Sean Qualls, Illustrator

If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a painting by Sean Qualls is surely worth one-hundred-times more.

Sean Qualls is a freelance illustrator and artist, who burst onto the children’s literature scene about three years ago, his art adorning a book written by Karen English, The Baby on the Way (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). He followed that success with Powerful Words, written by Wade Hudson. And just as the latter title suggests, his illustrations are so very powerful.

In the short time since, Sean has illustrated several more books, including The Poet Slave of Cuba, written by Margarita Engle (Henry Holt and Co., 2006); Dizzy, written by Jonah Winter (Arthur A. Levine Books, 2006); and How We Are Smart, written by W. Nikola-Lisa (Lee & Low Books, 2006).

Sean’s art work first hit my radar two years ago, while I lurked the exhibit hall at TLA. His artwork for The Poet Slave of Cuba, a 2008 Pura Belpré Award winner, captured my attention, and I purchased it on the spot. Sean’s artwork — mixed media, acrylic and pencil — is a sublime treat for the eye. His color pallet is quiet, yet uproarious with emotion. Cool grays and warm hues mix with the sapidity of sweet-n-sour. It’s so good! (Excuse my melodrama, I like the guys work.)

Incidentally — and not to steal away from Sean’s spotlight — his wife, Selina Alko, is a wonderfully talented children’s book illustrator, too.

Born in 1969 in Cocoa Beach, Florida, and then raised in Bordentown, N.J. (population just under 5,000), Sean spent his days “playing in the woods, walking along train tracks and listening to Kiss records.” Sean lives with his wife and son in Brooklyn, New York. Learn more about him at his website and blog.

It’s my pleasure to present Sean Qualls:

Don: How did you become interested in illustrating for children?

Sean: I’ve always loved picture making. Magazine illustration, picture books, and record covers were the first art that I saw as child.

Don: What kind of training have you received to prepare for your career?

Sean: I studied at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn for about a year and a half and then dropped out. Later, I took a few continuing education classes at SVA (School of Visual Arts) but much of my training has been trial and error.

Don: Being self-trained myself, I am especially inspired by artist like you. What is your mission as an artist?

Sean: I don’t really have a mission per se but an unwritten goal for me is to make each piece of art as exciting as possible and into something that the artist that I admire may like… but sometimes time constraints get in the way, but still I try.

Don: What is your primary medium. What do you like best about it?

Sean: I paint with acrylic and sometimes tempera as well and then use pencil to fill in detail. I also use old newsprint that I paint over to collage with. I would like to do more collage work but once again it’s a bit difficult to collage as much as I would like due to time constraints.
What I like best about acrylic is being able to paint in many layers without long drying time and then being able to draw over it with pencil.

Don: Is your approach to painting a children’s book any different from how you approach gallery or commissioned work? How?

Sean: I would say the only difference is that I create the ideas for my gallery and personal work versus being given a manuscript and ideas from a publisher both methods have their pros and cons.

Don: Can you talk a bit about your process, from receiving a manuscript to delivery of art?

Sean: When I first receive a manuscript I read it through and determine if it suits me. If so, I’ll start to make thumbnails on the manuscript. Later, the thumbnails will continue in a sketchbook. I usually go to the library and/or bookstore to get inspired and for reference material. Of course, I also use the internet to gather reference. Once, I have thumbnails that I like I’ll blow them up on a photocopier. This helps me to determine the size I want the book to be. When I have decided on the size I paint on top of the photocopy with acrylic gesso. Sometimes, I’ll combine elements from different photocopies by cutting out objects and pasting them on to other sketches. This method makes the sketch stage more exciting for me as I prefer to be painting when I’m working on sketches. I’m trying to be a bit looser with my sketches these days so that I don’t take too much time away from working on the final art.

Once I get approval to go to final art I usual scale up the sketches to as size that’s comfortable for me to paint. I paint on 100lb Bristol sheets. I’ll then paint a ground color (whatever color I think will predominate the background). On separate paper I paint the figures. I cut them out and paste them onto the background. This gives me more flexibility not to have to start the whole painting over if I “mess up” on one figure.

Sometimes I’ll collage elements to the background or paint in buildings directly on the background before I add the figures. It depends. It’s sort of like working in layers in Photoshop but a little more primitive.

Don: How long does it typically take to illustrate a children’s book, and how do you balance work, family, and other interests?

Sean: It has been a little tricky for me to determine how long it takes to complete a book as most of the books I’ve illustrated have been different lengths and most often I work on 2 or 3 at a time, but let’s say anywhere between 6 months and 2 years. The Baby on the Way (my first book) took about 2 years. “Powerful Words” and “How We Are Smart” took about 6 months and Phillis’s Big Test took maybe 7 or 8 months. Before John Was a Jazz Giant took about a year and Dizzy which is 48pp took more than a year.

Don: Do you do school visits and can you speak a bit about your program?

Sean: I have not done many school visits. I did a few with Jonah Winter the author of Dizzy. I’m usually too nervous about trying to meet a deadline to take off a whole day to visit a school. Maybe I’ll do more in the future but I’m also a little more on the shy side.

Don: Shy! Again, I can relate there, too. Do you have any hobbies, or other interest beyond art?

Sean: I love listening to music and hope to one day learn how to play an instrument, spending time with my wife Selina who’s also an illustrator and my son Isaiah and our friends.

Don: Is there any particular kind of manuscript you keep your eyes open for. Any particular kind of story you are drawn to?

Sean: Something different than what I’ve already done. Something with dynamic characters that I can relate to.

Don: Who are your favorite children’s illustrators. Why? Who are your favorite fine artists, contemporary or masters?

Sean: My wife Selina Alko, Eric Carle, Ezra Jack Keats, Calef Brown, Greg Christie. Linda Wolfsgruber. I love Aliki’s work from the sixties and other illustrators of that era like the Provensen’s, Mary Blair and Art Seiden.

I like Jacob Lawrence, William H. Johnson, Horace Pippin, Bill Traylor, Gauguin, Giotto, Ben Shahn, Chris Ofilli, Kara Walker, Max Beckman, William Hawkins, Ambrogio Lorenzetti, Henry Darger, The Clayton Bros., Camille Rose Garcia and illustrators like Jordin Isip and Katherine Streeter.

I also like advertising graphics, Americana and Black Memorabilia.

Don: What were your favorite illustrated children’s books as a child?

Sean: The Snowy Day, The Kingfisher’s Children’s Bible, I Can Fly.

Don: Can you tell us about your upcoming projects?

Sean: Both Phillis’s Big Test written by Catherine Clinton and Before John Was a Jazz Giant written by Carole Boston Weatherford are coming due out in late March/early April.
I’m also working on a project with Candlewick written by Roxanne Orgill for 2009.
Hopefully, people will see my first book as author and illustrator in the next year or two.

Don: I wish you the best with your writing and illustration endeavors. Thank you for your time.

Here is a short list of awards and honors Sean Qualls has racked up so far:

Society of Illustrators New York & Los Angeles

American Illustration

Silver Medal – Parent’s Choice Award

Gold Medal – American Society of Healthcare Publications (ASHPE) Best Cover

Christopher Award

BCCB Blue Ribbon

School Library Journal Best Book of the Year

Booklist Editors’ Choices

ALA (American Library Association) 2007
Notable Children’s Book

13 thoughts on “Sean Qualls, Illustrator

  1. Wow, two years to illustrate a children’s book? And yet more evidence that writing children’s books is not child’s play. Pardon the pun, gentlemen. Great interview, Don. You and Sean, the quiet, mysterious and artistic type likely draw lots of attention from the ladies at children’s lit events…I mean being that it’s mostly women anyway. LOL

  2. I’ve read the Dizzy book with my dauther H, and I’ve got to say, it has such a visual resonance for me. Being from the south, the colors and tone of the pictures remind me so much of rural Tennessee where I grew up. Even when Dizzy moved to the big city, the colors and textures of the paintings still remind us of Dizzy’s heritage. Wonderful work.

  3. Qualls sat on a panel three years ago at my first SCBWI Conference, along with Ezra Stein and Rebecca Doughty. All three of them had such interesting and helpful points regarding the industry, and working in it….but Sean’s work was the one that held my attention the most.
    I wholeheartedly agree with your admiration of it. There’s something very visceral about his art; something that conveys mood in a most wonderful way. I consider him to be one of the best artists out there right now because of the fact I’m willing to commit a cardinal sin: I’d cut out pages from his books in order to frame them and hang them on my walls. Great interview!

  4. Paula, when it comes to drawing ladies — at conferences or otherwise — I’m still very much at the middle school mindset. If it happened, it would go way over my head. If I did notice, I’d turn beet red with embarrassment, and start waving my wedding ring around like a Japanese hand fan.

  5. Jeanne McDermott, with Farrar, Straus introduced me to the book The Baby on the Way. It wasn’t too much of an introduction because I immediately loved the illustrations when I saw the cover! I loved the facial expressions and the artistic setting of the story. I read the story and saw that the illustrations supported the text very well. Very well done.

    I read Sean’s story, and was pleasantly surprised that Sean is a self-taught artist. What an excellent example he would be for some of our students, particularly our boys who draw. When I read stories to my students, I talk about the author and illustrator, especially if I have had the pleasure of meeting them. I talk about careers in writing and illustrating children’s book. Talking about Sean Qualls’ may inspire some of my students to pursue their artistic dreams.

  6. Great interview! I have Dizzy on my desk to read to my second graders next week. I’ll be happy to tell them more about Mr. Qualls work. I was tickled to read that his childhood included: “playing in the woods, walking along train tracks and listening to Kiss records.” …. sounds like what we were doing when I was a kid in Ohio.

  7. Dear Sean:
    I will be presenting the Best Books for Children by Black Authors and Illustrators on The Lynn Hayes-Freeland Show on KDKA TV (a CBS affiliate – Channel 2 Pittsburgh, PA.) during Black History month in February. Vaunda Nelson has just sent me WHO WILL I BE, LORD? which is “beautifully illustrated”.
    Could you send me more of your most recent book illustrations for children so that I may consider them too for the presentation.?
    Send to:
    Dr. Barbara C. Murphy
    4185 Ivanhoe Drive – Apt. # 516
    Monroeville, PA. 15146
    Kindly e-mail me to let me know if you can accommodate this request:
    Thank you so very much, I loved reading your interview.
    Dr. Barbara C. Murphy

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