Author to Illustrator

   Ken Stark painted the gorgeous watercolor illustrations for Seeing the Elephant. I was very curious about Ken’s process of drawing the art for my story, and about his life in the Wisconsin woods. I thought our readers might be, too. 

    So I sent him some questions in the mail (you know, like in a blue mailbox, on the street corner?) and he graciously answered them for this site.

Pat: Ken, I’ve heard your lifestyle is quite different from that of most 21st-century Americans – including me! Can you tell our readers a little about where and how you live?

Ken: My wife, Chris, and I live in rural southwestern Wisconsin, between steep wooded hills. A tiny creek runs past our front door. We try to live simply, as do our Amish friends and many others in this area. Our home is an 1800s log house. ... We’ve chosen not to have indoor plumbing, so I carry in water from the pump outside. ... Come chilly weather it’s satisfying to cut up fallen trees, and I truly enjoy splitting the logs by hand. Our only vehicle – a pickup – is handy for hauling the firewood. Our wood-burning stove serves as a water heater, food warmer and giant toaster. Visitors like the novelty of hiking up to our outhouse, set discreetly among the pines. ... For a long time, we used only oil lamps. We do miss their warm, pleasant glow now that we have electricity. But we do like being able to listen to music while we work. Of course, nighttime painting and reading is easier.

Pat: Could you describe how you go about drawing art for a picture book? I mean, how do you even begin to take someone else’s story and make it your own, as I think you did so effectively and beautifully with our book?

Ken: That’s hard to answer because I’m so unmethodical. One thing for sure, I wouldn’t have gotten far on Seeing the Elephant without reference materials about the early 1860s – everything from the
Capitol dome under construction to a stereoscope! Chris found it all. The first thing for me was to get inside your beautiful story, to be there with Izzie and Graff. I read the manuscript over and over, sketching my first ideas in the margins. I focused on key moments of drama, tension and emotion. Since this wasn’t an action book, I paid special attention to subtle gestures and expressions. Sketches piled up as I revised and revised to hit just the right notes. Next, I did full-sized detailed drawings to show my editor. (Usually, the illlustrator works with the editor, not with the author.) After some revisions, it was finally time to get out the watercolors. Normally, I like to paint my people from imagination because I like the challenge and the freedom. Here though, because of the many close-ups, I used friends as models for Izzie’s face and Graff’s. In every scene, I tried to use colors and shades that best expressed your moving and subtle text. The trick was to stay fresh during the five or so months needed to complete the paintings. It helped to break up the days with a walk in the hills or a little log splitting. I finished the cover last, as is typical for picture books. But something seemed wrong with Izzie’s eyes – I gave him a makeover and the book was done.

Pat: When you start drawing, do you begin at the beginning, or do you tend to draw the pictures out of sequence? 

Ken: I mix it up. For Seeing the Elephant, I started with a simple painting – the farm scene. That was like stretching and warming up before one of my long runs. Then I felt ready to tackle more difficult pictures with lots of figures or close-ups. Of these, I painted whichever one suited my mood.

Pat: This is more of a compliment than a question. I was struck by some of the small details I noticed in the drawings, and how sometimes you added these in later drafts. My favorite example is in the picture where Izzie and Aunt Bell are walking near the capitol building. In the preliminary sketch, they’re just chatting, side-by-side. Later, you drew Izzie turning around to look at the soldiers on horseback. I remember thinking that was so great, because of course a ten-year-old would turn around to see the soldiers! I really appreciated such fine details. Comment?

Ken: Sometimes it only takes a small touch to give life to a picture. When I first drew the Capitol scene, Izzie was facing out, like Aunt Bell. The painting lacked spark because Izzie’s pose seemed unnatural. I could almost hear him say, “For Pete’s sake, turn me around!”
Likewise, in the scene where a bored Izzie stares out the boarding house window, he didn’t look miserable enough. So, I drew the baby crawling between his legs.

Pat: I generally write in the breakfast room of my house, in the morning after my kids have left for school. Do you have a certain time of day you like to work? And where is your studio?

Ken: I can paint any time. ... My studio is upstairs. Out the window is nothing but trees and sky. With that good north light pouring in and classical music on, I’m ready to work.

Pat: Now I know our readers are going to wonder about this, because kids always do. Some of the pictures have dogs and cats in them – are they your own pets?

Ken: No, because of Chris’ allergies we can’t have dogs or cats. But we do have two donkeys, Chloe and her “baby” Tulip. Though almost full-grown, Tulip still can’t catch her mom in a gallop around the pasture. You should hear them honk! Chloe sounds like someone sat on a bagpipe, and Tulip, like a French horn. By the way, their ears are exactly 10 inches long and fuzzy.

Pat: I think I’ll close now, lingering on that image of you and Chris holding a ruler to your donkeys’ ears! But first, is there anything else you’d like to share?

Ken:  My art training at Art Center School in Los Angeles ended after two semesters. I had dropped out to earn money to return when I was drafted. Later, factory jobs and some freelance artwork paid the bills while I painted on my own,. Then for about 12 years I was a political cartoonist for a daily Illinois newspaper. It was a great job. I got paid for having fun! I learned to draw my cartoons quickly from imagination and write snappy captions for them before the noon deadline. It was a perfect experience for writing and illustrating picture books.

Pat: Thanks, Ken, for giving our readers a peek at your life!