“For all those who thought E.B. White was coming. Sorry, I’m the black one. As you can see, I’m not white and I’m not dead.”
Talented artist and illustrator E.B. Lewis discussed process versus product for his NJ-SCBWI keynote. He opened with some humor but then got to serious business.
He has a strong work ethic and told the audience that a person was only an artist if they spent each day producing art. It takes no less than 10,000 hours to become an expert in your craft. If you’re counting, that’s nearly 5 years straight of 40-hour work weeks, no breaks, no vacation.
Work is just that–work. It shouldn’t be easy. But you should love the work. If you don’t, then maybe you’re just fooling yourself into believing you’re something you’re not. Some people say they don’t have the inspiration. “I don’t understand that. I can’t step out of my bed without falling over a juicy piece of inspiration.” (Note to Mr. Lewis: I’m the one who tripped over your portfolio case. How’s that for falling over juicy inspiration?)
Mr. Lewis claims that once he finishes a painting, he admires it. He loves it–for about two hours. Then he hates it. For him, it’s all about the process of creating. He isn’t happy until he is creating once again, improving upon his last accomplishment, trying something new. “As soon as an artist knows their style, they’re dead in the water,” he said. Because your style is something that should be evolving. You’ve got to work hard, you’ve got to better yourself. If you’re satisfied, perhaps you aren’t a true artist.
He gave us some background on his childhood. “When I visit schools, I tell the kids that I failed 3rd grade. It levels the playing field. ‘Wow, E.B. Lewis failed!’ the kids say.” The children immediately understand that if Mr. Lewis was able to become an artist, they, too, can reach their goals.
Mr. Lewis attended a small, old school with fireplaces in every classroom. One day during math class, he crawled up the fireplace. Remember how the girl in A Christmas Story pointed shyly toward Flick, outside, tongue frozen to the flagpole? Well, the whole class pointed shyly up the fireplace when the teacher asked where Earl had gone.
Then on career day, a classmate said he wanted to become a doctor. That boy received a lot of attention. E.B. wanted that same kind of attention, so he raised his hand. His teacher pushed it down. He raised it again. Finally, he was able to answer. “I want to be a lawyer,” he said, not because he really wanted to, but because he thought everyone would admire his aspirations. Instead, they all laughed, including the teachers. No one thought E.B. Lewis would amount to anything.
So E.B.’s uncle decided to take a special interest in his nephew. Every Saturday afternoon for years, his uncle drove him to art class because he knew E.B. loved to draw. His uncle told him that artists were the critical thinkers of society, and very well read, so he gave E.B. a new book to read every week. This man connected E.B. Lewis to his passion.
E.B. began his career as a fine artist. He would take photographs of his subjects, but from far away, hidden, with a telephoto lens, because as soon as someone knows their picture is being taken, they no longer act naturally. They’re no longer in the moment.
His work appeared on the cover of a magazine and a few days later he got a call from someone in the children’s book industry, asking if he’d like to illustrate a book. He said no. Why not? “Because I’m a fine artist, not an illustrator.”
What’s the difference? A fine artist solves their own philosophical problem. An illustrator solves someone else’s problem.
However, that art director was persistent and encouraged E.B. to go to the children’s section of the library. Mr. Lewis soon realized that some of the most ground-breaking artistic work was being published in children’s books. He called back and agreed to illustrate.
Over the past 14 years, Mr. Lewis has illustrated 47 books at the rate of about 3/4 books a year. He has won the Coretta Scott King illustrator award four times. He won a Caldecott honor for Coming on Home Soon. He works with 14 different publishers and is currently booked through 2014. (That’s right, five years in advance. But I’m taking special note of the lucky number 14.)
He is one of the few illustrators who travels to meet with his editor and art department to discuss a book at the early stages. He likes to create a brain trust in the beginning. He starts with thumbnail sketches and this begins the dialogue. Then he enlarges the sketches to a dummy and adds the words. He researches photos in the library and uses a model, often combining both photographic guides to create the end result.
“I have a love of the process, the doing. For me, that’s all there is.”
How lucky for us. We get to enjoy the fruits of his labor.