by Dave Szalay
My relationship with nonfiction initially began while watching certain TV shows with my dad, such as The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau, Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom with Marlin Perkins, and a 26 part BBC documentary called The World at War, narrated by Sir Laurence Olivier. A few years later, we gathered for 8 straight nights to watch Alex Haley’s miniseries, Roots. Media was so different then. If you missed a program, there was no rewinding or saving to watch later. Most homes had one TV. Consuming stories through TV was a planned event, and the time was limited and precious. Limitations of early broadcasting meant media consumption was more balanced with other forms of delivery and consumption, such as reading.
Early on, I struggled to read. I was slow, and it was frustrating to me, however, I had a nice collection of picture books that helped me engage with storytelling. I could focus better on bite-size amounts of text, reinforced by illustrations or photos. Chapter books don't have many pictures, but reference books do. I could spend hours browsing through my old set of hand-me-down encyclopedias and National Geographic magazines..
I was age nine when my teacher, Mr. Wilson, recognized that I constantly doodled throughout the day in class. I didn’t realize that until many years later that drawing helped me listen. During a lesson, he stopped and walked over to see what I was drawing. I was fascinated with space travel, and it was an Apollo Lunar Space Module. I feared I was in trouble, but surprisingly, he kindly explained that he had an idea that might help me. He asked me to follow him and to bring my drawing.
We met the art teacher, Mrs. King, in her classroom. Mr. Wilson suggested that I join a group of her older students for a big art project in place of his history lessons. Mr. Wilson gave me special permission to help paint a wall-sized mural celebrating our city’s sesquicentennial. Mrs. King provided a stack of reference images including founder Col. Simon Perkins, Ferdinand Schumacher, the Oatmeal King, boats and people of the Ohio Canal, blimps and tire factories, and early inhabitants from the Mingo and Delaware tribes. This immersive project about the past was pivotal to my future career. Nearly 45 years later I was invited to illustrate The Superlative A. Lincoln, Poems About Our 16th President by Eileen Meyer, published by Charlesbridge.
With over 15,000 books, Lincoln is one of the most written about people in history. I wanted to bring my visual voice to the style and expression of the book. My goal in nonfiction is to creatively illuminate the characters and their surroundings, and stay true to the history. Nonfiction authors provide an abundance of invaluable reference material with their manuscripts. Reference material is a great springboard before diving into my own visual research. I look for tangible details and nuances that will transport the reader to the time and place of the story.
The timeline of this book spans around 50 years. Lincoln came from humble beginnings, and he maintained a folksy, approachable presence along with a great sense of humor. I show these traits by using an earthy color palette with patterns and simple shapes. The finish of the art has the feeling of a patina with texture and grain. My interpretation of the people in this book have a hint of whimsy, offering a nod to Lincoln’s casual demeanor and sharp wit.
I cross reference both photographic, (if they exist) and artistic depictions of people around the time period. On the five dollar bill, Lincoln’s hair is parted on the right. It was the last image I referred to while designing the character. The entire book was illustrated before an editor asked me to change the part to the left on all 15 images. Reviewing my references, I found most showed a left part and a mole on his right cheek. The mole helped verify his left-sided part in case a 19th century daguerreotype was flipped. I’m still not sure why the portrait on the five dollar bill is different.
Knowledge of a character’s socioeconomic status and heritage can inform details in wardrobe or hairstyles. A sense of geography, climate, time of year, and time span can help me frame the story accurately. Period architecture, fashion trends, decor, and landscapes, help me visualize environments. I map out components of a story like a filmmaker casts actors, designs wardrobe, scouts locations, and builds sets. I consider it staging the story.
The following examples show how I combined the author’s material with my visual research.
Image 1. The Superlative A. Lincoln, page 7.
Young Lincoln in the one room cabin learning to write with charcoal from the fireplace. Included are period appropriate books Lincoln was known to have read. Early books were pretty small.
Image 2. The Superlative A. Lincoln, page 13.
Lincoln at age 17, the Rail Splitter with a riverboat, luggage and travel clothes appropriate to the 1820s. Also shown are a period wheelbarrow and small flatboat.
Image 3 The Superlative A. Lincoln, page 17.
year old Captain Lincoln and soldiers in frontier-style dress during the 1832
Black Hawk War. Characters marching out of a military camp.
Image 4 The Superlative A. Lincoln, page 27.
working at a messy desk in his White House office (now known as the Lincoln
bedroom). Lincoln was a busy and focused man during the Civil War, but he could
also be loose and casual at home. He loved cats, so a sleeping pet on his lap
seemed like a charming detail.
Image 5 The Superlative A. Lincoln, page 37.
Imaginary scene with Lincoln viewing posters with nicknames. Early posters would be made using hand-set letterpresses with woodcut block type. The art and decorative elements are reminiscent of 19th century political art.
Give It a Try: Find visual details, nuances, and quirky little historic facts to flavor your illustrations.
Meet the Illustrator
Dave Szalay is an illustrator/Designer, and an art Professor at The University of Akron. He holds an MFA in Illustration, an MA in Communication, and BFA in Graphic Design. Past clients includes global corporations and institutions. Recent clients include Harper Collins, Penguin Random House, Charlesbridge, Nord-Sud, Sleeping Bear, Cricket, Highlights, Boston Globe, Ignite Mag., and The National Parks. His work has been awarded at the National Portfolio Showcase at SCBWI, and the American Advertising Awards, 3 x 3, Creative Quarterly, Highlights, and the Ohio Arts Council.
Good to see a familiar Ohio face here. Congrats on all your amazing illustrations. Thanks for sharing your research for the illustrations for the Lincoln book.ReplyDelete
Thanks Bettie. SO nice to hear from you!Delete
Thanks for this illustration insight! I enjoyed reading about your process and also kudos to your amazing teacher, Mr. Wilson!ReplyDelete
Hi Melissa, Yes, we were lucky to have him. I'm sure he inspired many.Delete
Evert child should have a Mr. Wilson!ReplyDelete
Since I'm not an illustrator, I didn't expect this to speak to me as much as it did. Thanks for all the visual ideas which I will be able to incorporate into my writing!
Great Kimberly. And maybe some useful insight as you work with illustrators in the future.Delete
Thank heavens for Mr. Wilson and Mrs. King! I pray that there are teachers like them out there saving kids now. I am looking forward to getting a copy of The Superlative A. Lincoln so I can study it with the help of your comments. Thank you for a great post. I can't draw anything so I am stuck with words!ReplyDelete
Yes Melissa! They were both wonderful. And Eileen and I are so proud of this book. I hope you enjoy it.Delete
Kind and understanding teachers make the world of difference! I can only imagine the work that goes into illustrating nonfiction. Thanks for sharing your perspective!ReplyDelete
So true Teresa. And I absolutely love illustrating nonfiction. It is a lot of work but so rewarding.Delete
Best teacher ever! Thank you for giving us a window into the research and historical details you weave into the creation of your amazing illustrations. Good thing to remember as an author to save these fun details (discovered in our research) to share, if allowed.ReplyDelete
Yes McMarshall, feel free to share. Thank you.Delete
Thank you for taking us through your process Dave. Fascinating!ReplyDelete
My pleasure Nicki! Thanks.Delete
Teachers are the best. Dave, thank you for sharing your insights into your creative process. Your illustrations speak volumes!ReplyDelete
Hi Charlotte! Teachers are truly the best, and librarians too! You're very welcome.ReplyDelete
Hey Everyone, If you're interested in more, here's a short video demo of how I made illustrated the cover of The Superlative A. Lincoln. https://youtu.be/hxYr93K9FzUReplyDelete
Inspiring! Encouraging for those of us who see the world somewhat differently. Thank you so very much.ReplyDelete
Thank you Dianne! Love the process. It's like detective work.Delete
I love the tour through the pages of the book, where you note highlights. And the tip to find visual details and quirky facts - they would help writers as well.ReplyDelete
Thanks Sue. Stay tuned and check back. They are going to post the images for these descriptions here soon. : )Delete
Hi Dave! Thank you for sharing your process. I really enjoyed the video about how you created the cover illustration. Very interesting to hear how looking up at the Statue of Liberty inspired the final pose.ReplyDelete
Thanks Krissy! Sometimes considering a bird's eye view or worm's eye view (moving the camera above or below) throughout a story can add drama. And it either creates stature or a sense of vulnerability, if used in context.ReplyDelete
Visualizing is a powerful intelligence!ReplyDelete
I like that thought Joyce. Thanks.Delete
Picture books are a collaborative project.ReplyDelete
As a writer I must remember to leave room for the illlustratons. The text shares half the story and the art completes the project.
Thank you, Dave.
Every illustrator would love to hear that. Thank you Suzy!Delete
Thanks for sharing a peek into your process! And wow, if only every kid could have a teacher like Mr. Wilson - such an inspiration.ReplyDelete
You're welcome Traci!Delete
I'm so thankful for that teacher nourishing your love of the doodle so we can all enjoy your art now.ReplyDelete
Lauri, me too. It took me decades to really appreciate that little moment.Delete
Your illustrations in the Lincoln book are wonderful and so human. They really help tell his story. I am not an illustrator but the tip to find visual details to use in my story, especially quirky ones is spot on. Thank you.ReplyDelete
I'm not an illustrator, so this post was helped me see the importance of details that can be left to the illustrator to envision. Thank you!ReplyDelete
Great back story and insight on your process. I do have a love for Abe, as many must with over 15000 books about him. Wow. Look forward to getting my hands on your Superlative book.ReplyDelete
Being a non illustrator, I'll thank you for "showing" me how to see the details in the pictures. They will certainly enhance my writing.ReplyDelete
So interesting to learn your process, thank you!ReplyDelete