March 14, 2017

Let's Talk Illustrators #16: Matthew Cordell

Matthew Cordell's Wolf in the Snow has a special place in my heart. It hits every single note a picture book should hit: it's beautifully illustrated, the story is emotional and relatable, and it's delightfully wordless. The amount of emotion that Matthew captures in this book is incredible, and it was an absolute honor to pick Matthew's brain about his process for creating his first-ever wordless picture book!

About the book:
A girl is lost in a snowstorm. A wolf cub is lost, too. How will they find their way home?

Peek underneath the dust jacket here.
Watch the official book trailer here.

Let's talk Matthew Cordell!

LTPB: I’m drawn to wordless picture books for a million and a half reasons, but one of them is that the narrative of a wordless picture book is entirely reliant on the illustrator’s ability to convey story and emotion through art. Needless to say, Wolf in the Snow is easily my favorite of the year so far!

MC: Thanks so much, Mel!

LTPB: This is your first wordless picture book. How did you begin this story? What made you decide to make it wordless? What was it about this particular story that made you realize it could be told through art alone? 

MC: I’ve always been a little on-the-fence about making one because they never looked very easy to make! Which, I think, people might assume would be the opposite. But fewer words does not equal less work… It’s hard to tell a story clearly with no words to support or enhance. And it’s hard to tell a SHORT story clearly without words. Without that text, it’s tempting to want to make a picture for every little moment and meaning in the story. Because you want that clarity. And you don’t want the reader to get confused—or worse, bored. But you can’t make pictures for every little thing because with a picture book, obviously, there are space and time (in the context of young readers looking at this thing) limitations. So, all visual decisions have to be made extremely critically.

Because of my hesitation to make a wordless picture book, Wolf did not start out wordless at all. The earliest incarnation was told in a sort of rotating first person narrative. It was told through the voice/thoughts of the girl and the voice/thoughts of the wolf—who at that time was an adult wolf.

LTPB: How did your characters evolve as you moved toward a wordless story? 

MC: There was no wolf pup at all in the earliest versions of the story. There were many versions and revisions of the book dummy (I think about 15 in all), and the pup did not come into play until near the end. At which point, I decided to make the two main characters young—a girl and a wolf pup. So their fears and struggles might mirror one another better. The adult wolf and wolf pack stayed in the story but more as secondary players, much like the girl’s own mother and father. It was around the time that I brought the pup into the narrative that I deleted all of the text.

As I revised and revised and revised, I started to notice that the text was just unnecessary in this particular story. The story takes place deep in a blizzard, in the middle of nowhere. The girl’s mouth is covered. There is no talking. The only communication is done with facial expressions and body language. I felt like extracting the text would really put the reader deeper inside this cold, isolated, frightening world. I hope I’m right about that!

LTPB: The parallels you created between the two main characters in Wolf in the Snow are just brilliant. The little girl consistently moves from left to right, while the wolves move from right to left; and though the girl helps the wolf in the beginning, the wolves save her at the end. How much of this detailing was conscious? How much evolved over time? 

MC: I’m so glad you picked up on that. As I was working on Wolf, I was constantly showing it to many author and illustrator friends.

A recent Kevin Henkes book event. L to R: Chris Sheban, Tom Litchfield, Eric Rohmann, Matthew Cordell, Kevin Henkes, Stacy Curtis, and Larry Day

Because I was getting stuck a lot. I don’t often show my works-in-progress around. I’m typically more of a solitary worker (outside of editor and art director relations, I mean). I like to solve my own puzzles, come up with my own ideas. But I was struggling a lot with what I wanted this story to be. On this particular sequence that you’re asking about, I had the sequence and compositions set, and it was working. That parallel of the girl moving into the blizzard with alternating spreads of the wolves also moving into the blizzard. But the action was ALL moving left to right. As picture book movement tends to go, more often than not (as that is how text and books are read). But a good and talented friend of mine, Edward Hemingway, was looking at it, and he said, essentially, that it looked like the girl and the wolves were either traveling just together or not quite far apart as they should be from each other. It was his suggestion to flip the action of the wolves so it appears they are coming from a totally different location. 

It was a fantastic suggestion to a problem I’d been too close to even notice. So I have to give credit where credit is due! One other thing about that opening sequence… You may have noticed that the title page comes a few pages into the book, as opposed to right at the beginning, where it’s traditionally found. Lately, I’ve been playing around with that. In some movies and television shows, there is something called a “cold opening.” This is when there’s a bit of story just before the opening credits or title sequence. Usually it’s a small piece of story that sets the tone or flavor of what’s about to come. I’ve really enjoyed using that device in picture books. And since I’m not yet bored with it, I found a way to work it into Wolf too!

LTPB: The way you layer colors is unparalleled -- every color is thickly layered with different shades of each hue, and the parts of the book that seem black or white are actually mixtures of many colors. What is your preferred medium and why? How does your process change from book to book? 

MC: Oh, man, no one’s ever asked me about this! But the layering of watercolor is a very important thing to me. Just to quickly explain how that evolved for me… back when I was just getting my little illustrator feet wet, I was very careful and very simple with the watercolor. Back then, it was really just a way to color my drawings. The watercolor was a little rough, but it was pretty flat and minimal. Every shape was colored one color with little to no depth.

As the years have gone by, I’ve been more interested in putting several layers of watercolor in my work. It gives the art more depth overall. And without it, I really feel like it’s just WAY too simple. The art I tend to like looking at has lots of drawing and overdrawing and lots of painting and overpainting. You can see the layers and history of marks that go into the art. One of my art heroes, John Burningham, has so much of this kind of history in his pieces. It just gives the work more life when you know it’s been… suffered over. So my drawing has become less simple and more undone, I guess you could say. And my watercolor has become more layered and worked over with adding color on top of color to give everything more depth and roughness.

LTPB: What differences have you found between creating text and illustrations in your own books versus illustrating someone else’s text? Do you have a preference? Where do you draw your inspiration from? 

MC: When I’m writing and illustrating my own book, there’s an obvious sense of greater ownership over the entire project. Which has good and not-so-good points, really. I do love being able to write and illustrate a book that’s completely my own. In part because I’m an illustrator first and author second. So, I don’t get a huge amount of opportunities or time to work out my own stories. But also, it’s quite a feeling to finish one of my own books and look back on it when all is said and done. Having said all that, the writing side of things for me is sometimes terribly difficult. I’ve found that the easiest way for me to write is to take a story or stories from my own life and translate them into a picture book story. Something funny or interesting or unique I remember from my own childhood.

Or, more recently, things I pick up on that my kids are doing that’s bizarre or neat, that might make a good picture book. I can take that nugget and work out the story and write it basically to completion.

Then I start with the sketches and art. That process is most efficient for me as an author/illustrator. Occasionally, though, I will draw something that has no connection to something in my life. And I look at that drawing and think, “This is really pretty interesting. I wonder what’s the story behind this thing…” And I try to make something up. This scenario of book-making can be pretty maddening, in my experience. I’ve got many abandoned manuscripts that went nowhere from this sort of thing. However, Wolf in the Snow came from this exact formula! It started out with this little drawing I made:

This is the final art of that same image, as it appears in the book: 

I do love to illustrate manuscripts written by other authors, too. That is a great opportunity for collaboration, and it can be pretty magical. I might look at words written by a completely different brain and interpret it in a way they never imagined (but in a good way, I hope!). It’s also very fun to have a finished book that has the names and stamps of two creative, artistic souls on its cover. It’s great to be able to share that with another person. And it’s great to not have to always sweat out a new story idea of my own! It’s quite wonderful, really, to be able to go back and forth with being an illustrator and an author/illustrator.

LTPB: If you could have one illustrator (other than yourself!) illustrate your picture book biography, who would it be and why?

MC: I love this question! I think everyone in all walks of life has probably wondered what a book or movie about his or her own life would look like. Whenever I daydream on that, I always think that my life has not been dramatic enough to make a good biopic! Ha… I’m not sure I ever contemplated the idea of being the subject of a picture book biography. But, wow… what a cool thing that would be! At any rate, after giving it some thought, I’d pick a contemporary favorite of mine, David Ezra Stein. I love his wide variety of art styles and approaches in all of his books. Yet the body of work stays cohesive—every book really does look like it's done by the same hand and voice. But I think it would be interesting to have my story illustrated in a number of ways from start to finish. Because that’s really a true representation of one’s life, don’t you think? A wide variety of… everything. Joy, sadness, success, failure, experience and inexperience… Mashed into one person’s story.

If you haven't had a chance to get your paws on Wolf in the Snow, it is one of the most beautiful books of the year. I cannot thank Matthew enough for stopping by and discussing the process behind this memorable book! Wolf in the Snow published earlier this year from Feiwel & Friends

Special thanks to Matthew and Feiwel & Friends for use of these images!

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