Seven Questions Over Breakfast with Don Tate

h1 December 20th, 2011 by jules


“Duke and Billy worked as a team, seamlessly blending their musical ideas. As they traveled from city to city, their composition grew into a timeless musical map. A little Vegas glitz appeared here and there, but that wasn’t the only place to leave its mark. Los Angeles, New York, and New Orleans were there, too. Hollywood glamour mixed with the Harlem Renaissance as each dance tune fell into place. By the end of May,
the new
Nutcracker Suite was ready to be recorded.”
(Click to enlarge spread)

My visitor this morning, illustrator (and soon-to-be-author) Don Tate, has been in this field for a while now, having illustrated over forty trade and educational books for children. He likes to stress that he’s not an artist with a trademark style — and that first and foremost he’s a commercial artist, not a fine artist. And, to give us an idea of this, today he purposely includes many of his “looks,” if you will, in this breakfast Q & A.

I managed to pull off this interview right when I wanted to — right before Christmas. Those of you who celebrate it may be interested in seeing Don’s latest illustrated title, Anna Harwell Celenza’s Duke Ellington’s Nutcracker Suite, released by Charlesbridge in November and which, I must add, is accompanied by a CD of Ellington’s Suite. (A spread from the book opens this post.) This picture book highlights the 1960 collaboration between Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn to create Ellington’s swingin’ version of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite. Using India ink, acrylic watercolors, and chalk, Tate renders the composition of this piece with spunk and high energy. “The brilliant music cues Tate’s full-bleed mixed-media pictures,” writes Kirkus. “Bold ink strokes outline and define figures—Duke’s quizzical forehead and Strays’ distinctive cheekbones are expressive squiggles—and create movement across paint-spattered spreads studded with stars, snowflakes and musical notes. The palette marries rich violet-blues with hot, harmonious yellows, sepia and crimson.”

So, let’s get right to the interview so that Don can tell us more about this book, as well as his other work. “I love a big breakfast,” he told me. “Eggs and bacon, pancakes and sausage, fruit. I’m not picky. The way to a man’s heart: Home-made breakfast casserole!” A big breakfast sounds great to me, so let’s set the table while we get the basics. I thank Don for visiting.

* * * * * * *

Jules: Are you an illustrator or author/illustrator?

Don: Both. Throughout my 29-year career, I’ve focused mainly on commercial illustration. (I’m very much a commercial artist.) In the past few years, I’ve discovered writing. I love both equally.

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


Don: I’ve illustrated more than 40 books for kids. Yes, I include educational books in that count, because they help pay bills. My first trade picture book was, Say Hey: A Song of Willie Mays. It published in 2000 with Hyperion’s Jump At the Sun. Since then, I’ve illustrated about one book per year. Most recently, Ron’s Big Mission (Dutton, 2009), She Loved Baseball: The Effa Manley Story (HarperCollins, 2010), Duke Ellington’s Nutcracker Suite (Charlesbridge, 2011).

[Some other recent titles are...]


“In early 1960 Duke Ellington and his band were the featured act at the Riviera Hotel. Night after night they played to sold-out audiences. Duke’s best friend, Billy Strayhorn, helped him compose the music. Their dance tunes were all the rage.”
(Click to enlarge spread)


“A Hollywood movie studio inspired the next piece. ‘We’ve given the sugarplum fairy a new identity,’ said Duke. ‘She’s a West Indian beauty now—a starlet of the silver screen named Sugar Rum Cherry.’ Billy walked over to the drummer. ‘Start us off, Sam. Show us how Cherry swings her hips.’ Sam began playing a hypnotic rhythm. Billy turned to one of the oldest members of the band and said, ‘Now it’s your turn, Harry. Let’s hear Cherry sing.’ Harry picked up his baritone saxophone and played a sultry tune. Duke swayed to the music. ‘That’s it!’ he cried. Right before his eyes, Cherry strolled through a cane field on a hot, moonlit night.”
(Click to enlarge spread)

Spreads from Anna Harwell Celenza’s Duke Ellington’s Nutcracker Suite (Charlesbridge, November 2011)

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

Don: I don’t have a preferred medium –- I like them all. I know in art school students are often taught to choose a medium, develop a style, and stick with it. But that’s simply not me. I enjoy illustrating on the computer, Adobe illustrator and Photoshop my preferences. With natural mediums, I prefer acrylics, oils, watercolor. As an illustrator and graphics reporter at the Austin American-Statesman, I do a lot of editorial illustration.



Jules: If you have illustrated for various age ranges (such as, both picture books and early reader books OR, say, picture books and chapter books), can you briefly discuss the differences, if any, in illustrating for one age group to another?

Don: I’ve illustrated mostly picture books and early readers. I have illustrated middle grade chapter [books], too. It’s important to make characters look age-appropriate, no matter the style or technique used. A 16-year-old male has to look like a 16-year-old male or you’ll confuse your audience. Recently, I illustrated a series of chapter books. The subject matter and the ages of the kids were more mature, ages 11 or 12+. But the story used very simple language, appropriate for a younger reader. I chose to use a style more appealing to a younger reader — less realistic, clean, whimsical. Almost cartoony.




Jules: Where are your stompin’ grounds?

Don: I’m a native of Des Moines, Iowa. I moved to Austin, Texas, twelve years ago to work as a graphics reporter for the newspaper. Austin is home to a warm, closely-knit community of children and YA authors and illustrators. I’m so blessed to be here.


Don painting Ellington
(Click to enlarge)

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

Don: In retrospect, my road to publication came relatively easy, though it didn’t seem so at the time. I attended a two-year community college where my core area of study was commercial art and advertising. Soon after graduation, I took a job at an educational publishing company. I was hired as a publication designer, but the illustrator in me took over. I was soon illustrating books and other educational aids for the company.

After working there for several years, I stepped out on my own to pursue a career in full-time illustration. I found lots of educational work, but getting a trade book deal wasn’t easy. After many rejections, I sought advice from accomplished illustrators like Brian Pinkney, Floyd Cooper, James Ransome, Pat Cummings. Two years later, I had my first trade contract with Jump At The Sun.


Don’s Ellington video: A bit of painting, some music, and some close-ups

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

Don: www.dontate.com.

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



Don: I do visit schools. Kids are the reason I get to do what I do, so it’s important to meet my audience.

I speak to groups of all ages. For younger kids, I tell stories and share my original art. They love when I draw pictures of them. They especially enjoy when I invite them to draw along with me. We have drawing contests on the spot.

For all ages, I talk about how I became an artist. I’ve been drawing since I was old enough to hold a pencil in my hand, and that really impresses kids, because many of them are aspiring artists, too. I show the kids a progression of my career from three-years-old through middle and high school. I talk about my career as it is today. Most kids like to draw, but may not know about or consider careers in art. My visits give kids an opportunity to talk one-on-one with a working artist and author.




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

Don: I’ve never taught, though I’d like to take a look at teaching.

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

Don: I have two picture books in the works. One is written by Eve Bunting; the other, by my good friend Kelly Starling Lyons. Both books will publish in 2013, and both celebrate African American history.


(Click to enlarge)

I’m also excited to announce my debut as an author! It Jes’ Happened: When Bill Traylor Started to Draw will publish next spring, 2012. The book has been illustrated by the great R. Gregory Christie.

Now, I know what you’re about to ask: Why is R. Gregory Christie illustrating your book? Well the answer is here.

Mmm. Coffee.Okay, the casserole’s ready, and we’re ready to feast on our big breakfast. Let’s get a bit more detailed with seven questions over breakfast. I thank Don again for visiting 7-Imp.

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?

Don: I didn’t have a plan with my first book. I just jumped in and started drawing. But I learned that drawing an entire book without a plan wastes a lot of time. Today, I begin my books with a series of doodles, as I read the manuscript. I want to get initial ideas out of my head and onto paper. Doodles progress to loose thumbnail sketches. Thumbnail sketches eventually progress to tighter, full-size sketches. Thumbnail sketches are my plan, my visual outline.




Working on the dummy for Anna Harwell Celenza’s
Duke Ellington’s Nutcracker Suite
(Click to enlarge images)

Because many of my books are nonfiction and historical fiction, I may need to spend time doing research before creating thumbnails. For instance, the Duke Ellington book opens with a scene of Ellington’s band playing to an audience. Not being familiar with Ellington, Strayhorn or big-band jazz music, I needed to do some visual research to inspire my sketches. For research, I seek out picture books on the same subject. I watch movies and documentaries. I use online photo archives and Google images.






Progression of cover for Rose Blue’s and Corinne J. Naden’s Ron’s Big Mission

When I’m happy with my thumbnail sketches and my editor and art director have signed off, I sketch the entire book. I used to work much larger than the actual printed book, but to save time I now work at 100 percent size. Sometimes editors will provide galleys (typewritten text, digital or hard copy). Other times I’m given a strict layout around which I draw the text. I prefer to break and pace the book myself, but if not, I’ll make suggestions where I see opportunities to page the book better.

As a debut author, I wrote Bill Traylor’s story with no regard to visuals or page breaks. I put on my writer’s hat and focused on words. I hadn’t planned to illustrate the story, so left the visuals to the illustrator. But with a picture book, words and pictures go together. So, now when I write, whether I plan to illustrate a story or not, I sketch along the way. I write and sketch and sketch and write, back and forth.

Because I’m not an illustrator with a trademark art style—and I don’t want to be—a big question for each book is what style to use. I like trying out new things. Some experiments have worked better than others, of course, but I’d much rather try something new and occasionally fail than to do the same thing book after book after book after book. Boring, though no disrespect to artists who work this way.



Don as Ellington; posing for an illustration



Modeling for and painting an illustration for Audrey Vernick’s
She Loved Baseball: The Effa Manley Story
(Click to enlarge second image)

With each new project, I ask myself what “look” will work best for the subject matter? And how much time do I have to work with? With the Duke Ellington book, I didn’t have a lot time. I knew I couldn’t use the same time-consuming style as with the Effa Manley book, which required under paintings and value studies and layers and layers of transparent . . . layers.


(Click to enlarge)

So I changed direction and used quick, loose, spontaneous lines. And paint splatters! It worked and I had a ball illustrating this book.





Inking an illustration of Duke from Anna Harwell Celenza’s
Duke Ellington’s Nutcracker Suite
(Click to enlarge first three images)

Like all creative people, sometimes I struggle with confidence. A loud whisper tells me: You’re no good. Your art is ugly. Everyone will soon know you’re a fake! That loud voice talked me into thinking some of my art was completely undesirable –especially one book, in particular. One publishing house said that I over exaggerate my characters’ heads and that they couldn’t work with me until I downsized. Another art director said my children looked like little monsters. I decided I’d never use that one style again, though it was my favorite way to illustrate. To my surprise, on several recent projects, guess what editors have asked for? Yes, THAT style! — my “big-headed monsters.” Art is, indeed, subjective. I try to remember that when the loud whisper starts bugging me.

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

Don: I have a great workspace. My studio is a large open room. It was the main reason why my wife and I purchased our house. I have two drawing areas, two painting areas, and a computer workstation. I use every inch of space, including floors for piles of reference books and sketches. As photos don’t lie, my studio is pretty messy. But that’s a good thing. When it’s clean, that means I don’t have work.






Illustrations from Alice McGill’s Sure as Sunrise:
Stories of Bruh Rabbit and His Walkin’ Talkin’ Friends

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

Don: I wasn’t much of a reader as a kid, but I’ve always liked informational books. My favorites were those big, orange Funk & Wagnalls illustrated children’s encyclopedias. I loved our illustrated medical encyclopedia, too. It was chock full of oozing stomach ulcers, bed sores, and illustrated diseases of every kind. Surprisingly, I didn’t become a medical illustrator. I also liked books by Maurice Sendak, Ezra Jack Keats.

The author that had the biggest influence on me was my aunt, Eleanora E. Tate [pictured below on the left]. She was a journalist for the Des Moines Register and Iowa Bystander newspapers, and she went on to write novels for teens. One of her books, Just an Overnight Guest, was adapted into a movie and premiered at the Des Moines Public Library. It starred Richard Roundtree (Shaft) and Rosalind Cash, two big-name African-American movie stars of the ’70s. I wanted to be like my aunt and tell stories, too — but with pictures.

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

Don: Mark Teague, Kadir Nelson, Tom Feelings.

Like me, Mark Teague is a self-taught illustrator. I appreciate his art, humor, and imagination. He attended college and majored in history, but he learned to illustrate on his own. His success story is inspiring.

Kadir Nelson [pictured below on the right]. Okay, I’m cheating here. I actually met Kadir last October at the Texas Book Festival. Before his presentation, I got to spend some brief one-on-one with him, but I didn’t feel like I made a connection. Kadir is a brilliant artist, so I would welcome an opportunity to further talk trade with him over coffee.

Tom Feelings. Cheating again. Tom passed in 2003. But since this is children’s publishing, I can go back in my time machine and have coffee with Tom. Tom Feelings was a cartoonist and illustrator, a trailblazer. His book, The Middle Passage, is one of the most beautiful and important books ever. His passion for telling the story shined bright.

What a coffee break that would be.

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?

Don: I love all types of music, especially R&B, rap, hip-hop. But I can jam to Axl Rose, ZZ Top and Elton John, too.

This will sound kind of sappy, but the most recent song that I downloaded to my iTunes was Meat Loaf’s “Two out of Three Ain’t Bad.” I have no idea what this song is about, but the tune takes me back to my childhood, to the days when my grandparents took me camping on the weekends in their RV trailer. Fishing with my grandma, gutting and cooking fish with grandpa — that was the greatest!

Anyway, in all honesty, I rarely listen to music when I paint. I love talk radio. When I paint, I usually listen to Rush Limbaugh, Neal Boortz, and other local talk radio shows. Yes, seriously. When I’m not listening to talk radio, I listen to CNN or Fox News. I’m a news junkie, I guess. I like to know what’s going on in the world around me at all times. I save music for days when the world gets too depressing. Then I pop in the oldies music and I’m taken back to fishing with grandma.




Illustrations from Patricia Hubbell’s Black All Around!

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

Don: My middle name is Eugene. Eugene? Might as well put a “kick me” sign on my butt — the name is so nerdy. No disrespect to other honorable Eugenes of the world.





Illustrations from Audrey Vernick’s
She Loved Baseball: The Effa Manley Story

7. Jules: Is there something you wish interviewers would ask you — but never do? Feel free to ask and respond here.

Don: Q. Who is Devas T.? And why do you use that moniker on your blogs and social networks?

A. Devas T. (pronounced: Dev-uh-s Tee) is a nickname given to me by high school friends. When I first started blogging, I was reluctant. So, I blogged using my high school nickname. As I became more comfortable with blogging, I added my real name to the blog, but Devas T. kinda stuck.

Devas T. came from the word devastating. I was a clumsy teenager, and one day, after knocking over a hamburger broiler and almost burning down the fast food restaurant where I worked, I earned the name.

I also wish I got more questions about my family. I have a wonderful wife of 18 years. I have a 10-year-old son who brightens my life every day. I have two adult daughters and three grandchildren. Where I’m not rich in finances, I am rich in love.




Illustrations from W. Nikola-Lisa’s
Summer Sun Risin’

* * * The Pivot Questionnaire * * *

Jules: What is your favorite word?

Don: “Vainglorious.”

Jules: What is your least favorite word?

Don: The N-word. ‘Nuff said.

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

Don: If I knew the answer, I might be more creative, spiritual, and emotional.

Jules: What turns you off?

Don: Haughtiness. Be humble, folks. In the grand scheme of things, you ain’t all that. (Note: Yes, it’s totally possible to be vainglorious without having an ego.)

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

Don: “Dammit.”

Jules: What sound or noise do you love?

Don: Answer not appropriate for all audiences.

Jules: What sound or noise do you hate?

Don: Barking dogs. If there’s one thing I can’t stand when I’m trying to listen to talk radio, it’s my neighbor’s loud-arse barking dog.

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

Don: I’d love to do something where I could make enough money to support my family entirely on my income and still have time to be a dad, husband, brother, son. Does this profession even exist?

Jules: What profession would you not like to do?

Don: Any profession that deals with spiders, heights, barking dogs, or poo.

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

Don: “Come on in, my vainglorious brotha. We’ve been waiting for you.”

* * * * * * *

All artwork and images used with permission of Don Tate. All rights reserved.

The spiffy and slightly sinister gentleman introducing the Pivot Questionnaire is Alfred, © 2009 Matt Phelan.

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12 comments to “Seven Questions Over Breakfast with Don Tate”

  1. I can’t wait to look at every single page in Sure as Sunrise, how did I miss that? I love the Bruh Rabbit stories. And Duke Ellington’s Nutcracker Suite looks splendid. I too greatly admire the work of Tom Feelings; Middle Passage left me speechless.
    Thanks to you both for this vainglorious interview.


  2. Fabulous interview. As long as I’ve known you I still learned new things about you and your work. (And we all know you don’t like dogs!) I can’t wait to see what you do next but Nutcracker is my favorite so far.


  3. Wow! I’ve known Don for a long time, but never knew much of what is revealed here. Thank you both. Don, I think the fact that you are mostly self-taught makes your art that much more “real.”
    I’m so happy for your growing success.


  4. One of the most inspiring elements in an artists life is other artists. Their struggles and triumphs help to convince us of the grand saving power of Love and Grace from God. I am not surprised that you have a nickname similar to my User favorite, toodevastate. May you live long and continue to create your, “big-headed monster kids, I love them!


  5. Beautiful work.


  6. Thanks for this. We LOVE Don Tate! “Summer Sun Risin’” was one of my son’s favorite reads this past summer, in large part because of the illustrations. Can’t wait to see more from Don Tate!


  7. I must find this book! I love the Nutcracker so much that I grin just thinking of it.


  8. Don! And Jules, did you know, today is his birthday?


  9. *Just* now figured that out!


  10. Thanks everyone. Thanks, Jules. Much appreciated.


  11. As always, I am wowed by the depth of human experience, the shades of human beings, the shapes and colors this artist uses. He has so many styles, and his work shows so much animation and movement. Love it.


  12. I enjoy viewing your work and observing the way you interact with children. Your presentation style is unique, interactive, and captivating. Currently I am working with middle school students on a project based on inspiration. I would enjoy hearing from you.
    Mrs. Gilpin
    Middle School Art Teacher


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