Joe Cepeda: The Pre-#LA15SCBWI Conference Interview


This summer my teenager has been away in Las Vegas visiting grandparents. Needless to say, it’s made for a productive book-making summer for me. But alas, today I awoke in a panic. It’s July 6th, two days following the Fourth of July holiday. The #LA15SCBWI Summer Conference is less than a month away, and I haven’t posted my second faculty interview yet. Well, here it is; I’m on it now.

I’m excited that illustrator, Joe Cepeda, will be on faculty this year. His session, Style 61A+Bj1V5CL._SY410_BO1,204,203,200_Versus Voice: An Illustrator’s View, will be on Saturday from 3:15 to 4:15. Cepeda is the illustrator of award-winning picture books such as What a Truly Cool World (Scholastic), Nappy Hair (Knopf), Mice and Beans (Scholastic), and The Swing (Arthur A. Levine Books), which he wrote as well as illustrated. 

I’m honored to host Joe Cepeda on my blog today:

Don: What brought you to illustrate children’s books?

Joe: I studied engineering, though I decided do something else and found myself pursuing Illustration.  I thought I’d be working as an editorial illustrator, illustrating magazines more than anything, yet found myself illustrating books almost right out of the gate. I showed my portfolio to publishers early on and was fortunate enough to meet with some talented editors who felt I might be able to illustrate a children’s book. How I work, from a content standpoint, to a production one, is certainly affected by experiences studying math and science.  The truth, however, is a bit more basic than that.  What I’ve come to learn over time is, at root, I’m a maker of things.  Engineering, science, drawing, composition, math, are all contributors to the process.  I’ve built a good amount of the furniture in my studio. I mix paint a certain way. The process of carving out space in a picture follows both logical and organic paths. I try and call on whatever’s needed to make something work.

51w-bVVGX+L._SX386_BO1,204,203,200_Don: Can you talk a bit about your work, your style philosophy?

Joe: I’ve never had much use for the term, style.  An art director once told me that she could pretty much categorize all children’s book art into about seven different styles.  I think she’s probably right.  I’ve always remembered that.  It’s a very liberating thought.  Why bother trying to make an eighth style?  I’ve never felt a strong need to individualize my mark-making, It’s more about making marks that work.  Chasing down style is a dubious pursuit. For me, the question of work is more philosophy than anything, or ethics, or gamesmanship, or integrity or authenticity or poetry or industriousness or ritual.  I don’t mean to be too abstract, but I’m constantly trying to find my work. I actually have a note in my studio that says, “Find your work.”  For me, as an illustrator, it mostly means trying to make as honest a picture as one can.  It’s a constant, career-long pursuit.  It doesn’t end… and it shouldn’t. The question of what is true will always be there.  As for medium, mostly I’m an oil painter painting over acrylic on board.  I’ve recently delivered work completed digitally.  I’m working on large charcoal drawings right now.  I stumble through writing.  If I couldn’t paint or draw tomorrow, I’d work in wood.  I’d be fine with it.

Don: I consider you a mentor, in that I have many of your books lying around in my studio for inspiration. I love your playful, almost electric, color pallet. Where does that come from, who are your mentors?

61SQM1hSh5L._SX409_BO1,204,203,200_-1Joe: Thank you for the nice comments.  It’s hard to think of particular mentors because I really never anticipated a professional life as an image-maker, much less illustrating children’s books. I sort of fell into books simply because I was somewhat desperate to get work after a fifteen-year scenic journey through college. Certainly, there have been people along the way that gave me good advice about how to live and how to work.  Like most, I wasn’t always a good listener.  The first artists that I can remember paying a little attention to as a young person were Rembrandt, Michelangelo, Robert McCloskey, Diego Rivera and the Chicano muralists painting in East Los Angeles where I grew up.  Later on, once I was headed in this direction I was inspired by cartoonists like Jeff MacNelly and Pat Oliphant, the Ashcan school artists, John Singer Sargent, Franz Kline, Alexander Calder, George Tooker and illustrators like Brad Holland, Arthur Rackman, Bernie Fuchs and a whole bunch of others. The more you work at something, the more you recognize how difficult great mastery can be.  That’s what inspires me, when I’m witness to true virtuosity. It’s not any particular style of work that will speak to me more than another.  When great skill meets honesty and theater, that’s an inspiring picture.

Don: Many of your books feature people of color. That makes you a diverse illustrator, and that is one of the things that initially attracted me to your work. Can you talk a bit about the importance of diverse books?

51ulFrHNC2L._SY427_BO1,204,203,200_Joe: I’ve been fortunate enough to illustrate books about different ethnic groups.  As a Chicano illustrator, I’ve tried to nurture a career that wasn’t solely focused on making books about my culture (though, I love doing books that reflect the Latino experience). The reality is I don’t recall reading anything that’d I’d consider a mirror book.  It just wasn’t around.  The kids I knew were Dick and Jane, Charlie Brown and Lucy, Dennis the Menace, Opie, Curious George, the Brady Kids and my favorite, Homer Price.   There is a powerful thing that happens, when a young reader sees someone who appears to be like them in literature. Navigating the world and it’s adventures it affords will not seem so foreign. The experiences offered in life will not solely be for someone else to endure or relish.  You can step forward when the heroes in your books have shown you a way… a path that you are invited to take, because you feel included.  Many of us have stepped forward without invitations, and good for us.  It’s just a more honest place to be when the party door is open.

Don: If you could have a conversation, offer career advice to a younger Joe Cepedia, aspiring children’s book illustrator, what would you say?

Joe: Great question.  I suppose I would tell young Joe (who wasn’t that young when he started illustrating) to be a bit more relentless, a bit more focused when it comes to industriousness.  It’s probably a simplistic thing to say, but I’d advise him to work harder… certainly, work smarter.  When it comes to finding one’s best means of production, style, medium of choice, one’s artistic voice, one’s editorial compass, etc., there’s really only one way to get there… through working.  Over time, we can start to recognize good authentic work in ourselves more often than not.  Most of the time, we’re just trying to get the odds in our favor.

Don: I love the emotion you capture when illustrating people, the expressions, body language, appropriate clothing–hair. Your characters are not generic, they are real people with individual personalities. Where do these characters come from?

Joe: I am not a big researcher. I look to defer to invention as much as possible.  Some books 51Y4KapGrZL._SX393_BO1,204,203,200_require plenty of research, simply to be accurate and true to the content of the manuscript.  Other books, less so.  Characters are certainly something that I try not to research.  People are funny, you don’t always have to research funny. There has to be something cultural specific, or historically specific for me to do the research (Swing Sisters is a good example).  I enjoy when characters introduce themselves to me as i build the environment of the story around them.  Many times the world they inhabit will inform me of what they should look like, maybe even act like.  However, there’s something very entertaining when the unexpected occurs, when a character has inappropriate assets (is that an oxymoron?). If it’s done with just the right amount subtlety, it can be good comedy.  My concern is that sometimes research sometimes neuters the magic of a good portrayal.  Within all groups there are individuals who stand out, who are different and, many times, that’s what stories are about.  My sense is that, for the sake of cultural accuracy, illustrations can become predictable or a little stale. 

Don: As an illustrator myself, I often struggle with self doubt. I think all creative people do. Can you talk about any struggles with self doubt pertaining to your own work, and how you combat that?

Joe: Well, there’s no getting around that. As illustrators, just about everybody deals with some degree of self-doubt.  Careers have ups and downs.  I’ve had periods of great productivity, and too-long stretches of inactivity or missing the mark. Most of us often wonder if we’ve hit ruts.  Since a good portion of our success mostly means the ability to work at this profession more hours than hours spent as a substitute teacher (I did that while I built my Illustration business) and is directly related to book sales, it can feel like we don’t have much control.  So, there is business, and there is craft.  I’m not smart enough to know what will sell.  I made terrible business decisions, especially early on.  Fortunately, you can teach yourself to be better at that.  You can be better at building a circle of resources that will help you make good decisions about your career.  You must, however, be best at maximizing your authenticity when it comes to making good work.  It’s the greater challenge, ideal results are ever evasive.  You need to make things of beauty as often as you can.  It comes back to honesty and being an authentic creator. If you work with integrity and persistence, the hope is you can ride out and get beyond the lulls and ruts. Heck, something might even sell, or, win an award.  I’d be lying if I said I didn’t read reviews, but, they rarely have much to offer me.  They may be useful to a potential reader, which is who they’re meant for, but they have nothing to do with getting to work.  It’s not like they’ll help me break down the next manuscript.  As a matter of fact, I’d be very disappointed in myself 51kMA7DszGL._SX373_BO1,204,203,200_if I let that make it’s way into the process.  I’m guessing they help sell books and there is no denying the benefit of a lovely royalty check, but, a good review, or an award never made me do better work.  Frankly, some of my best work, the work that brought me a higher level of contentment and accomplishment, has been largely unnoticed.  In comparison, I’m not sure why other work has garnered awards.  Positive accolades may serve in getting you work, which is helpful from a business standpoint, yet do very little to facilitate a sound path to work of integrity.  It seems to me negative reviews would be virtually negligible in helping an illustrator get on with her craft.  After all, an editor, an art director, and publisher have a hand in that negative review, too.  In my mind, they also have as much to celebrate with you when your work in a book is heralded. 

Don: Any advice to illustrators preparing a portfolio?

Joe: Well, when it comes to a portfolio, I guess I’d have to ask, “What’s the goal?”  If you’re trying to win a competition, make sure your pieces are sound and memorable.  Make sure the craft is as good as you can make it.  Make sure that your storytelling acumen is fully on display.  Show that you have an understanding of sequential art.  Character, perspective and a sense of drama and emotion are essential components to include.  The standard suggestions are always valid.  That is, don’t include anything you don’t feel good about or any work that you don’t want to get hired to do.  If you are having your portfolio reviewed, the aforementioned advice is also applicable, however, know what questions to ask.  Handing someone your portfolio and just waiting, well, you run the risk of getting a “review.”  However, don’t be rude and overrun the time spent with someone.  Listen, listen carefully, then ask.  What do your really want to know?  There is a true art to asking real questions that serve.  This is an opportunity for good advice.

Don: Whet our appetites. What can we expect to look for from you at the conference?

Joe: Well, I’m looking to talk about that illusive thing, the illustrator’s voice (I’m not necessarily in love with that term either).  I believe the title of my workshop is, “Style Versus Voice: an Illustrator’s View.”  It’s true authenticity we should be looking for in our work.  I’m hoping to share some of successes and struggles with that.

Don: Thank you, Joe! I look forward to chatting with you in person!

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