Sunday, November 25, 2012







Mark Mitchell


Mark is the author-illustrator of the Spur Award winning book Raising ‘La Belle’: The Story of the ‘La Salle Shipwreck and two other books for upper elementary and middle grade readers, Seeing Stars and The Mustang Professor. His articles have appeared in American Artist and its family of magazines Watercolor, Drawing and Workshop. He’s a former contributing editor of Watercolor.
His illustrations have appeared in his own and others’ books and the children’s magazines Appleseeds, Cobblestone, Faces and Footsteps and CricketMark teaches classes in children’s book illustration at the Art School at Laguna Gloria, Austin Museum of Art-Arthouse and through his online course Make Your Splashes – Make Your Marks!
 
 I met Mark Mitchell when I began taking his online course to learn about illustrating children's books.  I did a google search on the subject and found him.  Since then, I have been a part of his critique group online where I have gained so much valuable information.  Mark really trys to help everyone in every way that he can.  I haven't met him in person.  However, I plan on attending the SCBWI conference in Austin soon.  I am very excited about the opportunity to attend my first conference but also about meeting him. 


 
1,) Describe yourself in five words:Verbal, artsy, slight, stubborn, creative

2.) Who did you get your sense of humor from ? Your mother or father ?
My father could be exceptionally funny. And my two brothers have exquisite senses of humor.

Scott (younger brother) and Mark together at Syracuse Zoo
 
3.) Tell me something about the place where you were born ?Syracuse NY. I remember spectacular beautiful Autumns and crazy cold winters with lots of snow. Also, I can still smell the apples, the interiors of great woods with fallen leaves. My mother went into labor with me while she was ice-fishing with my Dad on a frozen lake near where she'd grown up. We moved from upstate New York to California when I was 9. We then lived in Sunnyvale (before the days of Silicon Valley) but after a few months, my Dad changed jobs and we moved again, this time to Sitka, Alaska. My dad took a job as a comptroller (chief accountant) with a lumber and pulp mill.

The house in Sitka, Alaska where Mark lived as a child

4.) What pictures influenced you as a child ?
B&W engravings in books, by people like Tenniel, Rembrandt, Daumier, Goya
I think I was fascinated by these depictions of times different than my own.

5.) Did you have a favorite book as a child ?
I was quite taken by a little picture book "the Little Horse Bus" written by Graham Greene. The one I had was illustrated by someone other than Edward Ardizzone, but I don't remember who. I told everyone it as my favorite picture book. Later I came to really love "The Wind in the Willows" by Kenneth Grahame. Of course it's more of a novel. I had a beautiful version illustrated by Arthur Rackham, I also loved the edition illustrated by E.H. Shepard.
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6.) Did you like to draw as a child and were you encouraged ?
Yes.  By both parents.

7.) What is your earliest memory of making art?
I remember being stumped when trying to draw certain things, like trying to draw someone sitting on a chair, or on a horse, for example. I also found drawing cars very troublesome.

8.) Where you the class artist ?
Yes.

9.) Did your parents draw ?
My mother painted. Today at age 83 she still paints little personal cards with her watercolors that she sends to people as Thank Yous and events like birthdays and Halloweens

10.) Did you go to the public library as a child ?
Oh yes. Regularly.

11.) Did you have books at home as a child? It was mostly big anthologies of nursery rhymes and bits of stories, "The Bumper Book"
Not the kinds of children's picture books you see in the trade stores today. Also some illustrated books my mother had had as a child, like that large beautifully illustrated book of Bible stories. I especially remember the colored plates in a book of Bible stories that my mother had owned as a child. I don't know who the artists were. I think there were several artists who worked on this book. The pictures fascinated me. They were so dramatic and emotional.

12.) Did you have a teacher who influenced or inspired you?
Yes, but it was a teacher I found after my years of formal schooling. Her name was Ruth Chatfield and she had studied life drawing for four years under Kimon Nicolaides. (You might recognize Nicolaides' name from the book "The Natural Way to Draw.") When I came to know her she was in her late sixties, imparting the "Nicolaides method" that she had learned from him nearly 50 years before as a student at a women's fashion and design college in New York. He'd been teaching there as well as at the Art Students League. I had grown up with Nicolaides' book. It had even been one of my college texts. But it was Ruth's personal instruction of his method led me to finally "get" what Nicolaides was conveying. And when I did, it up-ended my thinking about drawing and art.

13.) What did you do BEFORE you got started with children’s book illustrations? I worked as a newspaper reporter and later as a freelance writer.

14.) When did you realize you were interested in illustrating for children?
When I was about 23 or 24 while out Christmas shopping, I wandered into a bookstore in a mall I think I got bit by the bug that afternoon.

15.) When did you become an illustrator ?
Quite some time after that day at the book store. In college I'd taken a lot of art classes but had not majored in art. But I always had the feeling that I might be using the drawing somehow, someday. I graduated from the College of Communication, which eventually got me on the path of journalism.

16.) How did you get started in picture book illustration? Illustrating a book written by my brother, Scott, which was about how to get good grades in high school. (He got very good grades.) Then I illustrated a couple of Texas themed children's books for Eakin Press, a regional publisher (located near Austin, then) that had an "in" with school and public librarians and bookstores around the state. These led to a few assignments from some children's magazines, then more Eakin books, and finally to writing and illustrating my own nonfiction stories that had Texas settings and these were also published by Eakin.

17.) What’s the best piece of career advice you’ve been given as an illustrator?
 I remember I was given career advice by Charles Shaw, who was a well regarded Texas illustrator and one of the kindest artists I've ever met (and I've met a lot of them!) He was looking through one of my published books one day and he asked me if I wanted some advice. I said yes, and he told me I needed to work on my value patterns -- and be more conscious of organizing values in my pictures. So it was more craft advice than career advice. But I think any good craft advice
is good career advice for an illustrator.

18.) Of the six fundamentals of 2D design (line, shape, volume, perspective,shading, and
color):
a. Which is your greatest strength?Color maybe. Shape I also feel comfortable with.
b. Which poses your greatest challenge? Maybe shading. (I still find values and value patterns a challenge.)

19.) When did you write your books ? How many have you written ?
"The Mustang Professor," a kids biography of Texas's first nationally prominent author, J. Frank Dobie, who wrote about the folklore of the American Southwest and Mexico was published in 1993. "Seeing Stars" about how astronomy is done at the McDonald Observatory in West Texas was first published in 1997 and got a second edition reprinting in 2002. "Raising La Belle" about the recovery of a shipwreck that had belonged to the explorer La Salle came out at the end of of 2002.

20.) Did you self publish or go through the other publishing routes ?
All three books were published by Eakin Press.

21.) What inspired you to write those stories ?
They were subjects with Texas themes or settings that interested me, so I knew they would also interest Eakin Press. In college I'd taken an awesome astronomy class taught by the director of the McDonald Observatory. So after "The Mustang Professor" I decided that the observatory, which is owned by the University of Texas and is located on two mountaintops in remote southwest Texas, was a good vehicle for explaining how stars create matter -- all the building blocks of the physical universe we know -- and how astronomers are extremely interested in that. So that resulted in "Seeing Stars." My last book, "Raising La Belle" came about because someone at the Texas Historical Commission saw "Seeing Stars" -- and wanted a book like that to tell the story of a shipwreck that the Commission had just pulled up from a Texas bay, costing the state more than $5 million. The Commission approached me through my publisher to do a book for young people about their excavation -- a book for upper elementary grades. So Texas school children would go home and tell their parents about this. The ship was important, historically. The Belle had been given to the great French explorer of North America Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle by King Louis XIV as a personal gift. So my books have involved a lot of research.

22.) Are your books still available for purchase? Yes. But I recommend you go for the softcover edition of "Raising La Belle.". The hardcover edition goes for $1,079 on Amazon and it's been that way for several years. I guess it's some kind of a collector's item now.

23.) Do did you receive lots of letters from childrenYes, I've received letters (often illustrated ones) after my school visits. Precious.

24.) When did you begin teaching? What do you teach ? Elaborate ?
 Around 1998 I was invited to teach a class in children's book illustration at the Austin Museum of Art school (Now called the AMOA-Arthouse School.) At the time I was interviewing a lot of children's book illustrators -- including several Caldecott medal winners -- for American Artist Watercolor magazine. I was illustrating regularly for the Cobblestone Magazine Group, in watercolor -- and also illustrating my own and others' books. I had taught a few writing workshops and classes before but never an art class. So when I was offered a chance to teach a studio style art class, I thought I could bring together my own experience and the knowledge I'd learned from years of interviewing artists -- especially watercolor painters -- for the American Artist magazines. I've been teaching at AMOA ever since -- about two classes per semester.


One of Mark's classes at the Austin Museum of Art-Arthouse school at Laguna Gloria

25.) When did you begin your course " how to illustrate children's books" ?
You mean the online "Make Your Splashes - Make Your Marks!" course? I started commercially with it in the summer of 2009.

A module cover from "Make Your Splashes - Make Your Marks!"

26.) What inspired you to start that course?I was looking at the Web as a new way to ply my trade as a journalist and a writer -- a new place to sell my writing. I was also seeing how the Web would democratize learning in a way the world has never before seen. It's the great leveler of education.
So I was asking myself, what can I share. What can I teach? In 2008 it hit me -- that I already had a curriculum in the can, so to speak -- the lessons I'd been fine-tuning for years at the AMOA Art School. I knew that my children's book illustration class "worked" -- that people enjoyed it and learned a lot in there. So I decided to re-develop them in some kind of written format. I wanted to get words around the ideas I'd been sharing with people for ten years. That's the writer's compulsion, I suppose. Gradually I began adding things on -- like the video versions of the lessons, then monthly live critiques, then the Wiggio group (which began as a suggestion from Scott and another student and has now taken on a life of its own -- I can barely keep up with everything going on there) and more recently, the video interviews with working children's book artists.

27.) Can you tell about this course It's first and foremost an art course -- the basic stuff in drawing, painting, color and design that we all forget sometimes. I 've found over the years that many of my students are talented drawers, They often have prior training. Some even have MFA's. But they tend not to be not confident as draftsmen or painters and they're scared to death of watercolor.
I've been there, too. So I know what it's like. So that's what "Marks and Splashes" focuses on -- these trouble areas -- the things that if you don't know them, you're sunk with your portfolio showing or book dummy submission. So we really go over designing your picture space, linear perspective, simple figure construction, and how to apply paint and handle values and understand color. So this is the heart of the course -- lessons that I think would well serve any artist who wants to get a handle on painting and illustration.

Then we add in some ideas specific to illustrating stories for children -- simplicity, readability, clarity, consistency and originality of characters, composing multiple figures in action, layout, narrative flow, suspenseful page turns, inviting the viewer to complete your picture, to articipate. Sourcing and using the pictorial reference out there..
Again I believe these to be vital to know for any artist making pictures for any age audience. We're also looking at marketing your work to the children's publishing marketplace. So many of these 'rules' have changed as our society has moved to the Web. I should say that the course focuses on traditional art-making materials -- because that's where my personal experience lies.

We don't go deeply into digital illustration -- except to point you to other references, resources and teachers. I do feel it's important for illustrators to stay alert to and conversant with emerging technologies -- and to begin learning some of these.A number of our students are already working in digital mediums and they share information with the group. Still in the end it comes down to producing a simple image that captures a viewer's eye and heart. You can do this with a few pencil marks and (if you want to get fancy) a few splashes of paint. It's called an economy of means -- and that's a cornerstone of art. It's also the grammar of the classic children's picture book.

 
28.) When you are creating, what music is playing ?
I try not to play music when I'm art-making or writing. Otherwise I'll stop and listen to it.

Mark's painting table
 
29.) Who are your favorite artists ? Illustrators ? Authors ?I have too many favorites to mention. I love the work of my Austin SCBWI friends
I have a special fondness for anything by Peggy Rathman, James Stevenson and an early 20th century English illustrator, Edward Ardizzone.I like the work some of my students are doing right now. I love the work of many animators, especially Alexander Petrov -- but I worry that he might be poisoning himself by painting oils with his fingertips.
As for writers for adults, I love the novels of Leo Tolstoy, the magical short stories by Anton Chekhov and the novel "True Grit" which is the only novel I've read by Charles Portis, though I hope to read more.


Mark with Newbery honor author Kirby Larson at an Austin SCBWI conference
 

Mark with illustrator Terry Widener (photo by children's picture book author Laura Purdie Salas)
 
30.) What new projects have you got coming down the pike? (I would like to plug anything that you are doing or trying to promote)
Right now it's finishing new lessons in the course and scheduling new video interviews with working children's book artists. In the coming year, we'll pay some more attention to digital publishing. because I feel that's the revolution that's underway now. I'm also also working on a picture book.

31.) To enjoy more of a good thing you can visit...

The secret to better drawing (videos):





Facebook page for the "Marks and Splashes" course: http://Facebook.com/HowtoIllustrateAChildrensBook

Mark Mitchell lives in Austin, Texas and he can be reached at
mobile (512) 656-9217

 
 
 

1 comment:

  1. Felicia, thank you for this awesome interview. Loved all your questions.
    Mark, nice to get to know you more. You are always so gracious and genuinely caring of everyone's ability and encouraging our talent.

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Thanks for leaving your comment. I should recieve notification of it and will respond when I do. Thanks for visiting, Felicia