February 21, 2023

Let's Talk Illustrators #237: Jerome Pumphrey

I feel so lucky that I got to talk to author-illustrator Jerome Pumphrey about Elbert in the Air, written by Monica Wesolowska. You might recognize Jerome's name as half of the "Old" duo (as I'm dubbing them): Jerome and his brother co-created the phenomenal companion titles Old Truck and Old Boat together a couple of years ago. This is the first time Jerome has had full reign of the illustration process, though, and his work continues to wow! Enjoy your peek inside this book! 

About the book:
Shortly after he is born, Elbert floats up into the air. Before long, his mother must stand on her tip toes to reach him and toss toys into the air at playtime. While everyone in town, from the school nurse to the mayor, is full of advice for keeping her boy down, Elbert's mother knows her son is meant to float. And so, she lets him.

But as life becomes more and more difficult for a floating boy, and people understand him less and less, Elbert has to make a decision: Stay bound to the ground or float higher in the hopes of finding the world--and community--he's always wished for.

Let's talk Jerome Pumphrey!

LTPB: How did you become the illustrator of Elbert in the Air? What were the first images that popped into your mind when you saw Monica Wesolowska’s text?

JP: Elbert in the Air is actually the first book I’ve illustrated as a solo illustrator and the first book I’ve illustrated that I didn’t co-author. It started with an email from Ellen Cormier, the editor at Dial Books for Young Readers, seeing if I’d be interested in the project.

When I read the manuscript, I immediately appreciated the layered storytelling and the themes. Some of the theme I saw were unconditional love, self love and tolerance. I also thought the idea of a floating boy would be so fun to bring to life visually. The first images that came to mind for me were those of a floating baby Elbert. I did some sketches right away at the kitchen table to capture what was coming to mind and I think those served as a starting point later when I actually began on the project.

LTPB: What is the first thing you do when you start a new project? How do you make a conscious effort to tailor your illustration style to each new manuscript?

JP: Sometimes the manuscript may already be broken down into pages and sometimes not. In the case of Elbert, it wasn’t. So my first step was to read the manuscript over and over again and then break the text down into pages that felt like the appropriate pacing to me. I did this by just noting page breaks on the manuscript.


The next step was drawing thumbnail sketches. I usually do this on sticky notes that I put on a large poster board on the wall. This makes it pretty easy to make adjustments and replace spreads that aren’t working as I make my way through.

After the thumbnails, I worked on designing the characters and figuring out how Elbert was going to look at different ages. I was then able to move along and draw full size sketches and get the dummy book together.

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

JP: For Elbert in the Air, I created the illustrations as digital paintings in Adobe Photoshop with textures added from tea-stained paper. I enjoy the level of control I have as an artist using digital tools, but I also really appreciate the aesthetic I get when working with traditional materials. So I’m always exploring ways to mix it up and create art that I’m proud of and that feels appropriate for the story.

With Elbert in the Air, there was a level of detail I wanted to achieve in the illustrations and I think digital paintings were the perfect tool for that. On my earlier books (The Old Truck, The Old Boat, and Somewhere in the Bayou), I worked with my brother, Jarrett Pumphrey, as co-author and co-illustrator. We used a mixture of printing with handcrafted stamps and digital composition. Those stories called for a more graphic and simplified style of artwork and hand-crafted stamps were perfect for that.

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

JP: I just completed illustrations for middle grade chapter book/graphic novel that I co-created with Jarrett, Link and Hud: Heroes by a Hair. It comes out March 7, 2023.

I’m also working on two picture books, which I’m not quite able to share artwork on yet.

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?

JP: Sydney Smith. He captures life so wonderfully in his illustrations and brings so much to any story he illustrates.

A BIG thank you to Jerome for talking to me about his first solo-illustrated book! Elbert in the Air publishes TODAY from Dial Books!

Special thanks to Jerome and Dial Books for use of these images!

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