February 13, 2020

Let's Talk Illustrators #131: Pete Oswald

I caught up with Pete Oswald to talk to him about Hike, his first solo picture book. This nearly-wordless wonder prompts readers to take in nature's beauty, and it truly encourages them to reflect on the idea that the longest, hardest journeys are often the most valuable ones. I hope you enjoy our chat!

About the book:
In the cool and quiet early light of morning, a father and child wake up. Today they’re going on a hike. Follow the duo into the mountains as they witness the magic of the wilderness, overcome challenges, and play a small role in the survival of the forest. By the time they return home, they feel alive — and closer than ever — as they document their hike and take their place in family history.

Let's talk Pete Oswald!

LTPB: Let’s start by talking about your newest book Hike! What was the impetus for creating it?

PO: I’m so excited to share my debut solo picture book! Hike is a deeply personal story about a father and child witnessing the magic of the wilderness, overcoming challenges, and playing a small role in the survival of the forest.

This story is loosely based on my childhood. I grew up in Utah with my parents and brothers, where we spent most of our free time in nature. My father is an avid outdoorsman and his love of wildlife played a huge role in our family. All of our vacations were centered around camping, hiking and exploring new adventures. As a child I always loved it, but it wasn't until I had children of my own that I realized how influential it was to me. 

Whether it’s the sound of a rushing waterfall, the smell of wild flowers or the sight of an eagle soaring through the sky, nature has a way of putting the universe in perspective. Changing where you are has a way of changing who you are. This book is my love letter to nature which I hope is passed down for generations.

LTPB: Why did you choose to make it wordless?

PO: I knew I wanted to tell a story about a father and child going on hike in nature, basically ‘a day in the life.’ I began doing some rough sketches thinking that we’d eventually add words, but as I refined the story I started to realize the tone was more powerful if it was purely visual. Ever since I was young, I’ve always loved wordless picture books because I could put my own spin on the story. I like it when books leave room for the reader. Empowering the reader to make the story personal seemed appropriate for this book.

LTPB: Can you talk a little bit about the visual evolution of the characters? How did your illustrations change as you got to know them?

PO: The first few sketches of the characters were generic and not that well defined. As I began to flush out the story, it started to feel too male dominant with a father and son as the main characters. Ultimately, my goal was to make a universal story that everyone can relate to. So I tried to make the child more gender neutral. Since this is a wordless book I didn’t have to say ‘he’ or ’she.’ I felt like this idea could work. So the child has cropped hair, a green backpack and wears a pink beanie with knee high socks.

LPTB: What differences have you found between creating a picture book on your own (text and illustrations) versus illustrating someone else’s text? When you do both, which do you generally start with?

PO: This is way more difficult! Writing an engaging story with relatable characters and then illustrating your own idea is quite daunting. I’ve been very lucky to collaborate with really talented and smart writers on my other picture books. We’ve formed symbiotic relationships when creating story through words and pictures. On many projects, I’ll get a manuscript first then start sketching ideas. The writer and myself will bounce ideas back and forth until we land something we’re both happy with. On Hike, I had to form this relationship with myself. 

LTPB: What did you use to create the illustrations? Is this your preferred medium? How does your process change from book to book?

PO: This book is centered around the beauty of nature so I wanted it to have a very organic, handmade quality. I painted a bunch of watercolor textures, scanned them, and then created my brush palette using these textures. The entire book was painted digitally in Photoshop with these watercolor brushes.

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

PO: Jory John and I are continuing creating new stories for our Food Group books which include The Bad Seed, The Good Egg and The Cool Bean. This series is so much fun and working with Jory is a dream. Our newest book, The Couch Potato, will publish this fall.

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

PO: Oh man, this is a really hard question. I guess I’d have to say Miroslav Šašek. His illustrations for “This is...” series from the 1950s/1960s are full of wit and perception. He brings such charm and sophistication to everything he draws. His use of watercolor is elegant, yet whimsical. He puts so much thought and detail into his illustrations. Every time I read one of his books I discover something new. A lot of my art is inspired by Šašek. 

Thank you so much to Pete for answering my questions! Hike publishes from Candlewick Press on March 17, 2020!

Special thanks to Pete and Candlewick for use of these images!

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