Vincent X. Kirsch is an author, illustrator and designer living in Los Angeles. He has lived in Florence (Italy), New York City and Boston. His illustrations are created in a two-dimensional adaptation of this paper cut toy theaters that he has been building for most of his life. His work is very influenced by theater, puppetry, poster art, classical painting techniques and Hollywood films. His whimsical character designs and storylines range from the fantastically out-of-this-world to inspiringly down-to-earth.
The black and white, as well as color work, appeared regularly on the pages of The New York Times Book Review & Op-Ed pages, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times and a wide array of magazines.
Coincidentally, the work on the Op-Ed page of The New York Times landed Mr. Kirsch a three-year job designing and directing the windows of Bergdorf Goodman on Fifth Avenue. His work with mannequins and small window spaces lead to the creation of three-dimensional characters and revived a fascination with puppetry and Victorian toy theaters.
You can work with Vincent at the Children’s Book Academy.
Here’s Vincent explaining his process:
An editor at BloomsburyUSA discovered one of Mr. Kirsch’s illustration style in The New York Times Book Review and thought it a perfect match for children’s books. A small doodle she noticed in his sketchbook of two zany sisters inspired him to create “the greatest department store in the world” for his first book.
When an editor at Houghton Mifflin sent me this manuscript GINGERBREAD FOR LIBERTY! HOW A GERMAN BAKER HELPED WIN THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION by Mara Rockliff she had no idea that I already had quite a history with gingerbread.
Incidentally, I had just started work on my second Freddie and Gingersnap book. I was worried that I should not have two titles with the word “ginger” in them. Nevertheless, I read the manuscript and immediately had a very fun idea.
You see, for years I was the visual merchandiser at Dean & Deluca. At Christmas time, I would design special gingerbread cookies to sell at the store or hang as ornaments in the decorations. So, here was a book about gingerbread cookies.
My thought: What if I did the entire book in gingerbread cookies of all shapes and subjects. I ran the idea past my editor. She, being a great sport, said “yes” but wanted to see what I was talking about. Sometimes you luck out and get to work with an editor who is all about how much fun you can have!
I spent many happy days, matching the color of gingerbread cookies and trying to figure out how to get the sugar line icing just right. Loved designing the shapes, doing the art and most of all cutting them out. I am something of an exacto-blade maestro! I sent the samples and nervously waited to hear back. When the editor said that everyone loved the look, I jumped for joy.
Now I had to get to work on the book. What was I thinking? When I looked at the pile of spreads that I had create, I panicked. Would I be able to do it? I got to work and I can tell you now that I never had as much fun. I was constantly surprising myself with shapes and colors.
Here is the process in a nutshell:
Do a master line drawing on tracing paper.
Tape it onto a light box.
Place a sheet of hot-press illustration board over the drawing.
Trace the line in a rubber masking liquid called rubbelkrepp onto the watercolor paper.
Once the lines were drawn, I would start painting the paper to resemble a range of warm colors that could be gingerbread.
It often took many many layers to get the intensity just right.
Than I would cut the cookies with an exacta-knife.
Paint the edges of the cut paper to match the gingerbread color.
I would paint another sheet of watercolor paper with different colors to act as the bottom page.
Then, once again placing the drawing on the light board, I would glue the pieces down in position on the bottom page.
Next, quickly press the art under a big pile of heavy art books.
Then move on to the next page.
All the time, I listened to a series of on-line history courses so the time flew by. I had fun and got smarter. What fun work!
Interview with Vincent X. Kirsch
How long have you been illustrating?
I started illustrating when I was in elementary school at Sacred Heart School. I had to do a book report and quickly wrote the report and then proceeded to spend days on drawings to accompany the text. I recall that I even included a pop-up illustration. Sadly, the effort earned me a “D” for not following directions and making so many grammar mistakes. Who cares if I got a “D”, a new artist was born/hatched.
I went on to find my place in art class in Junior High and High School where I spent weeks and months on drawings, paintings and linocut prints (my favorite things, ever) and usually getting “A+”s.
I never studied illustration but started getting illustration work once I moved to NYC and worked in advertising. Before long, art directors learned I could draw and gave me advertising illustration assignments. That lead to book cover art which lead to editorial Op-Ed illustrations which lead to a regular spot in the NYTimes Book Review which after 15 years lead to picture books.
How long have you lived in California? Would you say living in California helped with your art career?
We moved to LA in the spring of 2014. My goal was to break into TV and film. I had plenty of studio meetings and connections but everyone insisted that I write books before Hollywood got messed up with my ideas and characters. So, I decided to put Hollywood on the back burner and get back to books. Hollywood is no place for new ideas.
On the brighter side, I have a swimming pool two floors down and I can swim my mile everyday out doors, year round.
Where did you live before that?
I lived all over Manhattan and Brooklyn. I had the habit of finding the undiscovered neighborhoods, live in great spaces there and then get kicked out once they got discovered. I also lived in Cambridge, Mass and grew up in a little upstate New York town along the border with Canada.
If you could go live in any place from children’s literature, where would it be?
Winnie-The-Pooh’s 100 Aker Wood
If you could be make up character to be living in that place, who would it be?
A dodo bird named Oddo, escaped from a library in Oxford, now hiding out with Winnie-The-Pooh and company.
What was the first thing you painted where someone paid you for your work?
This is interesting. I had almost forgotten about this. When I was in high school, I would often cut out photographs from the NYTimes travel section. Most of the images were of Italy. So I started to paint them with acrylic on canvas. A the same time, I had a great job in the library and they let me hang some of my pictures there. A very tall vertical of a Tuscan street scene was bought right away for the price I was asking. I remember taking the money and buying more art supplies from a Dick Blick catalog.
What made you choose to attend Syracuse University?
My art teacher in high school was convinced that it was the best school in the world. So his best students all had to go there. I really had very little choice in the matter.
What did you study there?
My folks did not want me to be a starving artist so I had to study advertising and editorial design. But secretly I studied filmmaking, scenic design and musical composition. A wise student adviser sent me to the fine arts/art history program in Firenze for a semester rather than the advertising/design program in London. That truly changed my life. After years in Syracuse, I discovered reds, oranges, greens and everything in between from the art and landscape of Italy.
Do you feel college helped develop your style?
I know that Firenze helped me. Taking art history courses did so as well, but since I was on the commercial art path, my course load was taken up with learning a lot of technicalities and rules.
Did art school help you get work when you graduated?
Not really. It was my portfolio. If someone went to SU, than they often let me in the door but for the most part, the biggest boost was having published works. NYC art directors were very busy people and liked published works from the real world rather than school assignments.
Have you seen your work change since you left school?
Tremendously. Oh the best education I got was from NYU, not the university but the streets of New York. I say this often that New York is a great place to come with talent, it will decide what you will do with it! For example, after working as an editorial illustrator for years, I landed a job designing windows at Bergdorf Goodman. Only something like that can happen in NYC. Almost overnight I went from thinking two-dimensionality to being a sculptor. It would have never happened if I did not have to create those windows. I have had a hard time thinking/working in 2D ever since. I tell young people, try new things and take risks. Challenge yourself. Get out of your shell. Make some mistakes and something new. That is what talent is for.
What life experience had a profound influence on your work?
I was one of eight people who took a trip through Rajastan region of India. It had never been on my bucket list but I went along. It was completely transformational. It was like falling into a dream. I often say, it is like going to paint box and suddenly you have all new colors and they are the brightest most breathtaking colors you have ever seen. The rest of the world suddenly looks dull. I kept a notebook of images that beguiled and bewildered me. When I look at that book, I want to somehow capture those impressions in a book. Pure enchantment!
Also, working in fashion and food as a visual merchandiser. It made me more aware of all of the senses and how little we notice in life.
When did you decide you wanted to illustrate for children?
I took a summer seminar with Uri Schulevitz when I was in high school. I was the only kid in the workshop. It was awesome. I had to really convince my parents to get the okay to go off for a week of making picture books rather than playing tennis or some sporty thing. The books I made that summer were terrible but I was bitten by the kid’s lit bug.
I knocked on doors at publishing houses for years and they loved my work but it was agreed that I suffered from the “Suess Syndrome”. My work did not fit into a mold. It did not look like anyone else and no one wanted to take a chance on it until someone else did.
What was your first book you illustrated?
NATALIE & NAUGHTILY which I also wrote. In the book, based upon my experience at Bergdorf Goodman, I was going to design and illustrate nine floors of a busy. Bustling department store. I had no idea what I had gotten myself into. It was so much work but I was in heaven. I never wanted it to end.
How did you get that contract?
A visionary editor at BloomsburyUSA had spotted an illustration of mine in the NYTimes Book Review. She fell in love with my characters and picked the two little girls as a perfect place to start. She wondered if I would actually pull it off but I did so. She was astonishing in taking a chance on me. I will always treasure that experience.
Did you do other types of illustrating before you got that book contract?
I did theater posters, book covers (such authors as Joyce Carol Oates, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Lugi Barzini, Angela Carter), editorial illustrations in the leading newspapers around the country, spots in magazines and, of course, highly illustrated letters to editors and art directors.
Is it true that Fred Astaire and Ginger Rodger really inspired Freddie and Gingersnap?
Very much so. Fred Astaire is one of my heroes. Having already created a book about the theater (THE CHANDELIERS/FSG), I wanted to do a book that captured the joy of dance. I delighted in watching old Fred and Ginger movies and wrote a picture book that followed the style of films. Boy meets girl, boy can dance, girl can dance, but they must figure out how to dance together. Fred often pretends to fall or stumble in his films, so I worked a shared tumble into the book.
How did you get involved with puppetry?
The question should be, was there ever a time that you were not involved with puppetry? Never. I started making puppets one winter when I was very small and never stopped. I made puppets from Styrofoam balls glued together, papier-mâché, sewn cloth, found objects and then finally, I found my form: cut paper toy theaters.
I actually had to make little puppet theaters for the windows that I was designing at BG. The shelves in my closet-sized office were lined with tiny fashionable figurines and quite a few imaginary characters of my own imagining. They used to give tours of my office when world famous fashion people wanted to see where I got my ideas.
How many picture books have you illustrated?
I have written and illustrated six books and been illustrator on three that are published. The number must be in the hundreds of unpublished books that I made for fun that are now hiding in boxes and drawers.
What was the first book that you wrote and illustrated?
NATALIE & NAUGHTILY a book about two mischievous little sisters who grew up on top of Nopps, the greatest department store in the world.
What do you think is your biggest success?
In the dark and hopeless days of my career when it looked like I would never get to publish a book, my friends who were getting title after title asked for my help. I would sit with them for hours helping them craft the best books they could create. I was something of a “picture book whisperer”. I found a way to help others make good books even if they would never be mine. I never tired to thinking about the marvel of making books. That was my biggest success, loving books so much that I could help myself from helping others.
Have you ever tried to do a wordless picture book?
Yes. I love working on wordless books. But they are not easy. I have a few that I have worked and worked. Wordless books are like songs without words. Everything is done with melody, that invisible harmony that reaches the heart.
How did you meet Mira Reisberg, founder of The Children’s Book Academy?
Mira reviewed one of the books that I had illustrated NOAH WEBSTER & HIS WORDS. I googled her and discovered that she had created a very creative and inspiring place to learn, meet others and make books. For months she was a internet friend, than I met her at this summer’s LA SCBWI event. She is a treasure.
Children’s Book Academy not only offers instruction into a wide range of books for children but it also gives you the chance to connect with editors and art directors. Mira calls them “golden tickets”. It is a good name because the tickets are the best way to get in the door and hop on a new adventure ride! The courses have given me deadlines and motivation to write. Deadlines are my favorite things.
It has helped me but giving me a community and currently a few of my books, created for “golden tickets” are being considered now for publication.
What are some of the things you’ll be doing assisting in the upcoming Craft and Business of Illustrating Children’s Books e-course?
Being a published picture book illustrator, I hope I can give my fellow students some feedback and insights to help them make their best art possible. The courses are so full of information that I am looking forward to learning what I have been doing wrong or what I can do better. In every course, I have taken with CBA, I have been excited that there are so many more things to learn at any level.
In my last course, I had some fun inventing off the wall questions that were posted on the group Facebook page. I asked things that might help fellow students remember things that they had forgotten or thing they needed to remember.
I believe you and Mira did a videotaped interview for the course of you critiquing Mira’s sketches for a story she’s working on. What was that like and how will it be helpful for students?
Yes, Mira, thinking of her students, did not want to miss the chance to capture my observations of a book in the works. Every illustrator has figured out their own unique talents and approach to illustrating books for children. I think what I can offer is a perspective from someone who has worked as an art director for many years and considers a book from the designers point of view, thinking of type placement, variety of page layouts, edge of the page, gutters, etc. I usually start by working on small scale and that gives me incredible freedom to see the book as a sequence, not unlike a film that offers the viewer a wider variety of perspectives and scales.
As a student, I am in awe of the people that have helped her out with instruction and insights. She continues to get the most intriguing people to share with students, like me.
Do you have an artist rep.? If so, who and how did you connect?
I have a literary agent. An editor put me in touch with her agency, the original agent left and my agent wanted a chance to represent me. It was such an honor to be able to work with her.
Do you illustrate full time?
No, I mostly write lately.
Do you have a favorite medium you use?
Cut paper, thick black lines with bold and vivid color. I love cutting things out and gluing them down. I also would love to do a book in my graphic black and white scratchboard style that made me famous as an editorial illustrator. The style looks like linocuts, which I love to bits!
Do you use Photoshop with any of your work?
I have not tapped into the possibilities of digital art. I love mixing colors and drawing by hand too much. I am old school and like things that smudge and spill and tear.
Do you have and use a graphic tablet?
No, I would like one but not certain if it would help me much. I cut things out of paper.
Has any of your work appeared in magazines?
Back in the day, newspapers and magazines of all sorts were my bread and butter. I’d like to start doing it again, it was always fun. Projects went something like this: Some morning, I would be in my studio, doodling around and then I would get a call or email from an art director and they would send over an article. It was like a game. I had a few hours to get the art done. I would read the article. Make lunch. Take a little nap or swim. Come up with the solution. Send off a sketch and then go to final art. Scan art and send it off. A good day’s work. For a few hours, I would get to think of something unexpected.
Do you work in a studio in your house?
Yes, I have a room in our apartment. It is my private space and I can spend hours, days, week there in my own world. I have a computer corner, a writing desk and an art table, bookshelves and files and Spotify!
Is there anything in your studio you couldn’t live without?
My little year-old red teddy-bear poodle named Ogbert. A maharaja marionette that I got in India that watches over me, wondering when I will write a book about him. My very comfortable desk chair. And, last but not least, Spotify.
What is currently the screen saver on your computer?
A very high res photo of the reading room of The New York Public Library on Fifth Avenue at 42nd street. In the photo the light is falling in the room just right. There is no one there. It reminds me of the hours I used to spend in that room, reading, writing and dreaming. It is sort of what I hope heaven is like.
What has been the biggest surprise that you have found by actually working in picture books?
I think the wonderful community of editors, art directors, authors and illustrators. We are connected by a shared love of making books for children. It is a very happy and supportive world. Because I was working full time in another industry altogether, I was apart from the community. Recently, I joined and am very happy I did. With SCBWI, classes and critique groups, I can see now that we are all in this together.
At an Original Art Exhibition opening night a few years ago, the son of an honoree got up and spoke. He commented that he had never been a room with a happier group of people and could now understand why his mother did what she did. I think of that often. How blessed we are to be in this magical business.
Do you follow any type of routine to attain your career goals?
Yes. I sit down and write every day (or night). If I do not, my muse will wander off and get into trouble. I write down and sketch every new idea and jot down the date. I keep in touch with my pals and contacts. I daydream. I swim. I let myself be ready for whatever might land in my world.
Any exciting projects on the horizon?
Yes, I am writing my first middle grade novel, a chapter book series, new picture book prospects both fiction and non-fiction, as well as, a very telegenic cast of characters for television. Not to mention a fascinating film project that has a blinking yellow light right now!
Do you think the Internet has opened any doors for you?
Oh yes, I find things that I would not have found in any other way and people find me who would never have found me in any other way. I cannot stress the importance of building a platform and community. Picture book people are the greatest people in the world. What a great club to be a member of!
What are your career goals?
I want to write and publish many of these projects that I am working on. I want to work with inspired and adventurous editors and publishing houses. I want to create something that will become an animated film. But perhaps my greatest and most unknown goal is to create a Broadway musical. My first love was the theater and it is still near and dear to my heart. My happiest days were working with a team on a show. There is nothing like it. I love teamwork. I definitely prefer the behind the scenes creative side to a show.
I would love to teach. Picture book craft of course but I would also love to teach a class that opened minds and imaginations.
Are there any painting tips you can share that work well for you?
Let accidents happen. Get to know as many material and colors and possible and then let them do their thing! Experiment and be adventurous. Never overwork things. Leave something to the viewer. Look at as much art as you can. Travel. Try working three-dimensional. Make things. Make a mess. Start over and over. Sketch. Doodle. Daydream. Fail. Stay in good shape. Move around. Have fun.
Any words of wisdom you can share with the illustrators who are trying to develop their career?
Be prepared for the unexpected. It is what usually happens. Don’t compare and don’t compete.
Thank you Vincent 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 Vincent’s work, you can visit him at website at: http://www.vincentxkirsch.com/
If you have a minute, please leave a comment for Vincent. I am sure he’d love it and I enjoy reading them, too. Thanks!