July 14, 2020

Let's Talk Illustrators #149: Stacy Innerst

I was thrilled to get a chance to chat with illustrator Stacy Innerst about his unique illustrations for Claudia Friddell's Saving Lady Liberty: Joseph Pulitzer's Fight for the Statue of Liberty. Stacy's children's book work is always a product of intense research and what can only be described as method-arting: no one commits to a medium like Stacy! Check out his process below.

About the book: 
When Joseph Pulitzer first saw the Statue of Liberty's head in Paris, he shared sculptor Auguste Bartholdi's dream of seeing France's gift of friendship stand in the New York harbor. Pulitzer loved words, and the word he loved best was liberty. Frustrated that many, especially wealthy New Yorkers, were not interested in paying for the statue's needed pedestal, Pulitzer used his newspaper, the New York World, to call on all Americans to contribute.

Let's talk Stacy Innerst!

LTPB: Can you talk about your visual research and how you mixed in the realities of that research with your own unique art style?

SI: Because I work across a wide range of subjects in my books, the research methods vary. Sometimes I watch films set in the period I’m trying to depict. The details matter so I research period clothing, furnishings, architecture and so on, but I especially like films because I get an overall experience of living in that world. I’ve illustrated a few books with musical themes so listening to music played a big part in the aesthetic preparation. When I can, I’ll travel to visit museums, libraries, neighborhoods and so on. The internet is a good starting point for research but going to the actual street where your subject grew up is so much more real.

I’ve always loved to read and study history so picture book biographies are kind of a natural fit. I didn’t set out to work in the genre but once I had one or two books under my belt, more followed. I really love fiction and poetry, too. It’s all story-telling to me but some of it is about real people and events that need to be told accurately and honestly.

I studied painting, drawing and printmaking in school and I am self-taught as an illustrator so I approach every picture as a painting first and an illustration second.

My illustration style has developed from influences as diverse as expressionism to surrealism to editorial cartoons to costume design to outsider art. I try to strike a balance between the historical reality and a sense of humor and whimsy. I don’t always follow the laws of nature in my illustrations (like gravity, for instance) but kids seem to get it, I’m happy to say, and the editors and art directors I’ve worked with get it, too.

LTPB: What did you use to create the illustrations in Saving Lady Liberty: Joseph Pulitzer's Fight for the Statue of Liberty? Is this your preferred medium? How do you make a conscious effort to tailor your illustration style to each new manuscript?

SI: This book was done mostly in gouache with digital color. I also used letterpress printing for some of the display type and ink for the handwritten elements. I’ve been using gouache quite a bit lately because it combines the fluidity of painting with the control of drawing—it’s like drawing with a brush. I can also render pictures relatively quickly which I like to do. If I labor over something too much, some of life gets drained out of it and I like the immediacy of gouache. 


In the past I’ve painted with oils and acrylics which I love very much but it’s a time consuming process so I mainly reserve those for paintings I do on my own. My very first children’s book was painted entirely with oil on board and pieces of cut tin. I grew up in New Mexico and was heavily inspired by the retablos and ex votos that folk artists painted there so I took up that technique. I promise I will never attempt that for a book again! The drying time and the sharp edges and the 3 dimensional pieces sticking out everywhere. The production people at that publishing house must have hated me.

I try to find something unique to each story when I’m choosing a medium for a book. Sometimes the medium is part of the message, if you’ll pardon the expression. For example, for a book about Levi Strauss and the invention of blue jeans I painted all of the illustrations on torn pieces of denim. Again, something I will never do again but it was an interesting experience. When I delivered the final paintings my editor said it was like getting someone’s laundry in the mail.

LTPB: What is the first thing you do when you receive a new project? 

SI: The first thing I do is draw thumbnails in the margins of the manuscript as I’m reading it for the first time. Those are my first impressions and sometimes they end up in the book, sometimes not. Those initial little pictures are the foundation for how I’m going to approach the  illustrations, however.

I start doing character studies next, and honestly, the way I render the subject’s face has a lot to do with the tone and style of the illustrations. I’ve always been consumed with faces and expressions and that’s where I start. The life and temperament of the subject will usually dictate the pallet, composition and overall aesthetic of the book. 

Beyond that, I try to incorporate artifacts from the time period to make the images authentic. In Saving Lady Liberty, I used letterpress printing effects because Pulitzer was most famously a newspaper publisher. I used to work for newspapers and I’ve always had an appreciation for those primitive news printing techniques. We used to call letterpress printing “throwing kerosene at toilet paper at a hundred miles an hour.”

LTPB: How has your illustration technique changed over the course of your career so far? What is your process for approaching each new project with a new creative energy and fresh ideas? 

SI: My illustration style is a mystery to me. It’s really been a process of adapting to my own shortcomings and learning to embrace and push them. That’s what style is, in my mind. I used to do detailed, carefully rendered paintings when I was younger, but I was never satisfied because they weren’t perfect so I became frustrated. I began painting in a more expressive, less controlled way, and I was happier. The one constant has always been that I love what paint does on a surface. Even when I’m working digitally I want that sense of surface so I scan what I’ve painted. 

I worked as an editorial illustrator for many years so I was constantly doing conceptual images about heavy subjects. I still enjoy that from time to time but picture books are my tonic now. It allows me to see the world a kid again.

Like most artists, I always believe that the next picture or book I make will be the best I’ve ever made. That is how this whole creative endeavor keeps moving. Every subject is entirely new and unique so I’m never bored. I also approach a project with the desire to make the book that I would’ve liked to see when I was a child.

LTPB: What are you working on now?

SI: I’m currently in the sketch phase of two books that I’m very, very excited about. They’re entirely different from one another but both are great stories so well written. One is about the first coast to coast airmail delivery in the U.S. in the 20s and the other is about Ben and Jerry of ice cream fame. It’s kind of early to reveal the pictures but I can say that one involves biplanes and aerial views and the other involves tie-dye!

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

SI: GREAT question. It is impossibly hard for me to pick just one so I’ll narrow it down to my top 3. I’m neglecting hundreds of artists working today, of course, but I’m going to go to the wayback machine and choose, in no particular order:

Eva Bednářová because her illustrations were profoundly dark and dense and still managed to be appropriate for children’s books. A true master of expression.

Saul Steinberg because of his visual genius and ability to just let his hand and mind go. His drawings could make even my life story interesting.

Leonard Weisgard because: 
1: Everything he touched had heart and was completely accessible to kids.
2: His absolute mastery of using limited color or brilliant full color.
3: His absolute mastery of composition. Every picture was arranged just as it should it be to both serve the story and to stand alone as art.

A million thanks to Stacy for taking time to answers some questions and share some images! Saving Lady Liberty: Joseph Pulitzer's Fight for the Statue of Liberty published earlier this year from Calkins Creek Books!

Special thanks to Stacy and Calkins Creek for use of these images!

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