To describe illustrator Eric Velasquez as a “prolific artist” would be an understatement. Before snagging his first picture book contract, he created art for more than 300 book jackets and interior illustrations — more published art than many illustrators create in a lifetime.
A few of those titles include Journey to Jo’Burg and its sequel Chain of Fire, written by Beverly Naidoo; The complete series of Encyclopedia Brown; The complete series of The Ghost Writers; The Terrible Wonderful Telling at Hog Haven; and Gary Soto’s The Skirt and its sequel Off and Running. He also illustrated the cover of the 1999 Coretta Scott King award winning title Jazmin’s Notebook by Nikki Grimes.
His first picture book, The Piano Man, written by Debbie Chocolate (Walker & Co.), won the 1999 Coretta-Scott King/John Steptoe award for new talent.
In addition to illustrating, Eric is also a writer/storyteller. Grandma’s Records was his first authored title. It published in 1999 to rave reviews from School Library Journal, Publisher’s Weekly and others. Grandma’s Records is autobiographical, based on Eric’s childhood in Spanish Harlem with his grandmother.
Houdini: World’s Greatest Mystery Man — the interviewer’s personal favorite — is like magic in and of itself. The images are uncanny, and nearly jump off the page.
He received his BFA from the School of Visual Arts, and studied at The Art Students League with Harvey Dinnerstein.
For our third illustrator of 28 Days Later, 2010, we present vanguard illustrator and author Eric Velasquez:
Please talk about your most recent book.
My most recent book is My Friend Maya Loves to Dance (Abrams, 2010), by Cheryl Hudson. I always wanted to do a book about a ballerina, however I never took into account how technical a project it would be. Inspired by the work of Edgar Degas, I figured I’d hire a model and photograph her in a variety of poses, and then use them as reference.
Once I read the manuscript six times, I realized that Cheryl was telling her story in a very personal and heart-felt way. It demanded attention. Suddenly I wanted the images to be far from those of Degas. I abandoned the thought of doing the book in pastels (my original intention). I wanted Cheryl’s words to come through the images unencumbered by the comparisons to Degas.
Cheryl and I went to a ballet school in an African American community, in New Jersey. We hired the dancers, and had the staff pose them. Every pose in the book is the real thing, as well as the model for Maya; she is a real ballet student.
Of the many books and covers you’ve illustrated, what are some that mean the most to you. Why?
I feel fortunate to have had a chance to illustrate a lot of my heroes. Muhammad Ali, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Harry Houdini, and Jesse Owens. However I would have to say that the book I am especially proud of will always be Grandma’s Records, which is my story. I am not particularly fond of my illustration work technically. But the book has resonated with so many people. I still get emails from people thanking me for writing it. Walker Books informed me that the book is their second all-time bestseller.
Grandma’s Records is a simple story about a boy who spends the summer with his Grandma, listening to records and her stories. Three famous Puerto Rican musicians visit them, and they attend a show that changes both of them forever. The book has helped bridge a generational gap that is widening between grandparent and grandchild. People write to me all the time explaining how they are playing old records for their grandchildren, ultimately that is most rewarding.
What is the primary medium used in your work?
My primary medium is oil on paper. I have also done three books in pastel and one in charcoal.
Who are other illustrators or fine artists who’ve inspired you?
I love them all, the old illustrators for different reasons at different times. I am a lifelong student of illustration. However, this is a serious question to me for many reasons. Not all illustrators whose work I admire would have invited me to spend a day in their studio. This is something that I have been aware of since childhood.
Therefore, if I could spend the day in the studio with any artist, it would have been Tom Feelings. Tom and I became friends after the masterpiece The Middle Passage was published. It was the first time that looking at artwork made dizzy. I really had to sit on the floor of the bookstore when I first saw the book. It is everything that a book should be, a true Masterpiece. When I met Tom, I complimented him and I began to walk away. I guess he sensed my shyness and immediately called me back to thank me and to tell me that he was honored by my words.
We would meet again at the New York Public Library picture collection. We spoke for three hours. Tom Feelings was his artwork. Every pencil line and every composition was evident in his personality. He was as real as his art. I was inspired by his reality and his generosity.
Tom would often call just to see how I was doing and encouraging me to take ownership of my African heritage. A lot of art that is credited as being created by Europeans had in fact originated in Africa. Perhaps my only regret is that I never had a chance to spend a day in his studio and watch him create his magic.
What was the biggest change, unexpected result, or interesting observation noted since you received recognition by the Coretta Scott King committee, or any other award or honor?
Public speaking. That has been the most significant change in my life. Up until I won the award I never spoke publicly. I hid in my studio and painted. Many doors opened, especially when I began doing school visits. Most notably, teaching. I was hired by the chairman of the Illustration Department at FIT (The Fashion Institute of Technology), Ed Soyka, after he viewed a school presentation I gave on C-Span Book TV.
Three books recently illustrated by Velasquez: I, Matthew Henson: Polar Explorer, written by Carole Boston Weatherford; The Rain Stomper, written by Addie Boswell; Voices of Christmas, written by Nikki Grimes.
Can you talk a bit about your process for illustrating a book?
After reading the manuscript several times I begin to do my rough thumbnail storyboard sketches. Next I begin to research the story in terms of costumes, location, books, etc. Basically I try and learn everything I can about the subject within the time I have.
From there I create a book dummy (a pagination) of the book. This involves cutting up the manuscript and pasting it down next to the corresponding images. I submit the book dummy to the publisher for approval. Sometimes there are changes at this stage. Next I find models and costumes, then I set up a photo shoot.
Next, I begin the final artwork. First I create a detailed drawing of the image then I paint on top of it using oil paint.
If you could wave a magic wand and completely change professions, what would you be doing today?
I waved a magic wand when I was seven and I wanted to be an illustrator. Nothing has changed.
Why do you illustrate for children? What do you find most gratifying?
The ability to change the future through art. For instance, let’s say I have text that reads: “Then he laid his eyes on the most beautiful woman he had ever seen.”
Now, let’s say I paint an image is of a darkly complexioned African woman. My point: If enough artist are courageous enough to depict a variety of images of beauty, regardless of country of origin, slowly the next generation will begin to open their eyes to another more truer sense of beauty, that of a broader spectrum.
For aspiring children’s book illustrators, please talk about your path to publication.
There are so many obstacles today perhaps more than ever. There are lots of closed doors in publishing. It’s a small community that seems to be getting smaller. Currently I am a loss for words. I am very concerned with the future of publishing. Persevere.
If you could put your career in reverse, is there anything you’d do differently as a young artist?
I would read more. Aside from Baldwin, Hughes, Wright, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky. Gogol, Zola. These writers really formed the basis of my perspective in illustration.
See the trailer for Racing Against All Odds: The Story of Wendell Scott, Stock Car Racing’s African-American Champion, written by Carole Boston Weatherford, illustrated by Eric Velasquez, above.
What is the most challenging thing about illustrating a children’s picture book?
Finding your voice in the story without overshadowing the text.
What was your favorite book as a child?
The Lollipop Party by Brinton Turkle. I grew up at a time where there were no images of African Americans in children’s books. I gravitated toward this book because there is a little brown boy in the story that I identified with.
Most Americans have no idea what is like not to see themselves represented in books or films. They don’t know what it’s like to constantly see images of themselves portrayed in a negative light or subservient role to the main protagonist.
How do you find balance in your busy schedule?
Very carefully. I pretty much work all the time.
What would be your dream manuscript? Is there an author you’d especially like to work with?
My dream author would be James Baldwin.
A current author would perhaps be Willie Perdomo, the poet. I really would like to explore more of the Afro-Caribbean perspective; sadly there is not enough of it in children’s books.
Who are your cheerleaders, those who encourage you?
Do you visit schools? Is there any particular message you like to leave with children when you speak?
Yes. My message is that everyone has a story to tell that is unique. Don’t be satisfied with the same old story being retold, like the stuff that comes out of Hollywood. Tell me a story that I have not already heard.
What’s on the horizon, what can your fans expect?
I have just completed all of the art for Grandma’s Gift, the prequel to Grandma’s Records. I am very excited about it.
This book deals with art the way Grandma’s Records dealt with music and explains where the sketchbook comes from.
********* Just For Fun **********
Favorite M&M color: I don’t really eat candy
Favorite TV show: Dexter
Favorite food: Salmon
Favorite sport: Biking
Favorite ice cream flavor: Coconut
Favorite Author: James Baldwin
Favorite American Idol winner: Huh?
Favorite Pop culture personality: Huh?
Favorite Day of the week: Any day that I don’t have to leave the studio.
Favorite genre of book: Nonfiction
Myspace or Facebook: Facebook