December 5, 2017

Let's Talk Illustrators #51: Gordon C James

The inspiration behind the story in Crown: An Ode to the Fresh Cut is magical in both its simplicity and its complexity. Author Derrick Barnes says he was inspired by a photo of a friend's son who had just received a hair cut. The boy's look reminded him of how he felt as a child sitting in the barber's chair: he felt like royalty. But as a young black man, that was probably the only place he felt royal, so it was extra special. Simple, yet complex. The magnitude with which illustrator Gordon C James brings Derrick's words to life is awe-inspiring: it's intimate and thoughtful, and it places readers in the barbershop chair with the boy. I chatted with Gordon (pictured below with his own little crown halo!) about his work on this book. Enjoy! 

About the book:
The barbershop is where the magic happens. Boys go in as lumps of clay and, with princely robes draped around their shoulders, a dab of cool shaving cream on their foreheads, and a slow, steady cut, they become royalty. That crisp yet subtle line makes boys sharper, more visible, more aware of every great thing that could happen to them when they look good: lesser grades turn into As; girls take notice; even a mother's hug gets a little tighter. Everyone notices.

A fresh cut makes boys fly.

Let's talk Gordon C James!

LTPB: I have to admit, I was only three pages into this book before I set it down to ask you for an interview. I was just blown away by the illustrations! How did you create them? What is your preferred medium? 

GCJ: The illustrations are all oil on illustration board. I will do thumbnail drawings –– tiny drawings that help me work out different ideas –– then I can take any photo reference I may need. When I do my own painting, I just go straight to the paint. I never use projectors or trace when I use reference. I do a drawing on the board first to submit to the art directors. If they like it I’ll seal it with fixative and paint right on top of it.

LTPB: When you received this manuscript, what about it drew you in? Did you immediately know what style you’d illustrate it in? What did you think you could bring to the story Derrick had crafted? 

GCJ: I love Derrick's language. I enjoy how it flows. I knew how I’d illustrate it because that’s just how I work. If there are any variances, it’s just in how long I work. I could stop sooner for spontaneity and energy, or I could keep going and render illustration so it looks like a photo. I wanted to bring a very high level of technical proficiency, as well a lot of emotion and soul, to the project. No matter the visual direction, I want it to feel like there is fine art on the page. It was my goal to bring excellence to the illustrations to match that of the writing. 

LTPB: Who inspired your main character? How did the boy's visual story — the world he lives in, the characters he meets — evolve as you worked on the book? What kind of notes did Derrick give you? 

GCJ: A lot of times I use models. The main character is Derrick's son, Silas. The barber in “Crown” is Reggie, owner of Heads Up Barber Shop in Charlotte. So the barber shop is also an actual place. Reggie is my son Gabriel’s barber, and he was gracious enough to help me out. Heads Up has that old-school, "neighborhood barbershop" vibe the book needed. Parts of the book are very real, and I believe that authenticity comes through. Derrick sent me a lot of pictures from the internet and notes, but I knew what I wanted to do. 

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

GCJ: I’ve just started a book called Let ‘Em Buck about African American Cowboy George Fletcher. I am also being considered for another project that’s top secret, so let's keep our fingers crossed. Unfortunately, I don’t have anything to share yet.

LTPB: If you could choose anyone, dead or alive, to illustrate your picture book biography, who would it be and why? 

GCJ: Jerry Pinkney, I love the amount of work in his work. It looks like he never settles. I can feel the passion. It’s just excellent. 

A million thanks to Gordon for taking time to answers some questions about one one of my favorite books of the year! Crown: An Ode to the Fresh Cut published earlier this year from Denene Millner Books!

Special thanks to Gordon and Denene Millner Books for use of these images!

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