Ten writers for children. All with something to say.


Illustration - An Evolution Story

I am a late bloomer. That is what my mom always said of me. I took my time learning to walk, read, talk... my first kiss wasn't until I was 17, if you discount my sister urging me to run up and kiss Little Bill when I was three. And so it was with picture books. I illustrated my first one when I was in my mid-thirties. MUD, by Mary Lyn Ray. I only intended to illustrate one book, then return to my sawing, hammering, building and painting of sculptures, but my editor had the discernment to send me Cynthia Rylant's SCARECROW, which melted my fine artist self and brought me into the world of painting picture books for good. Since then I have a deep appreciation for every manuscript that arrives on my desk to consider painting the pictures for. What a gift other people's stories are to my life! Thanks to Kristine O' Connell George, I learned to fold origami for FOLD ME A POEM. Thanks to Linda Ashman, I studied the homes of animals and learned how to rhyme pictures with shapes to match her rhyming text. I have spent nights in a red silk tent because of Wendy Orr and whispered to stuffed animals thanks to Mem Fox. Right now I am dancing with deer because of another story by Mary Lyn Ray. 

One of the stories that most changed my life was OUR FAMILY TREE, AN EVOLUTION STORY, by Lisa Westberg Peters. 

I was terribly afraid to illustrate this book initially because of its subject matter. Not the fact that evolution was/is so controversial in this country, but because I am not a scientist. Most of my life I avoided science as much as possible, taking my high school science credits during summer school because it was faster and easier-- so I could take two or three art classes during the year instead! But I loved Lisa's story, I knew I had to take illustrate it. For months I read, studied, visited an Anthropologist in her lab, and the more I learned, the more my breath was taken away by the sheer gorgeous magnitude of 4 billion years of life on our Earth. I sketched and painted color studies and had no idea how I was going to paint the vastness of evolution into a picture book. At one point I stretched up an 8 foot by 8 foot sheet of paper on my studio wall and drew with charcoal the family tree I was beginning to see in my mind's eye, but could not shrink to book-size.

I gathered images of landscapes from every era. When Lisa wrote:.."then the earth changed. Land rose from the oceans... life changed too... some cells joined together and became plants. Our cells joined together and we became animals,"I had to show the enormity of the land rising while at the same time microscopic changes in cells becoming plants and animals. 

On my studio walls hung images of cells, volcanos, renderings by scientific artists alongside photos and paintings by fine artists.

I loved this mural of the evolution of humans by Diego Rivera.

The art work of other artists, both scientific and painters of the 20th century like Georgia O'Keefe and Marsden Hartley informed my how I could show life evolving through the movement of form and paint.

I made color sketches in my journal and dozens more all the time wondering how I might show what is happening above the sea and below the sea at the same time. While I paint the illustrations for a book, my studio becomes an impassable place to visitors. The floors are covered with open books, sketches, and objects that might give me a clue what color or shape to choose. By accident I had opened a book upside down on the floor and it was a painting by Bosch, upside down that gave me my answer.

Bosch's painting on the right, upside down became
the composition for the illustration below.

Every painting for OUR FAMILY TREE evolved through research, learning, looking, and imagining walks through extinctions, evolutions, and moving continents over time. It took me nearly three years to research and paint the illustrations for this book. Three years that changed the way I see myself in the world around me. I am now a lover of science and all the wonders it offers to my imagination. Maybe I am a late bloomer, but it was worth the wait. I am so thankful for the worlds picture books continue to open up for me.  


Christy said...

Lauren, I love hearing about your process of approaching this book. Thanks for sharing all the images that inspired you. I can imagine how daunting the subject matter seemed. I was exactly like you and took my science classes in the summer. What a beautiful job you did with the book.

Edie Hemingway said...

I enjoyed reading about the evolution of your artwork for this book on evolution! It certainly took an amazing amount of research and time, but the results are exquisite.

David LaRochelle said...

The story of your research is fascinating, Lauren, and once again I'm in awe of all the thought you put into your books. When I look at OUR FAMILY TREE, the illustrations fit so perfectly, it's hard to imagine the struggle behind them. That's a testament to what an amazing job you did.

David LaRochelle said...

P.S. And having heard you talk of your process before was an inspiration for when I was working on the book I'm illustrating. You showed me the importance of research and exposure to your subject matter, though I have a long way to go to be as richly immersed as you are.