In this Artist Spotlight, we talk with illustrator Robert Casilla about his newest book The Big Day, his artistic approach and illustrative process, and advice for young and aspiring illustrators of color.
Star Bright Books (SBB): Tell our audience how your illustration career started.
Robert Casilla (RC): I attended the School of Visual Art in NYC and majored in illustration and fine art. After graduation in 1982, I began to take illustration jobs for magazines and newspapers including Black Enterprise, Video Review, the New York Daily News and New York Times weekend magazines, postage stamps, and other publications.
From there, I illustrated a YA book cover for Bradbury Press/Simon & Schuster, which eventually led to being offered a job to illustrate The Train to Lulu’s by Elizabeth Fitzgerald Howard. Then, within a few days I was hired to illustrate Martin Luther King, Jr.: Free at Last for Holiday House. Those two book jobs started my career as a children’s book illustrator.
SBB: How has the children’s publishing industry changed (good and/or bad)?
RC: Today it’s much easier to have my work noticed by publishers because of the Internet and social media. When I started as an illustrator in the 1980s, I had to make appointments and/or drop off my portfolio to art directors/editors at publishing companies, which was time-consuming. It’s much easier for up-and-coming illustrators than when I started in the old days. Delivering finished art was either done in person or sent via FedEx. Today, we can send art out digitally and hold on to the originals, which is good because a book printer once lost all of my artwork.
SBB: Who are your favorite illustrators? How have they inspired your art style?
RC: I admire a lot of my fellow illustrators’ work, some of which are close friends. My favorites are Winslow Homer, NC Wyeth, Norman Rockwell.
Jerry Pinkney is my favorite living illustrator. His work is very inspiring to me, not only as an illustrator but as an artist. Although my work is different, I’m inspired by his free and fluent style with watercolor.
SBB: You’ve illustrated dozens of books in your career, earning the right to be selective. What do you look for in a book project when deciding to accept or reject an invitation?
RC: I look for mildly emotionally moving stories whether it’s fiction or a nonfiction biography. Stories that help young readers become familiar with another’s culture, customs and help to emote empathy for other children and familial situations. I also look for stories that fill my mind with many images to create pleasing art.
SBB: What message do you hope to convey to young readers through your work?
RC: Well, my goal as an illustrator is to create art that compliments the story and helps bring it to life for young readers.
SBB: Your latest book, The Big Day, takes place in 1919 in Knoxville, Tennessee. How did you approach the setting and characters for this project?
RC: Since I work in a somewhat realistic style, I rely on models for the main characters. I also do a lot of research about the period, clothing, and everything that will appear in the artwork.
With The Big Day, because of the pandemic I had to change my method by creating the characters without the aid of photos of models.
I used artist manikins and photos that had the poses I needed to create each spread. I had previously thought about trying this approach on a book but I was concerned about the end results. This way of working is more time-consuming, but now I know that I can do it without changing the overall look of my book illustrations.
SBB: Take our audience through your illustration process for The Big Day.
I started by reading the story a few times. Then the text was divided for each page or double-page spread. I did thumbnail sketches for each page. Thumbnail sketches are quick 2”x 4” rough scribbles that allow me to plan out the whole book. These tiny sketches show the images that I visualize while I’m reading the divided text and indicate how the words fit within the sketched idea.
Doing these sketches helps in trying to make each page different. I try to think of this stage as if I were doing a comic strip, by doing scenes that are close up or farther away and from different views. These sketches are not usually shown to the publisher. They are meant as my visual plan for the book. The sketches tell me what research I need for each scene.
Once I completed most of my research, I then developed the characters. Since I couldn’t hire models I looked for pictures of people that looked somewhat like I imagined the characters. Then I drew the character’s faces at different views and angles and in the poses required as I explained above.
Once the sketches were completed I sent them to Star Bright Books for approval. After a couple requested changes, the sketches were approved. Next I went on to do the finished, more detailed drawings for each page on watercolor paper for the final paintings.
SBB: What advice would you offer young people of color eager to enter the publishing industry?
RC: I would advise young illustrators of color to really work hard on your craft. Drawing well is crucial for illustrators, especially children’s book illustrators. Choose a medium that you like to work with, whether it’s watercolors, acrylics, oils, colored pencils, pastels, or digital.
Create a portfolio of art that you enjoy doing and is applicable to picture books. When creating art for a book, learn as much as possible about the story’s subject matter and period by doing a lot of research.
Also, use life experiences or your childhood memories when you’re creating the art, which can enhance the story visually without altering it. If a character is sad or happy about something, try to relate to how that character feels by thinking about how you felt when you were sad or happy about something and then communicate that in the art with the idea/concept, design/composition and color, tone. . . .
I would also advise young illustrators to always do the best job possible regardless of the financial terms. Because the final product will have your name on it and will most likely be seen by many people and hopefully be in circulation for a long time.