Today we’re especially pleased to highlight artist Theodore Taylor, who was recently honored with a Coretta Scott King – John Steptoe New Talent Award. He won the award for the book he illustrated, When the Beat was Born: DJ Kool Herc and the Creation of Hip Hop, written by Laban Carrick Hill, and published by Roaring Brook Press.
Theodore Taylor III studied Communication Arts (Illustration) at Virginia Commonwealth University, and he currently lives and works in Washington DC. He is inspired by a variety of subjects, including music, album covers, posters, animation, comics, and video games . . . and pizza!
Here is Theodore in his own words:
My steps towards becoming an illustrator started when I was very young. I distinctly remember drawing dinosaurs as a child and showing them to my mother. I soon moved onto imitating the styles of Looney Tunes, Ninja Turtles, Sonic the Hedgehog and other cartoons and games I enjoyed. Art class was always my favorite in school. I still have a large stack of sketchbooks ranging from elementary school to present day. During high school I decided I would pursue art as a major at Virginia Commonwealth University with a very helpful push from my art teacher Fletcher Nichols at Patrick Henry High School in Roanoke, Virginia.
After two semesters of what VCU refers to as the “Art Foundation” program, I was accepted into the Communication Arts (previously Illustration) department. My professors Robert Meganck and Sterling Hundley recommended me for an internship creating posters for Theatre IV, a children’s theater in Richmond, Virginia. Overall I did two series of posters for them during and after college.
Once I graduated I moved to DC and continued to freelance on the side while working full-time as a production assistant at a web design/PR firm now known as The Brick Factory. In my free time I designed and illustrated several album covers, many for a hip-hop music blog, Potholes In My Blog. This was enjoyable for me because it allowed me to combine my love of music and art which had ultimately been the goal for my work.
His Back Story
A year or so after I graduated I was contacted by Colleen AF Venable, a designer at Roaring Brook Press, who saw my work on Flickr. She asked if I was interested in taking on a project about DJ Kool Herc that Laban Carrick hill was writing, noting the number of portraits I had done of musicians like Herbie Hancock, Miles Davis, Esperanza Spalding, Jay Electronica and others. I happily accepted the job and began planning how I would illustrate the text.
I’ve taken inspiration from many sources. In terms of children’s books, from my childhood collection Maurice Sendak and his book “Where The Wild Things Are” has always stood out as a favorite. I also appreciate how he viewed his books as not just for children but for adults as well. Crockett Johnson’s “Harold and the Purple Crayon” also sticks out in my mind and may have helped push my interest in drawing. Although I didn’t read his books as a child, Kadir Nelson was the most inspiring African American children’s book illustrator for me while working on the book.
Japanese art and animation has been an important influence since my teenage years. I’m a big fan of the work of Hayao Miyazaki, Satoshi Kon and Taiyo Matsumoto. I also gained an interest in street art, especially what’s being done by Brazilian artists like Os Gemeos. Art nouveau interested me in college, enjoying the work of Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele, Aubrey Beardsley and others.
As for illustrators, I’ve taken a lot of inspiration from my previously mentioned professors Robert Meganck and Sterling Hundley. Much of my digital drawing technique is taken from demos given by Meganck. This was especially helpful in a time when working digitaly wasn’t as prevalent in our school as I assume it is now. I had been working digitally since high school so it was helpful to have someone to follow as an example. Hundley’s work was helpful as he taught me the importance of displaying a human-ness in my work and allowing “happy accidents” and evidence of your process show through. I should also mention my professor Kerry Talbot who taught our Graphic Essay course in which we wrote stories and created illustrations to fit them. I referred to what he taught me when working on the book. Sadly, he passed away last year.
I could write for days about my musical influences. I am a self-proclaimed music nerd. I’ve spent years exploring hip-hop, electronic, jazz, soul, funk, rock, folk, Brazilian and many other forms of music. Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock are at the top of my jazz list. Madlib and J Dilla inform much of the hip-hop and beat-oriented music I follow. Most of the electronic music I listen to follows the likes of Flying Lotus and Squarepusher.
I also can’t forget my parents. Outside of his job my father, Ted Taylor, was a jazz guitarist who performed in and around the Roanoke area in a band called The Reflections. His music was a major part of my childhood and continues to influence me today. I also had the chance to play drums with him many times before he passed away while I was in high school. My mother, Leslie Taylor, played a major role in influencing my interest in books and writing. She was a writer and editor for many years at the Roanoke Times, where I spent a lot of time after school drawing in my sketchbooks.
Usually my illustration process involves creating a sketch that I scan into my computer to work on top of in Photoshop. On occasion I’ll also ink my drawings by hand. For my book I had to alter my process slightly. I avoided inking by hand as I expected having to make alterations based on feedback from the publisher. I avoided ‘inking’ in Photoshop as the drawings were fairly large and taxed my computer heavily. Instead I finalized the lines with pencil, which made it easy to erase and change certain elements. I then added color and textures in Photoshop as I normally do. When I do my next book I plan on finalizing linework fully in Photoshop using a recently purchased tablet monitor that I feel will improve my process greatly.
Coretta Scott King – John Steptoe Award for New Talent
Added to the 2014 CBC/NCSS Notable Social Studies Trade Books for Young People Reading List
Junior Library Guild Selection
NPR: “When the Beat Was Born: DJ Kool Herc and the Creation of Hip Hop looks at the early life of the deejay widely credited with creating hip-hop.”
New York Times: “Taylor’s illustrations bring out the enthusiasm and sense of community at the heart of this trend-setting sound.”
Publisher’s Weekly: “Whether Taylor is zooming in on Herc’s dexterous hands manipulating the turntables or pulling back for a birds-eye view of the first break dance performances, he makes readers feel like they’re present at hip-hop’s inception. “
Teaching For Change: “Theodore Taylor III’s colorful but not cartoonish pictures, give us a story that’s part history lesson and part warm earth tone landscape, capturing the wildness and the warmth of a culture that flourished in project parks and community recreation centers.”
Word Is Bond: “Laban Carrick Hill and illustrator Theodore Taylor III’s picture book about hip-hop’s early days in the Bronx is a must-read for both the way it pays tribute to Clive Campbell (“Kool Herc’s music made everybody happy. Even street gangs wanted to dance, not fight”) and its striking artwork.”
Granite Media: “I highly recommend this book for any young person (or not so young person ) interested in music or pop culture, whether Hip Hop or other genres.”
Waking Brain Cells: “This is Taylor’s first picture book and I hope he does more. His images have a wonderful richness of color without being dark at all. “
Kirkus: “Hill and Taylor have accomplished something special with this picture book, capturing the energy of the early hip-hop movement and presenting it in a manner that is accessible for children.”
Booklist Online: “Theodore Taylor III’s illustrations in a muted palette are a great accompaniment to the story”
While not directly related to the book, last month the Kennedy Center requested permission to use one of my illustrations of Herbie Hancock for a short documentary shown at the Kennedy Center Honors. The program also aired on television. Herbie allegedly said my illustration was “very cool”.
Under The Radar
There were actually a number of great African American artists in my major. Two who’s work I’ve really enjoyed are Richie Pope and Chris Visions. Richie has an amazing and unique style that has been gaining a great following recently. Chris Visions has been doing a lot of great work, creating comic book covers as well as writing and illustrating a few of his own.
A few other artists I don’t know personally but am excited about include Ron Wimberly, a comic book artist who recently released the fantastic book “Prince of Cats” and Lesean Thomas, who’s done work for several animated TV shows including The Boondocks and Black Dynamite. While Ed Piskor isn’t African American I feel it necessary to mention his comic series “Hip-Hop Family Tree”, a masterful ongoing chronicle of hip-hop’s history that I’ve often looked to for inspiration.