June 5, 2018

Let's Talk Illustrators #73: Evan Turk

I've said it before, and I'll say it again: Evan Turk is one of the most adaptable and curious illustrators currently working in children's literature. No two books of his have the same artistic style, which is clearly a result of Evan continually pushing himself to explore new media and techniques. Every one of Evan's books feels simultaneously unique in aesthetic tone and yet reflective of his style because of the stories he chooses to tell. Today Evan and I are talking about his new book Heartbeat, which he both wrote and illustrated, and you can see his process below.

About the book:
Two hearts, one song.
A young whale and her mother sing together.
Heartbeat.Then the mother is gone.
One heart, one song. The young whale swims, alone and lonely,
for days and years and decades…
until one day a little girl hears her and joins her song.
Together, they sing of hope for a brighter future.
One world, one song,
one heartbeat.

Peek underneath the dust jacket:

Watch the official book trailer:

Let's talk Evan Turk!

LTPB: Holy cow, Heartbeat is incredible!! Where did the idea come from? And I know you’re a big proponent of research, so what kind of research did you do (factually and visually) for this book? What stood out the most?

ET: Thank you so much! Heartbeat has really been a labor of love! There was a lot of research that went into this book, into whales and their biology, and into the history of American whaling. There were a few standout things that I learned that really shaped the story. One heartbreaking fact is that often times, whalers would kill mother whales, and the whale calves wouldn’t know what to do afterwards, so they would often circle the whaleships. That made me think about how when you lose someone you love, a little piece of you goes with them forever, how that would be a lifelong thing for those whale calves as well. That led to the image of the baby whale with a hole in her heart. I also learned that some species of whales have been discovered to live over 200 years! So I began thinking about what that little whale would have seen, after losing her mother, over 200 years of humans interacting with whales. I was astounded to learn just how many things humans used the bodies of whales for during that time period: as an illuminant, industrial lubricant, in machine guns and bombs, in car transmissions, and even to coat the first photographs of the Earth from the moon. But humanity’s relationship towards whales has improved during that time, so I wanted to show that tide turning towards the preservation of whales, although we still have a long way to go.

The project began way back in 2009, when I began working on a group project about the Charles W. Morgan, the last wooden whaleship in the world. Dalvero Academy, an illustration group I belong to, taught by illustrators Veronica Lawlor and Margaret Hurst, began documenting the restoration of this ship at Mystic Seaport. We each worked on individual research projects that resulted in one show as the ship was restored, and another when the ship sailed again in 2014. I was fortunate enough to be selected to sail aboard the ship as part of its 38th Voyage, which had the mission to use the ship as a vessel for education and as a symbol of our changing relationship with our oceans. On my leg of the journey, I sailed and drew aboard the ship into Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary near Provincetown, MA, where we saw whales from the deck of the Morgan for the first time in over 100 years! The power of that experience led to my creation of the animation version of Heartbeat (which then led the book).

LTPB: How does your process differ when you're writing and illustrating a book versus when you're illustrating someone else’s text? 

ET: It is really a very different process for me, in a lot of ways, to illustrate my own text versus someone else’s. I think there’s there’s one kind of freedom from knowing you can change the story, text, and images, and kind of work them both together to find the best result. But there’s also a very liberating feeling from having an already-written manuscript to work off of, and sort of know what’s already working and build off of that. When I’m doing both writing and illustrating, it usually starts with the idea. It might be a note or a thumbnail drawing, but then it tends to branch off from there both with the art and the words. This is where a lot of research and playing around with the art happens. I read as much as I can about the topic, and try as many different things artistically as I can. At some point I will usually write down the story freehand in my sketchbook, which will become the first draft. Once I iron out the story, then I can begin to sort through all the different artistic influences and style ideas I have to find the one that is really going to tell the story in the best way. So both halves of the book really get built together.

When I’m illustrating someone else’s manuscript, I really try to think laterally and absorb as much information about the topic, and topics it relates to, as I can. I think that helps me to find my own way into the story, and to provide artistic context that might not be present in the text (since picture books have such a limited space for words!) For a book like Grandfather Gandhi, the story mentions a spinning wheel and the process of spinning cotton as discipline at the beginning and end. I loved that idea, and how it related to Gandhi’s khadi cloth movement for Indian independence, so I made the spinning wheel, thread, and fabric into a visual symbol throughout the whole book. For Muddy: The Story of Blues Legend Muddy Waters, there is so much history in the blues, and I really wanted to provide a lot of that context visually by referencing West African patterns, artists of the Harlem Renaissance, and African American quilt-making traditions. Whether or not readers see these things on their first read through isn’t necessarily the point, because it’s there helping them understand the story subconsciously, and it’s in their minds. It will help them make connections later on when they see artwork that feels like Muddy or hear about the symbol of the spinning wheel in Gandhi’s movement.

LTPB: How involved were you in the design of this book (endpapers and case cover included!)? 

ET: I always like to be as involved in the design of the book as I can, particularly if I’m the author as well. On Heartbeat especially, there was a lot of collaboration between the art director, Ann Bobco, the editor, Reka Simonsen, and I. The case cover was a fun decision, because I liked the idea that underneath it all is the heartbeat, which is really the symbolic message of the story. On this book, it was an interesting process, because I originally told the story as a 20 minute animation. So there was a lot of material to whittle down, and we had to figure out how to make a musical, movement-based animation into a book, which was an interesting challenge. I took my first stab at it by creating a dummy, and then we played around with the pacing and images until it felt right.

LTPB: What did you use to create the illustrations in this book? Is this your preferred medium? I’ve made it pretty clear to you how much I envy your flexibility and fluidity as an illustrator, so can you talk a little about the evolution of your art style in general? How does your process change from book to book? 

ET: For this book, I used pastels on black paper, as well as paper collage. The black paper came from wanting the birth of the baby whale to feel like the creation of a star, from darkness to that glowing point of light of the heartbeat. I was learning about how whales and humans experience the world differently, and I wanted that to come across in the illustrations. Whales, who are mostly made of water and live in a water environment, experience the world mostly through sound, which can pass through bodies. Whales can sense a heart beating in another whale, or feel when another whale is carrying a calf. So I imagined that their world would be very soft and without boundaries, and I thought the blended soft pastels could capture that. I wanted their world to be full of color, especially when the baby whale and her mother are together. Human vision, though, is based off of edges and distinctions between things, so I thought that cut paper could represent that idea. Then when the human world intrudes on the whale world, in the form of a harpoon, those two mediums collide as well, and the color is stripped out. We then see how the soft, colorful, beautiful whales from the beginning are seen in the human world: as objects for use. But then as the baby whale grows and finds compassion and empathy in the song of a young girl, those edges and distinctions begin to fade away, color returns, and they are all united by the constellation of their hearts beating together.

I like to find a style of illustration that best suits each particular story that I tell. For this book, it was really focused on those two different worlds becoming one, which is something I like to do over the course of a book. For instance, in Muddy, there was one style for his life in rural Mississippi, and one style for his urban life in Chicago, and the climax of the book is those two styles blending as he finds his own unique voice combining both sides of his life. I’m always looking for a transformation to occur in the art from the beginning to the end of the book.

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

ET: I am so excited about what I’m working on now! It is a book called You Are Home: An Ode to the National Parks, and it will be out next summer. My dad has worked for the National Park Service my whole life (and then some!), so they were a very special part of my childhood. This book is my way of trying to inspire kids and families to go and feel the sense of wonder and history that comes from visiting these incredible places, and to talk about the importance of protecting and preserving these special places. For this project I have been lucky enough to travel across the country, visiting 20 different parks and drawing in each one of them. Drawing on location is my favorite thing to do, and many of illustrations in the books are drawings I did on location in the parks! I’m so excited to share this book with everyone.

LTPB: If you were to write your picture book autobiography, who would you want to illustrate it (dead or alive!), and why? 

ET: Oh what a tough question! I wouldn’t want to subject anyone to having to illustrate my life story! But I’ve thought about it, and I think I would say a friend of mine, Kati Nawrocki, who is a fabulous illustrator and game designer. Her work has so much humor, intelligence, and beauty in it, with just the right amount of sarcasm. So good!

Evan, thank you so much for talking to me about your new book! Heartbeat publishes from Atheneum Books for Young Readers one week from today, June 12.

Special thanks to Evan and Atheneum Books for Young Readers for use of these images!

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