Dan Burr today

Today you’ll meet Dan Burr, one of the most talented artists working today and my collaborator on Pirates. You met another wonderful artist earlier — Cheryl Harness — and coming up is still another gifted artist, Rob Shepperson, with whom I worked on Vacation and bugs.

Now for today’s treat: Heeeeere’s Dan!

by Dan Burr

Q – How does on artist prepare for becoming a book illustrator?

That is a great question, I think being an artist/illustrator has to come to you naturally, it’s not something you can force on a person. Kids that draw all the time, turn into adults that draw all the time and eventually do something with their talent or find a career doing something else that will pays the bills. My preparation as an illustrator didn’t start until I hit college, I was fortunate to have a professor who was an illustrator and knew about the world of illustration. He introduced me to the world in which I now live. An education or introduction of some sort is important to enter any serious profession (not that art is serious), As a professional illustrator, you better have some idea what will be expected of you, hopefully you get that from someone who cares and knows a bit about it.

Q – How closely do you usually work with the author?

Sometimes not at all, sometimes a bunch. I don’t know which I prefer either. Authors can bring insights to my work that I may never have thought of or they can be so stifling that you what to tell them to illustrate the thing. I always wonder what the author thinks about the work I do for their book, and sometimes worry that I missed the mark but so far have been lucky in that regard. I really enjoyed working with David on our book Pirates, we are kindred spirits (Pirates) and we think very much alike and that made for a great book.

Q – How long do you usually need to do a complete book project?

I can illustrate a 32 pager in 13 weeks (painting time), I prefer more time but deadlines are deadlines, It usually takes me a while to get everything ready for a project, the sketches and all the research take a fair amount of time and then I have to line up models and costumes etc, etc. I usually hear about the project at least a year in advance and then like always I procrastinate until I have 13 or so weeks to really dig in and get it done.

Q – What steps do you take from idea to finished work?

I usually start with some of my really crummy thumbnail sketches that start my mind working, I hopefully can turn them into a little better version of a sketch that will eventually lead me to research and collecting the information that I need to make the paintings believable and the environments complete. Sometimes this can be a painfully slow process and sometimes if I’m familiar enough with the subject it goes quickly. The sketches then get revised a few times to solve design issues or anything else that looks wrong, when the sketches are finished, off I go to the finished painting.

Q-How much do you revise your work?

If I get lucky and pull it off the first time, not much, If I can’t seem to visualize the image and start with a poor sketch or concept, it plagues me through the whole process until I revise and fix what is bugging me. This can mean repainting that image or sometimes several of the images that just don’t seem to be working. I try to work it out while in the sketch stage but sometimes problems slip by unnoticed until my 12 yr old comes to the studio and says, ahh… Is that a dog or a small horse pulling that wagon? Kids these days…

Q- How do you use the computer as a tool for your art?

I was educated in a very traditional school of art, drawing and painting was taught with traditional mediums, I spent the last15 years of my career painting with oils on traditional surfaces to complete my illustration projects. In 2004 I took a Photoshop class to see if it would be a viable tool to help accomplish my work, I really learned a lot and realized that I could paint in a way that mimicked my traditional work. It took a while to make the complete transition from traditional to digital but finally decided that in order to stay competitive I would have to keep up with technology and make the switch. Today I do all my work on the computer using Photoshop to paint digitally in a way that my clients have come to expect over the span of my career.

Q- What advise would you give authors that would help an artist make a better book?

Write good books. If the words are great the images come easy and the process for me is less complicated. I like working with authors, it nice to get their insight and understand some of their expectations, sometimes I struggle coming up with or starting a project, a talk with the author can make all the difference and get the juices flowing. As an illustrator it’s always nice to be given the freedom to do what we do and create images that do justice to the words. Authors have to trust us to take their words and make the books come to life. As the writer of the book don’t be afraid to offer an insight or two to help the process along, but don’t try to control the process too much or the illustrator can’t do what he/she has been hired to do.

Q- Which usually comes first, the words or the art?

When I am working on a picture book, I usually need the words to help see the images, having said that, sometimes it works the other way around and the pictures come first. In the book “Pirates” the process evolved back and forth, starting with some images I had swimming around in my head, and then the author (You, David L. Harrison) sharing ideas that he thought would make good poems and pictures. “Pirates” was the ideal situation, author and illustrator working together on the same page to make a book. I always have paintings in my head just waiting to come out, some belong to stories and some don’t, the trick is to make sure they find a home in a great story.

My sincere thanks to Dan. If you have questions or comments, plese post them below in the comment section.


42nd annual Children’s Literature Festival


I’ve spent the last three days in Warrensburg, Missouri at the Children’s Literature Festival. This year the event was attended by 5,300 boys and girls in grades 4 – 8 and 1,200 adults. Forty-one authors and artists spoke to four groups of kids each day on Monday and Tuesday. The first day, Sunday, we attended a luncheon and spent the afternoon sitting at tables signing books. Over the 42 years of the festival’s history about 350 authors and artists have participated in the event, which was started by English teacher Phil Sadler and librarian Ophelia Gilbert. Ophelia died last year and Phil died two months ago but their legacy lives on and is now in the capable hands of librarian Naomi Williamson and a dedicated committee.

Among the talented speakers this year were Sandy Asher, Gary Blackwood, J. B. Cheaney, Sneed Collard, III, Jan Greenberg, Vicki Grove, Mary Downing Hahn, Cheryl Harness, Patricia Hermes, Peg Kehret, Claudia Mills, Barbara Robinson, Brad Sneed, and June Rae Wood to name just a few. The entire list was stellar and kids went away with useful information about writing, signed books, and good memories.

If you have an interest in learning more about the festival, contact Naomi Williamson, director, at williamson@library.ucmo.edu . Next year’s festival is set for March 20 – 22, 2011.

By the way, since Kathy Temean created this blog for me last August, my meter tells me that as of yesterday the blog has been visited more than 20,000 times. My thanks to all!


Announcing Rob Shepperson

If you want to see a creative mind at work, look at the illustrations of Rob Shepperson. Rob and I collaborated on bugs, poems about creeping things, and Vacation, We’re Going to the Ocean. When I think I’m being funny, Rob makes the situation still funnier. His quick wit and finely tuned sense for what makes kids of all ages smile make him an ideal partner. There’s a lot to know about Rob and it will be my pleasure to introduce him to you in an upcoming guest blog.

As of yesterday we have already received a dozen poems by adults who have accepted this month’s challenge to write a poem inspired by a single word: road. Thanks to all of you for sharing your work. I know your poems will inspire others to join the fun. We’ve been visited by many readers, several of whom have left comments, and you can be assured that your poetry will be seen by a growing number of friends and fans before the month is over.


I had the pleasure of introducing Word of the Month Poetry Challenge during my presentations in Denver at the Colorado Council of International Reading Association, one of the truly fine conferences in America. I asked teachers who attended my sessions what they thought of this project and the feedback was strongly positive. I hope to see students in Colorado sharing their poems with us in the near future.

My thanks to Mary Nida Smith for her response to my query about what you think good, bad, or indifferent about this blog. The question is still before the house for anyone who wishes to offer constructive advice.


For those who check the monthly Teaching Tools on the Teacher page, the February addition is up, thanks to Kathy Temean. Also thanks to Kathy, the new word puzzle is up on the Kids page. It’s one of the best yet so check it out.


Cheryl Harness today

Hi Everyone,
A sobering thought for the day: we are now 1/26th the way through 2010. If you haven’t read anything interesting or written anything good this year, better get started.

Now I proudly introduce my buddy Cheryl Harness. I do have the BEST friends!

Wimpy New World
by Cheryl Harness

I started out with a pencil. Or, more likely, a Bic pen. Paper. Manual typewriter. These were what I used when I headed out on my so-called writing career back when knighthood was in flower. Okay, a little more recent than that; it’s been 25 years since I began writing, aiming for publication. Ronald Reagan was in office. Now he’s off in the Blue Beyond along with all of the other dead people and their pets and there’s been many a change since then. Ready or not though we may be, a boatload of further changes and transitions are bearing down on us and so, say I, stating the obvious, it’s always been.

I was still designing greeting cards at Current, a paper-products company within sight of Pikes Peak when I typed out my first history book. It’d be an oft-told-but never-as-I-was-gonna-tell-it tale about the hundred-or-so hardy pioneers who survived a particular Atlantic crossing in the autumn of 1620. After the manuscript was accepted (Huzzah! That’d show all those other kids in high school I wasn’t as much of a lost cause as I appeared to be; a dork then and now, but a published dork!) I revised and revised then my job was drawing the pictures – with a pencil on pads of tracing paper. Here’s how high-tech I got: I used my VCR to freeze-frame scenes of windblown passengers on a Mayflower manufactured in around1946, in the MGM prop department. After all, it wasn’t as if I had a 17th century ship close at hand. The movie? A creepy-but-earnest Pilgrim epic with Gene Tierney, Spencer Tracy, and Van Johnson, all in living Technicolor.

Transfer the rough drawing to the illustration board. Refine the drawings. Visualize a moment lost in time. Give thanks for library books + the photographs I took for reference, at Plimoth Plantation, where re-enactors demonstrate life as lived at the time/space intersection of 1627/Plymouth, Mass. (Put that place on your bucket list. http://www.plimoth.org )

I’m mindful of details and creating expressions on the faces of people engaged in the greatest adventure of their lives. Paintbrush in a jar of water (out of which my cat Merrie loves to drink). Apply the brush to pigments, so wondrously named. Naples Yellow. Burnt Umber. Viridian Green. Ivory Black – sort of a contradiction, no? Cerulean Blue. So you paint, small decision by small decision, stroke by stroke, as painters have done for hundreds of years. For those English faces, a delicate bit of Raw Siena + Rose Madder and a blush of Cadmium Red – some feverish cheeks and red noses on those wayfarers, poor souls. What a damp, cold, and ghastly journey that must have been!

This book was published in the era of Bill Clinton, by Bradbury Press, part of Macmillan, which became Maxwell-Macmillan, folded into Simon & Schuster. Now, some 17 years later, folks can buy an Aladdin paperback of Three Young Pilgrims, but not, perhaps, in their neighborhood bookstore. More likely they’ll come across it online somewhere and click. I devoutly hope they will. Clicking, tapping is what I’m doing, on a laptop parked on top of my carry-on luggage, here in the Los Angeles airport… now up here in the clouds, traveling home to Missouri in a manner that would have overwhelmed and astonished the Pilgrims or anyone else in their long-gone world.

A bit overwhelmed am I, coming back from a big, fat, 4-day seminar, learning about all that is expected of anyone who expects to be culturally viable: Want to be my Facebook friend? Watch for me on You-Tube. Be on the lookout for my Tweets. And this recalcitrant old Boomer is going to get LinkedIn by sundown. It’s definitely on my to-do list anyway. Time and technology are moving like runaway trains. Uncertain I am, but I intend to be heartened by those Pilgrims’ fortitude – except for that one poor soul, young Mrs. Bradford who fell or more likely jumped overboard into the sea; Gene Tierney played her in that sappy movie. Let’s not focus on her. Grateful I am, wimp that I am for being able to travel WAY higher, faster, cleaner, and drier than those Mayflower passengers. What we have in common is this: They didn’t know just as we don’t know what’s in store in our complex times, what might be asked of us, but we can be en-couraged by the examples of those who’ve gone before. Who we are is who we have been.

My thanks to Cheryl. Thoughts and questions are welcome!