Eric Freeberg discovered the Tolkein art of the Brothers Hildebrandt in high school. Their influences were N.C. Wyeth and Howard Pyle, who are enduring influences. The illustrators of the Golden Age of American Illustration continue to resonate with him after decades of studying painting and making pictures as a professional.
He studied painting at the New York Academy of Art, and also at the Pennsylvania Academy of Art, and at the Art Students League.
His hope is to combine the gallery quality of fine arts representational painting with the magic and narrative of childhood. His art straddles the fence between the fine arts and the commercial.
Eric has illustrated many books for children, in addition to work for magazines and ad campaigns.
He has exhibited at the Society of Illustrators in New York, and at the Society of Illustrators Los Angeles Annual. He is also a member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. Wendy Lynn & Co. represents his artwork.
Eric forgot to take process pictures, but he has given us a lot of information about both his painting process and his black and white illustrations. Here is Eric explaining his painting process:
This is the typical process with a color illustration.
(1) Color study
Once the sketch has been approved by the publisher/client, I make a rough color study based on the sketch. To make the study, I print the sketch onto quality paper with a copier. I seal the surface of the paper with acrylic medium so the oil paint won’t soak into the paper. Then I do a quick painted sketch in color on top of the copy to give myself an overall feel for a possible color harmony. In addition to a painted color sketch, I might do a value study as well–same method– if I have time.
(2) Enlarge drawing to painting surface
I then have the approved sketch/drawing enlarged onto a sheet of quality drawing paper. Strathmore Bristol Board 2 or 3 play is a favorite. I do this at a printing place. This allows me to work fairly large while retaining the detail of the drawing, and removes the step of having to transfer the drawing.
Next, I mount drawing paper(with drawing printed on it) onto 1/2 inch plywood. I briefly soak the paper in water. After patting the paper dry with a cloth, I brush acrylic medium onto both the plywood surface and to the back of the drawing paper. I then position the paper onto the plywood. The acrylic medium acts as a glue. I then use a brayer(a roller) to smooth out the paper on the plywood, to make sure the paper adheres completely and without bubbles. Once that’s done, I brush on a layer of acrylic medium onto the surface of the drawing, to seal the paper so oil won’t be absorbed. Once that layer dries, I sand it and apply a second layer of the medium. I might do 3 layers with sanding between.
When that’s all done, I have an underdrawing upon which to begin painting, and a nice, large, solid and relatively smooth surface for painting.
The first layer of paint is usually an underpainting of a solid color in acrylic paint. I often like to use raw sienna or something similar as an underpainting color, because I like the feel of the the warm color. It seems to work well, and sets the tone for the painting to come. Sometimes I’ll mix the sienna with opaque titanium white in order to lighten some of the dark printed blacks of the underdrawing.
(5) Painting Block-in
Next, I start painting full color with oil paint. I try as much as possible to get the final intended color in the first try. I refer to my studies, the color study and possibly a value study, as I paint with oil. I use the studies as a guide, but usually expand on the color and value in the final work. When I’m painting I’ll usually paint area by area. For example, I might just work on painting a character. Typically, I’ll glaze (a transparent color diluted with painting medium) over the area to be worked with. Then I paint directly into the glaze with opaque and thicker paint. The glaze, if done with a fast drying medium like alkyd mediums, will quicken the drying of whatever is painted into it. Plus, the glaze improves the flow of your brushstroke.
Next, I repaint and work detail into the picture as needed. Sometimes I’ll glaze, sometimes I’ll paint opaque visible brushwork. A word about glazing–I have been using walnut alkyd medium. It dries quickly and is nontoxic. One thing to know about alkyd painting mediums is they dry a bit dull and matte. You’ll need to either “oil out” the painting after its dry, or varnish it. I find oiling out works pretty well when I’m in a hurry. What that means is, you brush oil onto the painting’s surface, rubbing the oil into areas that appear dull. It should bring out the richness of the oil paint. Ultimately, varnishing is needed.
For brushes, I block in big areas with bright bristle brushes. I like the Princeton 6300 Series for this. They’re a hog bristle, synthetic combo that I find works well. But for smaller areas and detail, I use softer hair brushes. Right now, it’s Dick Blick’s Red Sable Filbert size 10, along with a pointed round for fine detail. I keep trying new brushes though. It’s good to experiment.
When I’m asked to create black and white drawings, the following method is typical.
(1) Value study in charcoal
I like working with pencil in the final drawing. Before I begin the final drawing, though, I’ve found doing a study in charcoal to be helpful in helping me get my dark values appropriately dark when I later work with pencil.
I have an opaque projector that’s great for enlarging sketches onto larger drawing surfaces. I project the approved sketch onto my drawing surface and then lightly trace the lines of the sketch with an HB pencil.
Once the lines of the composition has been lightly traced, I like to take a 3B graphite pencil and decisively knock in the darks of the composition.
Once that’s done, I use a variety of pencil lead ranging from 4H to 8B, in order to get subtle modeling of value, and the soft leads between 4B and 8B allow me to get fairly dark darks.
More black and whites further down.
When did you first know you wanted to make a living doing art?
I was lucky in that I had very encouraging and supportive parents who probably planted in my mind, very early on, that art could be a future career for me. The first “drawing” I did was when I was 2 years old, supposedly of a witch; I think it looks more like a mosquito doing yoga, but I’ll take my mom’s word for it.
But I’d say, by high school, I was thinking of pursuing art as a career.
How long have you been illustrating?
I’ve been illustrating for 6 years.
What was the first thing you did where someone paid you for your artwork?
When I sold some paintings in a college scholarship exhibition.
I see that you attended the Academy of Art in New York City and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. Which one did you attend first? Did you transfer or branch out in a different direction?
I went to the Pennsylvania Academy first. I’d already had 4 years of art study at a state college, so after a year in Philadelphia I’d decided I needed a break. I went to New York a couple of years later and, while it wasn’t a transfer, it offered a similar traditional academic training for artists that included drawing from cast of classical sculpture, lots of figure drawing, that sort of thing.
The New York Academy also had a Masters degree program, which was a factor in my choosing to go there. And I wanted to live in New York.
How did you decide to attend these two schools?
There’s a Salvador Dali quote, “Learn from the masters, and then do what you want with it.” The illustrators Greg and Tim Hildebrandt (The Brothers Hildebrandt—from New Jersey, by the way) said the same thing. That was my attitude as well and it influenced my decision to study at both PAFA and NYAA. They both had, and have, a respect for the old masters and value representational painting. Nowadays, there are more options for a student who wants to study that kind of painting.
What did each school bring to the table?
I only did the foundation year in Philly, so it was mostly basic drawing and painting. In New York, the focus was the human figure, so there was plenty of figure drawing and figure painting, along with painting techniques, etc.
What type of painting did you study?
If you mean media, it was oil painting. Painting of the figure was the emphasis.
Did the school help you get work?
Ultimately it did. You hear respected illustrators say “learn the figure.” In the children’s genre, I think that skill can get you jobs illustrating history and biography,etc. Also, a knowledge of anatomy and rules of the figure is hugely helpful when you’re creating figures from your imagination. When I’m illustrating in a goofier style, I have to let go of some of my fine arts education(laugh). It’s about what’s appropriate for the job.
Did you go right into a job after you graduated or did you immediately start freelancing?
After I graduated, I actually moved to Ireland for a year with a girlfriend. With the help of 2 arts grants, we were able to live there and travel around Europe for a year. I was able to see a lot of art in the museums there.
After that, it took me a few years of trying different things and building a children’s book portfolio to finally arrive on my current career path.
Do you feel that the classes you took in college have influenced your style?
They have. Whether I’m working in what I would describe as a goofier style or more realistically, there’s an element of representationalism. For example, if I’m painting orangutans playing volleyball (as I did for this current job) there are still elements of realistic painting, of light falling on objects, as a fine arts painter would do. But the characters are, as I said, goofy, and hopefully appropriate for a young age group. I switch back and forth stylistically as needed; I think it’s good to be able to change gears. It’s fun too.
When did you decide you wanted to illustrate children’s books?
Toward the end of grad school, I already had a few portfolio pieces completed, so I guess I’d been thinking of it even before then.
What was the first illustration work you did for children. How did that come about?
My first illustration job was Jack London’s “White Fang,” which was a fun way to start out. My agent got me the job. I would speculate that the publisher saw my portfolio piece for Goldilocks and the Three Bears and decided, based on my paintings of bears, that I could paint wolves (laugh.)
How did you get to work with Compass Publishing on the Classic Starts Readers?
“White Fang” was a Compass title.
Then you illustrated the Classic Starts Series for Sterling. The names are very similar. Did Compass sell this line to Sterling?
No, there’s no connection. It’s just a coincidental similarity of titles. Compass is I think primarily for the educational market, and Sterling is owned by Barnes & Noble.
I counted a total of 24 books between 2009 and 2014. That is a lot of books for each year. How long does it take to illustrate one of these books?
It depends on the contract. The Compass books, if I remember correctly, had to be done quite quickly—I remember I had to compete a painting every 3 days, which works out to a little over a month per book.
For the Sterling books, as another example, the contract spread over several months, so there was a bit more breathing room. For 4 titles, that’s roughly 3 months per book. I think, with most illustrators, they’d agree that more time is always welcome, if you can get it, to better be able to raise the quality of the artwork.
Is the interior art done in black and white?
How many is usually in each one? For the Sterling jobs, they required a full color cover painting, plus 10 black and white interiors. Compass was a color cover plus 10 color interiors. It will vary from publisher to publisher.
Are you under contract to illustrate more?
Not with Compass or Sterling. The last thing I did for Sterling was “The Iliad” and “Roman Myths” last year.
But I am currently under contract to illustrate 3 books in a chapter book series about a turtle character named Kudu. Also, my agent is currently negotiating another book contract for the coming year.
How did you connect with Wendy Lynn for representation?
I found Wendy in “The Children’s Illustrators Market,” in the agents listing. I sent my work to a few agents and chose Wendy.
What was your illustrating first success?
Well, I would call my first job, “White Fang,” my first success, as I was happy to have begun illustrating. I would also say, it felt good doing the Sterling jobs because they were my first non-educational job and would be widely available in the Barnes & Noble children’s departments.
Do you think you will ever try to write and illustrate a picture book?
Yes, I’d love to. I did a book dummy for the Grimms story, “Iron John,” which I know wouldn’t be my writing, obviously. But its a picture book project I have in the works. I’m not happy with the first run through, but I think I could eventually come up with a fresh new take on the story.. I would like to write something of my own some day.
Have you done any illustrating for chldren’s magazines?
Yes. I’ve illustrated for Humpty Dumpty magazine, and for Spider magazine, part of the Cricket Publishing Group.
For Humpty Dumpty, I illustrated a story called “Fit for a King,” about a Lion (who’s a king) and his cook, an Orangutan (Orangutans again). I got an honorable mention from SCBWI’s Magazine Merit Award in 2013 for that work. For Spider magazine, I illustrated “Nelly’s Sweet Song,” a story about George Washington and his niece. I also illustrated “Samuel Peppard and his Windwagon,” another American history piece for Spider.
How did you illustrations become considered for the Holbein Prize for Fantasy Art? Is that something an illustrator can enter? How did it feel to win that prize?
It felt great! I don’t recall how I learned of the competition, but anyone can enter. Their definition of Fantasy Art included fantastical illustration in any genre.
Then in the same year you won the London Book Fair’s Illustrator’s Competition. How did it feel to win those two prizes?
Well, it was a good year (laugh.) London was the most exciting thing to have won because it’s such a major venue. And it involved traveling to the Book Fair and staying in London. I love travel.
What is your favorite medium to use?
My favorite medium is oil.
Has that changed over time?
Yes. I used to work exclusively in acrylic, when doing color work, because of the quick drying time. But I learned a way to work in oil that’s quick drying as well.
What is the one thing in your studio that you could not live without?
My Madmen-era drawing table. It’s a wooden, swivel drawing table that is, as far as I can tell, the style of drawing table from the 60’s.
Do you spend a specific amount of time working on your craft?
I usually work 40 hours a week. That’s the goal for each week. Some days I’ll work fewer hours, other days more, but I make sure I work about 40 total each week. I find, if do that, the work usually gets done. Granted, with deadlines, the number of hours a week can go above 40.
Are you open to working with self-published authors?
Yes. To date, I’ve worked with one self-publisher author.
Do you take pictures or do any type of research before you start a project?
I use lots of reference photos as part of my process. As for research, I illustrated “The Iliad” last year, as an example, and, in order to get a certain level of authenticity, you need to research the period. What type of armor and helmets were worn? What were the methods of warfare, etc.? Those are the kind of questions you have to answer. Even for a project like the current one I’m engaged in with anthropomorphic animal characters, you still need to look at a lot of photos of animals to decide the look of the various characters, and to help with convincing detail, etc.
Do you think the Internet has opened doors for you?
Definitely. It basically opens up the whole world to your work. I’ve had clients from Ireland, Korea, for example, and was approached to do a painting demo by a children’s literacy council in Dubai. Then there’s London and the various competitions that are easier to access. It’s so different from just a generation ago, when an illustrator usually had to live in proximity to New York. So, yes, I think the Internet’s existence has a definite upside for an illustrator.
Do you use Photoshop with your illustrations?
I use Photoshop for creating digital files. The only time I’ve altered an illustration with Photoshop is if the values need punching up when a scan doesn’t come out as well as hoped. So, the short answer is, I work traditionally—it’s just traditional painting. I’d like to develop my digital painting skills when I can find the time.
Do you own or have you used a Graphic Drawing tablet in your illustrating?
No, but I’d like to try.
Do you find exhibiting your artwork gets you jobs?
I think exhibiting may help—it raises your profile. I would say, the major venues in big cities, or at conventions would be potentially bigger audiences. I’ve exhibited at the Society of Illustrators in New York, and at the Society of Illustrators in Los Angeles. I got a job offer from being in the New York show, but couldn’t do it because of timing. I think, sometimes, you’ll be seen by someone but it won’t bear fruit until later on when the person has an appropriate opportunity for you and your style.
Do you have any career dreams that you want to fulfill?
Probably I’d like to have a career that eventually shifts more into picture books. I wouldn’t mind crossing into other genres too. I think I’d be happy to just have a long and varied career illustrating. I’d like to show my illustrations in gallery shows. That’s something I’ve yet to delve into.
What are you working on now?
I’m working on the first book in the Kudu the turtle chapter books that I mentioned earlier. Nearly done.
Do you have any material type tips you can share with us? Example: paint or paper that you love—the best place to buy—a new product that you’ve tried—a how to tip,etc.?
Best paint—I currently use Winsor & Newton paint, mainly. I like to try lots of different brands, but I’d like to try Old Holland.
Best paper—Strathmore 500 Bristol
A new product I’ve tried—I tried Walnut Alkyd Painting Medium a while back, and have been using it regularly to thin my paints.
The best place to buy—Dick Blick online is a good place to find a range of art supplies. I check Pearl Paint as well.
A how to tip: I’ll share 2 tips I’ve found useful.
The typical process when creating illustrations for a publisher is to create sketches first for approval. Once the sketches are approved, you move into completing the final art. Because I like to make sketches that are detailed and comprehensive, I don’t like to redraw/transfer the whole drawing to the painting surface. Instead, a method I use is to have a printing service enlarge my sketch onto a large sheet of high quality drawing paper (I like Strathmore 500 bristol board 2 or 3-ply). That way, you don’t lose any of the detail put into the sketch, and it can be enlarged to a size of 20 by 30 inches or thereabouts. I then mount the paper to plywood panel and seal the surface of the paper with acrylic medium. I do 2 or 3 coats of the medium with sanding between. The medium prevents the oil paint from being absorbed into the paper and therefore should be archival. Sanded, the painting surface will be quite smooth. That’s my method of transferring a drawing without having to redraw. It saves time and allows me to work on a fairly large scale, which I like to do.
If you paint in oil, drying time is an issue for an illustrator who needs to make
deadlines. A way I work to ensure all the paint dries quickly is, using an alkyd resin painting medium, I lay down a glaze (a small amount of transparent color diluted with medium) of color over the area I’m going to work on. I then paint wet-in-wet into the glaze. The quick drying alkyd medium in the glaze ensures that everything you paint into the glaze will dry quickly. No need to add the medium to every brushstroke to quicken drying.
Any advice on how to become a successful writer or illustrator?
My advice is: The portfolio is the first priority—take time to develop it. Don’t dabble, go in all the way. Be patient—slow and steady wins the race. Have a career model—ask yourself what kind of career you imagine for yourself, what illustrators you like and do a case study of them. Become an expert in your field. Read the SCBWI Bulletin, Publishers Weekly, etc. Utilize the resources that the SCBWI has to offer—it’s an excellent source of information and support. Take ownership of your career—every decision has an impact. Understand the market and where you fit into it. Don’t follow trends, but be aware of them. Be flexible and have a good attitude—forge good relationships with publishers. Be nice. If at first you don’t succeed, don’t abandon ship—stay positive, stay on course.
Do the kind of work you love to do—there’ll be an audience for it. Enjoy the ride.
Thank you Eric for sharing your illustrations, journey, and process with us this week. We look forward to following your career, so please let us know about your new books and all of your future successes.
You can visit Eric at http://www.ericfreebergillustration.com. Please take a minute to leave Dana a comment. I am sure she would love to hear from you and I would appreciate it, too.