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With a style born of America and a layering technique rooted in the Renaissance, Loren Long illustrates picture books he hopes will be shared across generations.
What do President Barack Obama, the rock star Madonna and artist Loren Long have in common? They’ve all written picture books. But it’s Loren Long’s pencil and paintbrush that truly connect the dots. He’s illustrated picture books by all three authors. Before that he created illustrations for the likes of Sports Illustrated, Forbes and Time. Before that he worked as a greeting card artist at Gibson Greetings in Cincinnati, Ohio.
So how does a Missouri-bred artist reared in Kentucky and working in Ohio attract the attention of big New York publishers and major American celebrities? The answer takes us back to the 1990s when Long got serious about becoming a professional illustrator—or to the early twentieth century, depending on how you look at it.
“What I did was jump out of Gibson Greetings and start working on my style,” says Long. “It’s one thing to get fairly accomplished in your craft, but it’s another thing to set yourself apart from everybody else who’s accomplished.” He’d acquired his drawing and painting skills from the University of Kentucky and the American Academy of Art in Chicago, but his self-motivated, informal studies gave his work its distinctive feel. Backing away from the hierarchical distinction between illustrators and fine artists, he felt drawn to N.C. Wyeth, Maxfield Parrish and J.C. Leyendecker of the American Golden Age of Illustration, as well as Edward Hopper, John Sloan and George Bellows of the Ashcan School. His greatest debt, however, is to American Regionalist painters—John Steuart Curry, Grant Wood and Thomas Hart Benton. As Long puts it, “I feel as if they gave me my career.”
There’s no mistaking the undercurrent of Americana in Long’s work, and Long makes no bones about his affinity with Thomas Hart Benton. “He was a Missouri-born artist, and I was born in Missouri,” says Long. “There were times when Benton’s drawing was awkward; there are times when my drawing is awkward. His color was funky at times, and I have color issues. But his work had soul. It was homegrown. Whether you like it or hate it, there was a certain reality to it. I felt Benton’s influence seeping into my work.”
As Long developed his style, he also worked with two artist’s representatives, who marketed Long’s work to publishers and ad agencies, but Long feels that art directors didn’t really pay attention until Long began gaining acceptance in juried exhibitions. “All of a sudden, people started identifying my name with my art.” The big-name, popular magazines started calling. Then came a book cover for a HarperCollins young adult novel. Several book covers later, Simon Schuster signed on Long to illustrate his first picture book, I Dream of Trains, a story about the American railroad legend Casey Jones, written by Angela Johnson. The book went on to win the 2004 Golden Kite Award for Illustration. Long had found his calling.
Big picture mentality
The art form for picture books requires a different mind-set from that for a single illustration. Long compares the picture book to cinema: “I’m like a director choosing moments to film, only with a certain pagination.” To establish the flow, he takes technical pencil in hand and creates a series of thumbnail sketches, a two-page spread represented within a 2×6-inch space. “I’m looser when I draw small,” says Long. The tiny space prevents him from including too much detail. “That’s a Thomas Hart Benton thing,” Long explains. “Benton called it the ‘grand design.’ No detail. If it works small, it will work big.”
Along with the flow, Long considers the feeling each illustration must convey. Again, he compares his work to cinema: “In a film you have all these tools—light, music, props, clothing—to create mood and emotion. Quiet and active moments have different sound tracks. In the same way, I want people to feel my art, not just view it.” So, when Long sketches, he considers different ways he might present the scene. Should he pull in or out? Would a bird’s-eye view be better? Should the scene be hemmed with a border or bleed off the edges of the page? What effect would a black-and-white look lend as opposed to bright color? “The sketches are where all the magic occurs,” says Long. “They’re where the big choices are made. The final paintings are always a challenge, but all the ideas occur in that sketch phase. That’s when I dream the
Classic layering technique
Once a full set of thumbnails has been approved by the editor and art director, Long blows up his sketches on a photocopier, which reveals any problems with proportions that he may need to correct by adding or subtracting content to the sides of his sketches. He then uses graphite paper to transfer his drawings to his painting surface—illustration board.
His choice of surface reflects the evolution of his thought regarding picture book illustration. Long has come to see the final book, not the individual pages, as the artwork he’s creating. He painted his first five books on canvas. He liked the archival quality this surface provided, but became more and more dissatisfied with the dominance of the canvas’s texture, which he associated with paintings that viewers take in piece by piece rather than in the flowing totality of a picture book. Illustration board offered Long a smooth, archival surface. Also, the finished painting could be peeled off the illustration board and wrapped around a printer’s drum for scanning, just like unmounted canvas.
Long generally paints in acrylic, using classic oil-layering techniques. “I wanted to paint like an oil painter,” he says, “but in today’s world of sometimes finishing a painting on the same day I ship it, oil paint didn’t work for me.” Following early Italian Renaissance masters, he first applies glazes of local color—up to eight layers in certain areas. Then, adopting a more modern technique, he adds thicker, opaque nuances, which are usually the lighter colors. “Go to an art museum and look at a classic nineteenth-century portrait,” says Long. The paint is thin in the dark areas, and then the face is done in thicker oils. If you stand to the side, you can see it.”
Artist as team player
A fine artist needs to please himself, but also potential collectors and, most likely, one or more gallery owners. A picture book illustrator deals with editors, art directors and, to some degree, marketing, publicity and sales people—all these before the book has a chance to reach a single child (not to mention the adults who buy the book for the child). To some, the situation would be a nightmare, but Long welcomes the input from members of a publishing team. “They’re smart,” says Long, “and I want access to their expertise in their respective fields.” Long also points out, “In my experience, children’s publishing offers more creative freedom than any other market for illustration I’ve worked in. The editor and art director want the illustrator’s vision for a book. Nobody directs me as to how to illustrate a book or what to include. They just hand me a manuscript and react to the sketches I present.”
Otis, the story of a tractor who befriends a calf—a book that Long both wrote and illustrated—exemplifies the artist’s ability to work as a team player without sacrificing creative integrity. Loren wanted Otis to feel timeless, like Virginia Lee Burton’s 1939 classic, Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel—something that an adult would remember loving as a child and then read to his or her own children. He felt that the story of Otis leant itself to a black-and-white look, quite a departure from the bright colors of his previous book for the same publisher.
He decided to paint in gouache, which allowed him to work in thin layers, almost drawing rather than painting. “I like lamp black. It has a warm, rich tone. I thought I would layer that and brush in the black outline of Otis, the tractor,” says Long. But the paint fought him. “When you take those velvety washes of lamp black and throw in white to model and bring out the lights, the white becomes cool in temperature,” he explains. “I started throwing in a little cream—Naples yellow.” He also used a little colored pencil for outlining and texturing.
He sent the black-and-white sample illustration to his editor, who presented it to the publishing team. As Long tells it, “Half the room said, ‘We love it! This is going to stand out on a bookshelf.’ The other half said, ‘Kids need color!’ So I created the same illustration in color. Half the room said, ‘That’s it!’ The other half said, ‘We really liked that black and white.’ So I did a hybrid. I took the black-and-white scene and plopped in color, especially on the main characters. The result feels like a retro black-and-white book, but it has color.” The publishing team—and Long’s young readers—loved it. Long has followed up with a second Otis book, Otis and the Tornado.
Although Long’s style is fully identifiable, he cultivates subtle differences in the look of his art from book to book. His illustrations for The Little Engine That Could by Watty Piper display rich, opaque acrylic color. Otis has a monochromatic feel with a transparent look to the paint. The book Long is working on now, Chiro’s Night Song by Ari Berk, features illustrations that are part colorful acrylic and part charcoal. That’s the current plan, anyway. The execution may change as the vision continues to come into focus. And Loren is open—to experimentation, to suggestions, to the organic development that ultimately fulfills the grand design.
Holly Davis is senior editor of Magazine.
Excerpted from the October 2011 issue of Magazine. Used with the kind permission of Magazine, a publication of F+W Media, Inc. Visit www.artistsnetwork.com to subscribe.