October 31, 2017

Let's Talk Illustrators #47: Shawn Harris

Recently I got the chance to chat with debut picture book illustrator Shawn Harris about Her Right Foot, written by Dave Eggers. There's so much that's incredible about this book –– the subject matter, the message, the delivery –– but before I even knew the story, it was the illustration style and design of the book that captured my heart. Shawn might just be starting his career in children's book illustration, but it's clear that this is where he was meant to be all along, and it is my sincere pleasure to share our conversation with you.


About the book:
If you had to name a statue, any statue, odds are good you'd mention the Statue of Liberty. Have you seen her?

She's in New York.
She's holding a torch.
And she's in mid-stride, moving forward.
But why?

In this fascinating and fun take on nonfiction, Dave Eggers and Shawn Harris investigate a seemingly small trait of America's most emblematic statue. What they find is about more than history, more than art. What they find in the Statue of Liberty's right foot is the powerful message of acceptance that is essential of an entire country's creation!

Peek underneath the dust jacket here.
Watch the official book trailer here.

Let's talk Shawn Harris!


LTPB: What does this hat kind of visual research did you do to create the illustrations for this book? How did your illustrations evolve as you continued to research and build out Dave’s text?

This book is a work of nonfiction about the Statue of Liberty that also veers into passages of whimsy and ultimately into a reflection on the concept of inclusivity that the statue represents, and so it demanded that I walk a fine line between factual accuracy and creative abstraction. My rule was that the statue would always appear in her designed form— that iconic pose that the book fixates upon, so when she moves around New York in search of a panini or a Nico record, she is not so much anthropomorphized, as she is being conceptually slid around the boroughs by the suggestions in the text like an enormous chess piece. 




And this is where a lot of my research was focussed. This piece showing a silhouetted statue climbing the Manhattan skyline is pretty close to being accurate, with the right lens, from the right angle.


Though originally, I didn’t have the idea to have her interacting with the skyline in a play on perspective at all.


And when I did get the idea, here was the more true-to-life depiction of the skyline behind her, which I cheated a bit into something of a staircase before her for the final piece.


And if you are landing in Laguardia or JFK and have the fortune of a window seat, the statue still holds her torch in welcome toward you. Thanks to google earth for this one, and a photographic confirmation from a musician friend of mine landing in NY on tour. (Tom, from the Plain White T’s, whose popular lyric befittingly asks, “Hey there Delilah, what’s it like in New York City?”)


Of course the statue is a well documented landmark, and so I had a bounty of fantastic photographs to reference at my local libraries, too. The most interesting thing about the early photographs of her construction is that they are all of course black and white. I never stopped to consider that being made of copper, in these photographs, standing high above Paris, and then New York City, she was actually shiny and brown, like a new penny!


The first piece I did was based on this photo, and was one of three samples that I first made for Dave, before he and my editor Taylor Norman at Chronicle decided they would like me to illustrate the book:


And here it is before I added ink lines:


The other two samples didn’t fit into the book, but here they are:



The line work on these last two was digital, over scans of cut paper. For the book, I decided to photograph the paper instead of scanning it because, as you can see on these samples, the shadow and dimension of the work is not as apparent, and I really wanted the images to appear that they might have been collaged into your very copy of the book.

LTPB: You created the illustrations in this book from construction paper and India ink. Have you always worked in this media? How did you distinguish your "picture book" style from your "record design" style? What did illustrating a picture book for the first time teach you?

A lot of my previous illustrations and designs for bands were done in collage, like these:

 


Though I had never simplified my materials to the degree that such a definitive style emerged, as I did in Her Right Foot.

Part of what really excited me about doing my first picture book was the opportunity to find a style that could start me in a direction toward a real identity as an illustrator. My next book is going to be a 3-spot-color print, and though it isn’t made with cut paper, it does put a strong emphasis on minimal line over bold shapes, which I learned largely from working with the simple cut construction paper. Here’s a little sample test from that new project:


LTPB: How involved were you in the design of this book, specifically the case cover, dust jacket, and endpapers?

Very! My designer Kristine at Chronicle was kind enough to give me a design credit, which was very nice of her, but we did work together quite a bit, and I ended up executing all of the layout and titles in cut paper, and hand lettering, which just fit the cut and paste aesthetic of the book better that manipulating those elements digitally.

The case, which is my cut paper version of the statue’s tablet, is the only really 3-dimensional piece that I made for the book. To get the look of the tablet right, I made some origami-like folds to get the shadows from my lights to add those bevelled edges.


And with case in hand, you can dress up as Lady Liberty herself, like my friend Alice here from the blog Victoria Ann Meyers:


LTPB: What are you working on now? Anything you can show us?

I’m doing another book with Dave Eggers and Chronicle, called What Can a Citizen Do? (that spot color book with the boy in the bear costume I showed you from the test above) and then another book, in cut paper, with Mac Barnett. Here’s one of my samples for that book, which has me illustrating an Arctic landscape with light more than with line…


LTPB: Last question! If you could have one illustrator (other than yourself!) illustrate your picture book biography, who would it be and why?

Well, while so many of my favorite illustrators are mid-century folks like Duvoisin, Sendak, Sasek, Simont, Emberley... I’m going to choose a contemporary: Bendik Kaltenborn. He is not a known name in picture books, but his work in comics, editorial, and music-related illustration is just my very favorite right now. His work is so colorful, irreverently na├»ve, hilarious, and simultaneously immaculately designed and executed, and I think it would just make for the best picture book stuff.

Thank you so much to Shawn for taking time to answers some questions! Her Right Foot published from Chronicle Books earlier this year!

Special thanks to Shawn for use of these images!




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