June 11, 2019

Let's Talk Illustrators #110: Stephen Savage

As a huge fan of wordless picture books, I was thrilled to get the chance to talk to Stephen Savage about Sign Off. Stephen has created many creative and funny books for children, including his wordless duo Where’s Walrus? and Where’s Walrus? And Penguin?. It comes as no surprise that Sign Off follows in the same humorous vein as Stephen's other stories, but the life-altering impact of this particular book is clear: you won't see mundane road signs the same way again!

About the book:
What do the figures on signs do when no one is watching? Under cover of night, they leave their signs to play and collaborate.

A playful wordless picture book about what the figures on road signs do when no one is around!

Watch the official book trailer:

Let's talk Stephen Savage!

LTPB: What was the impetus for creating Sign Off? And how did the idea for the story evolve?

SS: In 2014, a utility crew was digging up the street near my apartment in Park Slope, Brooklyn, and I noticed their orange “men at work” sign with the picture of the round-headed guy digging a hole. I’d seen this sign hundreds of times, maybe even thousands, throughout my life but on this day it occurred to me: “this guy’s working hard. He's probably ready to jump off of his sign, put down his shovel and take a break.” Then I began imagining a whole series of adventures for Construction Man as well as other road sign characters.

LTPB: As a wordless book, this feels like a pretty universal concept. What challenges did you encounter in creating it? What kind of research did you do? 

SS: I had previously authored 2 wordless books, Where’s Walrus? and Where’s Walrus? And Penguin?, so I was familiar with the constraints of the format. The secret is finding a simple, linear story. Like a journey.

This book had an additional challenge in that the characters are silhouettes, which means viewers can’t read the faces. Makes it hard to know what they are thinking or feeling.

Research? My editor, Allyn Johnson. and I would obsessively text each other road sign photos from our travels (we still do). But when it came time to cast the signs for the book, I chose only the most iconic American road signs that I had grown up with.

LTPB: What did you use to create the illustrations? Is this your preferred medium? How does your process change from book to book?

SS: Three of my thirteen books are linocut, the rest, including Sign Off, are digital. I like graphic, logo-like shapes and the computer is perfect for that type of work.

I let the story tell me what type of pictures I should make. Sign Off needed to look like a bunch of road signs, so I made everything FLAT. My 2015 book Supertruck, in contrast, felt very film-noir so I adopted a volumetric approach with light and shadow, foreground and background.

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

SS: I’m busy on a sequel to Sign Off, and sorry— it’s top secret ;)

LTPB: If you were to write your picture book autobiography, who (dead or alive!) would you want to illustrate it, and why?

SS: I’d have Edward Gorey illustrate it. I’ve always loved the eerie Victorian world in his illustrations.

I met him while I was a getting my MFA at the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan. A bunch of us drove up to his house on Cape Cod and discovered he was surprisingly down-to-earth and humble despite his legendary status. 

A million thanks to Stephen for taking time to answers some questions! Sign Off published from Beach Lane Books last month!

Special thanks to Stephen and Beach Lane for use of these images!

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