Posted by: Kathy Temean | January 23, 2021

Illustrator Saturday – Gilbert Ford

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Gilbert works as an author and illustrator of books for children. He also teaches in an after school program in Brooklyn.

Although I grew up in a family of professional photographers in Jackson, Mississippi, I preferred drawing and writing to the camera. So instead of taking over the family business, I moved to New York to attend Pratt Institute. After graduating, I held brief stints as a busboy, a scanner operator, and a vintage movie poster dealer before I found work that suited me as a designer and illustrator of educational toys. On nights and weekends I also worked as a freelance illustrator until I accumulated enough clients to set out on my own.

Since 1996, I’ve lived in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn, where I’ve had the honor of illustrating many New York Times best selling middle grade novels and also award-winning picture books. I’ve also enjoyed teaching  a book club after school for The National Book Foundation.

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In 2015 I earned my Masters in Fine Arts in Writing for Children and Young Adults from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. I’m the author and illustrator of  Flying Lessons and the non-fiction picture books  The Marvelous Thing That Came From A Spring and How The Cookie Crumbled, both published by Atheneum. I’m also the author and illustrator of my debut middle grade novel, The Mysterious Messenger, scheduled to be published by Macmillan/Ottaviano in July, 2020.

I’m currently editing my second middle grade novel, teaching, and working on my Certificate in Art Education at City College of New York.

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Some of my clients include Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, Disney/ Hyperion, Abrams, Random House, Delacourt, Dial, Penguin, Aladdin & Atheneum of Simon and Schuster, Chronicle Books, Bloomsburry/Walker Books, Scholastic, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Macmillan, FSG, Harper Collins, Sterling, Storey, Lerner, Source Books, Holiday House and others.

My artwork has been recognized by The Society of Illustrators, American Illustration Chosen,3×3, and The Society of Publication Designers. My educational toys won Parenting Choice and Openheimer awards and my books have been selected by The Junior Library Guild, The Society of Illustrators’ Original Art Silver Medal, Bank Street Cook Prize Honor, Bank Street Irma Black Honor, Orbis Pictus Honor, NSTA Best Stem Book, and others.

Here is a video of Gilbert discussing his process for The Marvelous Thing That Came From and Spring.

Thank you for sharing your process for The Marvelous Thing That Came from a Spring: The Accidental Invention of the Toy That Swept the Nation. It was very interesting how you created the houses and used objects for the illustrations. Couldn’t you have created a 3D look digitally?

I was originally going to try to create the book using 3-D photoshop tricks, but my publisher saw my title page photo, which was the only diorama set-up I was doing, and asked me to create the entire book that way. I couldn’t have created it using just the computer, because the gloss of the printed paper showed the characters’ reflections. I incorporated a found object in the art, so the viewer would know it was a real setup. And like Richard and Betty James as the inventors of the Slinky, I was inventing new uses for materials.

Have you used this method in any other books?

I haven’t used this method in other books. It was expensive to produce.

Watching your process video and seeing how you used your printer made me wonder what brand of printer you use. Can you share that with us?

Sure, I use a Cannon printer.

INTERVIEW WITH GILBERT:

How long have you been illustrating?

I’ve been illustrating for 20 years.

Interior Art From Here to There by Vivian Kirkfield and illustrated by Gilbert Ford

When did you study illustration to get your BFA from Pratt Institute?

I graduated from Pratt in 2000.

Was this when you decided you wanted to illustrate Children’s books?

When I was a kid, I had wanted to write and illustrate my own books, but I grew out of it. While at Pratt, I took a children’s book illustration class, and I had hoped to one day make a picture book, but was told that I should get my start in editorial work. So, most of my energy was trying to get newspaper and magazine illustration assignments and building off of that. I started writing picture books again when I was 26, after an editor saw an illustration of my dog online and asked me if I had a story. Nothing came of it, but by the time I got the rejection, I’d already jumped down the rabbit hole!

You attended Vermont College of Fine Arts for writing children and young adults. Did you have the opportunity to take a few illustrating classes while studying writing?

No. VCFA is entirely writing. I couldn’t submit any drawings to critiques. I liken Pratt and VCFA to learning to play the piano. Pratt was my left hand, and I learned to play it alone. VCFA was my right hand, which I did without the left, and now I play them together.

Did either school help you find work after you graduated?

No jobs came immediately after graduating either art school. But I made connections at both. At Pratt, several designers would work for publishers and eventually hire me, and at VCFA, writers would go on to become agents, editors, booksellers, bloggers, and published authors.

Do you feel VCFA helped you develop your style?

It developed me as a writer, but strangely, my illustration practice saw growth while attending, too. For some reason, expanding your skill set can inform both practices. I frequently have the illustration/design brain on while I’m writing.

What type of illustrating work did you do while starting your career?

I designed and illustrated educational toys for a giftware company while taking on editorial assignments on nights and weekends. Because of both, it opened me up to illustrating children’s books, and I began to get assignments from a designer I’d gone to Pratt with. Shortly after, an agent found my work online, and asked to represent me.

Was The Name Of This Book Is Secret published by Little, Brown Books, your first published book?

The Name of this Book is Secret was not my first book to illustrate, but it was the first high profile assignment I would illustrate.

Amazon calls it the “Secret” Series and says there are six books. I found a second book If You’r eReading This, It’s Too Late, but it was published by Little Brown. Did they buy the rights or did Little Brown buy Turtle books?

I don’t know what happened with Rafi’s (The author’s) books. I was paid a flat fee for the Secret Series. I illustrated the wraparound covers and the 35 interior illustrations for each, but was told that Little, Brown didn’t give royalties for middle grade novel illustrations.

I couldn’t find the rest of the series. Did you illustrate the rest? Did you write these books? Are you Pseudonymous Bosch?

No I’m not Pseudonymous Bosch. I illustrated the entire Secret Series, providing the look and typography for the branding, and I illustrated the first book of the Bad Magic Series, but just the covers on the other two.

How did you get that contract?

At the time I was with Writers House and my agent negotiated the contract.

Was Flying Lessons published by Hyperion Children’s Books in 2010 the first book you wrote and illustrated?

Yes, that was my first picture book I published as both the author and the illustrator. I had attempted several other books before that one, and had even taken a night class, but this one sold.

Did an agent sell this book for you? If so, are you still represented by that agent?

Yes, I was represented at that time, but am no longer with that agency. I’m with HG Agency now.

Was 12 Days of New York written by Tonya Bolden and published by Abrams in 2013 the first picture book you illustrated for someone else?

It was my first FORMAL picture book I illustrated for someone else. I had designed and illustrated two non-fiction children’s books for Stirling before I got an agent, for a flat fee.

Was the Orbis Pictus Honor for Outstanding Nonfiction for Children that you won for Mr. Ferris and His Wheel by Kathryn Gibbs Davis, published HMH Books for Young Readers in 2014, your first book award?

I think it might have been my first award for a book. It was the first ceremony I attended to receive one for our team.

I have always loved the cover of A Snicker of Magic and never knew who did the artwork. Was this your first cover?

No. I’ve illustrated close to 70 book covers, and for a while, I was type cast as only a cover artist, which was very hard to break.

How much research did you need to do to write How the Cookie Crumbled: The True (and Not-So-True) Stories of the Invention of the Chocolate Chip Cookie?

I did a fair amount of research for writing How the Cookie Crumbled. Although there was not a ton of info on Ruth Wakefield like other inventors, which made sifting through the info easier.

In 2017 you illustrated a picture book titled Soldier Song: A True Story of the Civil Warby Debbie Levy. Amazon says it is 80 pages. Is that a misprint? If not, how long did it take you to illustrate that book. The illustrations are very detailed.

It was my first 80-page picture book. I was illustrating it back-to-back with Slinky and finishing up my MFA, while completing my first novel. It was probably the busiest time in my life.

You illustrated two books by Anita Sanchez Itch!: Everything You Didn’t Want to Know About What Makes You Scratch in 2018 and Rotten!: Vultures, Beetles, Slime, and Nature’s Other Decomposers both published by HMH Books for Young Readers. Was this a two book deal contract?

Itch! was a picture book/chapter book, 80 pages, and Rotten! was also a picture/chapter book, but 126 pages. It was not a two-book contract. I received the manuscript for Rotten! shortly after I began illustrating Itch! and the editor asked me if I would take it because they were happy with the way the first book was coming along. I was in between agents at the time, so I had to hire an entertainment lawyer to negotiate the contract for Rotten!

You illustrated another non-fiction picture book titled, Alice Across America: The Story of the First Women’s Cross-Country Road Trip by Sarah Glenn Marsh published by Henry Holt and Co. (BYR) February 4, 2020. At the same time you were writing and illustrating The Mysterious Messenger for them and working on From Here to There: Inventions That Changed the Way the World Moves by Vivian Kirkfield, a book I just featured this year on Writing and Illustrating.? Was it hard juggling both of those projects at once?

I had all three assignments at the same time, but they were spaced far enough apart where there was no overlap and didn’t stress me out.

How much time did they give you to work on these books?

The mysterious Messenger editorial letter came in around summer of 2019 and the revisions, finished interior illustrations, and illustrated cover were due in late fall.

Alice Across America and From Here to There probably took 6 months to complete from sketches to finals, but there was also down time waiting for editorial comments.

Have you done any illustrating for children’s Magazines? If so, who?

Yes, I have illustrated for SPIDER, CRICKET, SCHOLASTIC, and HIGHLIGHTS in the past, but not frequently.

Do you have a studio in your house?

I had a studio in my apartment where I did most of my work. Although I tend to write on my laptop, laying in bed, or seated on the sofa.

What do you think is your biggest success?

The Mysterious Messenger, my middle grade novel, has been my biggest accomplishment. I had teachers, friends, my current agent, and my editor believe in it and helped me reach that goal. It incorporates so much of me and it debuted 6 months ago. I hope it finds a place in the world!

What is your favorite medium to use?

Perhaps it is watercolor dyes.

Has that changed over time?

Yes, I used to silkscreen and also create dioramas (as you’ve seen earlier!)

Do you own or have you used a Graphic Drawing Tablet when illustrating?

Yes, I use a Cintiq and I love it!

What materials and/or tools do you use to create your work?

I use all sorts of things, depending on what the art director will allow me to use. I try not to do everything digitally, but I do enjoy combining methods and using technology.

Do you try to spend a specific amount of time working on your craft?

I spent much of my 20’s and 30’s developing my craft, and I put in many hours. I had a set schedule for a while where I would do my hard work in the mornings and my editing and easy illustrations in the afternoon, then study at night.

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Do you take pictures or research a project before you start?

Yes, depending on how I’m illustrating it.

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Do you think the Internet has opened doors for you?

The internet did not make me an overnight star, if that’s what you mean, but it has helped me gain access to books I never would know to look for, through library databases.

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Do you have any career dreams that you want to fulfill?

I’ve worked for myself from home, alone, for ten years—which I liked, but was isolating. It was also stressful getting people to pay on time. After I turned 40, writing and illustrating full time began to feel even a little selfish, and I wanted to connect with people again, so I became a teaching artist with the National Book Foundation. I think after the pandemic, I would like to teach in a greater capacity. I’m not sure if it will be an after-school program or full-time with the Department of Education, but I’m working on a certificate in Art Education at CUNY, and I love the program so far!

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What are you working on now?

I’m working on getting certified to teach art to kids and on writing my second middle grade novel called The Cutting Edge, out in 2022.

Interior art From Here to There

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.

Oh! the only thing I’m an art snob about is getting good watercolor paper. I prefer hot pressed Arches for better detail, but also love Rives.

Interior art From Here to There

Any words of wisdom on how to become a successful writer or illustrator?

There are so many people who can write or draw well, so it depends on following your intuition, putting in the time, trying new things, withstanding the ups and downs of the business, and making as many friends as you can along the way. Thank you so much for having me on your blog and taking the time to ask me these questions!

Interior art From Here to There

Thank you Gilbert for taking the time to answer the interview questions and letting us get to know you. I really enjoyed viewing your illustrations. Please let me know all your future successes so I can share them with everyone.

To see more of Gilbert’s work, you can visit him at:

WEBSITE: http://www.gilbertford.com/
Linkedin: https://www.linkedin.com/in/gilbertford/
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/Gilbert-ford-Illustration-473357230533/
INSTAGRAM: https://www.instagram.com/gilbertford777/?hl=en

Talk tomorrow,

Kathy


Responses

  1. WOW! Gilbert! You are amazing! Thank you so much for sharing so much of your process. I loved watching the video of how you created the dioramas for The Marvelous Thing That Came From a Spring. And I’m blown away at your body of work – so diverse – and all so stellar! It was a lucky day for me when you agreed to illustrate From Here to There. I hope we get to work together again.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Vivian, for putting me in contact with Kathy. It was a pleasure to illustrate From Here to There and I look forward to seeing your future books (and hopefully illustrating another one!) in the future!

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  2. This was an awesome interview on both sides, so filled with process and preferences. Gilbert, I already liked you because you did such a wonderful job on Vivian’s book, but the rest of your Art had me going “Wow….wow…” nothing else. That’s when you know you reached your audience. I am going to find your diorama book next, that is so cool, and it uses a little of your photographic history and background. Congratulations on all your fine work. I am a fan of watercolor too. Even digitally. Stay well all.

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    • Thank you, Annie, that is really kind of you to say about my work and Vivian and my book FROM HERE TO THERE. Sending warm wishes your way 🙂

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  3. Awesome interview. Thanks.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Great interview Kathy & Gilbert. It was fun to see inside so many of your books and your process. I’m in awe of your ability and range of illustration styles. Can’t wait to see what you do next.

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    • Thank you, Maria and thanks for all of your support with our book FROM HERE TO THERE on your blog. All best, gilbert

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  5. This is just wonderful! When I saw the name Gilbert Ford, I thought of my dear friend Vivian and your new book! I need to look at all the beautiful work you do on a screen bigger than my phone when I get home.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Great interview!! What an impressive body of work. Thank you for sharing your process and illustration styles. I’m a writer and full-time teacher, so I deeply appreciate that you take the time to share your talents with students in an after school program.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Terrific interview! Thank you Gilbert for sharing your journey. Your illustrations add so many words of their own to these books!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I love this interview! Your artistic journey as an illustrator and writer is fascinating, Gilbert. I am thrilled you were the illustrator for my friend Vivian Kirkfield’s From Here to There. Thank you for sharing the history of your artistic career. Congratulations!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. I love seeing just how many of the books I’ve loved have been illustrated by Gilbert. His work is so distinctive. Great interview! I think that piano analogy for viewing art and writing as separate hands that learn to play together is inspired. Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Loved this interview. I’m such a big fan of Gilbert and his art!💖 That’s so exciting about his second middle grade novel he’s working on and teaching! I can imagine him being a wonderful teacher. 😃😃 lucky kids!

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Wonderful! Loved the video and the illustrations you shared. Great sense of setting! Best wishes and thanks for sharing with us!

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  12. Wow, I just love Gilbert’s artwork! What a great interview. I especially loved the video of Gilbert discussing his process for The Marvelous Thing That Came From and Spring.

    Like


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