Friday, October 9, 2015

Jerry Pinkney: Inspiring Illustrator

Last night, Jerry Pinkney was the guest speaker at the 29th Babson Memorial Lecture at the Montclair Art Museum. I think I purchased my ticket the day I received the invitation! I first discovered Jerry Pinkney when I was doing a survey of Caldecott winning books, to try to find a "formula" for winners of this prestigeous award. Since that time, I have not only learned that there is no formula, since the judges change each year, but I've learned a lot about Mr. Pinkney as well.

A Philadelphia native, he began his artistic career at around the age of 13, giving away or selling (for 50 cents of so) sketches he made while selling newspapers on a street corner in Philly. Jerry considers his boss at the newsstand to be one of his early mentors. His mother was another mentor, inspiring him by reading Uncle Remus stories and Hans Christian Anderson's fairy tales to him. As early editions of neither of these books included many illustrations, he seems to have begun to create images to fit the stories in his own head. I remember being read Uncle Remus stories as well, since Jerry and I are only five years apart in age. Joel Chandler Harris's characters came alive through his words. Before Disney homogenized them and colored them with an airbrush, Bre'r Rabbit and Bre'r fox lived a rough and tumble, briar-scratched, tar-stuck life in the imaginations of generations of children like Jerry and me.

While the books usually had colorful covers, I remember mostly black and white line drawings within. Through the magical pencils and watercolors of Pinkney, the marvelous adventures of the sly fox and the trickster rabbit and their friends have gained new life and new color for present and future generations.    

We are fortunate that he has provided this same service for so many classics including many of those my father read to me: The Jungle Book, Rikki-Tikki-Tavi, The Ugly Duckling and The Grasshopper and the Mouse.  A visit to his studio website 
will provide you with a reading list for the next few years. Between classics, stories he has illustrated written by others, and stories he has collaborated on, you have over 100 books, fairy stories, Bible stories and novels to pick from. 

That day I was surveying Caldecott winners, I fell in love with The Lion and the Mouse. If you have a copy, or have read it, I wonder if you realized how totally unique this book is. Did you notice that neither the front nor the back cover have the title of the book or the author's name? The time has come that a Pinkney illustration speaks for it's creator, declaring his authorship loudly and clearly.  The lion on the front cover and the mouse on the back are sufficient to tell any literate human, no matter his or her native language, what treasure of a story lies between those covers.

Among the gems presented to the audience at the Babson Lecture were the following facts and quotes.

  • 1 out of every 3 cowboys in the American West were people of color.
  • His books are based on pure fun and he is less interested in the finished drawing than in the process, and what he learns DOING the drawing. 
  •  In his work, the environment has a voice. His reference collection on science and nature is probably more comprehensive than many public library's.
  • Chipmunks live a purposeful life. 
  • His studio includes different stations for drawing, painting, researching, doing thumbnail sketches.
  •  "Always ask the narrative what the story needs." The illustrator is the bridge between the reader and the narrative. He always asks himself "Why did they pick me to do this book?" This helps to inform him how to go to work on it.  
  • Pinkney always wants to learn from each book he illustrates.
His advice for young people wanting to become illustrators? "Get a sketch book and draw every day!" He says, it's hard work, but it's worth it!

Pinkney's love of nature come out clearly through his work. Although raised in the city, in his youth he periodically spent time in a fairly rural area of New Jersey where a family member had a home adjacent to the woods. That was where he discovered that nature was a safe place for him to go, and that it gave him an opportunity for for personal safety and space, away from a crowded home in very urban Philadelphia.

Through Pinkney's art, I have no doubt that many children are finding that connection with nature which so richly fills the pages of every book he illustrates.

It is refreshing for this hopeful author/illustrator to know that Jerry has recently begun exploring new mediums and combinations, as I have begun exploring illustration. He recently "discovered" pastels and is busy experimenting and looking forward to finding out where this may lead his art.

Perhaps we can look forward to a story about the three chestnuts, with illustrations in pastels to reflect the glossy,  ox-blood treasures that are currently dropping all around us in the autumn landscape, encased in prickly treasure chests. His art can make them last forever. It's time for me now to give the horse-chestnut a try in my sketch book.  Here it is. What do you think?

My art, too is informed by nature. I hope you will visit me at, to see my work as well. I am currently working on a book cover for Flowers of the Holy Land: 50 Blessed Plants in Jesus Life. 

If you visit the current exhibit, "Eric Carle: Animals and Friends" at the Montclair Art Museum, be sure to check out the student illustration exhibit in the hallway on the ground floor. You will see three of my illustrations and many other wonderful products of the Yard School of Art class"Writing and Illustrating Books for Children," taught by Kristine Lombardy.

I hope you have enjoyed this brief reprise of last night's lecture and will leave a comment and explore the links you find here.

Happy illustrating!

1 comment:

  1. This is a really great and informative post. I was just talking to Hannah today who also went to a screening and the Director's Q&A.