Saturday, November 9, 2019

Q&A with Amy Newbold and Greg Newbold

Amy Newbold and Greg Newbold are the husband-and-wife author and illustrator of the new children's picture book If Monet Painted a Monster. They also have collaborated on If Picasso Painted a Snowman and If da Vinci Painted a Dinosaur. They live in Utah.

Q: How did you decide on the idea for If Monet Painted a Monster

Amy: A monster book was first discussed at the Mountains and Plains Independent Bookseller Association (MPIBA) conference in Denver in 2017. Our first art-themed book, If Picasso Painted a Snowman, had just been released.

Greg was talking with a rep from our distributor, Meg Sherman, and they began discussing artists whose work was a bit out of the mainstream. They were having so much fun, and joked that we should do a Halloween or monster book with those artists.

Greg has always loved movie monsters, and after we had done If Picasso Painted a Snowman and If da Vinci Painted a Dinosaur, it seemed fitting to have him do a book celebrating monsters. We agreed with the publisher to make it a monster book rather than a book specifically connected to Halloween.

All three of our books celebrate famous artists and encourage kids to explore creatively and make things in their own style. Not all the artists Greg and Meg brainstormed that day made it into the book, but a few of them did!

Q: How did you select the artists to include in the book? 

Amy: With the first book, I had a pretty good idea of which artists I wanted to use, and Greg added in a couple of others. 

With If Monet Painted a Monster, we were more collaborative from the beginning on creating the artist list. I knew I wanted Whistler, Hopper, and Escher. Greg suggested Arcimboldo, Rousseau, and Kline. Each artist is significant for their contribution to the art world, and we try to choose artists who didn't really ever paint a monster.

Greg has final say on the artists because he has to be able to produce the art in their style, and that is not always an easy feat! Each book has a "headliner" artist for the cover, that hopefully many people will recognize. In this case, we chose Claude Monet to be our "headliner" artist.

Q: Greg, how did you work on the illustrations for this book, given that you were discussing the work of various who created work in various styles?

Greg: It was not my goal to “copy” these famous artists or “forge” works by these famous artists, but rather to emulate or pay homage to their genius. I embraced the monumental challenge of convincingly capturing the essence of their styles in a fun way by creating a new work depicting a subject that none of them ever attempted, namely, monsters. 

To do this, I had to boil down what makes each individual artist unique and then focus on those hallmarks. For one it might be their color, or the way they designed their shapes or characters, or maybe someone had certain ways of putting down paint.

It was like a puzzle in a way. I had to look at the clues in their work and read about their methods and then decide what might make the viewer think, “Oh, that’s an Escher” or “Wow! That looks like Frida Kahlo painted it.”

Once I had identified the characteristics of each artist, I tried to be as faithful as I could to the way they worked, and to the materials and tools they used. My wish was to be faithful to each artist’s techniques, which I think I was able to do, at least with the final result.

Q: How did you and your spouse work together on this book?

Amy: Once we get the concept (in this case, monsters) and a list of artists, I write the text. Greg is a great partner for brainstorming and can help me if I get stuck. Once the manuscript was ready, I sent it to the publisher for approval. Then, Greg began creating the illustrations.

There were a couple of instances where the final illustration did not match the text, and I ended up altering a few lines to make it all work seamlessly. We work well together, and are both focused on creating the best finished product that we can.

When everything was finished, we sent it off to the publisher for final edits of the text and for final layout of the pages by the designer. Tilbury House Publishers has always been great to work with.

Greg: Working together on this project was actually really fun. For the most part, I leave the writing part to Amy and she leaves the art to me, but we do consult back and forth a lot.

For instance, we talked about the selection of artists and agreed on a group whose styles I thought I could capture and that embodied a good cross section of styles as well as a good diversity. I then went to work on sketching and laying out the visual flow of the book. 

Once the publisher approved the sketches, I got to work on the paintings. The whole process took three to four months to complete.

For my whole career, Amy has been my best sounding board. I trust her to tell me if something doesn’t look quite right. Sometimes she can’t quite pinpoint HOW something needs to be fixed, but she is rarely off when it comes to seeing that an issue exists.

Of course, nobody likes to be told that his or her masterpiece isn’t working. That means more work and more problem solving, but I would rather hear that feedback when I have time to fix it than let something out the door that is not up to my standards.

But since we both want the best product possible, it’s something we just work through together. I try to not take any criticism personally since I know none was intended. At the end of the day and when the picture is better, I know she was right. 

Over the years, she has become my most valued second set of eyes. I hopefully give her as much valuable feedback and support on her writing as she does with my art.

Q: What do you hope kids take away from the book? 

Amy: I hope they understand that there are many ways to create art, and that it is okay to not do things exactly the same as someone else. I also hope they have fun learning a little art history. I fell asleep in my college art history class a few times, and I really wanted to give kids an introduction to art history that was simple and entertaining.

Maybe after reading this book, kids will want to experiment with different art styles. And maybe, someday, they'll visit a museum and recognize an artist or painting that they know from reading our books.

Greg: What I hope kids take away from this book is a sense that art should be fun and that there are countless ways to express yourself with your art. Your work doesn’t look like anyone else’s and that is OK! Be unique and make it the way you want. Did it not turn out quite the way you wanted? That’s OK too. Try something different next time.

Art is a never-ending adventure and there is always something new to try. Be creative!

Q: What are you working on now?

Amy: I am revising a couple of picture book manuscripts (not art-related), and am starting research for a non-fiction picture book. I am also working on a YA novel. I am querying literary agents as well, and hope to have more picture books out in the future.

Greg: I really enjoy creating picture books, so the next step for me would be to land a literary agent. I have a few manuscripts in the works and hopefully that will pan out and I’ll officially become an “author/illustrator.” I hope one of those projects is another collaboration with Amy, but time will tell.

I am also passionate about painting landscapes and am intent on making inroads into the gallery painting world. I hope somewhere in the mix will be a one-man show or two that I can hang my hat on.

Mostly, I simply hope to keep creating art. It’s something that makes me happy and fuels me. What more could an artistic soul wish for?

Q: Anything else we should know? 

Amy: For a long time, I didn't think of myself as a "real" writer. But I have learned that if you write, you are a writer.

I understand now that I can improve by learning more about the "art" of writing, and by spending time writing. Much of good writing come from revisions. It's fine if something isn't great when you are beginning.

I think using your creativity to make something can be very fulfilling, and I'd encourage people to find a creative outlet that they enjoy. As I researched the artists for our books, I was impressed that many of them overcame great obstacles to become amazing artists, and several of them started their art careers late in life. It's never too late!

Greg: Too many kids have their artistic fire snuffed out by an insensitive remark or general lack of encouragement at an early age. Art seems to be taking a back seat in today’s educational system these days, or worse, it gets shoved off into the weeds and completely disregarded. 

I recently read an article about a NASA initiated study on creativity and problem solving. In the study, a shocking 98 percent of kids age 4-5 tested at creative genius level, but a short five years later, only 30 percent of those same kids tested as creative geniuses. By adulthood, a mere 2 percent tested at genius levels for creativity and problem solving. 

The creativity of our population is at risk because of the added emphasis on the importance of hard academic skill development and underfunding of the creative arts. 

We had a child who attended a preschool where every “art” project was a pre-cut craft assignment that was to be assembled exactly as the example or it was deemed wrong. Needless to say, this frustrated him and also us as parents. His creativity was being squashed at the tender age of four.

The final spread of all of our books invites kids to copy the final page and create their own Monster or Dinosaur or Snowman. With our books, we hope to bridge that artistic gap somewhat by giving kids permission to be creative and doing it in a fun way.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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