June 22, 2021

Let's Talk Illustrators #183: Peter Brown

My long-time dream (eight years in the making, since I experienced the absolutely perfect Mr. Tiger Goes Wild) of talking to Peter Brown has come true! Not only that, but I got to talk to him about Fred Gets Dressed, which might rival Mr. Tiger for "best Peter Brown book ever." It's a close call! I am delighted to share with you my conversation with Peter about this fantastic, fun, and freeing book!

About the book:
The boy loves to be naked. He romps around his house naked and wild and free. Until he romps into his parents' closet and is inspired to get dressed. First he tries on his dad's clothes, but they don't fit well. Then he tries on his mom's clothes, and wow! The boy looks great. He looks through his mom's jewelry and makeup and tries that on, too. When he's discovered by his mother and father, the whole family (including the dog!) get in on the fun, and they all get dressed together.

Peek underneath the dust jacket:

Let's talk Peter Brown!

LTPB: Where did the idea for Fred Gets Dressed come from? How long has this story been brewing?

PB: One day when I was five years old, I went into my parents’ bedroom and began playing with my mother’s makeup. Like most kids, I loved drawing and painting, and I loved my mom, so it was only natural that I’d be curious about the color she put on her face. When my mom found me, some of her makeup was smudged across my cheek. Her reaction says a lot about her. She just cleaned my face, and then she showed me how to put on makeup, and we ended up having a great time playing around with makeup, together. It was a simple, sweet moment between us, but it stuck with me. Through her actions, my mom made clear to me that there was nothing wrong with my curiosity, and that I was free to explore and experiment. A few years ago, I decided to use that moment as the inspiration for a picture book, and I started working on Fred Gets Dressed.

LTPB: Can you talk a little bit about the visual evolution of Fred as a character and his story arc? As you got to know him (/yourself!), how did your illustrations evolve?

PB: Early in the process, I sketched out different designs for Fred, experimenting with different ages and body shapes and complexions. But since the story was inspired by my own real-life experience, I decided pretty quickly that Fred should be based on five-year-old me. Then I focused on developing the art style for the book. For years now, I’ve been using Photoshop to collage together handmade drawings and paintings. But Fred Gets Dressed was a new kind of book for me, it’s more personal and realistic than my other picture books, and I wanted to try something new, visually, as well, and I decided to illustrate this book completely digitally. I experimented with different digital brushes and textures and colors, and gradually I developed a technique and a style that felt right for Fred.

I always try to push my story arcs to show as much change as possible. As I searched for ways to push Fred’s story arc, I often thought back to my own childhood. I already mentioned the time I tried on my mom’s makeup, but on other occasions I played with her glittering jewelry, and tried walking in her high-heeled shoes, and I loved touching her silky, colorful dresses. I decided to include similar moments in Fred’s story, and we see him trying on his mom’s clothing, jewelry, and makeup. Since this story was about Fred getting dressed, I thought it made sense for him to start off the opposite of dressed. The story begins with Fred happily romping naked through his house, which was a great way to add a little silliness to this sentimental story. It isn’t until Fred romps into his parent’s bedroom that he decides to finally get dressed. When Fred’s parents find him, he’s dressed up like his mom, and he’s got makeup smeared across his face. His parents smile, clean his face, and then Mom shows Fred how to put on makeup. Soon the whole family is joining the fun, even the dog. It’s a very simple story of a family sharing a fun, sweet moment, together.

LTPB: What is the first thing you do when you start a new project? How do you make a conscious effort to tailor your illustration style to each new manuscript?

PB: When starting a new picture book, my first step is usually to begin mapping out the story. Story mapping has become an essential part of my process. Basically, I make flow charts, mapping out all the different moments that could possibly happen in my story, and I see how those moments might fit together. I do this over and over again, and each time I get a slightly clearer idea of what I want to happen in the plot. When I’m not story mapping, I’m playing around in my sketchbook with different designs for the main characters. Through trial and error, I determine the look of the main characters, and based on their design I’ll start working out the design for the settings and the props and the other characters.

My art style varies a bit, from book to book. A spooky story might need a darker color palette. A silly story might need a cartoony drawing style. Fred Gets Dressed was an interesting challenge because I wanted it to appeal to a wide audience, but it delves into some delicate subjects which I wanted to treat with the thoughtfulness they deserved. My solution was to combine a cartoony drawing style, simple compositions, rich textures, and a subtle palette that has the occasional pop of bright color. Together, those elements created the balance I was looking for.

LTPB: What did you use to create the illustrations in this book? Is this your preferred medium?

PB: This is the first book I’ve illustrated completely digitally. I used Photoshop, and there is so much you can do with Photoshop that it can be really overwhelming, so I made a few parameters, to focus my energy on what mattered most. Out of all the thousands of brushes available, I chose three. Out of all the millions of colors available, I chose four: black, white, pink and green. I painted line art on some layers, and regions of color on other layers, and I varied the transparency of each layer. Through that process I was able to create a surprising variety of textures and colors.

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

PB: I just finished illustrating the third book in my Creepy picture book series, with Aaron Reynolds, entitled Creepy Crayon! In this book, poor Jasper Rabbit is haunted by his favorite crayon, and things get weird. Also, I’m starting work on the third book in my Wild Robot chapter book series, entitled The Wild Robot Protects. I’m really excited to jump back into robot Roz’s world and to share her next adventure with readers. But these things take time, and The Wild Robot Protects isn’t scheduled to be published until the summer of 2023.

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

PB: That’s a tough one. The first name that pops to my mind is one of my all-time favorite illustrators, Bill Peet. His own illustrated autobiography is an absolute delight, and I bet he’d do a fantastic job of capturing the various characters and moments of my life.

A million thanks to Peter for talking to me! Fred Gets Dressed published earlier this year from Little, Brown Books for Young Readers!

Special thanks to Peter and LBYR for use of these images!

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  1. Fred Gets Dressed looks like so much fun. And I can't wait to see Creepy Crayon -- Creepy Carrots is one of my all-time favorite picture books. Thanks for a great interview!

  2. Creepy Carrots is fantastic but I have to say, Creepy Pair of Underwear is where it's at for me! That one has me laughing every darn time! Super excited for Creepy Crayon, too!