August 28, 2018

Let's Talk Illustrators #79: Raúl Colón

Raúl Colón's second picture book as author-illustrator is the wordless story of a boy who experiences a day at a museum that changes the way he sees the world. Imagine! is a celebration of paintings that exist in museums, yes, but it's also a celebration of the spirit of art, of what art can bring into everyone's lives in terms of imagination. I talked to Raúl about this book––and others he's worked on––and got a chance to peel back some of the layers of this emotionally inspiring story. Have a read!

About the book:
After passing a city museum many times, a boy finally decides to go in. He passes wall after wall of artwork until he sees a painting that makes him stop and ponder. Before long the painting comes to life and an afternoon of adventure and discovery unfolds, changing how he sees the world ever after.

Peek underneath the dust jacket:

Let's talk Raúl Colón!

LTPB: Can you talk a little bit more about where the idea for Imagine! come from? What was it like putting yourself in younger shoes and creating this story from the point of view of a young child? What kind of research did you do for that process?

RC: The idea for Imagine! was triggered by a suggestion from my editor, Paula Wiseman at Simon & Schuster. Maybe a follow up to my previous wordless picture book Draw! A story about the same or similar character. We wanted it to be about some sort of “epic” journey where by the end of the story the character’s perspective is changed somehow.

I thought about it and wondered about the boy visiting a major art museum all by himself. Of course I was asking that about myself. What would have happened if I made it to the Met as a child long before I did? Children traveling on their own in the city was not unheard of years ago, maybe even today.

The only research was using my memory of the city at the time, and then visiting some of the streets and places where the boy might journey through today. I did stop by some neighborhoods in Brooklyn and took some photos. Brooklyn was chosen because I wanted the boy to travel across one of the iconic bridges in town.

I also visited the major museums in New York, took notes and decided to place the action in the Museum of Modern Art. MOMA had they right combination of art I needed for this particular story. (It also had Van Gogh’s Starry Night which turned out I couldn’t use due to legal concerns).

LTPB: How did real-life paintings influence the creation of this book, like the color palette (which is very evocative of Starry Night!), or the characters you chose to include in the spreads?
RC: The real life paintings I focused on, helped move the narrative along. Everything was supposed to be about art––all kinds. Music had a big influence in me. Having dancers and musicians as part of the story fit the bill. Also they would provide movement and visual excitement which was supposed to be celebratory. Eventually at Central Park some of the characters have books they were reading, which covered the reading and writing side of art––the actual young readers are also joining in this activity as they look at the wordless visuals in the book.

LTPB: This is your second wordless book, correct? How do you come up with story ideas for your wordless books? How do you work to convey tone and emotion without a text?

RC: Yes, it is my second wordless picture book. The ideas come in spurts. There is always the basic story idea: a duck rides a bike and barks like a dog. Then you take it from there. By the way, I just thought that one up. Art Speigelman wrote that silent movies triggered the first wordless graphic novels. I’ve always admired Charlie Chaplin's, Buster Keaton's, and Harold Lloyd's work in film. You can convey a lot of emotion through simple pictures without saying a word. Many of my fellow illustrators and I have learned a lot from watching these “old” movies.

Of course, facial expressions, shape, light and darkness, as well as color, set the mood for the kind of emotions you want to depict.

LTPB: What did you use to create the illustrations in Imagine!? Is this your preferred medium? How does your process change from book to book?
RC: In the case of Imagine! and Draw!, I mostly used Prismacolor pencils on colored paper. I still etch into the paper with my trademark “Scratcher,” which was supposed to be used mainly for scratch board art. I had photo reference for the cityscape and made up other places. Watercolor and colored pencils work the best for me. A bit tedious, but it gives me versatility. Plus I like the feel of putting down marks on a surface, adding or subtracting pressure, blending colors and letting accidents happen. Like Wendell Minor once told me about human nature. “We’re analog.”

LTPB: What are you working on now? Anything you can show us?
RC: I’m working on another bio picture book, and after that, a book about a little girl and her place in the universe. That last one is right down my alley (I'm a big 2001: A Space Odyssey fan).

LTPB: If you were to write your picture book autobiography, who (dead or alive!) would you want to illustrate it, and why?
RC: Barbara McClintock. She would simplify my looks with an exact precision of line and color.

A huge thank you to Raúl for talking to me about his new wordless book! Imagine! publishes September 11, 2018 from Simon & Schuster!

Special thanks to Raúl and Simon & Schuster for use of these images!

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