Jim Averbeck was a FB friend before our real life encounter. Isn’t it fun to finally meet those online friends with whom you’ve been chatting for months/years? I
stalked friended him because he speaks French, has lived in Africa and writes picture books, which was enough of a connection for me.
I have since had the pleasure of meeting him at the SCBWI conference in LA in 2011 and in San Francisco when visiting last month. He lives up to that smile, folks, and has great taste in ice-cream and Italian restaurants.
- Illustrator or author/illustrator?
[JA] I am an author/illustrator, which I see as distinctly different from an illustrator/author. I am actually a writer who migrated to being an illustrator. An illustrator/author is someone who is an illustrator who migrated to writing. The two are very different. Typically, the illustrator/author finds her voice in the illustrations, so their style tends to be consistent over many books. An author/illustrator, on the other hand, finds his voice in the text. So his illustrations may change to suit the themes or style of the story.
- What’s your nationality, where have you lived and how has this influenced you and your art?
[JA] I am an American of Sicilian/German ancestry. I grew up in the Midwestern United States and lived for several years in Cameroon, West Africa. I think the Cameroonian influence can be seen in my love of bright colors, though to be honest, I loved bright colors when I was a child too. OH NO, LITTLE DRAGON! Has a bright blue dragon with a bright green mom, who breathes bright red and yellow fire.
- Tell us a little of your beginnings as an artist.
[JA] I’m pretty much self-taught. I decided to illustrate my own books when several illustrator friends said they wanted to add color to a book that I wrote in which the story required it be black and white. I took a couple of classes at Berkeley with Ashley Wolff and Julie Downing. I learned how to paint from Yuyi Morales.
- What inspired your first picture book?
[JA] The first picture book that was published, IN A BLUE ROOM, was a sort of self-assignment. I wanted to make a concept book, in this case about color, which also had a narrative thread. And I wanted something that could really be shared between parent and child, over and over, so I decided to make a bedtime book as well. Since it was bedtime, I thought “where is the sleepiest place to set this?” and I remembered hearing about psychological studies that found that a blue room is the most calming color of room. So I started the book with the line “in a blue room.”
- What is your preferred medium for illustrating picture books?
[JA] As I mentioned, as an author/illustrator, I am willing to change media to best suit the text. That said, there are a lot of things I haven’t mastered, so I avoid using them. I have a style of art that is more sophisticated, for older readers, which is done with acrylic paint and cut paper. You can see that style in THE MARKET BOWL, coming from Charlesbridge this February.
For OH NO, LITTLE DRAGON! I used oil pastel line work with cut paper set electronically behind it. Almost everything I do now starts with physical art that is scanned and assembled digitally.
- Do you have themes/characters that you return again and again to in your art?
[JA] Several of my stories are about the mother/child relationship. I can’t tell you why I am so drawn to that. I guess because my mother was very loving and I had a great childhood, so I look back to that in my stories.
I have not yet returned to any characters in my art, though I am writing a sequel to OH NO, LITTLE DRAGON!
- What books and/or illustrators influenced your childhood?
[JA] My childhood was quite some time ago. (My chronological childhood, anyway. My psychological childhood may not yet be over.) But I do remember especially liking the work of Richard Scarry. He did a lot of bunnies in waistcoats and kittens as firemen – that sort of thing. Anyway, I liked them because they were comforting and cute and used lots of bold graphic colors.
- What does your workspace look like?
[JA] It’s a small, blue room off my bedroom. It’s a very compact space. My drawing board slides to the side to reveal the printer beneath it. The scanner tucks away on a rolling platform, which also holds all the printer paper, under the desk. I have a cabinet with things to do on post-its on one side. When they are done I move them to the other side and leave them there, to remind myself that I have indeed gotten something done.
- Can you share a piece or two with us, and the process of producing them?
[JA] Here are some examples showing some of the process, which is really quite long. By page number, here is what each image shows:
2-This is a “blueline.” Here the sketch has been refined closer to what I want it to be. I do this for each object in the sketch. What happens between 1 and 2 is that I look at photo reference and measure body proportions so they remain the same throughout the book. The blueline is a pencil sketch that I scan. I convert the pencil line to blue and print out multiple copies on textured paper.
3- This is the blackline. Here I have quickly outlined the blue sketch with oil pastel to try to recapture some of the spontaneity of a quick sketch. I do this many times, and then choose the best one to re-scan. Then in Photoshop I select only the black and pull it into the composition. The blue stays behind because it hasn’t been selected. In this way I get a more spontaneous line with the texture (from the paper) that I want.
4- After all the blacklines are assembled digitally, I place color behind them. In this case the blue of the dragon was from colored paper, scanned and electronically “cut” to fit behind the black lines. The yellow on the dragon was another paper, placed on the layer beneath. Then I erased the blue to let the yellow reflection of the fire show through. Creating the fire was incredibly complex. It is built layer by layer with a specially created “brush” in Photoshop, with all sorts of special effects added in. I think each fire image is 15 to 20 layers all working together. Notice that in this composition, I had a purple background, which I wanted to use to make the fire pop. My editor and art director hated it. So…
5- I ended up taking out all the dark color in the background, and instead using just an indication of the castle’s architecture. The fire still pops because I added dark smoke behind it to contrast the yellow/white flame.
That’s sort of a simplified look at the process. There is much more to it, but I think you get the highlights.
- What advice would you share with an artist fresh out of art school who wants to become a children’s book illustrator?
Develop an edgy, unique style that allows you to complete the project quickly. Or else ask your parents if they are okay with you living at home for the next decade.
- Tell us about your most recent publication and, if you can, what’s in the pipeline.
[JA] OH NO LITTLE DRAGON! Just came out. It’s about a dragon who loses his flame at bath time and has to re-ignite it. THE MARKET BOWL will come out in February. It’s about a girl in Africa who annoys a god into removing his blessing on the bowl the family uses to collect money for the goods they sell at market. She needs to trick the god into restoring his blessing. It was a Junior Library Guild selectee, which usually bodes well for other honors to follow.
Finally, I just sold my first middle grade novel to Simon and Schuster. It’s called A HITCH AT THE FAIRMONT. It’s a history/mystery about a boy staying at the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco in 1956, who teams up with Alfred Hitchcock when his aunt is kidnapped.
- Five Fun Ones to Finish?
What word best sums you up?
- If you could live anywhere for a season, where would you go?
[JA] Hmmm… Barcelona or Bali. Maybe a season in Barcelona whooping it up and enjoying the nightlife, then a season in Bali to recuperate?
Early bird or night owl?
[JA] I like to write during the morning and illustrate at night, so it depends on what part of the project I am working on.
Cats or dogs?
[JA] Dogs. Definitely dogs.
If you could spend a day with one children’s book character, with whom would that be?
[JA] I think I might like to sit down with Curious George and explain to him why the man with the yellow hat, who kidnapped him then locked him away in a zoo, might not really be a very good friend.
Jim can be found at www.jimaverbeckbooks.com
I’m a Oh NO LITTLE DRAGON groupie, so am so happy to hear a sequel is in the making! How thrilling to be able to share your sizzling off the press MG sale to S&S! Félicitations, Jim. And for all you folk tale/Africa fans like me, THE MARKET BOWL can be pre-ordered on Amazon! Thank you so much for sharing some of your journey with us today and start saving for Barcelona and Bahli. Wishing you continued success as an author/illustrator, Jim!