Meet My Gifted Illustrator: Brandon Dorman
Some are born great. Some achieve greatness. And some have greatness thrust upon them. Slot me into the "thrust" category, and then label the "greatness", in this particular case, my partner in crime Brandon Dorman. You want to know how picture books sometimes get made? Well gather round me, children, and hear the tale I tell. I call it: How I Wrote My First Picture Book (and why I owe it all to Brandon).
It’s like this: Brandon and I had been communicating for some years, ever since I declared that the cover he did for The Palace of Laughter was one of the best book jackets I’d seen that year. He sent me some initial cover sketches he’d done before arriving on the final product and we hit it off from there. Periodically I would declare some cover of his to be brilliant (Savvy, anyone?) and that was that. Then one day, out of the blue, Brandon contacts me. He essentially says, "Wanna write a picture book?" I say, "Yep!" He says, "Great! You write it, I’ll illustrate it, and I have just one idea: Giants leaping." I say, "Got it!" We write three picture book ideas. Greenwillow buys two. Note: This is a very weird situation. Under normal circumstances, authors and illustrators do not know one another and they certainly do not pair up before presenting a book to a publisher. That’s why Brandon’s my secret weapon. Look at that mug. Could you say no to him? I think not.
But who is this Brandon Dorman fellow? Well his website is here, but what you’re really going to want to look at is his gallery of book jackets. Go on. Take a gander. This is one of those cases where you keep saying to yourself, "Oh, he did that? And that? Wait. . . he did that too?" Anne Ursu, the new Goosebumps, Skulduggery Pleasant, Diana Wynne Jones, Zilpha Keatley Snyder, this is just a taste. This year alone you’ve probably seen his cover for the new Richard Peck A Season of Gifts or the paperback Nim’s Island or the next Fablehaven for that matter. And on top of all that he’s a New York Times bestselling illustrator all thanks the illustration work he did on Jack Prelutsky’s The Wizard.
So. He’s just thirty kinds of awesome, then. I decided to interview Brandon to get a little additional information his process, how he got his incredibly early start, his great Art Directors, and how those cover artists really go about making book jackets. Here’s what he had to say:
Fuse #8: I get the impression that you got into illustration really early on. I mean, earlier than a lot of folks. How’d you get your start and what would you consider "your big break"?
Brandon Dorman: Humm . . . I guess I consider my “big break” to be when I illustrated Jon Berkely’s The Palace of Laughter and Brandon Mull’s Fablehaven. I did both of them in the last month of college and within weeks of each other. I really worked hard on each. I had done a few jobs before these, working with my rep Peter Lott, but these two were right up my alley and I was given a lot of freedom and trust by the publishers. Both jackets seemed to get really good attention and soon I was getting calls that wanted “something like” what I had done on them. I was still so bran-spankin’ new out of school I look back and wonder sometimes how in the world I pulled those off. I did some work soon after those jobs that stunk like rotten eggs, but those two kept me afloat while I did some really quick on-the-job learning.
Fuse #8: Did you always want to be an artist or was there another job early on that you toyed with the idea of going for?
BD: I think I always knew I’d draw pictures. My parents were super supportive (they even let me spray paint my bedroom) and I really enjoyed art when I was younger. I think in Jr. High is when I really began to love drawing and painting. A story that most don’t know, is in Jr. High I had a classmate named Brandon Norman. Yeah! No joke. And he could draw like no tomorrow. I would often try and get a glimpse of what he was doodling away on while in Social Studies class. He always had something awesome he’d drawn. Well, just so happens that more than not when class would end he would crumple up his drawing and toss’em. I would hang back until most of the class was gone and dig them out of the trash only to go home that night and copy over and over what he had drawn. I know (my wife tells me all the time) I’m a weirdo.
Brandon and I became friends in High School and were often in the same art class. I drew non-stop in class, all over my homework. I think that’s why I can listen and draw/paint so well. It was a little confusing though, when one of my teachers would give me extra credit for decorating my homework and another would pull out his red pencil. The red pencil didn’t stop me much.
Fuse #8: Check out these photos of Brandon’s bedroom walls from when he was a teen.
Fuse #8: So do you have any idea of how many covers you’ve done over the years?
BD: I’ve been working professionally for 4 years. I have a list of all the jobs I’ve done, and the spreadsheet says I’m at 216, excluding 8 picture books, which have anywhere from 17-25 illustrations each. So, it’s a good start.
Fuse #8: Woah. I worry you’re gonna burn yourself out! Now I think a lot of people would be curious about how a jacket artist works. I mean, do you guys always read the entire book cover to cover and then come up with ideas? I ask this because your covers always seem to know what scene from a book would work the best. Do you read the books at all or do the editors tell you what kind of cover they’re looking for? Or would that be the job of the Art Director?
BD: Not sure about others, but I am really, really random. If left up to only me, ideas for covers can come out really off the wall. It helps me to have some sort of direction. When I do get a job, sometimes I read the whole manuscript, sometimes my wife reads it to me. Many times the Art Director will just give me a short description of the story and we’ll do a couple sketches. And other times we’ll do many, many sketches until something clicks. I’ve been lucky to work with awesome Art Directors. I know it’s challenging for them to take all the comments from all the different voices there at the publishing house and condense them in order to give me direction, but I really appreciate it. Often I’ve thought a cover was looking good and then the Art Director has suggested something that made it so much better. So, most of the time it really is a team effort, and I like it that way.
Fuse #8: Have you ever read a book for kids and thought to yourself, "I know exactly how I’d do that cover"?
BD: When I did the cover for The Wizard by Jack Prelutsky, I had that already in my head before I put it on paper. I ended up elaborating on the original idea, but it was there “upstairs” before it was drawn out. However, most of the time I need to start scribbling away before something starts to come together.
Fuse #8: And what would be your dream illustration job?
BD: I’ve had some really cool jobs so far. Many of them could qualify as my dream illustration job. I love creating images. I love designing and imitating light. I think, however, I enjoy working on picture books the most. True, they are more time consuming, but I really feel more freedom when painting a picture book spread. And often I can add little things here and there that just make the reader look closer or have a little “ah ha” moment. I love “ah ha” moments and surprises in books. So, probably my dream job is illustrating picture books, though sometimes I really get into a cover and just can’t stop painting.
Fuse #8: Are there any artists you take inspiration from?
BD: Yes, many. I have a file that I keep images I like. I started doing this back when I was stealing art out of the trash in Jr. High. When ever I see an image that has “magic” I stick it in that file. If I’m in a store and can’t shove it in my pocket, then I will close my eyes for a split second and record it as best I can in my head. My son will ask me then why I’m praying in the store. Some illustrators that inspire me are: J.C. Leyendecker, Dean Cornwell, James Bennett, Marcello Vignali and Scott Gusafson.
Fuse #8: To my mind you’re sort of one of the pioneers of digital illustration. When did you start getting into it? And what kind of digital equipment do you prefer to use? Is there something new that’s coming out that you’d love to get your hands on?
BD: Ooo. . the way I work (digitally) is really just a process that combines what I learned in school from Scott Franson, Dan Burr, Wade Huntsman and William Low. My Junior year in college my parents bought me a Wacom tablet. My Dad had done some research on them and told me they were really neat. Well, I wasn’t so convinced (boy was I wrong, with a capital W) and didn’t think much of it until they started popping up at school here and there. So I started using it and it took some getting used to, but I found that it really helped me and my randomness. In Photoshop with the Wacom tablet I could scribble and scribble and try different techniques in half the time that it was taking me to do with oils or acrylics. I finally thought I had a handle on it enough to try and do my final project of my Jr. year digitally. My assignment was to illustrate Romeo and Juliet in an Art Deco style. I spent hours and hours on the computer, and in the end . . . a dead rat was more appealing. So, like one of my teachers would tell us “you have to make 1,000 bad illustrations before you make a good one,” I kept on making images. I think I’m around 950, so a good one is due up pretty soon.
I have a Mac Pro that I use. However, up until two years ago I worked on a PC. In my mind, I was able to work on both equally as well. However I do enjoy the not worrying about security problems as much with my Mac.
Fuse #8: You’ve transitioned nicely from illustrating other people’s books into illustrating your own. Can you tell me a little more about the picture books you’ve done for Greenwillow and what you have coming up with them?
BD: I’ve now done four picture books with Greenwillow. First was The Wizard, then I illustrated Halloween Night, followed by Be Glad Your Nose Is On Your Face, and finally (the first book I’ve authored) Santa’s Stowaway.
All were extremely fun to work on. Most had crazy deadlines, but the team at Greenwillow are super awesome and have been great to work with. Because Santa’s Stowaway is the first book I’ve authored and illustrated it was definitely more problem solving. It was more challenging than I anticipated. I quickly learned that I am a much better illustrator than I am a writer, but hey, ya gotta start somewhere, no? Most of the time when I get the manuscript for a picture book the copy and editing is complete, but when I was the writer there were many more things to think about. I enjoyed writing it and learned a lot. I hope to have more stories in the future. And speaking of the future, the next picture book I’m excitedly looking forward to illustrating is yours! Woops, did I let the cat out of the bag? I’ll leave it there and let you tell everyone the exciting news. 🙂
Fuse #8: Aw, it’s all good, buddy. And here, for folks who are curious, are some of Brandon’s images for Santa’s Stowaway.
A big thank you to Brandon for answering all my questions! And be sure to check out his blog for more pictures, sketches, and info as well.
Filed under: Uncategorized
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
SLJ Blog Network