As the lone illustrator on the Brown Bookshelf, I especially look forward to hosting the artists during our 28 Days Later campaign. Today I interview Damian Ward, who is a critically acclaimed illustrator of both trade and educational books for children. Some of the books he’s illustrated include “Hip Hop Speaks to Children: A Celebration of Poetry with a Beat,” (Sourcebooks Jabberwocky, 2008), written by Nikki Giovanni, and “Bottle Cap Boys Dancing On Royal Street,” (Marimba Books, 2015), written by Rita Williams-Garcia. His digital artwork is lively and vibrant, and successfully brings to life the books that he’s illustrated. Ward studied illustration at the Columbus College of Art and Design.
Don: Tell us about your path to publishing. How did you get that first trade contract?
Damian: Craigslist, believe it or not. I got lucky to work with some talented people who had experience writing for film, and they wanted to try something different. There was one particular picture in my portfolio that got their attention and after some emails, I was off to New York city to get things moving. It was a great first book experience for me because it was so open for me to interpret while also being on a very tight deadline. I could do just about whatever I wanted so long as I got it done super fast.
Don: Tell us about your most recent book.
Damian: “Bottle Cap Boys Dancing On Royal Street” was a joy. I had so much fun with the challenge of depicting such a distinct place and the people there. I got good guidance from the author and publishers, and that helped to make it feel like it had a real local New Orleans flavor.
Don: Can you talk about the research process for the book?
Damian: I live on the other side of the planet from New Orleans, so I used lots and lots of Google Street view. It wasn’t all high tech new-fangled intel gathering though, I was able to rustle up a few old books from various sources. New Orleans is un-aging in many respects so having a few older images to reference and read about helped to reinforce the classic feel of the locale, at least I hope so.
Don: What primary medium do you use in your work?
Damian: I work digitally, primarily using the oil pastel brushes in Corel Painter.
Don: If you could spend one day in a studio, working with any artist — past or present — who would that be, and why?
Damian: I’ve always had a soft spot for Kandinsky. I liked that he seemed to be trying to develop a specific visual language in abstract colors and shapes.
Don: What would be your dream manuscript? Your dream author to work with?
Damian: Hmm, a dream manuscript for me would probably involve insects and or fish. I just like getting up close and drawing the little critters. I also like for there to be a message in there too though, almost hidden away, not beating anyone over the head.
An author I’d like to work with would be someone venturing way out of their comfort zone. I think if Ta-Nehisi Coates wanted to write a children’s book I’d love to take that challenge on.
Don: Can you talk a bit about your process of illustrating a book?
Damian: I start off with lots of thumbnail sketches. Many times I read something and think, I have to draw it this way. I know just how I want this to look, but if I can patiently explore a few options with thumbnail sketches I usually stumble across a better angle or depiction I can try. Sometime it is that first instinct in the end but it pays give yourself options. After that, I start tightening up the line drawings and doing some color studies before finalizing the illustration.
Don: Who are your cheerleaders, those who encourage you?
Damian: My wife and family have been there at every step to try and keep my head on straight (not always an easy task). They keep the orange juice refills and apple pies coming.
Don: What’s on the horizon, what can your fans expect to see from you in the future?
Damian: It’s time for me to start pushing myself to be an author/illustrator. I’ve been my own worst enemy in this regard but hopefully the next couple projects will feature the coveted ‘written and illustrated by…’ line on the cover.