MARCH 24, 2014
Speaking as the illustrator here and not as an author, the hopes and expectations one imagines for the artwork, may, uncannily like kids, head in directions not anticipated when confronted with the reality at the drawing board. All the prepping and research seems to have been turned on its head and what you are looking at half way through the project is not what you thought you’d see. Now what? This is not necessarily a negative provided you can get a grip on yourself, accept the possibility of a change in plans, and make the adjustments to successfully adapt. As the project unfolds we eventually arrive at working in a way that seems comfortable and right. There’s even a strong temptation to redo the first batch of finishes because they don’t match the quality- or vision- of the later ones. And sometimes that actually happens because you want to be proud of how that kid- er- book turns out.
So far, most of what I’ve pointed out sounds fairly dis-incentivizing. Someone reading this would rightfully ask, why take up such a challenge and spend a considerable amount of time behaving like a determined but sleep-deprived parent for a half year or so, much to the concern of your spouse? Well, one reason is faith that all the hard work will be worth it. And, as is so often the case with kids, it is. Ultimately, if you don’t love what you are doing you’re in a lot of trouble. And no matter how frustrating the going gets, you don't give up on the images and what you're putting together.
“Hot Dog! Eleanor Roosevelt Throws a Picnic” is the seventh book I’ve illustrated for the wonderful folks at Sleeping Bear Press. My first collaboration, in 2004, with Elissa Grodin, titled “D is for Democracy” was the beginning of a truly unique relationship with editors and art directors at Sleeping Bear. We like each other. More important, the folks at Sleeping Bear ‘get it’. They have great trust in the illustrators they match with writers, provide minimal but smart editorial feedback, and consequently the attitude from their offices is always upbeat and positive. Whatever pressure I feel is self generated, a desire to match their enthusiasm with the best imagery that I can create.
The great irony about “Hot Dog!” is that we had signed the contracts and such a good six months before we found out that there was a movie being produced about the very same event. It was a charming flick, “Hyde Park on the Hudson” that starred Bill Murray as a very convincing Franklin D. Roosevelt. I had mixed reactions at first to the announcement of the movie hitting the theaters a good year before Hot Dog!'s publication but as time went on saw it not as a spoiler but as a complement to the book. No matter, I deliberately avoided seeing the movie until I was well into the project and feeling secure about the direction. It became a reference source for clothing colors and scenery in a few of the images. The actual picnic itself plays a small role in the flick.
Reference. I can’t think of any children’s book I’ve done for Sleeping Bear that didn’t involve some investment of time in reference hunting. More often than not, the research felt like 50% of the entire project. If the content is historical the need to get things right initially, before artistic license is allowed to enter, is crucial. Whether it is American history, the military, Greek mythology or the Roman Empire, having as solid a foundation in picture reference is a must. We can gripe about Google for any number of good reasons but the access to picture reference is inestimable. What would take many trips to libraries or picture reference outlets can be done from your studio. One of the side benefits to reference hunting on Google is the access to all sorts of tangential information in a matter of moments. A leads to B leads to G. It turns into a side obsession; to learn as much as possible related to the subject and the people involved so as to bring something extra to the images. Even when the illustrations are approached in a lighter, more humorous, caricature-like format, the information gathered from the research alows me to bring some insight into the characters of the subjects.
Google was great but extremely limited in visual reference pertaining to the barbeque, an event that was not really open to press photographers. Plan B. A goodly amount of time was spent at the Roosevelt Museum/Estate at Hyde Park, which has an extraordinary research library. How could it not? It’s also a beautiful set of estates to visit. You feel the history as you walk around. The staff was very helpful, if a bit business like, but as I looked around the library room it was apparent how many people were sitting at tables doing research. A lot. I was just one of many who journeyed in and out on a daily basis. It was here that, after explaining my mission to the staff, I was brought a number of folders from which a small grouping of photos from the barbeque emerged. The pictures seemed casual, not really professionally photographed. But they were there, and there was just enough to get an approximation for what I needed to portray, including the Native Americans who were invited to perform for the guests. As was the case I also searched for reference of as many angles of FDR and Eleanor from that period so as not to be locked to a few set facial shots. The King and Queen of England were also reasonably well represented. FDR’s customized auto was there as well which I had the opportunity to photograph. The treasure trove of photos of Eleanor created some fascinating observations. It’s very easy to think of her as an awkward ugly duckling sort of woman. But a number of pictures, especially from her youth portray a certain distinctive charm to the features. Her Uncle was Teddy (pronounced Teedy as I have come to learn from Edmund Morris’s bio).
The reference hunting actually never stopped. It went on till the very end. Some of my original sketches took drastic turns as I found photos that countered what I had envisioned. I also suspected the movie would make it difficult to just adlib details.
My original thoughts were to portray the event in a very loose, light manner, but once the actual transition to finishes happened they become more solid, atmospheric, whimsical balanced with some seriousness. It was somewhat disconcerting. At certain points I was not entirely sure which direction the images were heading, or if they even needed to stay strictly consistent in attitude. That’s not a comfortable question to ask. One assumes from a children’s book standard that consistency is very important. And, as mentioned earlier, as the book progressed and I got more comfortable with the characters I insisted on redoing some of my earlier pieces out of dissatisfaction with the original portrayals. In the end I was pretty satisfied with the finished entity. As is the case with a book of over 20 illustrations, some felt more successful than others. But the overall look was very pleasing. This is probably the first book that I’ve done for them that really felt like a kid’s book. All the others have been A-B-C’s, wonderful instructionals but following a certain design format specific to Sleeping Bear. This one not so. It has a more relaxed feel and the type complements the illustrations rather than acting as the counterpoint.
Many thanks to Felicia Macheske, who art directed, and Barbara McNally who edited, two women I've had great fun working with on previous books. Thanks to author Leslie Kimmelman, who couldn't have been nicer or more helpful providing me with historical data to add clarification to certain scenes when I was stuck.
A selection of illustrations that worked for me, some sketches, and sketches that got tossed.
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Perfect example of reference adding that extra something to an image. FDR had very specific items on his desk. I couldn't include them all but didn't make anything up either.
Finding color reference for the clothes for a specific person from an era of black and white photography made for special challenges.
An interesting dilemma. When the gang saw my sketch there was concern about the serving staff being all African American. I had to point out that indeed that was the tradition up till JFK's time, a fact that I was unaware of till researching for the book. Still there was some worry and I lightened the tone of one of the servers.
Rumors of war. Trouble from overseas in the form of Hitler's speeches. By this point it was readily apparent that this was not going to be a purely light and humorous book, even for kids. An early sketch that we dropped in favor of focusing instead on Eleanor listening to the radio. In an interim sketch I had Hitler coming out of the radio in a mist, but it was eventually decided to drop his image entirely and just focus on Eleanor's reaction listening to the radio.
Fala is never really mentioned in the book, but I decided on including him as a sort of recurring image throughout the book. It was a hit with everyone.
A two page spread that was to illustrate the national reaction on finding out the Roosevelt's were serving hot dogs to the King and Queen. Early sketch. Still had it in mind that it would be more cartoony. We dropped the image and instead decided to go with another sketch of mailmen delivering the loads of outraged mail.
The scene of FDR driving the Royal couple around the Hyde Park estate was portrayed very humorously in the movie. There was no Fala in that scene either.
A discarded sketch of the picnic entertainment itself. The visual information was so scarce that I thought I'd fake it some and take the vantage point from the back porch onto the yard.
However on a return visit to the Hyde Park research center I found other images from that day that gave me enough information to piece together a scene from the grass looking up at the back porch. The Royal guests were seated there.
Again, trying to find that balance between seriousness and whimsical in the same book.
A perfect example of not faking it. I liked this sketch and the vantage point, except that FDR would not be in the middle of the crowd. He would have been standing next to his car holding onto his assistant waving from the parking area toward the tracks.
It occurred to me that as the Royal couple were heading north to Canada the train would need to be facing in a specific direction as well. I settled for the passenger car. Enough reference was located to pretty much identify the kind of train cars they traveled in. The station is still there, obviously the parking area has changed. No real reference of the send off but enough bits and pieces of information to imagine the scene. I chose therefore not to focus on the train station building itself but just hint.
The first Royal bite. Apparently George enjoyed it greatly.
Original finish of the very uncomfortable Queen dealing with such a phallic object. She did choose to slice it, but only after she asked FDR how to eat it and he replied, "Very simple. Push it into your mouth and keep pushing till it is all gone."
Near the end of my work I found even more reference on the Queen from this period and had to admit I was not happy with my earlier portrayals. I insisted on doing this one over. Still and all, not a lot to go with especially where specific facial expressions are important. Even so, I was much happier with this version and Barbara and Felicia understood why a redo was important in my eyes.
When you work with people long enough you can screw around with them. I sent this under the premise as a serious choice for cover illustration. Must have been around the time the Kurtzman show was at the Society of Illustrators. We were tossing around who exactly should be portrayed on the cover. The Royals, kids, Royals and kids? FDR and all?