Tuesday, October 5, 2010

From North to South Blog Tour – Interview with Joe Cepeda, Illustrator

Today I’m hosting a stop on the Virtual Book Tour of From North to South/Del Norte al Sur, written by René Colato Lainez and illustrated by Joe Cepeda.

I know Joe through an L.A. SCBWI illustrators’ group, and am pleased to interview him for the tour. Joe has illustrated many book covers and award-winning picture books, including his Pura Belpré winner Juan Bobo Goes to Work.

You originally studied engineering at Cornell University and later got your BFA at Cal State Long Beach. When did you realize you wanted to have a career as an illustrator? And why did you decide to concentrate on children’s books?
I suppose, together, Cornell and I figured out I wasn't meant to be an engineer. As much as I was interested in science and the like (and still am), I wasn't all that good at it. I came back home sort of with my tail between my legs and had to figure out what I was going to do. Fortunately, I loved being in school and never veered far from the classroom.

While at a few stints in jobs I really hated, catching glimpses of corporate America, I went to school part time, eventually taking more and more art classes. I read the comics a lot on my coffee breaks and convinced myself I could be a cartoonist. I started doing editorial cartoons for school newspapers. This turned out to be one of the best decisions I ever made. I refer to editorial cartooning as boot camp for illustration. There's a saying in cartooning: if your audience doesn't get your cartoon in three seconds they never will. You learn quickly how to compose a picture so your reader sees primary, secondary, and tertiary information in the right order... so they move through your images, text, etc. and get your gag almost instantaneously. Seeing your work in newsprint is brutal. You'll know if you can draw or not; it forces you to be a good draftsman.

At the end of my scenic route through school I finished with an illustration degree and started looking for work. I thought of myself as an editorial illustrator (and still do) and looked for that kind of work. To be honest, I never really thought of doing children's books while at school. I didn't take a single class in the subject. When you're looking for gigs and you need money (I was in my thirties by this time), everything is an option. As I took a peek at the children's book market, I realized it was more artful than I gave it credit for. At the same time, I found humor sneaking its way into my work more and more.

I went to New York and showed my portfolio around town, to magazines and publishers alike. Believe it or not, I actually took original artwork with me. What I lacked in professional presentation materials, I made up for with confidence and a little bit of talent. Before I knew it I had my first picture book assignment, The Old Man and His Door. Arthur Levine was at Putnam at the time and signed me up right off the street. I also met Phoebe Yeh on that trip and she gave me my next book. I became a children's book illustrator because others saw it in me maybe even more than I did.

Who are your favorite illustrators in the field of children’s books? In what ways do they inspire or influence your work?
This question always embarrasses me a little. Since I wasn't aiming for work in the children's market initially, I never really bothered to study it. When I walk in a book store, I rarely go over to the children's section and look at what's "out there." I say this, realizing this may or may not be good. So, off the top of my head, it's hard to come up with a list of names, but here goes:

Robert McCloskey (the Homer Price books were a childhood favorite)
Marla Frazee
Martin and Alice Provensen
Shaun Tan
Kadir Nelson
Howard Pyle
Arthur Rackham
Allen Say
Ezra Jack Keats
Chris Van Allsburg

There are more, of course, just can't think of them.

The truth is, I don't look at other children's book illustrators for inspiration or influence as much as I look at other things... or other art forms. Sculpture, editorial illustration, movies, walking down the street, etc. influence me more than other book illustrators. For me, it's just not part of the process. This doesn't mean that I'm not appreciative of the work. Heck, sometimes I'm in awe like the next person; it's just not part of a working process, that's all.

You illustrated your first children’s book in 1995 – how has your work evolved since then? Do you use the same process, the same techniques?
I'd like to think that at technical aspects I've honed my skills over time. Nothing makes you better at your craft than simply working. The challenge is to stay connected and separate yourself from your work at the same time. I was signing books the other day and someone offered me a compliment. They remarked how they enjoyed my work - that I had such a recognizable style. I'm very grateful and I know what she's referring to, but that statement makes me cringe a little. I like to work, and I like the pursuit of work. At this stage, though, change is particularly attractive. Changing techniques and such can certainly spur innovation, but that's only part of it. I'm also interested in thinking differently.

Children’s Book Press publishes bilingual books created in the “first voice” – meaning they are written and illustrated authentically about one’s own culture. What do you feel you are bringing to From North to South from your own background?
The truth is I really didn't have think about it... My mom is from Mexico, as is much of my family. Immigration has always been part of our experience. I just painted the people I know.

The faces of the family in From North to South reinforce the hope and optimism expressed in the text. In what other ways do you try to add to the text of the manuscripts you illustrate?
Now, that was where I spent my time conceptually on this book. At its root, this is a story about the bond between a boy and his mother, and what it feels to lose that connection and gain it again. That's where I tried to do my picture-writing.

Your illustrations for From North to South are vibrant and textured. Could you describe how you created the illustrations?
The texture comes from the layering of paint, and trying to be as masterful and eloquent as possible. When you put a brush or pencil to a surface, that's your voice: it should have a cadence, a timbre… you should sing. Concept is imagination. You need both. There's nothing like oil paint. Better said, there's nothing like good oil paint. I allow the underneath layers to show through, which is how I create line much of the time.

I've been able to keep a studio away from home for the last eleven years. With this downturn in the economy I've seriously considered working at home. When it comes to studios, put everything on wheels. Even when you have too much furniture, if it's on wheels, you never feel like the furniture owns the room... there a level of flexibility there that can be useful. If you make sure everything has a home, you don't fret over making a mess because anything can be cleaned up in a day.

Could you share a picture, or description, of your workspace/studio? Is there a favorite art tool or product you feel you couldn’t do without?
No favorites... I like the whole tool box.

What are you working on now?
I just finished a story... it's about salvation.

Thank you, Joe, for helping us get to know you and your art.  And that new story certainly sounds intriguing – can’t wait to find it on Amazon!

Visit the tour stops below and make sure to leave a comment for a chance to receive a copy of the book. Three lucky winners will be announced at the end of the virtual book tour next Monday at Children’s Book Press’ blog, Many Voices, One World.

Wednesday, Oct. 6
http://www.christinarodriguez.com/blog (Christina Rodriguez) Christina Rodriguez

Thursday, Oct. 7
http://loricalabrese.blogspot.com/ (Lori Calabrese) Lori Calabrese

Friday, Oct. 8

Monday, Oct. 11
http://www.childrensbookpress.org/blog (Many Voices, One World) Children’s Book Press


  1. Thanks Diane for this great interview.
    Hola Joe, your work is wonderful. Thanks for all your beautiful and amazing illustrations. The book is great!


    Rene Colato Lainez

  2. Thanks, Rene, I enjoyed interviewing Joe -- he gave great answers! Thanks for including me in the tour for From North to South.

  3. Fantastic interview. Great questions, Diane - and fascinating to learn more about Joe and his process.

  4. Thanks Megan -- coming from you, that's a lovely compliment!

  5. Great interview, Diane.
    Joe, your beautiful illustrations give life to this great story.

  6. Thanks, Mara -- it was Joe who made the interview so interesting!

  7. Terrific interview! Joe, I think your paintings really bring René's moving story to life. It's a great book! I liked seeing the pictures of your studio, too.