Christopher Denise is an award-winning children’s book illustrator and visual development artist. His first book, a retelling of the Russian folktale The Fool of the World and the Flying Ship, was pronounced “a stunning debut” by Publishers Weekly.
Since then, Chris has illustrated more than twenty books for children, including Alison McGhee’s upcoming Firefly Hollow, Rosemary Wells’ Following Grandfather, Phyllis Root’s Oliver Finds His Way, his wife Anika Denise’s Bella and Stella Come Home and some in Brian Jacques’ acclaimed Redwall series.
His books have appeared on the New York Times bestseller list and have been recognized by Bank Street College of Education, Parents’ Choice Foundation, and the Society of Illustrators Annual Exhibition.
Christopher Denise lives in Rhode Island with his family.
Christopher has two books coming out in the next few months. The first is SLEEPYTIME ME written by Edith Hope Fine coming out May 27th.
The second book, BAKING DAY at GRANDMA’S is written by his wife Anika and will be available in August.
Christopher gives us a sneak peek of some of the interior shots below, with his process pictures on how he created a double page spread for the book.
This little beauty is really just a placeholder. Sometimes I will read a passage from a manuscript and know right away what I need to do. A quick little thumbnail sketch and I am under way. Obviously that did not happen with this piece!
Here I have expanded on the idea a bit. I knew that I wanted to have the three kid bears leaving their house and signing their song.
I realized that the last sketch felt more like a goodbye as the little ones were heading off into the distance. It was also was a bit unclear at first glance if the adult in the foreground was mom or grandma. While the details would clear that up I don’t like to rely solely on details for communication. The quick read on a piece needs to be part of the communication. So I changed the point of view and focused on the kids signing their song.
Sometimes I get a feeling for a pose and block it out in Photoshop-super quick.
One of the many great things about Photoshop. Just drag those quick poses right into your document and scale them to fit.
A quick check back to my character sheets for reference. In order to properly design the piece I need to remember the shapes of the pieces (in this case the little bears) that I am working with.
Character sheets are so important for my process. At the onset of a project I will generate many. Once I get into blocking out the scenes and can see what a character might need to do I often go back and re-design or tweak the shapes.
The lighting in this piece is not particularly dramatic nevertheless a quick value study helps me understand that I need to balance the snow areas and clouds.
Zooming in, cropping trying to get a bit more immediacy with our little bears.
Another part of the balancing process. There is so much sky that I wanted to make sure the composition would work.
Starting in on some of the details even though the piece is still technically in sketch form. With Photoshop I see so little distinction between a sketch and the beginning of a painting. Love that! Some of the tree texture is from reference other parts are hand drawn.
I knew that my bears were not quite right so back to the sketchbook.
When I know I have a pose the way I want I will often drag that layer onto a separate document and begin to paint up the details. It helps with managing file size and encourages me to focus on the character and not to get distracted and loose a day messing around with the tree bark or something.
While I am painting these parts I will periodically drag them over to the painting in progress to see how they are starting to look.
Here I am starting to get a feeling for how the painting might develop.
Staring to paint in the background and add some more values to the environment. I do not have a set way of working. Sometimes I jump into the background first; sometimes I focus on a lighting effect, sometimes the characters. Depending on how complicated the lighting might be in a piece I may or may not paint the sky on a seperate layer. It certainly gives you more options down the road.
One of many lighting passes. Think of them as transparent glazes just as you would make with acrylic or watercolor.
More clean up, more lighting. Probably working back into the characters along the way.
Working in some of the texture details.
Another lighting pass and probably some adjustment layers. Some purists say that is cheating but for me it’s no different than putting on a transparent layer of acrylic glaze or spraying a piece with fixative to deepen your values.
I tend to work on a bunch of images at once. I divide each piece into a number of work units and put them in the production schedule. Then, if I am excited about working on a particular piece I can shift work units from one day to another. This piece was moving along to finish a bit faster than the other snow scene. I ended up making changes to the costumes mid way through so will need to go back to the other painting and make the change.
Our little bears have gone back to wardrobe, had their makeup retouched, repositioned the lighting and we have the piece! Below they are getting ready to bake.
When did you first get interested in art?
As a kid! All kids love art-I just never stopped. I never let anyone talk me out of it-it is too much fun.
Why did your family move to Ireland from Massachusetts after you were born?
We moved to Ireland when I was six years old. My father had been working with General Electric and they offered him an opportunity to relocate and set up a headquarters in Shannon. He saw it not only as a great career opportunity but a chance to expose his kids to a very different way of life. This was in the early 70’s so Shannon was more like the States in the 50’s. It was an amazing place to spend some of my formative years.
What made you move back to the states?
He had completed much of what he set out to do and my oldest brother was preparing to enter high school and my parents thought it best to return to the states.
Do you feel Ireland influences your illustrations?
Absolutely. In Ireland we kids had an amazing amount of autonomy and unstructured time. Broadcast television began after 6pm and there was very little programing geared at children so we spent our days outside exploring the countryside and creating our own adventures. I look at the art I created for The Redwall picture books and I see so much of those childhood days.
Do you still have an Irish brogue?
Only after a very long dinner party with old friends!
How did you decide to go to Rhode Island School of Design to study art?
After high school I was studying Art History and Archeology at St. Lawrence University. I was also spending a lot of time in art studio classes. It was fantastic and I was doing very well but I felt I needed more direction. My brother was studying architecture at RISD and after my first visit I knew that I needed to be there. While RISD students were dancing on the tables listening to The Talking Heads (very appealing to me) they were also having serious conversations about art and their own work.
What was the first piece of art that you sold?
I started freelancing for the Providence Journal in my Junior year at RISD. I created a series of black and white illustrations for a re-printing of A Child’s Christmas in Wales by Dylan Thomas.
I read that you started illustrating books for educational publishers while you were still attending RISD. How did you make those connections?
I did and internship at Silver Burdett and Ginn, an educational publisher just outside of Boston. I was in charge of opening the submissions from artists and filing their promotional materials. It was not long before I realized that I wanted to be on the mailing end of the equation. When the internship finished I created my own mailers, asked the art directors to look at the work and for recommendations about where I might send them.
Were you continue doing freelance work when you graduated? Or did you take a job illustrating?
Since that day it has been all freelance work.
How did you connect with Philomel to illustrate your first picture book?
That was a friend of a friend situation. I heard that this person, whom I had met a few times socially, worked as an assistant editor at Philomel Books. She was incredibly generous and offered to look at my work. I don’t think she expected much but she actually liked my art and offered to take it down to the Art department. The Art Director promptly rejected it and told me to come back in a few years. Luckily she hung one of my mailers on her wall where it caught the attention of the esteemed editor Patti Gauch (Owl Moon, Lon Po Po). Patti called me up right there and asked when I could be in New York. I borrowed the cash for the train and within a week I was sitting in her office talking about books.
Your name is the only name for THE FOOL OF THE WORLD AND THE FLYING SHIP. Did you do the writing of the retold Russian tale?
Patti suggested that I consider illustrating the story of the fool and sent me on my way. The first edition I found was the Caldecott award winning version illustrated and retold by Uri Schulevitz. Lets not forget, that this is the guy who had literally written THE book on writing and illustrating picture books, Writing With Pictures. After being paralyzed with fear and then realizing there was no way out of this I started my research. I came across a wonderful version of the text by Petr Nikolaevich Polevoi published by St. Petersberg in 1874. Patti and I loved the language and just made a few minor edits. There is a note about the text on the last page of my edition.
What was the next book that you illustrated and how did you get that assignment?
My next book was The Great Redwall Feast by Brian Jaques. Patti was Brian’s stateside editor and had been hounding him to write a picture book. Brian saw The Fool and wrote The Feast for me to illustrate. We quickly became close friends and I had the pleasure of working with him for many years. He is missed and I think of him often.
Did anyone hire you just to illustrate a cover for a book?
Yes, I created the artwork for Brian’s Castaways of the Flying Dutchman. I created two paintings for the cover but ultimately they were never used.
Did anyone hire you just to illustrate a cover for a book?
Yes, I created the artwork for Brian’s Castaways of the Flying Dutchman. I created two paintings for the cover but ultimately they were never used.
I see that your wife Anika is an author. How many books have you illustrated for her?
We have a really fun wintertime read-aloud book due out this August called Baking Day at Grandma’s (Philomel Books). That will be our third. Before that we collaborated on Pigs Love Potatoes (Philomel Books 2007) and Bella and Stella Come Home (Philomel, 2010). Both are still in print and seem to be popular!
Do you have any desire to write and illustrate a picture book?
Desire-yes but I have not felt like I have had the chops to pull it off until recently. Writing a solid picture book, as many of your readers know, is incredibly difficult. I have a few things on my desk that are showing some promise and with the help of my incredible agent and friend, Emily vanBeek at Folio Jr., I am sure that a few of them will come to fruition at some point. Recently, I came up with the initial concept and art for a book that I tried writing but it was terrible! Thankfully, Alison McGhee (Someday, Bink & Gollie, Shadow Baby) came to my rescue and penned a gorgeous novel called Firefly Hollow that I am working on right now.
How and when did you get involved in visual development work for animated feature films?
A RISD alumni who knew my work called me to work on a project that was in development with Blue Sky Studios ( Ice age, Rio, Epic). I was part of a very small team of artists all outside the film studio creating images for what the film might look like. I ended up staying with the project for nearly a year. Its a beautiful story that I hope they make into a film someday!
Which animated films did you work on?
Left Tern (Blue Sky studios), Beasts of Burden (ReelFx), a bit of work on Rio (Blue Sky studios) after it was already in production, and a few others that have not yet been made and I am not supposed to talk about!
What is involved in visual development in animation?
Visual Development artists are called in to work with a director and/or production designer to help envision the look and feel of a film. You need to check your ego at the door, stay flexible, and work very, very quickly. I would turn out 20-30 paintings a week. Many loose, some more finished. Sometimes your paintings would be sent off to another artist to paint over and then sent back to you for work again. Often there is not a solid script and you are flying by the seat of your pants with a story summary and a few story beats (moments in a film) that you need to nail down. I love the collaborative aspect of the work and the idea that it is all about the story-not just making one or two pretty pictures.
I noticed that you used pastels on one of your illustrations. Is that your favorite medium?
I love pastel work but really I love whatever is working for that particular book. Its always about the book on my desk and what it needs from me. I do enjoy the flexibility and speed of photoshop. I am impatient with my work and want to get to the good stuff as soon as possible. I need to get in there and start painting and changing things. Acting and re-acting. Photoshop is a wonderful tool for that type of work.
Has your style changed over the years?
Sure, with every book and the demands of each manuscript. Writing is hard and I think it would be a great disservice to the author and the story for me to impose a particular style on a book.
How did you connect with the lovely agent, Emily van Beek?
How long have the two of you been together? Emily and I met when I signed on with Pippin about 5 years ago. I was thrilled to re-connect with her later on when she started Folio Junior.
What do you think has been your greatest career accomplishment?
Wow. Tough question. Ask me again in about twenty years! A Redwall Winters Tale and Oliver Finds His Way would both rank pretty high up there for different reasons but I always think that I am only as good as my last book. I feel pretty good about the last year. I completed two books that I am VERY proud of. Sleepytime Me by Edith Fine (Random House, May 2014) and Baking Day at Grandma’s (Philomel, August 2014)
How many children books have you illustrated?
About twenty two I think. A few of the titles were created for educational publishers then re-published for the regular trade market.
How did you get involved in illustrating the Redwall series of books?
Patti Gauch was responsible for showing Brian Jacques my work. Thanks, Patti!
How many of those books have you illustrated?
I illustrated three books for the the Redwall picture-book series. The Great Redwall Feast (Philomel 1996), A Redwall Winters Tale (Philomel 2001), and The Redwall Cookbook (Philomel 2005)
It looks like you have done a lot of books with Philomel. How many books have you illustrated for them?
Nine books with Philomel so far.
OLIVER FINDS HIS WAY was published by Candlewick. How did that contract come about?
Chris Paul at Candlewick called me up out of the blue one day and said she had a project that she would like me to consider. They are just up in Somerville so I drove up for lunch and met with Chris and the wonderful Mary Lee Donovan. I knew right away that I wanted to work with them. Candlewick is a fantastic house, beautiful books, super nice people.
I think Jane Yolen lives near you. Did you know her before you illustrated THE SEA MAN? Was that the only Merman you have illustrated?
I did not know Jane before I illustrated The Sea Man, but of course I knew Jane’s work. We just saw each other at Kindling Words in January and since then have talked about the possibility of working together again. Yes-that was the very first Merman I was asked to illustrate.
Do they have a studio in your house?
My studio is about 15′ from my back door in a separate building that I re-built just three years ago. For years I had studios in Providence. Downtown is only about twelve miles away from the little beach-side community where we live but the drive home, late at night if I was working on deadline or a film project, was not fun. It was convenient when I was teaching at RISD but I was also missing my wife and the kids. I like to be able to quit at 4:00, spend some time with my family, have a glass of wine, dinner, read to the kids, and put them to bed. After that I walk back out to the studio for another session. Making books is hard work but my family life and walks on the beach keep me anchored and very happy.
I was able to see some of your wonderful black and white interior drawings that did you do for Rosemary Well’s book, FOLLOWING GRANDFATHER. How many did you do for the 64 page book?
Gosh, I don’t remember-quite a few! I loved working with Rosemary and since then we have become good friends.
Have you done illustrations for any children’s magazines?
Yes, I think I did work for Ladybug magazine. I may have done work for Cricket.
Your new book coming out in May titled, SLEEPYTIME ME is beautiful. How did you get that contract with Random House?
I was working with Elena Mechlin at Pippin and she brought the manuscript to me. Edith’s (Fine) writing is so wonderful. That was another fantastic project. Random House gave me lots of support and complete freedom.
How long did you have to illustrate that whole book?
I created that suite of images in about six months. They were long days but I loved the work.
What types of things do you do to find illustration work?
Not so many things personally. Emily, my agent, makes sure that I have plenty on my plate. I work closely with her making sure that we have a plan and chart out the production schedule. Our biggest challenge is leaving some blocks of time off-especially in the summer.
What is the one thing in your studio that you could not live without?
My sketchbook-no doubt.
Do you try to spend a specific amount of time working on your craft?
I do try to take some time in the summer to go landscape painting. But in truth I work on my craft every single day. I try to start each session as a novice.
Do you take pictures or do any types of research before you start a project?
I do take some pictures. I browse books ( fine art, photography, other picture books) from my own shelves and the library-seeing what comes to me. The internet, of course, is amazing.
I notice that you are doing the illustrations for Betsy Devany’s debut picture book, SMELLY BABY. Both of you are represented by Emily van Beek. I can’t wait to see the illustrations. Great match-up! How was Emily able to get you two together?
This is one of the great things about Emily. We were talking about what I wanted to work on, scheduling and such and she was already thinking way ahead of me about what would serve us (because we are most definately a team) professionally but also allow me to stretch artistically. She called me up a few days later and asked how I felt about working on something funny and emailed Betsy’s manuscript for Smelly Baby. I read it through and forced my self to wait for ten minutes before I said YES!
Have you won any awards that you are particularly proud of?
Yes but it has nothing to do with publishing! I was nominated for the Frazier award in teaching at RISD. That nomination was particularly meaningful to me because it is the students who vote for the few nominees that make the cut. That was such an honor because I loved working with such wonderfully talented young artists and I put my heart in soul into teaching those classes. Of course I am grateful and honored when any of my books receive recognition.
Out of all the books you have illustrated, do you have a favorite?
Another tough question. The books are like my girls, they are all my favorites for different reasons. If I had to choose I would choose four. Pigs Love Potatoes (Anika Denise) Oliver Finds His Way (Phyllis Root), Sleepytime Me (Edith Fine), and Baking Day at Grandma’s (Anika Denise).
Do you use Photoshop or a graphic tablet when illustrating?
I paint and draw in Photoshop using a medium size wacom intuos tablet and pen.
Do you have any career dreams that you want to fulfill?
I am in the process of doing just that! I spend my days drawing pictures and coming up with stories. How great is that?!
What are you working on now?
Firefly Hollow ( Simon & Schuster) an illustrated novel by Alison McGhee, and Betsy Devany’s picture book Smelly Baby (Henry Holt & Company)
Do you have any material type tips or software type tips you can share with us? Example: A new product that you’ve tried – A how to tip, etc.
I think my breakthrough with digital tools came when I stopped trying to “learn” the software and started to think of using photoshop to replicate my traditional process. To use the program in the same way as I used my traditional tools. Same layering process, same ways of applying color. Make the digital tools work for you-mistakes and all. In the end you have more flexibility and can change things. Also-be brave and create your own brushes to get the effects that you want.
Any words of wisdom on how to become a successful writer or illustrator?
Trust your instincts. Do what you need to do to get by but after that point do not be afraid to say no to something if your heart is not in it.
Thank you Christopher for sharing your talent, process, expertise, and journey with us. Please keep in touch and let us know all of your future successes. We would love to hear about them. You can visit Christopher at: http://www.christopherdenise.com
You can link over to his blog and his Etsy shop where he sell original artwork.
I really appreciate it when you leave a comment, so please take a minute to leave Christopher a comment. Thanks!