Get out the veggies, eggs, and coffee mugs. Illustrator Christian Robinson is visiting for a late-night breakfast. (Why not? Breakfast for dinner! I say.) Given that he’s a vegetarian-though he admits he kinda misses his bacon-he enjoys “a really good veggie omelette in the morning, usually with avocado, tomato, spinach, and cheddar. Pancakes or toast on the side. A tall glass of fresh-squeezed OJ is a must.” This is all more than good with me, though of course we’re going to have it at night, not to mention I’m bringing some strong coffee to the table, too. (Yes, it’s late, but decaf is just wrong all wrong.)
Christian, who is also an animator, will soon see the release (October of this year) of Renée Watson’s Harlem’s Little Blackbird: The Story of Florence Mills, published by Random House. This is the picture book biography of the African-American cabaret singer and dancer, the daughter of former slaves who faced bigotry herself during her rise to fame at the time of the Harlem Renaissance, yet sang of civil rights and ultimately used her fame and talent to give back to the community. (“After her performances,” Watson writes, “Florence disguised herself so no one would recognize her. She went to hospitals to deliver flowers to patients. And she walked along the Thames River giving money and food to beggars.”)
Robinson’s mixed media illustrations convey emotion with a child-like clarity and seeming simplicity; they are a striking accompaniment to Watson’s words. Christian shares art from this book, as well as lots of other art, and I thank him for visiting.
Jules: Are you an illustrator or author/illustrator?
Christian: Illustrator for now. Aspiring to be both.
Jules: Can you list your books-to-date?
Jules: What is your usual medium, or–if you use a variety-your preferred one?
Christian: Paper cut-out.
Images from Renée Watson’s Harlem’s Little Blackbird:
Jules: Where are your stompin’ grounds?
Christian: I give a large amount of credit to San Francisco for contributing to my happiness. I currently live and work in the city. I love it.
Jules: Can you briefly tell me about your road to publication?
Christian: Oh, I like this story.
I had just graduated college (CalArts’ character animation program) and was interning with Pixar Animation Studios in their consumer products department. Long story short: I found myself in a meeting with Pete Doctor, director of Disney Pixar’s Up. My internship mentor, Ben Butcher, had invited me to be a fly on the wall and observe how meetings with directors and the consumer product department go. Ben also asked me to prepare a few sketches and illustrations before the meeting, demonstrating how I might interpret the film’s characters in my own style.
Pete Doctor noticed my illustrations pinned to a board, placed off in some dark corner of the room. He turned to the film’s producer, Jonas Rivera, and said, “Wow, we should have this guy make a book for the film.” And, just like that, I received my first book-illustration gig. I think my mind just exploded in that moment. It was so unreal, the kind of stuff you’d daydream about happening to you–but couldn’t imagine it happening for real.
Jules: Can you please point readers to your web site and/or blog?
Jules: If you do school visits, tell me what they’re like.
Christian: Always a little scary at first: Children are the best critics. I think it’s because they’re honest, sometimes brutally. You hope you can keep them engaged and that your work will appeal.
In the end, I always leave feeling re-charged and even more excited to continue doing what I love.
Jules: Any new titles/projects you might be working on now that you can tell me about?
Christian: After Harlem’s Little Blackbird, I worked on a picture book titled Rain! by Linda Ashman, published through Houghton Mifflin. This is a really special story with few words and a lot of heart.
1. What exactly is your process when you are illustrating a book? You can start wherever you’d like when answering: getting initial ideas, starting to illustrate, or even what it’s like under deadline, etc. Do you outline a great deal of the book before you illustrate or just let your muse lead you on and see where you end up?
Christian: I like to do my research. I’d describe the start as cultivating curiosity for the characters and setting in the story. I go to the library and absorb all the visuals and facts that will influence and inspire the work.
Then I start sketching, sometimes rough concepts; other times, more polished work. I basically work on creating enough art to share my vision with the art director and editor.
Then layout sketches–I like to use Post-it [notes]. These are great, because I can easily switch out sketches that aren’t working.
Then, once approved by the editor and art director, I create images in Photoshop, tying down shapes and colors. Then, final art collage and acrylic.
2. Describe your studio or usual work space.
Christian: I currently work from home. I live in a beautiful, 100-year old Victorian home. My room is really small, and I love it. I have a huge window that faces a tree-lined street. San Francisco is expensive, and I don’t mind inhabiting a crammed quarter in order to afford to live in a city that inspires me.
3. As a book-lover, it interests me: What books or authors and/or illustrators influenced you as an early reader?
Christian: Honestly, as a child I struggled learning to read and write and needed a little extra help to keep up in class. I remember being intimidated by reading and not being very attached to books without pictures. My love for books came later.
4. If you could have three (living) authors or illustrators–whom you have not yet met–over for coffee or a glass of rich, red wine, whom would you choose? (Some people cheat and list deceased authors/illustrators. I won’t tell.)
Christian: Yeah, I’d like to cheat on this one. While I am a fan of many contemporary authors and illustrators, most of my heroes are from a different era.
5. What is currently in rotation on your iPod or loaded in your CD player? Do you listen to music while you create books?
Christian: Yes, I just checked my Spotify playlist, and the last artist I was listening to was Thelonious Monk.
Yes, I love listening to music while working, although if I feel I need to use my full attention on an illustration, I’ll put the headphones down.
6. What’s one thing that most people don’t know about you?
Christian: That before I was fortunate enough to make a living illustrating children’s books, I worked as a parking attendant at the Hollywood Bowl, a shoes salesman at a Crocs kiosk, and a store-greeter at Bath & Body Works and Ikea.
7. Is there something you wish interviewers would ask you but never do? Feel free to ask and respond here.
Christian: Do you think the universe is friendly, unkind, or indifferent?
Friendly! I tend to feel it’s ourselves working against us, not the universe.
* * * The Pivot Questionnaire * * *
What is your favorite word?
What is your least favorite word?
What turns you on creatively, spiritually or emotionally?
Christian: Passion, enthusiasm, fun, play, charisma, exuberance.
More of Christian’s inspirations; click here to read more…
What turns you off?
Christian: Convention, complaining, doubt.
What sound or noise do you love?
Christian: The sizzle of an egg when it first touches a hot pan.
What sound or noise do you hate?
Christian: A dog tied to a post outside, whining for its owner.
What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?
What profession would you not like to do?
Christian: Prison guard.
If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates?
Christian: “Everybody in!”
HARLEM’S LITTLE BLACKBIRD: THE STORY OF FLORENCE MILLS. Text copyright ©2012 by Renée Watson. Illustrations copyright ©2012 by Christian Robinson. Published by Random House, New York.
All other artwork and images used with permission of Christian Robinson.
This and many more of Jules’s adventures in books, kids’ lit and illustration can be found at her acclaimed blog, Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast. Visit often. You will be rewarded manifold for doing so.