Illustrator Interview – Deborah Nourse Lattimore

What a pleasure to introduce you today to my mentor from the Nevada SCBWI Mentor Program. I truly lucked out on finding a kindred spirit in Deborah Nourse Lattimore. Not only is she an artist and writer, but she has traveled all over the world as a scholar, explorer, teacher and adventurer. One of the delights at our retreat in Virginia City was kicking back with a glass of wine and listening to another of Deborah’s crazy stories about some amazing dig among Egyptian remains, or far-flung escapades. She is an extraordinary oral storyteller, which readers of my blog will know how much I appreciate. She also loves creating picture books that take young readers on amazing journeys back through time to ancient and mysterious cultures. Welcome, Deborah!

[DNL] First of all, dear Joanna, Thank You for asking me these lovely and interesting questions.

  • Illustrator or author/illustrator? If both, how do you marry the two?

[DNL] In fact, I am both a writer and an illustrator/artist, and I have had some of my writing illustrated by other artists as well as being the illustrator for other authors, and the experiences are unique.  It’s almost a schizophrenic way of bringing two rather different disciplines together.

But first and foremost, the words (concepts) ought to come first: the development of character, setting, plot problems/conflicts and environments are all determined by the writing, and, that goes for a wordless book project, too, because plot needs to be in place for the art to make sense.

The only way I know how to make the text and the illustrations work together is by trial and error.  An historical element actually facilitates artistic style; for example, if the story takes place in an exact, factual setting—no matter if the manuscript pertains to mythology or historical fiction or even a flight of fancy in a specific time and place—I find myself researching that time and place.  I enjoy that bit very much.

But it is the “style page” I do which gets me into the written word once the writing is revised. I’ve done as many as 20+ fully finished style pages for any given story (and those follow many more preliminary rough pages in pencil/ink).  Things to consider: mood, emotional content, personality clashes, climactic scenes, pacific scenes, vignettes, where to give importance to any one section of text, etc.  All of these influence color shifts, light sources, perspective, horizontal vs. vertical vs. diagonal layouts, and more.

I love to go against the stereotypical color schemae wherever I can: a brown animal could go blue, a benevolent character could be cool, a dark and mystical, dreamy element could go hot; it’s fun to play with the change, and even if I do not end up using those changes, just having done the experiments helps me to find my final, fully finished work.  One thing I really love a lot is light source (or the lack of it), and changing the color of the light-source has been a current interest of mine.

(The short answer should be: trial and error!  and, I ask myself “how does the art make me feel?” in relation to the story?)


  • What’s your nationality and which and how have certain cultures influenced your work?

[DNL] My home country is the U.S. of A. and my home city is Beverly Hills.  I am an English-American

through and through, actually, with one forebear born on the Mayflower crossing.  But my great-grandmother was a peripatetic person whose photographs and book collections were from a globally-experienced life.  Our guests at “the old house” were from quite varied backgrounds and at any one time we had visitors from the Middle East, Western Europe and from lots of places around the U.S. The Brazilian Consul lived next door, a Russian pianist lived down the street,

and Rabbi Magnin of the Wilshire Boulevard Temple was a family friend.  My grandmother and her mother loved Latin American and Asian cultures, too, and since my mother aspired to be a Latin American dancer, I grew up with fandangos in the dancing

studio, photos of Jordan circa 1911 and Classical sculpture hovering in the corners.  We had

some lovely art collections as well.

  • Does your research process ever take you on location?

[DNL] If I am lucky, yes.  I did receive a small Carnegie Grant to travel in Central America when I was twenty-one; I spent some time in El Salvador, Guatemala, Belize, and Mexico.  I also have spent time on excavations in parts of Greece, Rome and Egypt, and  have also traveled as a speaker for the Department of Defense, the International Reading Association (a real highlight was giving talks for the Arab Reading Council in Bahrain with Lynn Reid Banks! a treat! a true adventure, too!), and for the U.S. Department of State/Education.

Excavation highlights?  In middle Egypt, just outside of El Minya, at Akhetaten, with the head of the dig, Dr. Barry Kemp, Cambridge.

One place I took myself for the sheer pleasure of it all was Cornwall and I’d go back there in a heart-beat to hike, observe and paint the locales.  It’s Arthurian and I never knew I’d feel so akin to it, heart and soul.

  • Tell us a little of your beginnings as an artist.

[DNL] My beginnings as an artist.  Hm.  I’ve got to say that being taught to look closely at things as well as to remember those things and how the weather made leaves rustle and bits of dried leaves, blossoms, little tufts of wild daisies fly like little drunken fairies, and so much more!, taught me a great deal about being an artist; my grandmother showed me that world.  She was a most talented water-colourist and we spent hours daily drawing and painting. My first art show was when I was nine years of age and by the time I was eighteen, well, I’d had quite a few shows in my home town, other small cities, and in New York, too.  My art teachers were a remarkable group, lucky me, and two of them, Dr. Joan Allemand and Mr. Curt Miller, were considerably better than any art teachers I had in college or art school later on.  I was encouraged to do whatever art struck me as being good to do in that moment.  I was given art supplies and I was warmly encouraged.  I cannot stress this enough: having kind, insightful guidance, coupled with a good space in which to work and loads of supplies were  what put me on the artist’s path, and it was much more than just a leg up.  Their support is with me still.

  • What is your favorite medium for your artwork?

[DNL] Wow! I think I have yet to find my favorite medium.  Watercolor plus Berol Prismacolor, ink plus finger-painting, wet-on-wet water-based colors with various mediums underneath, sponged pages (I love natural sea sponges), with meandering layers of paint brushed on top, and a final pencil technique….The search does not end.  There is far too much fun in the discovery.

  • What does your workspace look like? (photo if you like?)

[DNL] The only photo of my second studio is in Pat Cummings’ book “Talking with Artists” and I tend NOT to take photos of my work-space because it’s never, well, easy to photograph; I’ve now got three different areas in my current home and the piles of paper, manuscripts, drawings, files, etc., would drive many people to drink.  (I hope to rectify this directly after I sell my beach home and move into a really different space, possibly an old warehouse with a great skylight.)

  • Can you share a piece or two with us, and the process of producing them?


[DNL] I’d love to do that, thank you.

Let’s begin with my book “The Flame of Peace”.  It’s an Aztec tale, mine own, based on the intricate and fascinating Codices of the Aztecs, those lucky enough to escape the pogroms of the Spanish Conquistadors.  The paper is usually tree bark or deer skin, the pigments mineral-based, the ink lines charcoal and burnt stick.  Facsimiles in the Special Collections, University Research Library, U.C.L.A., are good but a lot of the original colors have faded.  I studied Aztec and Mayan archaeology for several years and was captured by these copies, by their brilliance and almost mystical compositions, some of which were not thoroughly deciphered by Western scholars; so much the more the excitement and pleasure in looking at them!

I recreated ancient paper, a real trial-and-error experience to be sure, and after printing deer-skin patterns on 90 poung d’Arches hot press paper, over four to five other layers of Windsor & Newton tube watercolor washes, I felt I’d achieved the look I was after.  I drew the Mixtec/Aztec characters atop these layers with a variety of ink pens in 100% China Black Ink, and then colored them with additional Windor & Newton paints.

I did write the story first and I based it on the re-lighting of the flame in the double temple of Tenochtitlan when time and era were renewed, having a young Aztec boy journey through a life- and-death journey, confronting nine evil demons along the way. I have never failed to enjoy memories of having done this book; it was my first book with Harper & Row, when it was Harper & Row.  I had an editor who took a chance on me and I was thrilled from the first moment my project was accepted to the second the first hard-bound copy was placed in my hands.

Another book I relished very much, both struggling with the text and spending nearly murderous hours executing the illustrations, was “The Dragon’s Robe”.  I’d spent a lot of time admiring if not being mesmerized by a polychrome Kwan Yin in the Santa Barbara Museum of Art when I was a little girl.  She stood off to the left in the gallery and her glass inlaid eyes and dark lead pupil-points had that proverbial way of following me around the room.  How I wished I could have taken her home with me!  When I was in graduate school at U.C.L.A., I came across beautiful variants of this god/goddess/bodhisattva of mercy, Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Indian, and more.   Here was a selfless being whose main reason for being in this world was to do the best thing for humanity.

And being a fan of the Northern Sung dynasty art style, I wrote a story, got out my old Chinese paints and dug into the work.  I stained the paper to look like faded silk, ran the type boxes down the pages vertically (Chinese chops) and attempted to make each scene look drier and drier in the color scheme as a drought ravaged the countryside.  The last page, after the Imperial dragon’s water storm covers the landscape, the color scheme goes into full bloom, and it is all achieved by a young girl, Kwan Yin, who stays on her own path despite real danger.

I bought Chinese paints, brushes, but after trying to paint on silk, I switched over to my favorite90 pound d’Arches again and stained each page with a large house-painter’s brush. I mixed up a watery solution of ochres,  hints of sap green and neutral tint to tone down the yellows, and just a little bit of Chinese White to buoy up the consistency.  I ground my own black inks for the line art, used washes of black ink, again with a hint of  a darker green in it, and did layering of paint in several go-bys to get the mountains “just so”.

It was a very exciting time for me, doing that art.  I studied sumi-e painting with a Japanese master when I was eleven years old and I felt that doing a good job on this art was my student-way of thanking Mr. Ohta.

  • What authors or illustrators influenced your childhood?

[DNL] This is a tasty question, thank you.  I loved Arthur Rackham, Edmund Dulac and N. C. Wyeth and I’ve got to admit, I had a high school interest in Beardsley, Escher, Klee, Picasso, Van Gogh and the Fauvres.  If you ever read Van Gogh’s complete letters on art, primarily the ones he wrote to his brother with delicate brown ink-line art, you are in for a spellbound adventure. I loved reading Jules Verne, Richard Halliburton’s “The Occident and the Orient”, The Collected Arabian Nights, and Lawrence’s “Pillars of Wisdom”.  I also loved my copy of Grey’s anatomy, which fell apart because I’d handled it way too much; same thing for Vanderpool’s drawing books.

  • How involved are you with SCBWI?

[DNL] I love the SCBWI.  My Mentor was Sue Alexander, who disliked everything I wrote for weeks, in a class I attended with her at U.C.L.A. You’d think she was 6’5” with the way she pronounced her critiques of my truly awful writing (of which I was, at that time, totally delusionally enchanted).  But she stuck with me.  She introduced me via great lunches and dinners to Clyde Bulla, Garth Williams, Rosemary Wells, Paula Danziger, and got me to pay attention, toss the really bad stuff out of my work, and get myself back up and working.  How I miss her!

Through Sue and the SCBWI I have made friends, contacts, traveled, discovered, enjoyed thousands of other writers’ and illustrators’ works and I have been able to turn that around, too, and introduce my own students to some mighty, impressive, hard-working individuals.

  • What advice would you give to a young illustrator fresh out of art school wanting to break into the world of children’s book illustrations?

[DNL] 1. Know your own work.  Follow your own thrills, be it drawing realistically or graphically or even, and always floundering through media; do it.

2. Drop your critical voice. There is a decided difference between discerning where your work needs change and a critical voice that simply sits around, somewhere vaguely behind you, and spouts out how bad it all is.

3. The process IS the art.  If you put something, anything, onto a piece of paper, you are on the road. 4. Change is inevitable; but keep the first pieces, too, because you can and should mine your own collection of ideas, visuals, dreams, attempts, because in those works you are speaking to yourself in a way no one else can.

  • Five Fun Ones to Finish?

What word best sums you up?

[DNL] Gosh, I’d love to be Mysterious.

If you could live anywhere for a season, where would you go?

[DNL] Tell el Amarna, followed by Tintagel.

What’s your favorite sound?

[DNL] Anything recorded by Jascha Heifetz, and, that glorious wind-in-the-trees rustling.

Cats or dogs?

[DNL] I love ‘em both.

If you could spend a day with one children’s book illustrator, with whom would that be?

[DNL] Dirk Zimmer.  I’d love to see what his teeth, hands and feet look like.  I was very, very luck to get to know Maurice Sendak for a while and I had the chance to talk with him about teeth, noses, hands and feet, and much more on the psychological side of his art.  Whoa! Amazing!

Deborah’s website.

Deborah, thank you so much for sharing just some of your story with us today… I feel like I have taken a trip with you, and hope we may do this for real one day. I wish you continued success in all your creative projects and pursuits (Deborah is also a fencer, and much more!) I also want to give a shout out to the amazing opportunity this mentor program offers. For PB, MG and YA writers, both unpublished and published — six months working with an experienced mentor and the forging of great relationships, not to mention ghosts,  IPA and cupcakes. Check it out!

 

 

 

 

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20 Responses to Illustrator Interview – Deborah Nourse Lattimore

  1. WOW! You met Maurice Sendak! Lucky! Great interview!

  2. Marilyn Quigley says:

    Thanks, Joanna, for this delightful interview. I could just “hear” Deborah saying the words and watch her quirky expressions. I was so happy to see samples of her work and had no idea how fabulous her art is. Hope things are going well for you in NYC. I assume you are in grad school?
    Marilyn

  3. Richa Jha says:

    “I’ve got to say that being taught to look closely at things as well as to remember those things and how the weather made leaves rustle and bits of dried leaves, blossoms, little tufts of wild daisies fly like little drunken fairies, and so much more!, taught me a great deal about being an artist; my grandmother showed me that world.”

    I found this bit so very poetic and evocative, Deborah! What a lovely interview!

    Thanks to both you and Joanna!

  4. Thanks for this interview, Joanna. Hope you are well and creative. Yes, the mentor program is the best thing a writer/illustrator can do for themselves.

    And Deborah, I miss you and thank you so much for our time conjuring up memories under the stairs at the St. Mary’s Art Center. My art is forever changed as well as my thinking having been a part of the amazing mentor program. This interview enhanced what I thought I knew about you and how much more to you there is to know. (was that a sentence?) Take care and hope our paths meet again.

  5. What a fascinaing interview. Her books capture my heart — I love the Mayans and stories about the Chinese Dynasty. Will check them out. You have spoken so highly about Deborah in the past months, that this interview really gave me insight into her work has writer, illustrator and mentor. What wonderful opportunities she has had with some of the best in the artistic world. Lucky you to have her as your mentor!

  6. Wow! What an astonishingly brilliant and talented mentor you have, Joanna!

    Deborah, this was fascinating and eye-opening. The work you do to make your art so suit each project is amazing and inspiring. Thank you for all the rich detail, and honesty, with which you answered Joanna’s questions.

    Fantastic interview, you two!

  7. Joanna says:

    Thank you for your enthusiasm, Beth!

  8. I love how Deborah tells us she was introduced to art at a young age. It’s amazing. Very interesting comments on how she does her art work. And verybeautiful work, too. Thanks for sharing Deborah with us Joanna. 🙂

  9. Tina Cho says:

    What a fascinating mentor you had! The mentor program sounds neat.

  10. Pamela Wight says:

    Wonderful interview – helps us look at the world a little differently. Thank you!

  11. Linda Covella says:

    Great interview! Thanks!

  12. Naomi Canale says:

    Deborah left a long lasting impression on me, she’s amazing! This interview was wonderful, thank you Joanna and Deborah!!

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