I have been an admirer of Robert Casilla’s work since I read First Day in Grapes, written by L. King Perez (Lee & Low, 2002). Emotions and thoughts are conveyed through Robert’s characters. He has often been called upon to illustrate biographies, so those faces are very important to the story. The planning, content, and composition of his pages are touches the reader notices and appreciates. It is, however, his palette that continues to draw me to his books—he suffuses his paintings with light and energy.
A few years ago, Children’s Literature Network asked Robert to design the Network’s holiday card. We were delighted with the subject matter and honored when the Society of Illustrators chose Robert’s card design for its 2008 Illustrators Awards show.
Robert’s newest book is The Lunch Thief by Anne C. Bromley (Tilbury House, 2010), which is a tale of a young boy who steals not because he is evil but because he is homeless and hungry. As a school counselor stated, “The Lunch Thief teaches empathy, understanding, and helping one another. And gosh do we need more of that within our communities.”
We always need to know more about our favorite book people, so we asked Robert a few questions.
Question: You were born in Jersey City, NJ and lived New York until the last few years. What was a summer afternoon like for you as a child?
Answer: The neighborhood where I grew up in Jersey City was not the safest place to grow up as a child. It was a busy city, lots of trucks and cars passing by our block, so my mother didn’t let me go out to play. I would spend most of my time during the summers and winters at home drawing and painting with pastels.
Question: When did the art bug first find you?
Answer: It found me at a very early age, maybe as soon as I could hold a crayon. I do remember sitting next to my mother while she drew funny looking guys with pompadour hair. Although she wasn’t an artist, I thought it was magical to see how a few lines on a sheet of paper could be created into a drawing that mesmerized me as a child. I knew then that I wanted to be an artist.
Question: What is the most comfortable medium in which you work?
Answer: I’m comfortable with watercolors and pastels because I’ve been working in that medium since childhood. But I also love working in oils and charcoal. Actually, I like working with any medium that I can rub and smudge.
Question: What aspect of illustration presents a challenge for you?
Answer: Coming up with good idea or solution to an assignment is the most challenging part for me. Once I have a solution, creating the art is the fun part.
Question: Can you tell us a little bit about your process? How do you begin working on a picture book? Do you work from photos or live models or inspiration? How do you decide which medium will work best for a particular book?
Answer: For me, it all starts with the manuscript and doing thumbnail sketches. Most of the time the thumbnail sketches are done from whatever images pop into my head after reading segments of the story. Sometimes I will do research during the thumbnail stage to familiarize myself with the subject matter of the story.
During the thumbnail stage I’m planning out the whole book page by page. I decide how the story will be divided and then I include the words into the composition in the rough sketches.
Once the thumbnails are completed, I use them as a guide for further research and for taking pictures of models. I work in a realistic style so I do rely on photo research and photos that I take of models. I don’t use the photo reference for the purpose of copying, but as a guide to maintaining a consistent character or likeness of the model.
As for which medium I decide to use for a particular book, I use watercolor and pastels for all of my books. Often times an editor or art director will refer to a previous book that I illustrated as a reason for choosing me to do a book. So it’s important for illustrators to maintain a consistent look to their work.
I tend to challenge myself to achieve something artistically with each book. For example, I may try to do the paintings in a looser, more painterly style or use a certain palette of colors. It all depends on what the story is about and what I’m trying to convey.
Question: What is a work day like for you?
Answer: My work day varies according to which stage I’m in when working on a book. I can spend weeks doing research and months drawing and painting.
Question: Your portraits are so richly featured and varied. Each person has a distinct character, which is one of the definitions of illustrative art. Do you remember when you first began to draw faces? How did you find the skills you use today?
Answer: I’ve always enjoyed capturing a likeness. To me, it’s very important to use facial expressions to convey what the characters in the story are feeling. When I’m illustrating a biography, I try to learn as much as possible about the person and their time period and surroundings. The information allows me to get a feel for the subject personally. This allows me to more easily get a feel for their portrait likeness.
Question: For A Picture Book Biography of Jackie Robinson, you have drawn real-life characters who had an influence on Jackie’s life: his wife, the baseball commissioner, the Monarchs … how did you research these paintings?
Answer: I did a lot of research which involved going to the Hall of Fame, libraries, bookstores.
Question: In Jalapeño Bagels, a story of a boy who is proud of his blended heritage, you had to paint a lot of dough and baked goods. Are you familiar with baking or was this a study for you?
Answer: I’m not familiar with baking to the extent of kneading dough. Any baking that I’ve done has been from a box. So, yes, it was a study for me. However, my son (23 years old now), who was the model for Jalapeno Bagels, used to enjoy helping out whenever cakes or cookies were being baked. So that was an event that aided me in doing the book.
Question: I noticed in this book that you have a way of making browns look as though they’re filled with light. How do you achieve that?
Answer: For browns I use a variety of earth tones from golden yellow to dark browns. I work in watercolors which allows me to apply layers of washes over other washes, and allows me to use the white of the paper, which causes the colors to be translucent.
Question: In The Little Painter of Sabana Grande, while Fernando is looking for clay, you’ve included a frog and a lizard who are looking at him, yet they’re not part of the text. At what point do you decide to add something extra to your illustrations?
Answer: Great question! This story took place in Panama, which is a tropical climate. As a kid I lived in Puerto Rico briefly while I was in fourth grade. I remembered that there were lizards and frogs everywhere. Waterbugs that flew too. It would’ve been nice if my publisher had sent me to Panama for research, but it was not in the budget. So I drew from those memories to create the tropical feel of Panama. Whenever possible I will add some of my life experience to the artwork to enhance the story visually.
Question: When you were working on this book, did you see photos of the real paintings by the young boy in Las Tablas, Panama?
Answer: Yes, when I was hired to illustrate The Little Painter of Sabana Grande, the publisher included a colored xerox of one of the boy’s paintings along with the manuscript. The copy of the boy’s painting helped me come up with the style of the art that was painted on the adobe walls.
Question: The interior pages of The Dream on Bianca’s Wall are all black-and-white paintings. Whose choice was it to do these paintings in black-and-white? Do you work differently? See things differently? What media do you use?
Answer: The publisher decides whether the book is going to be in color or black and white. It’s more economical to print a book in black and white. As the artist, I try to duplicate the same look/quality as my full color work. I try to work the same way, same medium, except that I use a variety of black and white tonal values instead of color.
Question: For me, one of the most intriguing of your books is The Legend of Mexicatl. This is a story of the hero who founded Tenochtitlan, which is now Mexico City. The heat reflects off these pages of his travel through the desert. How do you accomplish that? What technique do you use?
Answer: I worked in the same technique as my other books. However, I used very warm colors in order to give the artwork the feel of the heat of the desert. For me, choice of colors used in a painting is more important when creating any type of environment or feeling.
Question: You have a degree in fine arts from the School of Visual Arts in New York City. What type of classes did you take in school? Did you have a particular teacher who made a big impression on you?
Answer: I took a lot of drawing and painting classes and illustration and design classes. I also took photography classes and the required liberal art classes. As a student at Visual Arts I was like a sponge, I wanted to learn as much as possible about art. Many of my teachers made an impression on me. Teachers such as Julian Allen, Baron Storey and Marshall Arisman and Jim McMullan were very influential to me as a young artist.
Question: How did you get into the School of Visual Arts?
Answer: As a high school senior I applied to Pratt Institute which a good friend of mine was attending. I graduated high school with nearly a 90 GPA, but I didn’t do as well on my SAT exam. I was not aware that my SAT scores were not good enough, which caused me not to get accepted into Pratt. My only backup plan was to attend a regular college and then try to transfer after a year.
In 1979, as a freshman at Kean College in Elizabeth, New Jersey, I met an artist who was a School of Visual Arts graduate working as a graphic artist at a youth community center. I showed him my portfolio and then, after viewing my artwork, he called the SVA admissions office and had them send me a school catalog. I followed through by applying and then setting up a portfolio interview. I knew that I was accepted when the interviewer told me after seeing my work that I would like it at the School of Visual Arts.
After a year at SVA, my friend who was in his third year at Pratt Institute, set me up with a portfolio interview with the chairman of the illustration department. The chairman told me he couldn’t believe that I was not accepted into Pratt. He offered me instant acceptance into Pratt’s as an illustration major. After some thought, I kindly declined his generous offer and chose to remain at Visual Art which I felt was a terrific school for me.
Question: What words of advice would you share with teachers who have students who show a strong interest in art?
Answer: Needless to say that grades and SAT scores are extremely important. It’s also very important to have the students work hard at sharpening their artistic skills and to work hard at building a strong portfolio. It’s a good idea for students to start working on portfolios during the start of their junior year. Students should have about 12 portfolio pieces. Have the student contact the school’s admissions department to find out what the school wants to see as portfolio samples. Students should apply to several art schools so that they can have a backup plan if they don’t get accepted into their #1 school choice.
The Dream on Bianca’s Wall, written by Jane Medina, illus by Robert Casilla (Wordsong / Boyds Mills Press, 2004)
Jalapeño Bagels, written by Natasha Wing, illus by Robert Casilla (Atheneum, 1996)
The Legend of Mexicatl, written by Jo Harper, illus by Robert Casilla (Turtle Books, 1998)
The Little Painter of Sabana Grande, written by Patricia Maloney Markun, illus by Robert Casilla (Bradbury Press, 1993)
The Lunch Thief, written by Anne C. Bromley, illus by Robert Casilla (Tilbury House, 2010)
A Picture Book Biography of Jackie Robinson, written by David Adler, illus by Robert Casilla (Holiday House, 1994)