Where do you find the inspiration for the characters in your books?
As an illustrator of other people’s stories, I don’t usually have to start my characters from scratch. My first job is to read the manuscript and try to imagine what the characters and places look like. The way the characters are designed should support the goals of the story, have emotional resonance, and be age-appropriate. For example, in books for pre-schoolers I like to keep my character designs relatively gentle and simple.
In Ella The Elegant Elephant, I tried to make Ella feel friendly and relatable – even if a child wasn’t old enough to read the text. I kept the color palette simple and used charcoal pencils to give the illustrations a soft look. The final drawings really aren’t very complex or fussy, but it actually took quite a bit of work to get things like Ella’s facial features “right”.
For older children – say, ages 5 to 8 or so – I feel more comfortable experimenting with a wider range of possible styles. This little fella is from a book coming out in September called A Lucky Author Has A Dog:
He isn’t wearing a hat or clothes because this story is set in the real world and he needed to be a “real” dog. The pen and ink technique I settled on for this book isn’t quite as soft and ’touchable’ as the style I used for Ella. I suppose the main reason for that is that this story just felt “older” to me. The characters and environments I create for a book reflect the ideas and emotions that come to me when I read the author’s manuscript.
Bringing an author’s characters to life in pictures is ultimately a pretty subjective process. That said, I do work closely with my editors and art directors to try to find just the right look and feel for each story. Some illustrators have a single signature style, but my work to this point in my career has been a bit more adaptive.
What would most surprise people about your profession and the job you do?
It probably won’t surprise too many people to hear that illustrating children’s books can be a lot of fun. Sketching out new characters, playing with paints, imagining new places and interesting camera angles – there are moments when it really is a dream job.
It might be less obvious how much work goes into a single picture book. Once I’ve familiarized myself with the manuscript I usually do a series of preliminary sketches and color studies to make sure that my publisher and I agree on the general art direction. When that’s approved, I lay out a storyboard with sketches showing how I plan to place the illustrations and pace the storytelling. During this period I usually find myself “out in the weeds” creatively at some point, often wondering why I ever thought I could do this kind of work. After 10 books you’d think I might see it coming by now, but I seem to get that feeling every time. There’s a ton of work that goes into a project before I start drawing any of final artwork. I’ve had to re-sketch entire books because things just weren’t clicking quite right.
So there are definitely fun parts to my job, yes. But I also go through periods of real anxiety and frustration before delivering the finished pages.
Steven’s picture book debut, Ella The Elegant Elephant, was a 2002 collaboration with then-wife Carmela D’Amico. Released by Arthur A. Levine Books in 2004, it received several honors including the 2005 Washington State Book Award. Three more Ella books followed, as well as a TV series based on the books which debuted on Disney Junior in 2014.
In September of 2000, he joined the Seattle-based Smashing Ideas agency as a designer and was promoted to Senior Art Director in 2006. During his time there he worked on scores of games and websites for children, specializing in preschool and early reader groups. At SI, he had the opportunity to work with a lot of great producers, developers and education consultants on various projects for PBS Kids, Nick Jr., The Disney Channel and Mattel.
In 2014 he changed his last name to “Henry” and left Smashing Ideas to focus on his own illustration projects. Steven has two new books coming out in 2015, with another pair under construction for 2016 (see his website). He does most of his drawing and painting from his home studio in West Seattle.