Seven Questions Over Breakfast with Zachary Pullen

h1 April 18th, 2011 by jules

If you’ve ever seen a picture book illustrated by author/illustrator Zachary Pullen, you know that his large, full-bleed illustrations do not apologize for taking every inch of space. His richly-colored oil paintings can capture a wide range of emotions and draw in readers. Most of his characters, as you can see below, are large-headed, bold, not afraid to be who they are. Pullen’s exaggerated, somewhat askew perspective adds to this, drawing readers’ attention to the faces of his expressive, larger-than-life characters. “Affectionate caricatures” is how Publishers Weekly described Zak’s style for his illustrations in Richard Michelson’s latest picture book title, Lipman Pike: America’s First Home Run King (Sleeping Bear Press, February 2011). The review also notes many of the exciting “mid-action moments” Pullen chose to depict in many of the spreads.

Zak’s here to join me for breakfast this morning to show some preliminary sketches from Lipman Pike, which tells the story of the son of a Dutch immigrant in Brooklyn, New York, during the mid-19th century. Lipman Pike, or Lip, and his brother are fascinated by an exciting new game sweeping the nation, called Base. “Each neighborhood club had a team and even some of the Jewish boys would practice batting and throwing when their parents weren’t watching,” Michelson writes. Though their mother doesn’t approve, Mr. Pike is too enthralled with the game to let this stop their boys: “We want our children to fit in with their neighbors, not to live like foreigners in their birthplace,” he tells Mrs. Pike. Years pass, and after Lip is invited to join the junior club and play his first official match, the news about Lip’s batting abilities spreads like wildfire throughout Brooklyn. At the age of 21, he moves to Philadelphia to play for the Athletics, though he is ultimately voted off the team unfairly. I don’t want to give away the entire book, but it’s an engaging picture book biography, which comes highly recommended (and even from someone such as me, who knows little to nothing about baseball). Kirkus wrote, “Michelson adeptly employs fictional conversations interwoven with factual details as he reconstructs a long-forgotten time, managing to bring Pike’s story out of obscurity and relate it to modern young readers. … An insight into baseball and America that is at once historical and timeless.”

Zak is hardly new to picture books. Below, he lists his previous titles, for those wanting to explore further. He also has done illustrations for The New York Times Book Review, Sports Illustrated, Esquire, and The Wall Street Journal and has been honored several times by the Society of Illustrators and Communication Arts.

When I asked Zak about our cyber-breakfast, he had no particular request, saying that his absolute favorite breakfast is more about the people he wants to sit with than what he eats: “I will have anything edible, if it means I get to sit and enjoy the start of the day with my family. A great way to start the day is to talk about it and go in with a plan.” Allrighty then. I have invited the whole family over, and let’s get right to it. I thank Zak for stopping by.

* * * * * * *

Jules: Are you an illustrator or author/illustrator?

Zak: I am an Author/Illustrator, although I’m an illustrator first. How about “Visual Storyteller”?

Jules: Can you list your books-to-date?

Zak: Eleven picture books and a few others: The Toughest Cowboy, The Greatest Game Ever Played, Friday My Radio Flyer Flew, Casey and Derek on the Ice, Alfred Nobel: The Man Behind the Peace Prize, S is for Story: A Writer’s Alphabet, Finn McCool and the Great Fish, Hockey Hero, Dee and the Mammoth, The Magic Box, and Lipman Pike: America’s First Home Run King.

(Click to enlarge)

Jules: What is your usual medium, or––if you use a variety—your preferred one?

Zak: I prefer to use oil on canvas or rag board. I guess the most creative, though, is pencil on vellum. The beginning is always the most fun.

First drawing of Lipman Pike for Michelson’s book

Zachary Pullen; Photo credit: Adam AmickJules: Where are your stompin’ grounds?

Zak: I live in Wyoming now. I’ve been a few other places, but we keep coming back to this part of the country.

Jules: Can you briefly tell me about your road to publication?

Zak: My work was noticed by the publishing industry on the cover of The New York Times Book Review. I had done a lot of editorial work and always wanted to work in the publishing industry, and they happened to call me, which is always a nice thing.

Jules: Can you please point readers to your web site and/or blog?

Zak: Blog is embedded and hardly ever touched. Sorry for that.

Jules: If you do school visits, tell me what they’re like.

Zak: I was never a stand-out in school. I knew that I loved drawing, and I was always very passionate but a mediocre student at best. The school visits always follow that path, and I try to touch the students that struggle in class and allow them some insight into a future.

Pencil drawing of one of Lipman Pike’s final illustrations:
“‘Only in America would people spend money to watch grown men chase after a ball,’ Mrs. Pike said to her husband, as she settled onto the ladies’ bench.”

Jules: If you teach illustration, by chance, tell me how that influences your work as an illustrator.

Zak: I taught for a semester in a college setting, and it was a great way to bounce ideas and gain inspiration for upcoming projects. I liked the back and forth. I just found it hard to keep up with the demand for my time.

Preliminary blue line drawing from Lipman Pike

Jules: Any new titles/projects you might be working on now that you can tell me about?

Zak: I am currently working on sketches for The Origin of Escargo. I am excited, because every time I sit down to work on it I find myself smiling and laughing, due to the manuscript and the characters. Exciting!

Mmm. Coffee.Our table’s set now for our breakfast interview. Let’s get a bit more detailed, and I thank Zak again for stopping by for six questions over breakfast.

1. Jules: What exactly is your process when you are illustrating a book? You can start wherever you’d like when answering: getting initial ideas, starting to illustrate, or even what it’s like under deadline, etc. Do you outline a great deal of the book before you illustrate or just let your muse lead you on and see where you end up?

Zak: I never thought I’d like the first stages of a book, although the research is the most fun now. Every book is a little different in approach. Once I’ve read the script multiple times, I usually have a mood or setting that I want to create. Then I visit my favorite place, the library. I spend hours there checking out books and looking at old articles that are going to pertain to the project. The internet has become invaluable as well, although I still like the smell of the books in the library. Plus, it means that I get to interact with people.

Early thumbnail options from Lipman Pike

My thumbnail sketches come first. There are sometimes hundreds of these in order to pound the idea into my head. Sometimes it just takes that many to get the idea out with an interesting composition.

Having a background in editorial work, the books seem like an eternity for deadlines. That said, they always sneak up on me. The drawings take me the longest amount of time, normally.

Thumbnail drawing from Lipman Pike
(Click to enlarge)

Paintings are usually done all at once with wet portions on all before I finish one. Late nights are my favorite time to work on the book illustrations. Music and caffeine fuel the process. What music? you might ask. Mumford & Sons, The Wiyos, and Bad Religion mostly.

Zak’s first jacket mock for Lipman Pike

2. Jules: Describe your studio or usual work space.

Zak: I keep my space pretty clean, for the most part. I hate to work in a mess. It makes me feel unproductive, so I strive for a clean environment to work. Books tend to strain the clean, though, and once a painting is completed, I clean before I move on. I work above a gallery that I’m part owner in as well, so I have people checking the progress out very often, and I’d be mortified if they saw it any other way than tidy.

Zak (on top level) at his gallery/studio
(Click to enlarge)

3. Jules: As a book lover, it interests me: What books or authors and/or illustrators influenced you as an early reader?

Zak: The biggest influences on me—and this is a wide spectrum—are N.C. Wyeth, J.C. Leyendecker, Norman Rockwell, and a little more contemporary would be Bill Watterson, Stephen Gammell, and Chris Van Allsburg.

I would, and still do, just drool over their work.

Drawing from Lipman Pike, though Zak removed the moustache in the final image:
“As the years passed, word of Lip’s batting power and speed spread throughout Brooklyn. Customers would shop at the haberdashery just to talk about Base.”

4. Jules: If you could have three (living) illustrators—whom you have not yet met—over for coffee or a glass of rich, red wine, whom would you choose?

Zak: First of all, it would have to be the wine or something of that sort. I would send invites to a dozen and, on pins and needles, I’d wait for Tony DiTerlizzi, Carter Goodrich, and David Shannon. That would be a great party.

5. Jules: What is currently in rotation on your iPod or loaded in your CD player? Do you listen to music while you create books?

Zak: Answered above, but there is always music on the iPod. Lately, I’ve been listening to Caravan Palace, Fishtank Ensemble, and Jalan Crossland.

6. Jules: What’s one thing that most people don’t know about you?

Zak: I have six manuscripts with illustrations in a drawer waiting for the right call to publish one of them.

* * * The Pivot Questionnaire * * *

Jules: What is your favorite word?

Zak: “Passion.”

Jules: What is your least favorite word?

Zak: “Can’t.”

Jules: What turns you on creatively, spiritually or emotionally?

Zak: A conversation with something to do at the end of it sparks my creativity and emotions. Be productive.

Jules: What turns you off?

Zak: People who can’t see merit in others’ ideas.

{Ed. Note: Pictured here is the Pullen family dog, Odie Martin.}

Jules: What is your favorite curse word? (optional)

Zak: The classic “fuck.”

Jules: What sound or noise do you love?

Zak: The ocean. (Sorry so cliché.)

Jules: What sound or noise do you hate?

Zak: Loud mufflers when I’m working on details.

Jules: What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?

Zak: Professional golfer.

Jules: What profession would you not like to do?

Zak: Greenskeeper.

Jules: If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates?

Zak: That’s a big ‘if.’

* * * * * * *

All artwork and images (with the exception of the Alfred Nobel and Radio Flyer covers) used with permission of Zachary Pullen. All rights reserved.

LIPMAN PIKE: AMERICA’S FIRST HOME RUN KING. Text copyright © 2011 by Richard Michelson. Illustrations copyright © 2011 by Zachary Pullen. Published by Sleeping Bear Press, Ann Arbor, MI.

Photo credit for mug shot of Zak: Adam Amick.

The spiffy and slightly sinister gentleman introducing the Pivot Questionnaire is Alfred, © 2009 Matt Phelan. Thanks to Matt, Alfred now lives permanently at 7-Imp and is always waiting to throw the Pivot Questionnaire at folks.

* * * * * * *

For those wanting to read about more nonfiction children’s titles, today’s Nonfiction Monday round-up is here at The Cat and the Fiddle.

5 comments to “Seven Questions Over Breakfast with Zachary Pullen”

  1. I am thrilled that Zak was chosen to bring my story about Lip’s life to life. He did an amazing job capturing the 1870’s and yet making it look contemporary so today’s kids can relate. Lip and I both got lucky.

  2. Wonderful interview! I enjoyed Richard Michelson’s book, Lipman Pike, so much that I wrote a review on Zach’s illustrations caught my attention, and I knew he had put some serious thought into them. I enjoyed seeing the rough-mown fields, leather baseball, wooden bats, appropriate attire, stockade fence, blue sky (complete with factory smoke), and Lip – willing to play (even if it looks like rain). Nice work! 🙂

  3. Love his work. What a great interview. Thank you, Bravo. {PS Love that studio}

  4. Wonderful!! I’m not sure I’ve seen any of Zachary’s books before- that’s terrible. I’m putting The Magic Box and Radio Flyer on my wish list. I’m also excited to read that Zachary lives in Wyoming! I grew up in Laramie and I live just a bit south in Colorado now. It’s nice to see not all wonderful artists live in NY. 🙂

  5. Great to see more of Zachary’s eye popping work! It was wonderful to meet him a few years ago at the Annual Children’s Book Illustrator’s show at Chemers Gallery in So. Cal.

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