Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Robert's Snow: Lee White Interview

Here is my last Robert's Snow feature...and what a snowflake! Bidding begins Monday the 19th, so you've still got some time to make up your mind about which flakes you're going to bid on. Thanks a million to Jules & Eisha for dreaming up and organizing the Bloggers for a Cure features. I really hope we can help break *all* the previous Robert's Snow fund raising records!


According to his website, Lee White's foray into illustration happened by chance. That's hard to believe because his dream-like style is so obviously well suited for illustration. His colors are bright and eye-catching, yet the mood is soft and inviting...even comforting. His characters and landscapes are strange and mysterious, yet humorous and very likable. Every illustration not only tells a story, but then takes it to the next level. In his most recent book, Brewster the Rooster by Devin Scilian, the farmer isn't just startled by the rooster's crow, he is startled sky-high, flung off his ladder, paint flying, legs splayed, nose red with embarrassment (and probably a little anger). This kind of illustration doesn't just move the story along, it brings it somewhere else entirely.

Lee White studied illustration at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California. He has created illustrations for huge clients such as Apple Computers, Disney, United Airlines, and has illustrated eight children's books. House Takes a Vacation and Brewster the Rooster both came out this year, and are definitely worth the read.

Lee was kind enough to answer some questions for me:

How did you get started as an artist?

I started as a photographer working for an ad agency in Atlanta, Georgia. I learned all about lighting, composition and color through this medium which has helped tremendously in illustration. I went from photography to graphic design where I eventually started my own company. I gradually drifted from graphic design to illustration and haven’t looked back since!

What inspires you?

So many things. I really love landscape painting, although I don’t get to do it very often because I’m so busy all the time. The colors and light that occur naturally are so amazing that I often ache because I don’t have the time to capture the image with paint.

I’ve been teaching at the college level for the past two years and really love that. College is an ideal situation because you are dealing with ideas and concepts that you can’t explore in the commercial art world where there are budgets and deadlines.

I’d say the most inspiring thing to me above all else is stories. A good narrative is all I need to really get my brain working and I love that feeling. That’s why the beginning of a project is always the most fun for me. Just sitting down and exploring imagery and ideas is so exciting to me. The hard part is the actual production of the ideas once the “newness” has worn off.

Who are your favorite artists?

Luckily I happen to be friends with some of my favorite artists and they always keep me focused on constantly improving. People like Chris Applehans, Catia Chein, Khang Le, and Yoko Tanaka are some of my favorites. In children’s books I’d say Shaun Tan is really doing some amazing work. He’s really pushing boundaries which I think is always good.

What is your ideal workspace?

My ideal workspace is actually my current workspace. I share an old Victorian 4-square with another illustrator and we work on book projects all day. Portland winters are great because it’s rainy outside but our studio is nice and warm. We are on a commercial street with lots of funky shops and cafes so the coffee is always close by. Working in a studio with another person is one of the best decisions I’ve made. I’m a very social person so sitting in my house alone all day makes me a little crazy!

In your newest book, Brewster the Rooster by Devin Scillian, the funny, colorful illustrations bring such flair to the story. For instance on the first page, the words read “His championship cries won the blue ribbon prize/each year/at the Kansas State Fair,” and the illustration shows not only Brewster proudly receiving his first prize ribbon, but also a disgruntled pig who won second place, and the pig’s owner (a man with a villian’s moustache and top hat) leering jealously at Brewster’s family. As an illustrator, how much leeway do you have with the story? Do you always have room for improvisation?

I’m glad you noticed that! One of the best parts about book illustration is that you get to tell other parts of a story that might not be written into the book. In your example the text focuses on Brewster wining the blue ribbon, the next question I ask is “what was that like for the other contestants?” Then I come up with a disgruntled pig who had to settle for second place. Some of the stories in children’s books are so extreme that it’s fun to put people in the illustration reacting to what’s going on.
My publishers have normally given me a tremendous amount of freedom when it comes to making the art. This is partly because some of the stories I get are so, um, weird. Like the book Stop that Nose!, it’s about a guy's nose that flies off in a monster sneeze. It would be hard for an editor or art director to be too strict when it comes to the art because there is no clear way to handle imagery like that.

How did you come up with your snowflake design for this year’s Robert’s Snow?

I didn’t want to do a traditional scene with a snowman or christmas theme. Although these scenes are great for the intended use, I wanted to put a little more personal spin on mine. I wanted to make it mean something in relation to why “Robert’s Snow” exists in the first place. My dad died from cancer a few years back and so I’ve seen the battle with that first hand.

I began thinking about what it’s like to live with someone knowing they have such a great battle ahead. The feeling that you may lose them was always around with my father, so that seemed important to me as well. My imagery is symbolic of that feeling.

The girl in the boat is in less than ideal surroundings, but is holding tightly to the gift. That gift represents life. We all have to have faith in that gift when someone we love is battling the disease. She has her eyes closed to represent the blindness we have in not knowing how the situation might turn out. I know this snowflake deals with difficult ideas and imagery, but I didn’t want it to come across as depressing, so that’s why I chose a warm/bright color palette.

I like how the piece turned out because hopefully it makes people think and come up with their own meanings and interpretations.

Once you began, was there anything especially interesting, challenging, or surprising about the project?

Working that small is always a challenge. I really like working with such a weird shape. It changes the way I design and was very fun to do. I also like the fact that I get to be somewhat abstract in the imagery which is something that’s a little hard to do with a book because you are trying to move a story forward.

What advice would you give to young people interested in becoming an artist?

The most important advice I can give is to come up with your own interpretations on stories and narratives. Why bother making another “average” piece of art when you can make something unique and special? This idea is why I’m trying to slow down my output some on the professional level and make pieces I’m really proud of.

I would also recommend learning the technical side of drawing and painting. It’s alright to end up drawing loose and painting abstractly, but having the solid background goes a long way. It gives you choices that you might not otherwise have. For instance, If you can REALLY draw and paint you have your choice with how an image is painted. You can paint really tight and lifelike, or you can stylize the characters (which I like to do!). You want the choice to be yours versus being limited by your ability.

Lastly, I’d like to say that keeping a balanced life is very important. If you focus only on art, there is so much you could be missing. The extra things in your life can contribute greatly to your art. The world is a beautiful place with all it’s color and texture, people and cultures. Really try and soak it all in and let your art reflect it!

Here are some great Lee White links:

Here are the other snowflakes featured today:

How you can help Robert's Snow:


Anonymous said...

Thanks, Josephine, for this and for being involved in all these features. I enjoyed reading yours each and every time.

I haven't seen Brewster the Rooster yet. Looks good.

I like the colors in that snowflake. Is it a character from one of his books maybe? Intriguing.

Elaine Magliaro said...


Thanks for this feature on Lee White's art--and for the links to some of his illustrations. I really like his style of illustrating. I've had my eye on his 2007 snowflake since I first saw it in a gallery exhibition.

Anonymous said...

This is beyond lovely...

Josephine Cameron said...

Hey Jules...I just got a late-breaking interview in from Lee that explains the image (and the color choices) in the snowflake. Very cool. I've appended the above feature to include the interview.

LindaBudz said...

This has been one of my favs from the start. So glad to have this opportunity to read the inspiration behind it ... thank you!!

Anonymous said...

Wow, you really deliver. Thanks for the addendum of the interview! Good to know the story behind the flake. I'll be sure to point this out in tomorrow's post for folks who might have missed it.

Anonymous said...

Brewster the Rooster? As a new owner of a rooster, I gotta see it. Thanks for the interview to both of you. Very interesting.