As a former horseback rider and a forever Misty of Chincoteague fan, I enjoyed reading The Georges and the Jewels, author Jane Smiley's first book for children. The middle-grade novel centers on Abby, a girl growing up on a California horse ranch in the 1960s. Aged twelve in this first of three books, Abby is less than thrilled with school—seventh grade and its attendant social conflicts—but, boy, can she ride!
Recently I was chatting with my friend Elaine Clayton, who did the fine pen-and-ink illustrations for The Georges and the Jewels. (In fact, she had lent me the review copy.) As she described the process of creating the art for the book, I knew that others would like hearing about it, too. I invited Elaine to write a guest column, and am so happy that she agreed to.
Without further ado, I turn things over to Elaine Clayton:
When I was asked by the art director at Knopf/Crown Books for Young Readers to illustrate Jane Smiley's first book for young readers, I was completely thrilled. I have illustrated many chapter books and novels for other authors, and find it to be a lot of fun. When I was told this book was about horses, I was even more thrilled. I created a horsey picture book published a few years ago called A Blue Ribbon for Sugar. The art is very gestural, the drawings of horses loose and free-flowing. I used pencil and water color. However, when I was told that Jane Smiley's novel would be pitched for slightly older readers and they'd need me to illustrate the horse equipment (and not illustrate the story), I realized this was a different kind of illustration project.
Normally, when illustrating a book someone else has written, I read the manuscript, and as I read, cinematic imagery develops in my mind instantly. I see the characters, see their world, feel myself in the story. I make notes and then go and make many, many sketches and try and be as true as ever to the author's description as I allow my inner vision of the character to emerge on paper. It is a wonderful thing to comprehend the writing of another, and an honor. The honor in it demands that I handle carefully the feel and mood and detail the author has offered up, and then to be true to my way of understanding visually that author's bounty.
In the case of The Gorges and the Jewels, I was asked not to illustrate the story, really. I was asked not to illustrate the characters or the place where they live. I was asked not to draw scenes which convey the personality of the characters, but instead to faithfully depict the implements of horse riding, the equestrian gear mentioned in the book that many people might never have seen or heard of before. This was exciting to me because I spent the last several years riding horses and grew up on horses. I am still learning about all the equipment and am still obsessed a little about what I have learned and excited about what I have not quite grasped in the way of horses and their care and training. There is so much to know, to explore and to understand about horses and their gear!
I set out to draw from life all things mentioned in the book: saddles, blankets, girths, bridles and breeches. I set up all the equipment I own and began drawing first in pencil. The drawings were made quite large, some as large as 12" across and almost as many inches high, others smaller. After pencilling in the equipment, I began inking in. I drew in small ink marks, "hatching" by crossing the ink marks in places of shadow or definition. I was tiny-line-by-line making the equipment come to life on the page.
For me, as a figurative artist, everything around me has a human character or "personality." All things look like a person to me. I know this sounds funny, but numbers, alphabets, chairs and lamps (just everything!) look like types of people to me. For example, a place to sit might look to me to be a sad, defeated oaf: the worn-out sofa. Things around the house aren't just things, the basket quietly positioned in the corner looks gullible to me, or maybe unopinionated. So of course all the art for this book came out with a bit of personality, especially the riding boots and clothes. It was like drawing portraits to me, in a way, as even bridles and saddles are full of character. I drew daily and all day long, allowing these ink marks to come together to form cowboy hats and English riding helmets, riding crops and whips, horse brushes and combs. I went to a local horse farm and they let me set up all their tack and brushes, etc., so I could draw anything I didn't have out of storage.
I then sent the art into Knopf and waited to see what they might do with it. I knew the art director would make it all beautiful. What they did was they took these somewhat large drawings and reduced them to a much smaller size. With a few drawings on a full page, at each chapter opening, the drawings allow the reader to get an idea about what comes ahead, but they also provide information so readers can read about something, then go look at it at the beginning of the chapter to acquaint themselves with what each implement looks like. Reducing the detail down into a smaller dimension made the art look more technical and delicate, more elegant, really. It was really fun to see the art reduced and to see each piece of equipment I drew serve this book quietly, but with a kind of dignity that only reduced ink line work can have.
Smiley, Jane. The Georges and the Jewels. Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2009. ISBN: 978-0-375-86227-4 (0-375-86227-7)
Illustrations by Elaine Clayton, used here with the permission of the artist. Copyright Elaine Clayton. All rights reserved.
Interview with Jane Smiley at Publishers Weekly