E.B. Lewis, the award-winning illustrator of D is for Drinking Gourd, answers questions submitted for an interview from students at Glenwood Avenue Elementary School in Wildwood, New Jersey. These questions were part of the Virtual Book Tour for my book D is for Drinking Gourd: An African American Alphabet.
Q: What made you decide to become an artist? Did you take art lessons?
A: I grew up in a house where art was very important. My father worked at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Both of my mother’s brothers were artists. One of my uncles graduated from the Tyler School of Art and then taught art at Temple. My other uncle went to the Philadelphia College of Art. Growing up in that kind of an environment made it a natural thing for me to decide to become an artist. I went to the Tyler School of Art—the same school as my one uncle. I now teach art at the University of the Arts which used to be the Philadelphia College of Art. You can see that it has become full circle.
Q: How long did it take for you to illustrate D is for Drinking Gourd: An African American Alphabet?
A: It took about two entire months to illustrate it.
Q: What materials and supplies did you use for the pictures?
A: Good quality paints and brushes make a difference. I used Winsor & Newton watercolors and Kolinsky Series 7 watercolor brushes.
Q: In the Malcolm X drawing, were the people reflected in the sunglasses real or made up?
A: Those are real people! I saw them in a photograph and decided to illustrate them reflected off his glasses. Every one of the models I use for the illustrations in my books is a real person. Depending on the book and the location and the background, sometimes I do a photo shoot at a park or other various locations. If the story takes place in Mississippi, I’ll hop on a plane and go to Mississippi. If it’s in Africa, I’ll go there if I can. I’ll go wherever the story takes me. There are times when it’s not feasible to travel because of time restraints, so I will actually create those images as closely as I can. I often go to the Print and Picture Department in Philadelphia and take photographs from the pictures in their files.
Q: When you drew the pictures for this book, did you feel like you were there?
A: I always feel like I’m there when I’m illustrating a book. It’s a very emotional experience. One of the most emotional pieces for me to work on in D is for Drinking Gourd was the page “S is for Slavery, a sad part of our past.” It was very powerful.
Q: How did you get the colors to reflect off each other for the letter H?
A: That’s a great question! It’s all about being observant and looking carefully at the reference. That particular reference I was using had a shiny reflection on it, and I was able to interpret that and include it as a beautiful quality of the illustration I was making.
Q: What is the hardest part about illustrating a book?
A: The hardest part about illustrating a book is probably gathering the references. It’s not necessarily a time issue, it’s just about finding the right images that I want to use. I go to the library. I look on the computer. I ask people who are experts in their field. The reason I want to find just the right images is because when I illustrate a book, it’s a visual interpretation of the written word. It’s like speaking a different language. It’s as if I would be translating your words into French. I need to explain the story someone told me with words and it’s as if I need to translate that to my people whose language is visual. I sit down and go through that interpretation process in my head. I do thumbnail sketches and create a storyboard. I try to translate the words into images.
Q: Do you have a collection of your own artwork?
A: Yes. All over the house.
Q: Do you have any wise words for students who like to draw?
A: Practice, practice, practice. Just have fun! The other stuff comes later. What’s important now is to practice as much as you can and experience the joy of drawing!
E.B. Lewis just won the Coretta Scott King Illustrator Honor Award for the picture book he illustrated of Langston Hughes’s poem, The Negro Speaks of Rivers. Listen and hear Langston Hughes read his poem by clicking here. Congratulations, E.B.!
Special Note: E.B. Lewis took the photographs of Richard Allen and Sarah Allen at the Richard Allen Museum in Philadelphia, and these two photographs are on the cover of my new book, America’s Black Founders. Thank you E.B. for your contribution!
Visit the official site of America’s Black Founders to learn more about the people who helped bring this book to life. And also, stop back here on Monday for the official launch of my Virtual Book Tour to celebrate the release of this brand new book for kids.