February 27, 2018

Let's Talk Illustrators #60: Steve Light

I've long admired author-illustrator Steve Light for his line work: it's precise, heavily-detailed, and minimally colored. So when I saw the cover of Black Bird, Yellow Sun, I was extra excited: it's very clearly a new style for Steve, and you can feel the excited energy coming right off the page. This felt like the perfect book for my first chat with Steve, so sit back and enjoy our conversation about new illustration techniques, new book formats, and new ways of thinking.

About the book:
As a solitary black bird wings its way through the day, little ones are treated to a magnificent flight from one vibrant color to another. Children can journey with the graceful black bird and its tiny worm friend past orange leaves, through green grass, onto gray rocks, under pink flowers, and more before coming to rest beneath a brilliant blue moon.

Let's talk Steve Light!

LTPB: Let’s start with Black Bird, Yellow Sun. What was the inspiration behind creating a color concept book? With so many color concept books, how did you set out with the intent to make this book a unique experience? 

SL: I wanted to make a very impactful book visually, but explore a very simple concept. I was inspired by the artist Ellsworth Kelly and his bold paintings featuring flat exciting colored shapes, so that led me to a color concept book.



LTPB: With so many color concept books, how did you set out with the intent to make this book a unique experience?

SL: By exploring how to distill a picture down to the purest forms and colors. It is really about presenting symbols to such small children. Symbols that they then interpret or read as a bird or the sun, etc. This is the first stage in reading. By making the boldest, most dynamic shapes, hopefully we can engage the child’s mind.



LTPB: Black Bird represents a divergence in illustration technique for you. Why did you choose to illustrate this book in a new way?

SL: I tried painting the shapes of the sun etc. first, but it did not have the right graphic quality. So, one day I saw a scrap piece of chipboard on my desk that was an interesting shape, I brushed some paint onto it and stamped the piece onto a piece of paper. It worked. What if I cut all the shapes out of cardboard and printed them? Using printing ink and a brayer I started printing pieces of chipboard!

I loved the look of it. I found the more ink I applied to the chipboard the more I liked it. I liked laying colors on top of each other. For the black bird and orange worm I used cut, collaged paper so they would really stand out. The smooth colored paper for the black bird against the texture of the printing ink really worked visually. I had so much fun cutting and printing this book. The fresh bold shapes and colors are inspiring to me. 



I really love creating this way. It is fresh and clean and once you print the shape, that is it. I don’t touch the print after that, so the images are not overworked. I love drawing with ink and using ink lines and fountain pens to create graphic work, but this was a real refreshing change. I think as an artist you need to experiment and try new things, new ways, new thoughts about how to create.

LTPB: I’m always curious, how does the process differ when you’re creating a board book versus a picture book? What do you feel you do differently when you take on one or the other?

SL: A board book has to be distilled down to its essence. It should be bold, eye-catching colors and shapes. A picture book can have exciting backstories and details that children can pour over. A picture book can have layers. If you think of a board book as a song, then a picture book is an album. A single song can tell so much, but when an album is done right then all the songs go together to tell different facets of the story.

LTPB: What are you working on now?

SL: Well I just finished Builders and Breakers a picture book from Candlewick Press coming out October 9th, 2018. It is about the demolition crews and construction workers. There is also a story of a couple of kids trying to get a lunchbox back to their dad. I am also proposing another board book similar to Black Bird, Yellow Sun about a tiger. I am going to print the artwork like Black Bird, Yellow Sun.

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

SL: Tomi Ungerer. He has a darkness to his work that I love and I think would work with some of the troubling things that happened in my childhood. He would also bring out the joy that is my life now.

Thank you, Steve, for stopping by to talk about this book with me! Black Bird, Yellow Sun publishes March 6 from Candlewick Press! 

Special thanks to Steve and Candlewick for use of these images!

BLACK BIRD YELLOW SUN. Copyright © 2018 by Steve Light. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.

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