Tory and Norman Taber: In their early careers as illustrators Tory concentrated on work for children and Norman on editorial illustration. As time passed collaboration become a greater part of their process, and now they work as a team producing illustration primarily for children’s books and publications. They continue to work on their own independent projects, but come together to work on illustrations in acrylics, watercolor, pencil, and digital media, finding two heads, and four hands work better together. They work from their studio in New York State and both teach in SUNY Plattsburgh.
Tory says, “Being an illustrator is a natural choice for me because I have always tried to tell stories with pictures. I studied illustration in college in an effort to train and discipline my unruly imagination. At the conclusion of an intensive, immersive four years of study, I was not much closer to knowing what I wanted to do. I did freelance work; alone and in partnership with my husband, Norman Taber. Together we did work for magazines, posters, murals, backdrops, and children’s books.”
Here is Tory discussing their process:
When we receive a manuscript sometimes the art director includes detailed descriptions of what the art should be, sometimes they let us decide. The publisher does always tells us what size and orientation, and where in the book the art will be. So, the first thing we do is thumbnails, small, quick sketches to determine where the major design elements will be. The best thumbnail (or two) will be drawn larger, and more detailed, until we get a composition that works. When it is a book, with a many illustrations, the thumbnails take longer, because we try to establish a rhythm to the designs: we don’t want them to resemble each other too much.
After we have established the composition, we shoot photo reference. It doesn’t really matter if we don’t have the right costume or model of the right age (or even gender!), we just need to get the pose and the lighting. Using the photo, we make sketches. We do these mainly on vellum, so that we can trace over parts of other sketches to make a finish. You can also erase pencil lines on vellum with almost no residual lines, so we like that. While the sketch resembles the reference, we do stylize, simplify some details and add others. After it has been resolved in line, we don’t work with color or value yet, we submit it to the art director. If they approve it, we can start the finish. We trace the line drawing, usually at size or 20-30% larger than the printed size, onto the paper. We use Arches aquarelle, hot press 300lb. It has a very fine tooth, but not too much texture because that would make it hard to achieve the very fine details we like to do. We will often do a color/value comp on a scrap of paper, much smaller and looser, to establish the direction we want to take it.
When it is finally time to paint, we use liquitex soft body acrylics, in washes and layers. For big background areas we might use a large flat watercolor brush. But for most of the work we use a Loew-Cornell Golden Taklon brush, #6. It holds a good amount of paint and a nice sharp point for detail work. We generally work simple to complex, blocking in large areas and establishing the values before doing the small details. This might take some time, as many of the areas have several layers of paint. When we finally get to the details we are not really uptight about staying with only one medium, and we will often work into the piece with graphite, colored pencils, gouache or pastel. Whatever it takes to achieve the look we want.
When we make a mistake, which is often, we usually paint thicker layers to cover it up. Sometimes, if it is early in the process, and it is a small area, we can scrape it off with an exacto blade. This changes the surface of the paper, so really only works in a tiny area. Occasionally, a painting will take a nasty turn—a bad color choice or a value that has gone way too dark—it is easier just to start over. But that doesn’t happen too often. We just weigh the time it would take to fix the mistake against just starting from scratch, and make a choice. If we do have to start over, the redo is always better, so that is something to consider. Sometimes a mistake can be fixed in photoshop, but we don’t usually do that.
We will use photoshop, however, if there is a special effect we want to portray. For instance, in the painting from The Purple Girl (See below), the glowing firefly lights were added in photoshop. Norman is the expert this area, so that is always his work.
After the image if finished, scanned, and sent to the publisher, we usually find out within a day or two if they want any changes. Honestly, that rarely happens. Changes are usually requested at the sketch phase, not at the finish.
For the type of educational illustrations we usually do, we rarely see the finished books in print. Sometimes a publisher will send us a copy or two, but most of the finished products we have never seen.
How long have you been illustrating?
For nearly twenty years (Tory). A little over twenty years, I think Tory is trying not to make us sound too old. (Norman).
What was the first thing you painted where someone paid you for your work?
It was actually an illustration that I did while still in college. I did a piece for the magazine “Word Perfect.” It was a painting of a rose that had a plug on the end of its stem (Tory). I think my first illustration was for the magazine “Park City”, at that time Tory and I were not yet married. (Norman)
Where did you study art? What did you study there?
Both Norman and I went to Brigham Young University. We met there while studying illustration. (Tory).
Was your husband in many of your classes?
I first remember meeting him during my freshman year but we were not in any classes together. But, by our junior year, the numbers of students had been whittled down to about twenty of us. We were in every class together from that point on. (Tory)
Do you feel College helped develop your style?
For me, I had to learn everything in college: how to draw, how to paint, how to think conceptually. I was such a novice that I didn’t really start specializing – and manifesting a unique style until my fourth (senior) year. (Tory). I agree with Tory, and my style has continued to change – but I believe my experience in college was incredibly important, and I learned a great deal from the instructors there. (Norman)
What type of work did you do after you got out of school?
Freelance: I was lucky enough to get some good jobs for children’s magazines (Tory). Freelance as well, but I did work mostly for editorial magazines.
Did the college you attended help you get work when you graduated?
The faculty in our design program was first-rate. They really concentrated on teaching us how to promote ourselves (Tory).
Have you seen your work change since you left school?
My work has changed so much. When I graduated my work was very stylized and bright; quite traditionally “children’s illustration.” My direction and interests have changed since then. I still want to tell stories with pictures. Yet I am always striving, longing for the work to be more representative of my interests. Around 2010, my personal work started deviating more and more from my collaborative commercial work. I held on to many elements of children’s illustration – references to fairy tales and classic stories, sweet colors – while infusing the paintings with my own stories of hope, wistfulness, loss and joy. (Tory)
My work has changed greatly – I used to work three dimensionally and on editorial projects, now I am working more with paint and paper, and digitally. (Norman)
When did you decide you wanted to illustrate for children?
In college: my work slanted that way and I just went with it. (Tory). I was always interested in illustrating for children, but it was only when I started working with Tory that my I really started moving in that direction.
What was your first book you illustrated?
I illustrated a pair of emergent reader paperbacks. They had about eight pages each. One was called Puddles, the other A Kitchen Treat. (Tory). I did illustrations for a book about an Inuit boy and an artic fox (Norman).
How did that contract come about?
The way so many things do: I knew someone who was working for the publisher. (In this case it was my sister.) She suggested I submit my portfolio and I did. (Tory). I worked with the school where I received my graduate degree (The Savannah College of Art and Design)
Did you do other types of illustrating before you got the book contract?
Yes, freelance for children’s magazines. (Tory) Yes, freelance editorial. (Norman).
How many picture books have you illustrated?
I really don’t even know. Through our rep (Wendy Lynn & Co.) Norm and I have done many educational books. (Tory)
Have you ever written and illustrated you own picture book?
Norman and I wrote and illustrated one together, Rufus at Work (Walker and Company, 2005) (Tory)
I really don’t even know. Through our rep (Wendy Lynn & Co.) Norm and I have done many educational books. (Tory)
Can you give us a feeling of how a illustrating team works together?
We have been collaborating for so long that we have a pretty good system. We pass the sketches back and forth, and then we both work on all the paintings. We both have things that we are good at, and areas that we prefer the other to work on. Norman works full time as an art professor at SUNY Plattsburgh. I teach there as well, but only part time. So, depending on the time of year, I might take on more of the work because I have more time. But, we do both work on the paintings, and if we are approaching a deadline: we both work until it’s done. (Tory).
What book do you think was your biggest success?
I would have to say Rufus at Work. (Tory) – I agree, its actually our favorite because it came entirely from us (Norman).
Have you ever thought about doing a wordless picture book?
Actually, I haven’t, but I would do one in a second! (Tory).
How did you connect with your artist rep. Wendy Lynn?
A current artist at Wendy Lynn introduced us. (Tory)
Do you and your husband illustrate full time?
No, we both teach at SUNY Plattsburgh. (Tory)
Do you have a favorite medium you use? Does Norman like to use other materials for his art?
I almost always use acrylics on thick, hot-press paper. I do use mixed-medium if there is an effect I want to achieve, so I have used pastel, graphite and even collage in my work. Also, my students were complaining about being forced to use gouache in their 2D design class. They insisted that nobody uses gouache, for anything, ever. So Norman and I illustrated an entire book in gouache – just to show them. It was Aesop’s Fables for Compass publishing. I think we did some good gouache paintings! (Tory).
I used to work a lot in three dimensions, in a style reminiscent of Joseph Cornell – although I continue to do this with my personal and fine art, I now work primarily with acrylics, and I am exploring more digital work. When I work digitally I miss the tactile sense of putting brush to paper. (Norman)
Do you take research pictures before you start a project?
Almost every time, it doesn’t matter how stylized the final piece is going to be, good reference is very important (Tory). We do a lot of photography, particularly for figures, and use our children, friends, and each other.
Do you use Photoshop with any of your work?
Yes, in recent years we use it or touch up, or for certain effects we want to achieve – mostly only minor changes (Norman).
Do you have and use a graphic tablet?
When working in Photoshop we use a Wacom Tablet – (Norman)
Do you do exhibits to show off your art?
Yes. We have had several local shows. In addition, we both show our work at Krabjab Studio in Seattle. (http://www.krabjabstudio.com/)
Would you be willing to work with a writer that wants to self published a picture book?
Yes, we have worked with a self-published author. Our rep negotiated the fees and it wasn’t really any different than working for a publisher. We do get inquires from time to time and we always direct them to our rep. Unfortunately, many self-published authors do not have a realistic idea of illustration rates. (Tory)
Has any of your work appeared in magazines?
Yes: Calliope, Faces, WordPerfect Magazine. (Tory). When I first started illustrating, yes, rarely in recent years as my style has changed (Norman)
Do you think the Internet has opened any doors for you?
I do. I think the ease that we can communicate with clients and our rep is invaluable. When we started we used to have to FedEx our physical portforlios to art directors, fax sketches and then mail our finished paintings at the end of a job. The internet was a game-changer. (Tory) It makes getting sketches approved and final work sent much easier. (Norman)
Do you have a studio in your house?
I have an amazing studio at the edge of our property. It’s a small structure that we moved here and remodeled. It is a magical, serene spot. (Tory) I have a small studio in our house, though sometimes Tory lets me work in her studio :). (Norman)
What are you working on now?
I have some personal paintings in the works. In addition, I am trying to get my computer skills up to date. I tend to rely on Norm to do a lot of the computer stuff. (Tory) I am working on ideas for a children’s book. (Norman)
What are your career goals?
We would like write and illustrate another children’s book together.
Any exciting projects on the horizon?
Yes, an acquaintance in Plattsburgh, NY has applied for a grant to commission us to do a mural. It will be an adirondack scene done in our children’s book style. We have worked on several murals before and enjoy it. (Tory)
Do you follow any type of routine to attain your career goals?
I need to develop a better routine, but no, between teaching, parenting, and general crazy-life, I work when I get a minute. (Tory) I agree with Tory (Norman).
Is there anything in your studio, other than paint and brushes that the two of you couldn’t live without?
(Norman)Music! I need music while I paint (Tory). I listen to NPR, thus the separate studios. (Norman).
Are there any painting tips (materials, paper, etc.) you can share that work well for you? Technique tips?
I love arches hot press paper, 300 lb or more. I also use Loew-cornell Golden Taklon brushes. I love the way they hold lots of paint AND hold a sharp point. (Tory) A good sense of light makes a painting great (Norman).
Any words of wisdom you can share with the illustrators who are trying to develop their career?
I think that it takes a great deal of dedication, and the ability to adapt to a changing market. Work hard, and love what you do. (Norman)
Thank you Tory and Norman for sharing your talent, process, journey, and expertise with us. Please make sure you keep in touch and share your future successes with us. To see more of their work, you can visit them at website at: http://toryandnormantaber.com/ or https://www.facebook.com/tory.norman.taber
If you have a minute, please leave a comment for Tory and Norman. I am sure they’d love it and I enjoy reading them, too. Thanks!