Stephen was born in Ottawa. He studied both biology and fine arts at University before he knew that illustration was even a profession. He has worked most of his life in the publishing industry and now writes and illustrates children’s books. His books, stories and poems have been published in Canada, China, India, East Africa, Lebanon, Turkey, UK and the US. Stephen maintains a studio in the Himalayas of India where he works in watercolours and acrylics and then finishes the art digitally on the computer using a Cintiq tablet. He is a member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) and has been on the Membership Committee of the Picture Book Artists Association (PBAA) for the past 4 years. Stephen is delighted with the opportunity he has to work with talented, creative and generous people who are also a lot of fun! His work is in the Mazza Collection at the University of Findlay and his art agent in the US is Janet DeCarlo (Storybooks Art, Inc.). He is currently writing a 5-book series for the US educational market entitled, Our Warming World: The Science of Climate Change.
Featured Book: The Kerala Collection: Tales from the Banks of the Periyar
Written by Mary Joseph, Illustrated by Stephen Aitken
Website: Kerala Folk Tales Collection
“These tales bring back childhood memories of evenings in Kerala with the sun setting slowly behind the rubber trees, pigeons finding their way home and fluttering into the dove cote above the gate post, cows being led back to their stalls from the pasture and hens being shooed into the henhouse, the children too straggled reluctantly back from the courtyard and, washed and fed, sat contentedly around their grandmother to listen to her well loved, oft repeated stories. This charming illustrated book bring these stories alive again, stories about simple village folk, and about the familiar animals and birds of the Kerala countryside. How we laughed approvingly as the elephant took its little revenge on the teasing tailor and with what apprehension we followed the lump of mud and dry leaf on their perilous journey to Benares. Many a toddler slowly closed their eyes in sleep to the rhythmic narration of the pigeon’s heroic battle to get her eggs back from the thieving carpenter family. With its simple story telling and eye catching illustrations, it offers the children of today a delightful glimpse of the sights and sound of rural Kerala of not too long ago.”
— Teresa Bhattacharya Chief Secretary of Karnataka 2001-2002
Q: Describe one goal you have as an illustrator and the steps you’re taking to achieve it.
A: I am not happy unless I am continually growing. I like to keep putting myself in challenging situations with my art. Illustrating for children’s books is one of the most challenging careers imaginable. You are sent a manuscript, a collection of black letters on white paper, and it is your job to imagine an entire world. The more vivid your imagination the more the reader gets drawn into your world. Children’s books keep stretching my skills; through the use of new media, new designs, new perspectives, new narratives, and working with new and exciting authors, illustrators and publishers.
Q: As an artist, what technique do you prefer to work with?
A: I am trained as a watercolourist and I never tire of the spontaneity and delight of watercolour paintings. That having been said, as a children’s book illustrator, it is the story that dictates the medium to me. When I illustrated the international edition of The Mountain that Loved a Bird, by Alice McLerran (a wonderful writer and friend), there was no doubt in my mind that this story called for both acrylics and watercolours. I actually made a plaster model of the mountain in this story and took over 50 digital photos from many different angles and lighting conditions to capture the mountain as I had sculpted it. After all there are only two main characters in this book, the mountain and the bird, Joy. I had to get them right! I used these reference photos when I painted the scenes in this 32-page picture book.
A lot of my work for educational publishers is created digitally. I find that this works best because of the often quick turnaround times, the required revisions, and the many options that the digital medium offers to artists. Photoshop and Painter are as essential in my studio as my Winsor and Newton paints and brushes or my Arches watercolour paper.
Q: What are some of the benefits and challenges of writing or illustrating for the magazine market?
A: I love working for the magazine market. First of all, it keeps me writing and getting my work published on a regular basis. Illustrating for magazines keeps me up on the latest looks that designers and art directors are interested in. I like to explore new media when working for this market.
Q: Share one tip you would like to give to someone who wants to be both an author and an illustrator for children’s books.
A: Practice, practice, practice! Read as many children’s books as you can get your hands on and practice storyboarding in your notebooks. How would you handle the same scene if you were the artist? Could the scene be drawn better to add another layer to the story? The art and the story are so intertwined they become one. Children’s books are the ultimate example of symbiosis. The art enhances and expands on the text and the story turns the artwork into magic! Fall in love with stories, whether they are fictional, or happening around you in the real world. Stories are everywhere and you NEED to tell them!
Be true to your self and your sense of quality in every assignment you take on. Never hand in work that is not the best you can do. You may not be proud of it 10 years down the road but be proud of it when you send the manuscript to your editor or turn in your art to the art director.
After the assignment is complete, forget about it. Move onto the next book with enthusiasm and anticipation. The next story is just around the corner, either in the mail or in your mind. Life is short so enjoy the ride! Care about children. They are all we’ve got and they deserve the best.