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People, Jazz and Life: The Inspirations of Illustrator Eric Velasquez

In honor of Black History Month, we’re thrilled to share Debbie Glade’s interview with the fascinating, ultra talented illustrator, Eric Velasquez.

Eric Velasquez

As a parent and book reviewer I’ve read more children’s books than I could possibly count. Indeed, there are many good ones, but only once in a while do I find a book that is extraordinary. Recently I reviewed My Uncle Martin’s Words for America and quickly discovered the story was awe-inspiring and the illustrations were in a league of their own. This is a sister book to My Uncle Martin’s Big Heart, which Eric also illustrated. I studied the pictures over and over again, shared them with family and friends who were equally as impressed, and then contacted illustrator Eric Velasquez to ask him if he’d do an interview with Good Reads with Ronna.

Eric Velasquez started his successful career as an artist, illustrating book covers. In 1997 he added picture book illustrations to his repertoire and has since won awards for his work. Growing up in Spanish Harlem, he credits his multi-cultural approach with his art to his rich, Afro-Puerto-Rican heritage. You will learn through this interview how Eric’s attention to people and their emotions, as well as his love of jazz play a significant role in the richness of his exceptional illustrations.

How old were you when you realized you had a talent for art?

About 7 or 8 I believe.

Were any of your family members artistically inclined?

Yes, my uncle Louie is a photographer.  Also, my two cousins Edgard and Dennis both draw.

Your illustrations are unquestionably exceptional. I read that you have a BFA from New York’s School of Visual Arts. What is your view on how much natural ability plays a role in an artist’s work vs. techniques learned while receiving an art education?

Many people have a mistaken notion as to what natural ability is. True natural ability is often overlooked. To think like an artist is a true natural ability. Form will always follow function. Artists will develop the technical abilities to give life to their visions. People often confuse technicians with artists. Unfortunately, technicians have very little to say with their work.

That is the best definition of an artist I’ve ever heard. Did you know you wanted to illustrate books from the beginning of your career?

One of the illustrator’s many book covers

Yes, I wanted to tell stories. I thought that I would become a comic artist, but I fell in love with painting my senior year in the High School of Art and Design.

Do you remember how you landed your very first project as a paid artist?

 I won second place in a contest. RSVP Directory of Illustration. Aside from a little money, a page containing three images of my work was published in the directory and distributed to every publishing house, design firm and ad agency in America. I began working shortly after graduating college.

What a wonderful way to get your career started! Since then you have completed hundreds of illustrations for book jackets and interiors, including series such as Encyclopedia Brown. You have said that Journey to Jo’burg and Chain of Fire are your favorite books. What did you like about those books in particular?

Both of those books were highly political.  They dealt with the racism going on in South Africa before Nelson Mandela was released from prison. Those books were my introduction into the genre of historical nonfiction.

You illustrated two books about Martin Luther King, Jr. – My Uncle Martin’s Big Heart and My Uncle Martin’s Words for America, written by Angela Farris Watkins. It is rare for one to see images of people as remarkably lifelike as yours. Did the fact that MLK’s legacy is larger than life make the project intimidating for you in any way?

I wanted to add something different to the stories. For “My Uncle Martin’s Big Heart” I began to think about my uncle and the possibility of him being an important world figure, but as a child I only knew him as my uncle.  My goal for the book was to inspire children to acknowledge and appreciate the efforts and loving care of the people in their own families.

And you certainly did accomplish that goal. For these MLK books you painted with oils on watercolor paper. How did that combination come to be?

My original painting surfaces were wooden masonite panels. However, for a book containing 15 -20 illustrations, the panels can get heavy, and they aren’t flexible to fit in a drum scanner. Hot press watercolor paper has a wonderful surface to draw on. After I sketch the picture, I then spray the drawing with crystal clear fixative and apply several coats of acrylic matte medium. Once the surface is completely dry, I begin to paint in oil. The 300-pound paper is flexible enough to fit in a drum scanner.

What inspires you most, and do illustrators ever get “inspiration block” like writers do?

People, music and life inspire me. “Inspiration block” is something I choose not to believe in. Sometimes my art takes on different forms and one has to allow for that, whether it is writing, storytelling, cooking, carpentry, photography, etc.  I think we create the block when we are tired and want to move onto something else. Other times we allow the words of others to destroy our inspirations, which at times can come from the silliest notions or actions.

Is there one specific character in a book you illustrated with whom you can really relate?

Not only one. I relate with most of my characters. I think it’s part of my job as a storyteller.

On average, how many hours do you draw/paint each day?

I work every day, 7 to 8 hours a day.

Can you tell us about your love of Jazz and how you have incorporated that into your art?

I have always loved music, ever since my grandmother introduced me to salsa in her living room in Spanish Harlem.  What I love about Jazz is its improvisational nature. I believe that if more of us were to adapt a more offhand approach to our work, we’d have a more successful and original outcome.

You illustrated and penned the autobiographical picture books, Grandma’s Gift and  Grandma’s Records. Briefly, what is Grandma’s Records about, and what inspired you to write it? 

With a cover like this, who wouldnt want to read this book?

Grandma’s Records is the story of how I spent my summers as a child with my grandma, listening to her records.  Whenever Grandma played this one special song, she would put one hand over her heart and raise the other as she sang along. Later on, she would sit and reminisce about the old days in Puerto Rico with my Grandpa. One day her nephew, Sammy, who was a percussionist in the band “Cortijo Y su Comdo” came over with his fellow band-mates, Rafael Cortijo and Ismael Rivera. We got tickets to their first New York show and the experience changed our lives forever.

I imagine you are flooded with offers to illustrate books. How do you decide which projects you want to take on?

First I read the manuscript thoroughly.  Afterwards, I’ll start doodling right on the actual script, and if I like what I see in the sketches, I’ll decide to take the job.

Can you explain how the process of illustrating a picture book works? Are you generally given specific artistic direction by the editor of the book? Or are you free to depict the story as you see it yourself? 

Usually I am free to depict the story the way I see it.  Although, often with a new client, I’ll receive specific instructions from the editor and the art director.

Are artists involved in the printing process of the picture books, to ensure that the qualities of the illustrations are not compromised in any way?

From time to time the publisher will invite me to come in and color correct the art proofs.  It’s a lengthy process and it can be quite exhausting.

It’s no surprise you have won numerous coveted awards for your illustrations. What does it feel like to receive prestigious recognition, such as the Pura Belpré Illustrator Award or the Coretta Scott King Award?

It’s always an honor to be recognized for one’s talent and contributions.  It is especially rewarding to be recognized for educating children about historical events in history.

Do you have an absolute favorite illustration you’ve ever done?

The artist at work in his studio

Not one in particular; that question is difficult to answer.

Do you sell any of your paintings or illustrations?

Yes, I usually sell them myself.  I am also represented by the R.Michelson Gallery in North Hampton, Mass.

When you are not painting, what do you like to do?

 I enjoy going to Jazz clubs and restaurant /clubs that feature Cuban bands because I love listening to live music.

What advice do you have for artists out there who dream of great success, such as yours, illustrating picture books?

Follow your passion first and be willing to work very, very hard to achieve your dream.  I also emphasize the importance of reading about the artists and illustrators that interest you.

Eric, we thank you so much for sharing your beautiful work and your wisdom with our readers. We cannot wait for your next book!

To contact Eric Velasquez or to schedule a school visit, click here. To purchase his books, click here.

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