I am thrilled to welcome John Kanzler, illustrator of The Sundown Kid – A Southwestern Shabbat. John has illustrated dozens of children’s books and I couldn’t wait to see his vision for The Sundown Kid. In most cases, authors and illustrators work separately. I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to see John’s work in process. Collaborating with John was a delight and his illustrations are more than I could have imagined. It’s a treat for me to learn even more about him!
What were your first thoughts when you read the manuscript for The Sundown Kid? Did you have a sense of what the art should look like right away?
I could see right away that this could be a lot of fun to illustrate! And as I thought about the historical period it takes place in, I immediately knew that it would have to be colored like old prints and photographs of the time. And I wanted to infuse the art with a bit of a western sunset glow throughout.
Was any research required? What is that process like for you?
This is the fun part for me! I got to research both the old west and Jewish culture and bring them together for this book. I also used my family as models for the entire book. I took both photographs and motion video for several poses. Video was especially helpful because I could capture action poses easily, or move around a subject to get many perspectives at once.
Once you have an idea for an illustration what happens next? How does your process go from idea to final version of a piece?
The original idea(s) for a picture come to me generally as a sort of movie in my head…I think of it as a scene being played out in front of me, and try to “freeze” it at just the right place to reflect best what is written for that page. I may mentally zoom in/out or rotate as I want, and even adjust lighting and color for mood. After, the trick is getting that mental image down onto paper (or into my computer).
I work digitally now, but the process is the same for any media. I used to work at an easel with charcoal and tracing paper taped to a gessoed board, which I miss very much at times. I could “sculpt” a drawing by sketching loosely, erasing out and reshaping until I put another sheet on top and traced it. So, I still try to emulate that experience on my mac! I create a layout page with space reserved for the words, then I make several “blobby” loose sketches just placing characters where they fit best and changing the point of view until it all gels for me. Then I might gather reference or make sketches of particular elements such as blacksmith tools, clothing, etc that are otherwise a complete mystery to me. Then I begin to make tighter and tighter sketches. A typical page might go through a dozen or more full drafts before it is ready for a final version. Working digitally is wonderful in that it allows me to change parts very quickly and save all my versions for possible reuse.
Once a sketch is finished and approved/tweaked/approved by everyone involved, I use that as one layer in the final digital illustration. I use a large tablet and a stylus. I work in Corel Painter because it allows me to create art that is most like what I did traditionally. Only now, I can work on several layers and change parts much more easily. Again, I might save up to a dozen or more versions before I am truly done.
Readers love the lizard that appears throughout the story in The Sundown Kid. Was that something you planned?
Yes and no. I think I included it at one point to fill a space on the cover. Right afterwards, the fun idea of making them a part of the scenery took hold and now the boy is chasing one through the house (much to his mother’s chagrin!). A little something that has nothing to do with the story, but shows us in a fun way that they are not “Back East” anymore!
As a book illustrator, you bring a new layer of story to a book. How does storytelling impact your art?
Like a good story, a group of illustrations should have a beginning, middle and end. Folktales are often distinctive in their cadence, and it is very important not to disrupt the rhythm of the writing in any way. For SUNDOWN KID, that repetition is there in the narrative. So, we would keep returning to the dinner table along with the phrase, “too much soup, not enough family”.
Can you share a fun fact about yourself?
I am almost entirely self-taught as an illustrator. In school I was The Kid Who Was Always Drawing. I mostly thank the encouragement of my parents and certain teachers who let me indulge my interests throughout my childhood.
Thank you, John!
To learn more about John Kanzler and view some of his work, please visit his web site at JohnKanzler.com.