An Interview with Illustrator Tim Jessell

After reviewing hundreds of children’s picture books here at Good Reads with Ronna, we’ve seen the best in illustrations. Occasionally an illustrator stands above most others and really wows us. After reading and reviewing Tim Jessell’s wonderful book, Falcon, Debbie Glade was hooked. She was eager to ask the author/illustrator some questions about his spectacular gift of illustrating, what inspires him and what it is that he loves about falcons.

Tim Jessell is a master of illustration, having completed many illustrations for corporations, magazines and books. Among his many credits are the best-seller series Secrets Of Droon, Stan Lee of Marvel Comics first children’s picture book, and covers for the reissue of Zilpha Keatley Snyder’s Newbery Honor Books. Tim has been the recipient of many art awards including the Gold Medal Award and numerous Best in Show Awards from the Society of Illustrators and the Illustrator of the Year by ADWeek Magazine.

  © Tim Jessell. Tim Jessell’s love for falconry led him to pen and illustrate the children’s book, Falcon 

You attended The University of Tulsa where you earned your degree in Fine Arts. How old were you when you first got interested in art?

Ever since I could first hold a pencil I was drawing when the mood struck me. My mom tells the story of challenging me when I handed her a drawing of a stick figure on family vacation …in the car, on the way to Florida via Indiana. When I was three years old, she asked me to draw something I was excited to see from our Florida trip. I liked the show “Sea Hunt,” so I drew a scuba diver. The lore is after she questioned my stick figure (she was an ex math and art teacher – dual brain hemispheres) I grabbed the drawing back in a huff, and proceeded to draw and articulate a figure complete with diving tanks, bubbles, fins, etc. She was stunned when I handed it back to her.

What a great story! It sounds like your mom deserves a bit of credit for encouraging you to draw. When did you first realize you could make a living as an artist?

I wouldn’t say there was a first piece that proved I could do it. I just knew from an early age that I was born with an innate skill beyond most kids and that somehow, someway I was going to make a living doing it.

Amorak, another of Tim Jessell’s books – a story about how the wolf and the caribou became brothers

Can you describe your art style?

Realism with a bit of a twist.

Can you briefly explain to our readers the process of creating your art graphically using a drawing tablet?

I use a Wacom Intuos4 tablet. That is the real key hardware interface to drawing and painting digitally. It makes painting with a mouse feel like a painting with a rock dipped in paint. It’s very pressure sensitive and is wireless with no battery. It takes little time to get used to, at least for me. You follow your cursor on the screen with the pen on the tablet.

Have you always illustrated digitally?

No, I’m in my  ’40s! I switched to digital around 2000.

Does it often surprise people when they discover your art process includes using a computer, since your illustrations do not look “graphic?”

Yes. I fooled an art director just this past week. Looking at my web site he had no idea I was digital. I spent many hours tweaking brushes and textures to make it look “analog” when I sit down to paint.

© Tim Jessell. From his book, Falcon

It is truly amazing. I am impressed by your art for so many reasons and in particular wanted to ask how you accomplish such great success and realism with your use of light in your illustrations?

Thank you. Lighting to me is like the melody to music, it’s just about everything in my view. It can create mood, atmosphere, and point of emphasis. When I look at the world around me, I constantly asses light and shadow color, low light effects, etc. But ironically I look at Norman Rockwell, and virtually all his lighting is flat and camera-like, yet it is gorgeous. It just goes to show you in art there are rules and no rules.

How do you know when you’re “done” with an illustration?

Ahh, I guess one can get “OCD” about many details in a piece, especially when not being known as a “loose” painter. I can honestly say looming deadlines often are a big help in knowing when to stop.

© Tim Jessell. From the book A Night in Santa’s Great Big Bag  

I was so impressed with your recent book, Falcon and was fascinated to learn that falconry is one of your hobbies. How on earth did you get interested in falconry?

In the summer of 1986 my family and I took a vacation to New York (had our car stolen, so we got the full NY treatment). My younger sister and I were to meet our parents at a concert in Central Park. I thought I took a short cut to the park, but instead stumbled upon a statue called “The Falconer.” I had an epiphany right then and there that that was what I wanted to do – become a falconer.

Wow, that’s really quite a story – that a statue inspired you to that degree. How does one go about training a falcon, and what exactly do you train the falcon to do?

The training is basically the same for most raptors, but can be different according to what type of bird you are flying. The knowledge and much of the equipment design has been passed down for thousands of years, despite modern advances. This helps greatly, as one doesn’t have to reinvent the wheel.

As for training, birds of prey are like bird dogs in that what you ultimately want to do (hunt live wild quarry) is already inside of them. The falconer is really teaching them to allow you to be a partner and where to direct it, like with bird dog training.

© Tim Jessell. Look twice – Tim Jessell’s illustrations are not photographs, from Falcon

Where do you get your falcons and is there a specific age of a falcon that is ideal for training?

I get mine from falconers who are also breeders. Many falconers don’t like to train young birds. They like to start with birds that are several months old (chamber birds, we call them). Thus, they avoid all the bad manners of downy birds who tend to make screaming noises at the falconer. This can eventually lead to a falcon treating his trainer like a mate or sibling. But these “imprints” can make for very aggressive hunters. I tend to take the hard road sometimes so I like training imprints.

Can you explain a bit more what you mean by “imprints”?

Imprint means it was raised by a human, and the bird sees humans as either its parents, sibling, or eventually its mate. This makes the bird tame and relaxed around people. But there is a trade off – they tend to be very vocal (annoyingly so). This is a deal killer for quite a few falconers.

That is fascinating. Does training require any certification on your part?

Yes, I am state and federally licensed (passing written tests and facility inspections) and served an apprenticeship under a master falconer.

Tim’s book cover for Racing the Moon

Can you tell us anything interesting or surprising about falcons?

The females are all bigger than the males in virtually all raptors, and in general the males are not more brightly colored like in other bird species.

Do your children share your love of falcons?

They share an appreciation, but to the level of my passion, the answer is no. Perhaps familiarity breeds contempt with many falconers’ children?

Hahaha! What advice do you have for our readers, one of whom may be interested in falconry?

Study and know your wildlife and the natural world around you. Know that it is a hunting sport at its core. If you are not able or have the desire to regularly hunt your bird, or have access to places to hunt, falconry is not for you. We are not mere “pet keepers”, though we love out birds like pets.

 

© Tim Jessell. Incredible attention to detail – from Falcon

And what advice do you have for someone who is just starting out and wants to become a successful illustrator like you?

Work hard. Have a well-rounded education in graphic design. There’s always room at the table for someone talented and dependable.

Can you tell us what book art projects of yours we may look forward to seeing soon?

I have a series of books I have illustrated for Random House called “Dog Diaries,” which young readers I think will really enjoy and another couple of series for Scholastic called “Pet Hotel” and “S.T.A.T,” which are tales of NBA’s Amare Stoudemire as a young boy.

Thank you, Tim, for sharing your expertise and illustrations with us as well as your fascinating passion for falconry. Your art is extraordinary, and we all look forward to seeing all your future projects. Any author who has his or her story illustrated by you is indeed fortunate.

Visit Tim Jessell’s website to view more of his art work. Click here to contact Tim.

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