A Look into Book Illustration

What does it take to be a book illustrator? We asked Fine Art America artist Eric Fan to share his knowledge and experience with creating book illustrations.

Eric Fan is a Toronto based artist with a passion for the whimsical and unexpected, a love of vintage art, clockwork contraptions, and pop culture collisions. He is currently working on his first children’s book with brother, Terry Fan, which is scheduled to be published by Simon & Schuster in 2016. His agent is Kirsten Hall, at the Catbird Agency.

Eric Fan’s website http://www.krop.com/opifan64/#/.

1. How did you get into book illustration? How does the whole process work?

It’s all fairly new to me, actually, and I kind of fell into it by chance and happenstance. My agent, Kirsten Hall, was just starting her new agency (Catbird: http://catbirdagency.com/) and was looking for new artists to fill her roster. She happened to see my brother Terry’s work online and signed him as an artist. She then asked him if he had any ideas for children’s books, and he proposed a few ideas that we had come up with together, and also mentioned that we often worked together collaboratively. She presented one of our ideas to Simon & Schuster and they made an offer on it, which blew my mind because it was our first book proposal. Since we planned to do the book together, I was also signed to Catbird in lieu of the publishing contract. The book is due to be published in the Spring of 2016. I’ve attached a picture of the cover art, as well as another cover we worked on recently for Ali Benjamin’s upcoming book, The Thing About Jellyfish.

"The Thing About Jellyfish"

The Thing About Jellyfish

2. What do you like about book illustration? what type (genre) of books do you typically illustrate?

I work almost exclusively in the children’s book field; primarily picture books for young readers. Picture books appeal to me because I like the idea of telling a story visually. When you do a single piece of art it can also tell a story within that single image, but there’s something nice about extending that into a fully realized story with a beginning, middle, and end. I spent my thirties writing screenplays, so some of that love for visual storytelling has always been part of my make-up. Depending on the project, there’s also the challenge factor of bringing either your own story to life, or bringing someone else’s words to life. Every story has its own specific obstacles, and it can be rather terrifying, to be honest, but it’s the kind of terror that spurs creativity and invention, because you’re working against a deadline within a very specific matrix of obstacles you have to overcome. When I was a kid, picture books had a profound affect on me, so the idea of creating something that may inspire other kids growing up is really at the heart of why I love working on children’s books so much.
In addition to picture books, we’ve also worked on a few projects aimed at slightly older readers. The cover art for Ali Benjamin’s book, The Thing About Jellyfish (Little Brown, Fall 2015) was an exciting project because I really loved the story and it’s getting some very positive pre-release buzz. It’s aimed at young readers, but also adults, since the themes are quite mature, so it was something a little different for us. We also did the chapter decorations for a book called, The Book That Proves Time Travel Happens, by Henry Clark. It’s a terrifically fun book about time travel and overcoming prejudice.

3.  What is the newest book project you are working on?

We just finished The Night Gardener, and have been putting together a proposal for a new book. We were also signed as artists for two other authored children’s books. They haven’t been announced publicly yet so I need to keep the details under wraps, but they’re both very exciting projects.
The Night Gardener

The Night Gardener

4. What in your opinion makes a good book cover?

I got my start in art doing t-shirt design, and I think it’s almost the same thing. A t-shirt is a moving piece of art and so it needs to ‘read’ very quickly, and be visually striking with a degree of simplicity, either in the message or the visual. In the case of a book cover, the art is stationary on the shelf, but the customer is moving, and so the same criteria applies. The image needs to be eye-catching and striking, and communicate something about the book very quickly.

5. Does Fine Art America or having your work online help in anyway with book illustration?
Like I said, both my brother and I were discovered by our work being seen online, so there’s a huge upside in licensing your art and selling it on print on demand sites because many agents and editors peruse these sites looking for new talent. It’s really revolutionized the playing field for artists in terms of getting their work seen and making important contacts. My career definitely wouldn’t be what it is today if I hadn’t started selling my work online.

Modern Master – Aaron Blaise

Aaron with an Elephant

Aaron with an Elephant

Recently we had the opportunity to speak with Aaron Blaise a former Disney animator and Fine Art America member. Aaron Blaise has worked on many memorable Disney movies including, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and The Lion King among others. He was also nominated for an Academy Award for best animated feature film, Brother Bear. We of course wanted to find out about his experience with Disney and his upcoming projects. Here is what Aaron had to say:

1. What originally got you into digital art/graphic design?

It was the public, really, that got me into digital work. My background is traditional drawing and painting and in animation it’s traditional hand drawn animation. It was when the hand drawn animation medium went away (Because the public wasn’t going to see it any more) that I was forced to start working digitally…because the films we were creating were digital. I started doing all of my character design and concept work in Photoshop. I really got hooked on the medium and let it spill into my personal work. That was 10 years ago. I haven’t looked back since.

2. How did you start working with Disney? Did they reach out to you first?

I went to the Ringling College of Art in Sarasota, Florida. I majored in Illustration. It was my dream to one day be an illustrator for National Geographic Magazine. I then found out in my second year at school that Nat. Geo. freelanced their work. I wanted a studio job. So I started looking at other options. Luck would have it that Disney and Hallmark were coming to Ringling to recruit. Lucky for me, Disney was first. I put together a portfolio and set up an interview hoping to possibly be a background painter. After my interview I was accepted into a 6 week internship where I was trained in animation concepts. I fell in love with the medium. After the 6 weeks were over they liked my work enough to hire me full time after I graduated from school a year later. That was 26 years ago and I’ve never looked back. I never was a background painter.

3. What was your favorite Disney movie that you worked on? And why?

I have several. Beauty and the Beast was a big one for me. I was one of the Beast animators and got to work with my mentor, Glen Keane who was the supervisor of the character. He was very generous with handing out work and he gave me a very juicy acting scene where Beast is getting bandaged by Belle in front of the fireplace. The work I was able to do on that sequence really paved the way for me going into the rest of my career. I became a supervisor after that.
Lion King was huge for me simply because of my love of wildlife and animating animals. I was the supervisor of Young Nala and had a lot of fun animating that little lion cub.
Finally, Brother Bear. This film was my biggest break ever. I was co-director of Brother Bear and it was the biggest challenge of my career up to that point. It took 6 years and I grew an incredible amount not just as an artist but also as a story teller. We were also nominated for an Academy Award for best animated feature film. It was a huge honor for me.

4. Overall what did you learn from working at Disney and how did that translate into your animation company and also your most recent work?

I was with Disney for over 21 years. I started as a 21 year old. I literally spent half my life there. My life as an artist was defined there through my interactions with so many incredible artists and the making of so many great projects over the years. I would say that close to everything that defines me now as an artist was developed there so to answer your question of what I learned at Disney…I’d have to say everything.
What I’m doing now is simply me carrying over all of my life’s experience in the animation and art industries. It’s the next logical step for me.

5. How did you discover Fine Art America?

I discovered Fine Art America simply through the internet. I was at a point in my career where I was ready to start creating and selling prints. I starting going to a local guy to have actual prints made that I would then sell on line…it was old thinking. I didn’t like his quality and I was stuck with prints I didn’t like. So I started researching other options. That’s when I found Fine Art America. The rest is history.

"Threatened" by Aaron Blaise

“Threatened” by Aaron Blaise

6. What are you currently working on?

I’ve currently got several projects I’m working on. The first being a film that I am developing called “Art Story”. It’s something I’ve been involved with for a couple of years now. It’s a story of a boy and his grandfather that have the ability to actually step through the frame and into the painted world. They get stuck there and must journey together through the world of art in order to find their way out. Over the course of the journey they travel through incredible worlds where they take on the looks of those worlds. They travel through Monet’s, Van Gogh’s, Picasso’s and Dali’s. It’s an incredible journey where the two of them get to know each other on a new level. They come to love each other. We are currently raising funds to further this project.

I’m also working with Warner Brothers Pictures on “Jungle Book: Origins” directed by Andy Serkis. The film will be live action with computer animated animals much in the same way that “The Life of Pi” was created. I’m designing the animals. It’s an incredible amount of fun for me.
I’m always doing my own work as well. My business partner, Nick Burch and myself have created the website: “the Art of Aaron Blaise” the url is: http://creatureartteacher.com/   On this site you can see my latest fine art and also download tutorials in art instruction.  Also check out my YouTube channel of the same name where I have a weekly show call “Aaron’s Art Tips” where I give short little lessons on various artistic advice.

7. Do you have any advise for digital artists starting out?

The advice I give to young artists starting out whether they’re digital or traditional is the same. Draw from life!! Do it every day or at least whenever you can. It will build you mental library! Also if you’re a digital artist then do some traditional work. If you’re a traditional artist then learn how to work digitally! We live in an incredible time artistically. All the mediums available to us each can help us grow. My traditional work grew when I started working digitally and I had a head start when I started working digitally because of my years of traditional work. Each informs the other.