October 10, 2023

Let's Talk Illustrators #264: Todd Stewart

Today I am so pleased to share my interview with color genius Todd Stewart! We talk about his beautiful new picture book Skating Wild on an Inland Sea, written by Jean E. Pendziwol. I've been such a big fan of Todd's since his 2021 book The Wind and the Trees (which I reviewed here), which is when I first became familiar with Todd's skillful eye for color and lighting. Check out his newest book with me!

About the book:
Let's go! Experience the magic of skating on wild ice.

Two children wake up to hear the lake singing, then the wind begins wailing ... or is it a wolf? They bundle up and venture out into the cold, carrying their skates. On the snow-covered shore, they spot tracks made by fox, deer, hare, mink, otter ... and the wolf! In the bay, the ice is thick and smooth. They lace up their skates, step onto the ice, stroking and gliding, and the great lake sings again.

Let's talk Todd Stewart!

LTPB: How did you become the illustrator of Skating Wild on an Inland Sea? What were the first images that popped into your mind when you saw Jean E Pendziwol’s text?

TS: Karen Li at Groundwood Press contacted me for this project, to illustrate a story about two kids who go skating on Lake Superior. I had worked with Karen on previous projects at Owlkids books, and was happy she had reached out. The boreal forest of Canada, the Canadian Shield, is a landscape that holds a lot of significance for me, one in which I’ve spent lots of time growing up, and once I read Jean E’s manuscript, it was a no-brainer for me.

The part of the text that most resonated with me was the moment where the lake starts to sing, the sounds of the water under the ice. It’s a sound I can not really describe myself, but I know it so well. I gave a lot of thought to how I could best portray this moment visually, and came up with the image from the perspective of the lake, from below looking up through the ice, with the children skating up and out on the other side. This was the first image that came to me.

LTPB: Can you talk a little bit about the visual evolution of the images? As you got to know the characters and the story, how did your illustrations evolve? Did you know immediately that you’d be illustrating primarily in shades of blue?

TS: I find it a fascinating part of the process of illustrating a picture book where the text has been written by someone else, how my work on the illustrations seem to fill in certain spaces left open by the text itself, and which spaces I unconsciously choose to fill in as I let the text sit with me. Jean E’s text is poetic and dreamy, with lots of these kinds of spaces between the words. The text evokes a moment in the day, the transition from a deep wintery dawn to full daylight, and I chose to make that transition be the main element linking the illustrations from start to finish.

I was fortunate to have been able to spend time in the landscape that forms the setting for this book, because the story is so tied to place. Jean E invited me to stay at her parents’ house in the country, on the shore of Lake Superior in February while I was researching the illustrations for the book. The winter landscape of Northern Ontario, when the sun lives low in the sky, much of it happens in these tones of blue. I really wanted to capture that quality of light in my illustrations.

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

TS: I come to picture book illustration from my work as a printmaker, and I have worked predominantly in silkscreen for the last 20 years. It’s how I tend to visually interpret the world around me now, in overlapping layers of colour. When I work on any illustration, whether it ends up printed or not, I conceptualize the sketches in layers of colour. Even my linework tends to be done in one colour, one layer of the overall composition.

I drew the images digitally, and then I silkscreened background colours and textures and brought them into the final illustrations. I like the way this process works, because the textures are very much organic and nuanced, but I can control the colours more than if I were creating a final silkscreened print, and adjust if necessary.

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

TS: I am traveling back to Thunder Bay in early November for the local launch of Skating Wild at the Thunder Bay Art Gallery, along with an exhibition of the illustrations from the book; I’m silkscreening the illustrations for the exhibition. Looking forward to being back in the northern Ontario landscape in the winter and perhaps even getting a chance to go skating on a frozen stretch of the lake myself.

My next picture book project is for a story I have written and one I’m very excited about, it takes place in space, so I’m living my best grade 6 life right now, drawing planets and galaxies and stars and spaceships.

I also directed an animated short film based on another of my picture books, The Wind and the Trees, in 2022. It’s doing the festival rounds this fall, and I’ll be following its screenings in Berlin, New York, Sao Paulo, Palestine and others from a distance.

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?

TS: In the formative years of my early illustration career, I made up a third of the Man Drawing Salon, which consisted of collaborative experimental drawing sessions with Joe Ollmann and Billy Mavreas, very good friends both, and magicians with the pencil and smudger. An Ollmann / Mavreas collaboration based on my own life would make my story instantly more surreal and interesting than it could ever be otherwise.
A wild thank you to Todd for talking me through his process! Skating Wild on an Inland Sea published from Groundwood Books last week!

Special thanks to Todd and Groundwood Books for use of these images!

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