goal of a cover is to give the reader an impression of how it feels to be in the story—how it feels as a reader to connect with the characters. Sometimes this is giving a since of location or time period and most importantly, to convey a feeling. In the case of Another Kind of Hurricane, there’s turmoil in the lives of the two characters—one being uprooted from his home in New Orleans, the other losing his best friend and thus changing life as he knows it. The flood is a great metaphor in the book and I thought it would be a great visual signifier for the cover. There’s the mountain, another great piece of imagery and lastly, the duality between the two boys. Oh, and the marble. The wavy and chaotic patterns found within a marble have an interesting connection to the upheaval in the boys’ lives and the wavy and chaotic storm that changed everything. I usually start with these visual signifiers and make a few rough thumbnails. After some discussion with the art director and editor, we choose a direction to take to the next step.
Here are some of Chris’s early sketches:
The varying shades of blue that you selected for the cover have a somewhat tranquil quality, and yet there is a lot of dynamism and energy in the clouds and the uneven way the title is presented. Can you tell us a little a bit about the process for arriving at this cover?
Color, for me, is sort of intuitive. The art director did mention that cover shouldn’t feel too out of control, and so the tranquil palette and sturdiness of the two faces work to temper the movement of the water. It’s a lot of trial and error to get just the right color.
Some early color sketches:
I also love how the silhouettes lend balance to the tension in the cover. Your art has a very vintage, nostalgic quality, and the silhouettes give it a timeless feel. How has your background as a designer shaped your work?
Thanks. Having worked as a designer before starting my practice as an illustrator, I often compose a drawing in the same way I might layout a page—moving around shapes and colors while trying to find balance and visual hierarchy. Some artists are masters of lighting, others are really good at expressing mood through facial expression. I tend to use shape and color and not too much rendering. Within the textures and drawing, there’s a flatness to my work.
You’re multi-talented and you work in a variety of visual media—from illustration in magazines, book covers, picture books, TV, and motion graphics. Are there any commonalities in terms of your creative process, or does it change from project to project, or in terms of the medium you’re working in?
Things like shape and color that I mentioned above are a constant, but each medium has its own rules and quirks. In a picture book, you have several pages for pacing. In magazines you’re doing less story telling and more visual twists, concepts and puns. Book jackets for adults rarely show the character, but in books for KidLit you almost always show the character. However, publishers of YA and middle grade books often come to me when they are looking for something that blurs traditional lines, for instance using silhouetted faces rather than showing facial details or doing a mostly typographic treatment rather than a character-based one. These are more commonly associated with adult fiction but I think work just as well for young readers. One thing that is constant regardless of what I’m doing—everything starts with a sketch.
Could you describe a typical work day?
I ride my bike to my studio which is located in an old pencil factory in the Greenpoint section of Brooklyn. I share it with 4 other amazing artists/designers. The first thing I do is make a cup of tea and check emails. Then I get to work sketching or working on art in progress. My studio mates and I usually eat lunch together around noon and talk about work and life. Then it’s back to work for the rest of the day.
A peek at Chris’s studio:
My favorite picture book as a kid was Frederick by Leo Lionni. It’s a story about a group of field mice who are preparing for winter by storing wheat and corn. Except for one mouse, Frederick who is storing colors and words and sunshine. It’s a quiet, poetic book. I just love it.
(One of mine, too!)
I’m a fan of your picture book illustration as well—the bold shapes, colors and folksy quality of the images in your books with Kate Messner, in Go to Sleep, Little Farm as well as Lifetime. Your debut as an author-illustrator, Everyone, is forthcoming from Candlewick in 2015. Could you tell us a bit about the inspiration behind this project?
Everyone… is about a boy and his feelings. It explores how we feel, what we feel and how everyone (and everything) feels it too. We’re printing the book on a wonderful uncoated stock with 3 spot colors.
What’s your favorite thing about illustrating, or having a career in the arts?
One of my favorite things is the freedom that comes with running your own illustration studio. I choose when or when not to go to my studio and I can take or decline projects as I see fit. I get to express my personal voice through drawing, and at the end of the day, I feel good about what I put out into the world. Not all careers in the arts are like that and if I were chained to a desk 9-5 being told which projects to work on and what to draw, I’m not sure I’d get any enjoyment out of it.
What advice would you give to aspiring illustrators?
I read that you have an orange tabby gatto named Fabrizio. Please tell us more about him.
He’s a cat of simple pleasures. He likes to eat, he likes to go outside and he loves to snuggle. If those three things happen everyday, he’s pretty happy.
Thanks so much for joining us at Emu’s Debuts, Chris!!
Learn more about Chris at his website.
You know you want your very own copy of Another Kind of Hurricane by Tamara Ellis Smith! You can find it at your local independent bookstore (find one here), or order it from your favorite national or online retailer such as Random House, Powell’s, B&N, or Amazon.
It’s Becca’s new favorite book :).
Thank you for spending time with us at Emu’s Debuts!
Be sure to leave a comment to be eligible for a chance to win a signed copy of Another Kind of Hurricane, or a lucky marble keepsake!