April 18, 2017

Let's Talk Illustrators #21: Joseph Kuefler

If there's one thing we all know, it's that politics are everywhere, and playgrounds are no exception. Joseph Kuefler's new picture book Rulers of the Playground allows children to see the complexities of their playground experiences reflected in beautiful illustration and sharp wit. Rulers of the Playground proves to be a keen introduction into the world of political thinking and questioning authority, and it teaches readers about compromising for the greater good. Joseph proves that he has no shortage of playful, intelligent stories to tell after his 2015 debut Beyond the Pond, and it was an absolute pleasure to talk to him about his process for creating relatable -- yet deeply mature -- picture books for children.

About the book:
One morning, Jonah decided to become ruler of the playground. Everyone agreed to obey his rules to play in King Jonah's kingdom.

Everyone except for Lennox...because she wanted to rule the playground, too.

Let's talk Joseph Kuefler!

LTPB: Rulers on the Playground is a fantastic introduction to the world of political thinking and questioning groupthink. How did this story come about? How did the main characters Jonah and Lennox develop and change as you got to know them better? How did their story evolve?

As you know, books are finished long before they hit shelves. Rulers has been done for more than a year now. Before Pond was completed, Alessandra and BALZER + BRAY were kind enough to acquire two additional books from me. As Pond was wrapping up, I was struggling to decide which book to make next. It wasn’t for a lack of ideas—I had plenty. Rather, I wanted to ensure my second book served as a good next step for my career. Two points make a line, right? This second book was going to tell the world what kind of author they could expect me to be. Should I write books similar in theme? Am I the kind of author who creates many different types of books? It was a hard choice to make.

When the idea for Rulers popped up, it felt right for two reasons. At the time the world was in a vitriolic state (it still is, I suppose). The Ukrainian annexation, ongoing tensions in the Middle East, the Syrian refugee crisis, protests across America, dysfunctions amongst our lawmakers, the early signs of a grueling election, so many things were bubbling up in culture and society that centered around our ability and willingness to coexist. A picture book that explored themes of ownership, dominance, and coexistence seemed relevant in a fun and approachable way felt timely and relevant. Plus, I knew it would allow me to continue processing my own feelings about everything I was seeing and hearing in the news. Following the events of this past November, the book has obviously taken on an entirely new and prophetic meaning and relevance. 

During this same time, big changes were happening in my personal life. My partner and I were expecting our third child. As a matter of fact, she gave birth two days after I began the thumb nailing phase of this book. I knew our new addition would have a major impact on the power dynamics within the home, so this idea of coexistence and dominance was very present in a less political form in my everyday life. Because family was so top of mind, and because I was in the unique position of being able to do so, I decided to name each of the characters—Jonah, Lennox, and Augustine—after my own children. It was a gift to them. I shaped the character’s personalities after their namesakes. Two years later, Augustine, my youngest, is very much the dominant new queen on the block.

LTPB: Your two books have pretty disparate vibes: Beyond the Pond is very subdued and more about self-discovery, whereas Rulers of the Playground has a much higher energy with a message of compromise for the greater good. Where do you draw your inspiration? How does your process change from book to book? What concepts do you set out to explore with each new project?

I’m not the kind of artist who is satisfied remaining in one genre or style. I respect artists like Thom Yorke (Radiohead) and Paul Thomas Anderson (Magnolia, There Will Be Blood), people who have an identifiable artistic voice, but who also explore myriad permutations and expressions of it. I very much enjoy allowing each book to set the course for tone and style. You can expect more variety from me in the future.

As for my process, the creation of both Pond and Rulers can be broken down into a few key phases:

1. The Spark
Most of my books begin after a random bit of inspiration causes me to envision a small moment but significant inflection point in a story. I wrote about the spark that brought Beyond the Pond to life on Carter Higgins’ blog. For Rulers, that random bit of inspiration was a photograph by Paul Octavious, a notable Instagram photographer. His I Am Here series features a solitary figure standing alone in big, beautiful landscapes. In each, the figure waves a giant red flag. This series of photos immediately sparked the idea of a child planting a flag in a playground and claiming it as his own. I didn’t know why he was claiming it or what would happen next. I just knew the act of a child conquering a playground would lead to a story worth telling. 

To give the loose idea a little more form, I’ll typically create a very quick and loose piece of concept art. Capturing the mood and aesthetic of the book in a visual makes the writing of the book easier because it creates a vibe to write against. When developing Pond, I drew the scene of Ernest D. diving. With Rulers, the piece of concept art was of Jonah claiming the playground. I decided to use the playground as the setting for the story almost immediately because it felt like an obvious microcosm of our cities and countries and planet, and to kids, the playground is EVERYTHING. It’s their whole world, in some ways. Think about it…all of life’s drama unfolds on the jungle gym. It’s a beautiful thing. 

Because looking to other picture books can be dangerous, during this phase I typically turn elsewhere to help me define a book’s voice and tone—sometimes it’s movies, other times it’s history books. Flags conjured images of the American and French revolutions, so I turned to paintings from the 18th and 19th centuries to help me work through clothing, palette and compositional options.

Envisioning a single moment is easy. Defining what happens on either side of that moment is when the real work sets in.

2. The Story:
In this phase, I take on that simple but impossibly painful task of writing. Over. And over. And over. I work the story until it feels worthy of sharing with Elena (my agent) and/or Alessandra. It wasn’t until the fifth or sixth draft of Rulers that I began feeling good about its potential.

Next comes the editing phase. Alessandra and I play a rapid game of ping-pong. I write and share. She passes back notes. I react, push back, re-write. And we repeat until we love it. We scrutinize every syllable, literally. We think about pacing and page-turns. There isn’t a detail that doesn’t get put through its paces. I come from the world of brand marketing and advertising, so feedback is something with which I’m exceedingly comfortable—I actually love this phase. Some book makers prefer to work in isolation. I love the company of other minds.

As an author-illustrator, I have the luxury of developing my text and images at the same time. While writing, I’m always thinking about what can be shown and what needs to be written, so during this phase, I’ll often make note of how images can support what’s being written or create fast and simple thumbnails.

Eventually the book begins to feel cohesive and tight, and that’s when you move into visuals.

The Dummy:
Some picture book makers create beautiful and detailed dummies. I do not. My dummies are pretty ugly. I create crude thumbnails very quickly in order to render a ton of options as quickly as possible. Here, I’m really focusing on compositional concerns, as well as how to break text across pages. The trick in making books is that everything needs to fit within a relatively small range of page counts—roughly 32 - 48 pages. The illustrator’s job is to compliment the text to the best of his or her ability. Here, I’m also thinking about the page TURN. What surprises or dramas can be enhanced by the turn of the page? 

3. The Finished Art:
Finally, after the text is tight and the dummy is singing, I move into finished art. Inevitably, you undo some assumptions made in the dummy stage and refine type based on where the art is heading. This is the most exciting and frustrating part of the process because this is where the rubber meets the road. Art can take anywhere from a few months to well over a year, depending on the complexity of the art.

LTPB: Can you talk a little about how you create your illustrations? It looks like you combine physical and digital elements, so what physical objects do you use? How do you weave together all these layers?

For each of my first three books, I leaned heavily on digital tools for the creation of my art because I have young kids running around the house and because I need to work from anywhere. But I go to great lengths to ensure the finished art comes out looking as far from digital as possible.

For Pond, I created vector shapes and roughened them in illustrator. I then brought them into Photoshop to add textures and lighting effects. Most of the texture layers added to forms are things I made, gathered or photographed—watercolor fields, rolled ink on paper, cement textures, etc. Every object has dozens and dozens of layers added to them, which is how I develop organic-looking textures.

With Rulers, I relied much more on a digital tablet. I knew I wanted a slightly more organic and artistic feel and vector shapes weren’t going to do it for me. So, much like Pond, I created base objects and then went about adding dozens of additional layers on top of them to build up their quality and dimension.

Between and on top of individual characters and objects are additional adjustment and texture layers to help build an atmosphere within the composition. This is more true for Pond than Rulers. Each of Pond's illustrations are 5–10gigs—which is an immense file size—and is comprised of hundreds of layers. Rulers' illustrations are equally unwieldy but for different reasons. There, it wasn’t creating atmosphere that was tricky, it was giving each of the fifteen or so kids unique postures and facial expressions from page to page.

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

I recently completed my third book, The Digger and the Flower, which is about an excavator forced to choose between the city he’s built and a flower he’s befriended. Like my first two, it will be published by BALZER + BRAY. We’re all quite excited by its potential. While I’m proud of my first two books, I stumbled through the making of them. This third book was different: it felt as though I understood the picture book format for the first time. As a result, the process of writing and drawing the book was much easier than Pond or Rulers, so I wasn’t left with the same story fatigue you experience when living in a book for a year or so. Who knows, maybe I just got lucky.

BALZER + BRAY will also be publishing my fourth book, a character platform involving farm animals. As we’re still a long ways from its publication date, I can’t get too specific. In addition to developing my own books, I will illustrate a manuscript written by someone other than myself for the first time, which is exciting. And, if that’s not enough, I’m hoping in the next year to share some exciting projects that extend my books into other media channels and related industries—I don’t want to jinx anything, so I’ll not say much more. These are definitely exciting times.

LTPB: The last question I’m asking all illustrators who participate in the series is, if you could have one illustrator (other than yourself!) illustrate your picture book biography, who would it be and why? 

I’m going to break the rules a bit and offer up a few illustrators.

If a time travel device were to be discovered between now and the day a publisher needed to select an illustrator, I would choose Ludwig Bemelmans. His techniques are both childlike and masterful—I don’t know how he does it. And there’s a beautiful kind of sadness to his work that I respond to. It’s probably that same part of me that prefers music in a minor key. He’s a rare breed…a real gem of an illustrator. If Bemelmans was too busy to take on my project, I’d bring my project to Mary Blair. Her images are so stylish. Her palettes are perfection. I’m a big fan.

If forced to choose an illustrator working today, I’d probably go with William Grill. I just love how cinematic yet restrained his work is. Both of his books are total knockouts.

Thanks so much for sharing your process, Joseph! Rulers of the Playground publishes today from BALZER + BRAY. I say grab it from your local bookstore and immediately run to the nearest playground to read it!

Special thanks to Joseph for use of these images!

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