In Depth Interview: Chuck Galey, Picture Book Author and Illustrator
Today I’m delighted to offer you an interview with Chuck Galey, author and illustrator of many picture books. Enjoy!
You’ve been in the children’s book business for 20 years now. What was your path in? I completed my college degree in what we called commercial art back in 1978 and had been an advertising art director for several years when the agency I worked for lost a very large account. I was laid off in 1985 and began my own studio of illustration, continuing working freelance for several ad agencies.
When my wife and I had a son, Sean, we began to read to him the wonderful picture books that came into our lives as gifts from friends. At the time, I was somewhat burned out of illustrating for advertising and was overwhelmed with envy for the beautiful stories and illustrations in those picture books.
I remember making a conscious decision to pursue children’s publishing in a journal entry in June of 1991. I learned as much as I could about the business and began to prepare new illustration samples for my portfolio to reflect more of a narrative image than an advertising image.
The University of Southern Mississippi holds an annual Children’s Book Festival on the USM campus. National and regional illustrators are invited to come speak to an audience of mainly regional school and public librarians. I attended those conferences every year just to let the imagery and the stories wash over me.
I met well-known writers and illustrators who were kind enough to answer my beginner’s questions. Many editors and publishers would escort their keynote speakers. Of course, I made it a point to meet them as well… and get their contact information!
I cut my teeth on book conferences at that festival and to this day, I hold the USM Children’s Book Festival (now called the Faye B. Kaigler Children’s Book Festival) as a standard by which I regard all other book festivals when I’m invited to speak.
The American Library Association has their national conference in New Orleans every few years. The ALA convention primarily targets elementary school librarians and the focus is on children’s publishing. I traveled there in 1993 to try to find a way on to the exhibit floor where all the big publishers have their illustrators and authors come and sign books at their booths. Of course, I took my illustration samples and tear sheets to show the editors and art directors there my work.
Pretty soon, I began to receive assignments from some of the publishers that I met there and from other publishers where I had sent sample packages. Many of the publishers were from the children’s education market that required interior line drawings. These are great clients to have because it means that you can become a regular illustrator for them as the publishers are always having new projects to work on.
The picture book projects came as a direct result of hearing about a particular project with a publisher from a friend. I quickly drew up some sample character sketches and was chosen as the illustrator for Jazz Cats by David Davis.
Once you do a good job for a publisher, they’re likely to come back to you for other projects. This is what happened with me.
Over the years, I’ve illustrated 10 picture books, nine written by other authors and one that I’ve written. I’m now developing projects where I am the author/illustrator.
What’s been your favorite part about creating picture books? My favorite part of working in picture books as an art form is in endeavoring to capture the suspension of time and kindling the imagination of a child. To a child, the world is big place where magic and fantasy are around every corner. The innocence of Good Night Moon by Margaret Wise Brown and the adventure of Where The Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak inspire me to reach beyond my everyday dull life and fly on the wings of the imagination. To float in that very wonderful elevation of consciousness, that level of awareness that permeates the fantastic, that is where I want to write my stories and illustrate worlds where characters live.
This is the world of the child. Where characters can do and be anything on a whim. The child will grow up soon enough. Better the child builds a foundation of the imagination to carry him through life.
What’s been your least favorite part? The most challenging part of working with picture books is the notion that I have to fall back to earth and produce the imagery and narrative that I’ve dreamed up, and, to some extent, failed.
Can you describe your process? I write the story first. The pictures do not come into play at this point because I have to get the story down pat. The characters and plot can only be laid out in the written word. As an illustrator, of course, I know that I don’t have to describe the scene or what a character looks like because I will be able to draw the character. I’ll be able to paint the scene, too. So, all that descriptive text need not be written.
When I’m finished with the manuscript, I begin building a dummy with the words in it… no pictures yet. I want to understand the pacing of the book, where does this text go within the book, where does that phrase go, etc. You’ll be surprised how a manuscript doesn’t make sense sometimes when you paginate the text and you see that the pacing and timing is not well done.
I may make a few written notes to describe what a possible scene may be in this copy of the initial dummy. These notes sometimes work, sometimes not. It’s always a work in progress.
When I feel comfortable about the first initial dummy and the pacing of the book, I’ll begin to work with the individual spreads and draw ten thumbnail sketches for each spread. I do this many thumbnail sketches because I want to have as many choices to work with for each spread as possible. It’s kind of like a movie director filming ten takes of the actors so that he can decide which take will work the best within the movie.
I must add here that these thumbnail sketches are the hardest part of the book. I have to create interesting scenes and design the characters with their expressions and emotions. In my opinion, these sketches are where the magic of creativity takes place. Once I’ve done all my sketches and I’ve chosen which one I want to use, the remainder of the production is pretty much a matter of time because I’ll then be able to finalize each spread and paint it accordingly within my particular painting style. From here to the finish, the creative part of the book is pretty much finished. The painting is what I consider a production matter.
Just to spice things up (I’m always editing) as I’m drawing out the illustration onto the watercolor paper, I may have an additional idea to the drawing, not changing the over all design, but just plussing the design… making it better and better. I love adding new thing into the illustration that the child will find after the seventh time they’ve read the book!
Is your studio your haven? What makes it a place where you can create? This is a great question because my studio is not my haven. I like to spend time, sitting in my living room in an easy chair. The room is open, neatly appointed and airy with a large picture window that faces east. The morning sun streams through this window with its yellow rays and bathes the opposite wall in a glow of golden morning potential.
In this big easy chair, I sit and read and dream. There is a table nearby where I can write longhand on a legal pad or draw in my sketchbook. This open area is a perfect place where my mind is not distracted by the clutter and work of the studio.
However, once I do get in the studio, the production begins and I’m happy to spend a lot of time there as well. For me, production of the illustrations is bit like producing a movie. I have cast (designed and drawn) the characters, created (painted) the scenes and written the script. Now I have to film the movie in fourteen spreads, create the movie poster (cover) and film the opening scenes; end papers, half title page and full title page.
I notice a lot of purple in your artwork. Would you say that’s one of your signature style colors? What would be your personal color palette? (What two or three colors tend to help define your style?) I like to work with colors and their complements in order to let them work with each other to brighten or dull a painting depending on what the tone of the story calls for. In those terms, I consider myself a colorist.
As far as the purple goes, a few years ago, when I was illustrating Jazz Cats (Pelican Publishing), by David Davis, I took a trip to New Orleans to take pictures in the French Market. The story takes place in New Orleans, so I wanted to be as authentic as possible.
I traveled to New Orleans In July of that year and it was really hot! I spent a full day taking all kinds of pictures around the French Quarter, Jackson Square, etc.
When I got back home in the studio, I wanted to capture the heat in my paintings, so I used a lot of orange and yellow to make the scenes look warm. The complement to an orangy-yellow is purple. In the triad complementary scheme, the third color would be green. So that would be the pallet for Jazz Cats, purple, orange and green.
Years later, when I was doing a presentation at LSU’s College of Library Science, one of the librarians asked how I came up with that color scheme. I described the trip to New Orleans. She said that those were Mardi Gras colors! I hadn’t thought of that at all!
It is a great example of when an artist surrounds himself with influential colors and cultural, something is bound to seep through the creative process to enrich the painting. I feel that is what happened with my trip to New Orleans and the subsequent illustrations for Jazz Cats.
I used this color pallet for several books after that, but over the past few years, though, I’ve been branching out a bit and designing colors around the mood and pace of the story. Again, it’s like shooting a scene in a movie and how everything you see on the screen, the scenery’s objects, the lighting, the movement, is there only to drive the story along. Everything is there for a reason.
What have you got going on now? Anything you’d like to share? Jo Kittinger wrote A Breath of Hope (American Bar Association Publishing) and I illustrated it last year. It was published in July and has been well received. We’ve been asked to work on a similar project for ABA Publishing. As I’m writing this blog in August, 2012, I’m waiting to see the manuscript for the next book.
The book I’m currently working on, a manuscript that I wrote, is called Five Second Rule. All I can say about it now is that it involves food on the floor, a petulant child… and bugs.
About the Author: Chuck Galey. After a brief time with in-house public relation departments and advertising agencies, I began freelancing illustration in 1985 was an advertising and editorial illustrator at the time and was looking for new horizons. The process of writing and illustrating picture books looked like a fun adventure to try.
As my work in children’s literature progressed, invitations to visit schools and libraries began to be offered. Naturally, as I talked to teachers and librarians, I found ways to connect with the children. Over the years, with nothing more than experience in the classroom and libraries, I learned what would work to connect with students to keep their attention and, at the same time without their realizing it, help them to learn a few things about art, reading and writing.
In 2002 I began to teach an illustration course in the art department at Mississippi State University. There, I learned further how to connect with students to keep them interested in the projects and the discipline of illustration and drawing.
I have illustrated ten picture books, one of them I wrote. I continue to write and illustrate for children as well as speak at schools, universities and conferences.