November 20, 2018

Let's Talk Illustrators #91: Jeremy Holmes

I have been waiting a long, long time to talk to Jeremy Holmes. I can actually tell just how long it's been because I've wanted to talk to him since the moment I saw There Was An Old Lady, and that came out in 2009 (if you don't know it, buy it. Trust me.). Now that Jeremy has stepped into illustrating picture books (he's done some chapter books), I'm excited to talk to him about his general illustration process, and that starts with this year's The Eye That Never Sleeps: How Detective Pinkerton Saved President Lincoln. Enjoy the conversation––I know I did!  


About the book:
Everyone knows the story of Abraham Lincoln, but few know anything about the spy who saved him! Allan Pinkerton’s life changed when he helped the Chicago Police Department track down a group of counterfeiters. From there, he became the first police detective in Chicago and established the country’s most successful detective agency. He went on to solve more than 300 murders and recover millions of dollars in stolen money. However, his greatest contribution was protecting Abraham Lincoln on the way to his 1861 inauguration. Though assassins attempted to murder Lincoln en route, Pinkerton foiled their plot and brought the president safely to the capital.

Let's talk Jeremy Holmes!


LTPB: When you received this manuscript, what about it drew you in? 

JH: The Eye That Never Sleeps is my first foray into nonfiction. My work up to this point has relied on my ability to defy reality, to create worlds of make-believe. I was curious what the experience would be like to create art that relied on the laws of physics and historical fact. 




LTPB: How do you make a conscious effort to tailor your illustration style to each new manuscript you take on?

JH: My formal training is in graphic design. As a designer, one must create custom visual narratives that speak to the unique story of each client. I guess you might say the designer in me feels the need to tailor my illustration style to each new manuscript. I know this approach isn’t the norm when it comes to illustration, but it’s how my brain works, so I just run with it. 



LTPB: As this is a nonfiction book, so how long did it take you to do all the visual and factual research you needed to do for it? 

JH: Honestly, I have no idea. Research was an ongoing process throughout the entire making of the book. It was a daily necessity. Every object, situation and image was researched. How many stars were on the US flag in 1861? Did you know fingerprints weren’t used till 1891? What did a newspaper masthead look like in the 1860s? Some people may find this type of historical investigation tedious, but I fell head over heels in love with it. I only wish I had a better long term memory. 




LTPB: What kind of prep work did you do to make sure your illustrations were true to the time period of the book? 

JH: I researched everything. I read detective books from the 1800s. I watched movies on the art of coopering. I scoured the internet for fashion, architecture and industrial design of the time period. One of my favorite discoveries were the books and board games of the Mcloughlin Brothers Publishing Company (1858-1920). Their “type as image” approach was definitely a signature style of the time and was something I felt needed to be incorporated into the book. 




LTPB: How did you mix in the realities of your research with your own unique art style? 

JH: My art style usually incorporates some form of fanciful invention, be it the creation of a car made of scrambled eggs, or a deadly sea eel from Mars, or a device that makes the perfect PBJ in half the time. The challenge with nonfiction is the worlds, characters and objects already exist and have a known relationship and logic with one another. But what I found as I began to work through sketches was within these realities there is plenty of room to play and invent. I think the clearest example of this is the light beam that projects from Pinkerton’s eyes. How better to visually represent Pinkerton’s keen attention to detail? 









LTPB: What did you use to create the illustrations in this book?

JH: I used a digital woodcut/scratchboard technique I developed for this book specifically. It follows a similar reductive process as woodcut or scratchboard, but without the prep and post production. With woodcut and scratchboard, you normally have visual remnants that illustrate the motion of the artist’s hand. I find these remnants add a great deal of energy to the image, and it was a conscious decision to leave them in.







LTPB: Is this your preferred medium? 

JH: For this book, most definitely. For the next book, probably not.

LTPB: How does your process change from book to book?

JH: I am a creature of habit. While the actual style of my books may vary, the process I follow to make them varies little. I start with lots and lots, boat loads really, of research. I marinate in my findings. From there I move on to character development and thumbnail sketches of the spreads. I thumbnail out the entire book. Once I feel I have the pacing of the story worked out in the thumbnails I begin sketching full size. From there it’s back and forth with the art director, author and editor to get the final tight sketches in order. The last step involves Oreos, Mountain Dew and 6-8 months behind closed doors to create the final art. 




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

JH: I am currently working with Nancy Paulsen Books on Sheryl Haft’s new book, Mazie’s Amazing Machines. I have also signed up with Boyds Mill Press to illustrate my next nonfiction piece titled Road Trip by Claudia Fridell. 



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

JH: Bill Watterson. No one makes the tiny trials and tribulations of an ordinary day feel quite as imaginative and charming.

A million thanks to Jeremy for talking to me about this book! The Eye That Never Sleeps published from Abrams earlier this month!

Special thanks to Jeremy and Abrams for use of these images!





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