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Between the Lines

Interview with David McPhail
David McPhail

David McPhail's celebration of the joys—and trials—of sisterhood has been a favorite with sisters of all ages for nearly two decades. Now published in full color for the first time, Sisters is a tribute for a new generation of sisters to read—together.

David McPhail has been a passionate artist since the age of two. He studied at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and began illustrating books for children in 1972. Since then he's created dozens of wonderful books, including the celebrated Mole Music, which was a New York Times Book Review Best Illustrated Book of the Year, and several recent Green Light Reader books for Harcourt. Mr. McPhail lives in New Hampshire.

Q: When you first created Sisters, how did you complete the illustrations?
A: I did the original illustrations in black and white but as we worked on the reissue it was decided that it might be nice to have it colored. So it was contracted to be colored by a friend and associate of mine, John O'Connor, with whom I've worked for about twenty years.

Q: And what do you think of John O'Connor's color work on your book?
A: Oh, it's fantastic. He's a really good painter/colorist and, as we've been working together for over twenty years, we're almost symbiotic now. We started out where I would do several drawings, color a couple of them or parts of them, and give them to John to finish. There were other times when I would just do the drawings—I didn't want to lift a paintbrush—and he colored them completely. So some books I color entirely, some I color partially, and some John colors in their entirety.

John has a different color palette than I. I'm very traditional and he's able to put colors down that I wouldn't think of, and I'm often very pleasantly surprised. There's a difference with putting blue next to a blue-purple or green next to a blue-green. With my limited knowledge of color I would have opted for something complementary—something on the other side of the color spectrum. For instance, if I was looking for a color to put next to a green, I would choose red or some other color in that scheme. But John is more subtle and sophisticated with his use of color. The bottom line is that the colors are in service to the whole. You want to reach people with an effect—not just an impression of color. I want them to think about what' s being said in the drawing and then enjoy the colors. John does this—he's not trying to draw attention to his contribution. We're great friends.

Q: You studied at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and began illustrating picture books in 1972. Was illustration your field of study at this school?
A: Actually I studied fine arts—printmaking, graphics, a lot of drawing, etching, and that sort of thing. There were quite a few illustrators there and some who are still working in the field—Trina Schart Hyman was at the Museum School just before me; Wally Tripp who did some beautiful books and now I think does greeting cards; and Michael McCurdy, my college roommate, who's also a fine illustrator. There are quite a few people who came out of the fine arts college to become children's book illustrators.

Q: Did you want to be a children's book illustrator when you were studying fine arts?
A: No, I wanted to be a fine artist and I wanted to be a great painter. But, at one point in my schooling I was taking all types of life art classes and studying anatomy, and I was just not getting it. I told one of my instructors—who could just draw anything in figures—that life art was what I wanted to do—how could I manage it? He said, "Well, you know I studied for four years at the Brooklyn Medical School including dissection so I could learn about muscles." And I said, "Oh well!" I wasn't going to be doing that—I wasn't going to cut up cadavers to see how the muscles worked.

So I moved sideways a little bit (even though everything I did tended toward illustration anyway). And I got a boost second or third year when Walter Lorraine, chief editor at Houghton Mifflin at the time, came to the school and conducted a Saturday class about book illustration. Each student got to create their own book—by writing a story or finding one from public domain, illustrating it, and then packaging it. I loved it and it was instrumental in getting me to be a children's book illustrator.

Q: And what was the first book you illustrated?
A: Two came out in 1972. The joke is that the first one came out on Monday and went out of print on Friday—no one ever heard of it. The second was The Bear's Toothache which was published just after that and is still in print. It hasn't made me rich but it's made a lot of money over the years. Of course, I don't live off of the royalties, I live off credit cards like everyone else! :)

Q: You create and do your drawings in your studio and yet you don't have a computer. How and where do you write?
A: Most of what I do is create art. The art is the real work and although it's a joy most of the time, it also takes the most time and concentration. Writing is pure inspiration. So I don't write in the studio. The other day I started three new stories at the coffee shop, moved to the library, stopped at a bar on the way home, and finished up sitting on my sofa late at night. I always have various sized notebooks with me—something to write on—a little pad of paper, a little notebook, or if I know I'm going out to write, legal pads which are slightly off-white, tawny colored. White paper is too bright, too glaring, too demanding for me. (I'll probably feel the same way about the computer screen—it will be asking too much from me.) I also have a collection of fountain pens that I take with me. They are the old style fountain pens where you stick the pen in the inkwell, turn it and draw the ink into the barrel before writing.

When I wrote those stories the other day I hadn't written anything in a long time. In the past that used to bother me and I would think, "the well is dry—you're not going to be able to write anymore." And then it comes back, and when it does I get a nice anticipation—I feel that something is in the air and I can assign it to writing. Sometimes the inspiration is directed—like the Big Brown Bear story coming out in fall. One of my editors said, "Hey, maybe we should do another one of these." And the ideas started coming for the new book. I'm now working on a book called My Little Brother, which I felt compelled to write after meeting with my editors. The essence was written in about an hour while I was on a plane. When I write a story and send it out I'm so sure that every word is perfect—absolutely—there are no other words that could work. Then it comes back all marked up. :) Of course my first reaction is always "No!" But when I really look I realize that the changes make more sense. I could never do it myself. I need my editors to point out my inadequacies :) Once it goes into print you can't get it back and you can't say, "I didn't mean that."

Q: And how do you create your illustrations?
A: These I do in my studio. When I work on illustrations I use a nib—a wooden stick with a steel nib on it. Nibs used to cost a nickel when I first started drawing. Now they are over a dollar so I've probably been using them too long.:) I use a new nib with each drawing and even though I sometimes think I'll learn how to sharpen them, the saved ones get rusty, old, bent, and I throw them away. Most of my illustration are pen and ink but occasionally I get the urge to paint so I move to canvasses or primed boards—but that's only every couple of years.

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David McPhail

David McPhail