My Journey as an Illustrator
I grew up in the small town of Monson, Massachusetts. I lived there from the time I was born in 1951 until I was 18 and went away to college in 1969. When I was growing up in Monson, my favorite place to play was the woods. I spent many happy hours with my friends at “Cat Rock,” which was a beautiful spot in the woods not far from our house on Main Street. (shown here) My imagination came to life there, and I believed there were magical creatures living in the tangled underbrush that I might catch a glimpse of if I were very, very lucky.
Besides the woods, my other favorite place was the library. I was a shy child and books were a way to identify with characters that were brave and got to do exiting things. One of my treasured possessions was a battered copy of Grimm’s Fairytales that once belonged to my father. I read the stories over and over.
My grandmother, Ruth, was the librarian in Palmer for over 40 years. My sister, brother and I spent many hours with her at the library when we were quite small. I remember being in awe at the tall stacks of books and the varnished wooden walls and desks. When I was older, I walked from our house to the Monson library. After moving from picture books to chapter books and novels, I fought over Black Stallion books with my best friend, Judy McDonald. (sometimes she won) We anxiously awaited each new adventure, for the series was written during these years. After reading the stories we would gallop through the woods on our imaginary stallions. When Judy moved from downtown to a farm up on Munn Road near the Wales border, our adventures in the woods expanded into the Brimfield State forest and Dean Pond.
One of the most magical places in the woods near her house was an abandoned Theme Park. I remember singing songs from the Wizard of OZ ….Lions ands Tigers and Bears Oh my! as we walked the few miles to reach the dirt road which was our gateway to adventure. At the end of the long, tree-lined road a pink castle loomed. Of course it was locked, but it was easy to get into the old park through the woods. Inside were many buildings in miniature, big enough to stand inside, but small— there was a Santa’s workshop, a little church, a miniature railroad. My favorite was a fieldstone cottage – probably intended as a fairy-tale house – perhaps the home of the Seven Dwarves. The place also included a Frontier land, a main street with a boardwalk, saloon and hotel, and covered wagons left abandoned in a field. I don’t believe the place ever opened to the public. But my imagination was opened there.
The broken glass that crunched under our feet was music to our ears as the dust motes danced in the slanted beams of sunlight coming through the shattered window panes. The combination of my love of fairytales and actually getting to play in a magical fairy-tale play land, overgrown and mysterious, without a doubt had a profound effect on the direction of my life.
My love for stories and especially horse stories fed into another passion – drawing. From the time paper and pencils were available I drew the object of my dreams – the horse. I even conducted a Saturday morning art class in 4th grade and attempted to teach my friends how to draw horses as well. Finally, after years of begging and cajoling, when I was 13 my parents bought me a horse. Of course we kept him at my best friend Judy’s house.
The happiest times in my teenage years were spent trail riding with Judy and her younger sister Susie. There was Taffy, the trusty pony belonging to Susie, Judy’s big chestnut mare Ginger, and Ricky’s horse Satan, a little black gelding who lived up to his name. My horse was a sweet bay gelding named Duke. The McDonald’s farm had practically everything from the song- pigs, chickens, cows. It was a great place to grow up. We belonged to a 4-H club, put on horse shows, and galloped at breakneck speed through the trails in the woods. A low branch once swept into my face and my glasses flew off into the underbrush. They are probably still there to this day because I never did find them. Perhaps the fairies hauled them off and made a few windows for one of their dwellings.
Sadly, when I was a Senior in high school, a drunken hunter shot and killed my beloved horse, Duke. My childhood was over. I found solace in drawing and painting. A number of times during winter vacation in art school I went to the old theme park and took pictures of the decaying wagons in the snow, which were amazingly still there. A few years later I believe vandals torched the whole place. The remains of the stone cottage are still there, I discovered a few years ago. And the magic of their memory is alive in me and is reflected in my books, especially my original fairytale,The Enchanted Wood, which is in great part a homage to my love of the Monson woods.
I have always loved to draw, especially horses. I decided to teach myself oil painting when I was around 13 years old. The first thing I painted was a horse head, shown below,
For my Senior Art History project in high school I copied a Manet painting, The Bar at The Folies-Bergeres in its original size- almost five feet wide. I decided I wanted to make a career out of art. After spending a year at a liberal arts college where the art courses were all abstract, I transferred to the Paier School of Art in Connecticut so I could take a combination of traditional drawing and painting courses and commercial courses as well. I really wanted to make a living and decided that illustration was the way to go. The modern fine art scene did not appeal to me, though I admired older painters like Magrite, The English Pre-Raphaelites and the Hudson River School. The illustrators whom I admired the most were the Howard Pyle, N.C. Wyeth, Norman Rockwell and Mark English.
In 1974 I graduated from Paier. An agent in the children’s field took me on, and though I did a little magazine and advertising work on my own, I soon was busy with children’s illustrations, mainly textbooks, for the first five years. I started to do some full-color covers as well. The books I had read as a child, the Black Stallion series and the Nancy Drew series were being put into paperback for the first time and I was fortunate to get the assignment for 18 covers in each series. I did some black and white picture books and an edition of The Little Engine that Could.
In the early eighties I struck out on my own without an agent. I began to do a number of Golden Books and quite a few full color jackets for young adult novels.
My big break into the trade market was the assignment to illustrate an edition of Heidi with one hundred full color paintings. Up to this time I had only used fast drying mediums for assignments, such as watercolors, colored pencils, airbrush and acrylics. Heidi had a one-year deadline so I decided to paint it in oils, which had always been my preferred medium. I enjoyed painting again in oils so much, I felt I had returned home. I went on to illustrate The Secret Garden and then I illustrated my first fairy tale, The Sleeping Beauty, which was retold by Jane Yolen.
In 1988 Jane introduced me to Maria Modugno, the children’s book editor at Little, Brown. She expressed an interest in having me do a fairy tale for them, and gave me the opportunity to retell it myself. The Twelve Dancing Princesses was the result of a year and a half of work and was published in 1990.
The archetypal characters and the symbolism that one finds in fairy tales contain truths that are universal and can be as meaningful for children today as they have been for centuries past. So many of them are “rites of passage stories”, where the hero(child) leaves home to seek adventure or to go on an impossible quest, learning in the process how to become independent and to form new relationships outside of parental influence. In The Twelve Dancing Princesses, the three magical woods that the princesses pass through are symbolic to me of their rite of passage into adulthood.
My original story The Enchanted Wood grew out of my love for the woods, for paths, for fairy tales. Trees have always had the ability to hold me spellbound, at sunset especially. An old tree can have such character and majesty. In the story, three sons go on a quest for the Heart of the World (which is a magical “tree of life”) The fact that success often comes at a great sacrifice is the central theme of this story.
My book Papa Gatto is the result of combining a number of Italian fairytales with a similar element — a talking cat. It is a Cinderella-type story with a bit of Puss in Boots as well. And a slightly modern twist at the end, when the young lady declines the Prince’s proposal in favor of living with her beloved cats! My own cat Duke was the model for Papa Gatto, along with my daughter Whitney who posed in costume for his body.
When I illustrated The Nativity I decided to try for a stylized approach. I was influenced by early Rennaisance, Byzantine, and illuminated manuscript styles. I appreciate the more stylized, iconographical approach to religious subjects, being an Orthodox Christian myself. It creates a more timeless effect when the art is less “fleshy.” In Orthodoxy icons are considered to be “windows” to the spiritual realm.
Rose Red and Snow White was my next retelling for Little, Brown. I enjoyed inventing a dwarf and putting him through various antics. This was the first character that I painted in a realistic manner which was invented without reference materials. I always find models, dress them in costume, photograph them and use the pictures for reference in my paintings, though I don’t copy the photos slavishly. It was scary but liberating to realize I could make up a character and paint it convincingly to blend with my “real” people.
After I did a series of collector’s plates with a Night Before Christmas theme I suggested a picture book version to my editor. I tried to paint a “traditional” Santa set in the Victorian period when the verse was first written. The images from the book have also been made into greeting cards, tins, gift bags, wall hangings, pillows, stockings, and even the cover of a corporate annual report.
One sleepless night the idea came to me to do stories of women in the Bible illustrated to look like woven tapestries. The title would be TAPESTRIES, Stories of Women in the Bible. My editor had requested a Bible story, perhaps featuring one woman only, but I wanted to include as many women as possible, giving a short account of each. We ended up with 23 women in a 32 page picture book, which gives readers a chance to find out about a number of lesser-known characters. (such as “The Witch of Endor” from the Old Testament and Phoebe from the New Testament.) It was a nice change of pace to try to simulate woven tapestries in oil paint.
I enjoy taking different versions of a story and combining the most interesting elements in my own retelling. For The Crystal Mountain I went a step further and combined two stories whose only tangent was a magical mountain and a quest. I took my favorite elements from The Glass Mountain, a Norwegian story, and The Magic Brocade, a Chinese tale. On the surface this would seem an unlikely match. However, the Chinese tale about a weaver of brocades transferred nicely into a weaver of tapestries, a 15th century European trade. As that is my preferred time and place to set my fairytales, it all worked out quite well. I added the three magical horses from The Glass Mountain to The Magic Brocade and voila — The Crystal Mountain was born.
I have always loved Russian folklore, and decided to merge a few stories that included magical horses and the firebird, and I added an original twist to the end of the story. The Golden Mare, The Firebird, and the Magic Ring was chosen as the Texas Bluebonnet Award for 2003, with close to a quarter of a million Texas schoolchildren acting as the judges.
Cinderella (2002) was a real challenge to retell and illustrate. I decided to merge the French and German versions of the story, keeping the magic of the pumpkin coach and fairy god mother while weaving in more symbolic elements from the more serious Grimm’s version. I also decided to change the part where the glass slipper is tried on the various young ladies by the prince’s servants – in my version, the prince himself comes along and sees Cinderella out the window. Taking the glass slipper, he goes outside, kneels before her, and puts it on himself. It is the ultimate romantic moment and a great scene for an illustrator to depict. In my version, the birds peck at the stepsisters and chase them back into their house where they can never come out again, softening the Grimm’s version where they peck their eyes out. So, I have made sure the sisters are punished and not just married off to rich nobles, as in the French version.
Saints, Lives and Illuminations (Eerdmans, 2003) contains the stories of 40 saints from the first millennium, from martyrs to desert fathers to great Doctors of the church. Again I chose to use a more stylized approach when depicting the saints, and I used intricate border motifs as well.
The Snow Princess (2004) was inspired by the Russian opera/ballet the Snow Maiden. In the opera the Snow Maiden is warned by her parents, Father Frost and Mother Spring, not to fall in love or she will die. Of course, she falls in love and eventually perishes by melting in beautiful operatic style. In my version there is a surprise ending, when the character realizes that she is in love and wonders why she has not died. Her mother Spring appears as the snow is melting and explains that she will indeed die, for now she is mortal, and like all human beings she too will grow old and die. So, everyone lives happily ever after in fairy tale fashion. This is another coming-of-age story where the character must make a sacrifice and go through an ordeal (a rite of passage) in order to become independent from parental influence.
More Saints, Lives and Illuminations is a companion volume to Saints and tells the stories of saints from the second millennium, including a few people that are “Blessed,” like Mother Theresa, a step on her way to beatification, but not yet having the number of miracles that the church requires before making someone “officially” a saint. Most saints are first revered by the populace before the Church takes official action.
Mother Goose and Friends is a 64-page collection of the most well-known rhymes, along with a few new “treasures” I have added to the collection. (March 2008)
There is a very different ending to my version of Goldilocks, involving blueberry muffins. (2009)
The Golden Key was a long-time dream came true when I finally illustrated my favorite fairy tale by Victorian writer George MacDonald. And I discovered a new medium—scratchboard. I went wild and illustrated this 136-page book with 47 pictures. Eerdmans published it in 2016.
Horse Diaries is a 16-volume series of historic fiction horse stories that I spent 10 years illustrating, ending in 2019. My daughter Whitney wrote five of the titles for Random House, and it was great fun collaborating with her on the books.
A Castle Full of Cats (2016) is a humorous story while I wrote in rhyme about a queen who loves cats, and a king…who does not. When he brings home a dog, hilarity ensues.
I am so glad that I have been able to illustrate a number of picture books by Jane Yolen, starting with Sleeping Beauty, followed by Where Have the Unicorns Gone and Hush Little Horsie. In 2021, I illustrated the marvelous chapter book she wrote, Arch of Bone, with scratchboard illustration.
In 2016 I started creating coloring books for adults. See the COLORING BOOKS page for more info.
A Storm of Horses (Feb. 2022)
Almost fifty years ago, I stood awestruck in front of a gigantic painting of horses at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. The Horse Fair by Rosa Bonheur impressed me with its detailed realism, dramatic lighting, and its energy and sense of movement. It remains my favorite horse painting to this day. Like Rosa, my love of horses and learning to draw them were my main inspiration for becoming an artist. I decided to write and illustrate a picture book biography for older readers about this 19th century woman artist. In my research I was thrilled to learn many details about her painting process and her remarkable life.
I hope to inspire other horse-loving young artists with A Storm of Horses, and with my book Drawing Horses, in which I share my techniques for drawing my favorite animal on the planet.