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Creative Inspirations: Ed Emberley, Children's Book Illustrator

with Ed Emberley

Video: Getting to know Ed

A generation of children have learned to draw using Ed's drawing books and we watch as a new generation puts crayon to paper. At 80 years young, Ed is pushing ahead and we meet with his team as he works on his newest iPad app—with graphic artists that, as
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Creative Inspirations: Ed Emberley, Children's Book Illustrator
Video duration: 0s 1h 43m Appropriate for all


Award-winning children's book author and illustrator Ed Emberley is truly a national treasure, having drawn nearly 100 books. The warmth of his family and his 17th century home are an essential part of his work. In this installment of the flagship documentary series, we go to Ed's home in Ipswich, Massachusetts, to meet him and all of the members of his talented family, including his wife and author, Barbara; children, illustrators Rebecca and Michael; and granddaughter, recording artist Adrian Emberley. A generation of children have learned to draw using Ed's drawing books and we watch as a new generation puts crayon to paper. At 80 years young, Ed is pushing ahead and we meet with his team as he works on his newest iPad app—with graphic artists that, as children, learned to draw with his books.


Getting to know Ed

(music playing) Ed Emberley: Not everybody has to be an artist. The big thing is feeling good about yourself. That's more important than the art part. I have made lions and chickens out of thumbprints. I have cut circles in pieces and put them back together to make pictures of birds and flowers and things like that. I have made a little red bird.

You make a half circle for the body, put a triangle at one end, a circle at the other end, another triangle for the beak sticking out front, a little dot for an eye, and two little spindly legs. I can make a bird that way and probably so can lots of people, including children. Everyone who likes my books is like me in some way. If you like my books, you've never met me? There is something about you that's just like me, and that's the person I can speak to.

If I try to speak to everybody, I speak to nobody. I only can speak to the Ed Emberleys there are in the world. Whether they are girls or boys, whether they are grown up or small, my duty is to present me out to the other me's in the world, and that's what I do. (music playing) My name is Ed Emberley.

Both my work and my fun are combined in one. I write and illustrate books for children. And I have illustrated, over the past number of years, about a hundred books. The reason I do children's books, when I started working, I decided that I would do something to please me, and at the same time would not try to analyze why it pleased me. Does it please me because it brings me memories of child? Perhaps.

Mostly it's a visceral, inside reaction. When I look through the children's books, I just listen to this voice, and the voice said, "I would like to do that," and that was the end of the conversation. I don't like to work the same way all the time. I would prefer to experiment with different materials. I find that when I'm challenged the challenge brings me energy and fun. I am determined to have fun doing my work, primarily because it's fun, but the second reason is if I'm enjoying myself then that feeling is passed on to the reader.

If I have fun, I can pass the fun on. That's what I'm always searching for. (music playing) Welcome to Ipswich, forty-five minutes north of Boston, on the coast of Massachusetts.

This is the Emberley home. We've lived here since our children were in preschool. The house was built around 1690. The Ipswich River, it's a tidal river. That means that twice a day we have ten feet of water in front of the house and then twice a day we have no water in front of the house. So be very careful where you park your car. They call this the keeping room, the main living room. This cupboard that's between the two windows, it is a good metaphor for our life, which is a jumble of this and that.

There are little things, big things, colorful things, not-so-colorful things. Most of them are old. Most of the houses in this area were disassembled. They are all pegged and put together. There are large beams like this, and you can take them all apart like a Lego, like a little toy, like Lincoln Logs or a Lego. In the early 1700s, this house was an antique when George Washington--if George Washington were to come to this house at the Battle of Bunker Hill, this would've already been an antique. So this is an old house.

(music playing) This is the art studio. This is where I do all the artwork by hand. You see all the markers standing around. On the shelves all around here are all different tools. On the right-hand side are all the books--the books that I do, not the books that every artist does.

You notice there is a Big Orange Drawing Book, so inside there are all the orange drawing book thing. So what I have to do is if I am going to make a book with the color orange and the color black, two drawings have to be made. So see all the pumpkins, see those basically right there? Well, they are the pumpkins. The orange thing that you see on the top would go like this. We often make pumpkins like that. They call these overlays. It's the solid print plus the overlay. And each one of these books requires a different number of pieces, but there is no picture; there is no picture that exists of the book.

Only the book is our method. The book is our medium. Only the book is our final printed book. This is Michael's original room--it has been converted into a computer workroom--and some of the work that we have been working on with Rebecca, which is where a lot of the work from Rebecca is done. This wall is used to lay out a whole book. The size of these, there's a piece of wire, and there are pieces of paper that get hung up like this. This is a double-page spread, and it's necessary for us to print something to make absolutely sure that this line is exactly where we want it.

And also, the printer uses this as a guide to actually print the color. The wall that you see here is a small part of the collection of books we just happen to own. We don't--we have been keeping books over the years. There are drawing books in here. There are books done the woodcuts. There are picture books in here. There are flipbooks in here. There is The Wing on a Flea, which is the first book. There are books that have been recently done on the computer. This one was absolutely done by hand because it was done with my thumbprint, which is pretty simple.

And it's a book that shows people how to draw things using their thumbprints and the word ivy lou. So there is step-by-step illustrations that tell you how to make people's faces, how to make different kinds of hats, how to make action, how to make animals. That was very successful, used a lot in classrooms. There are also books that were done specifically with what the computer is able to do, which is the computer is able to make ovals and circles and rectangles and triangles.

So I thought maybe I could use them and if I put them together in a clever enough way then the pictures wouldn't look too static, but you would be able to get some action out of it. The total number of picture books I have done are about a hundred, one hundred titles, and more, I hope, in the future. (music playing) Well, I had an interesting experience in high school. I was not a very good student.

I was taken away from mathematics, transferred to a special class where they taught art all afternoon. They had a professional watercolorist. He taught boxing and watercolor painting. I worked at least for two years with this teacher, maybe three years. He talked to my parents, said, you know, "He really should go to arts school." My parents said, "Yes, it's a right idea. We can't afford it." He said, "You can afford this art school. It's a very good art school. It's the Massachusetts College of Art. They will charge you a hundred dollars a year, and you can pay fifty dollars in the fall and another fifty dollars at Christmas time." In arts school, at the end of the four- year period, I met Barbara and went in the army rather than put it off, and because I had a Bachelor's Degree in Fine Arts, they thought what I would be good at is digging ditches for the engineers.

So I was a ditch digger. I used to dig targets. So they thought a BFA would be terrific for that. Luckily, sometime around half way through, they discovered I could paint signs. I could actually twirl a brush and paint a sign, so I became a sign painter. When I got out of the army, I went to Rhode Island School of Design. So you had to take something new, so what I took was a post in advertising design. So I had a chance to work with type for a year. For the first time, I was handling blocks of color, thinking about type, type size and type faces. Get out and walked around Boston, went down by Fenway Park, and there was a little building right at Kenmore Square, and there was a place in there that was looking for paste-up artist. That was an artist who pastes type down.

So I brought my portfolio from arts school, which happened to have a lot of silly cartoons in it. They said, "We want someone to order type and glue it down," and they said, "You do these drawings too?" I said yeah. "Well, okay, then we are going to hire you to do the drawings," and so they started immediately, that day, and started doing small drawings, of which not much was expected of me, but I did even better because I enjoyed doing it.

A year and a half later, I had published for them, for this company, two of these books that are called clip books, and they were books that were made for small companies and businesses, and they can go through and cut the pictures out. They had permission to cut these pictures out and use them, just as they today on the computer, but this was an actual paper thing. Now the tools that I were using were the oil painting brush or watercolor brush, which was a red sable, or a little, fine mapping pen called a Crow Quill pen. And I use the techniques that were a hundred years old, some of them two hundred, three hundred years old.

I had no new materials whatsoever, certainly no computers, but not even a felt-tip marker. In fact, I still remember somebody coming into the school with a felt-tip marker, it was only a hundred dollars, and the felt went in one end then they mixed color and put it in the other end. And they said, "This is the latest thing. This is the fine artist's great pen." So this one was done with--which is interesting. Here's a good example, here you can see the thick and thin of the brush, learning to take the brush and go down and make it thicker and thinner at just the right time, and then a few lines with a pen, but mostly with a brush, where the brush was done like that.

You get used of doing this. But of course, the Crow Quill pen had the same problem. A Crow Quill pen is very, very fine; it's finer than any pen point you have seen on a fountain pen or anything, about half the size of that. And the pressure is exact. If you press too hard, you splutter. The pen digs into the paper and it splashes. And if you don't do it heavy enough, it doesn't make a mark on the paper. I was not headed deliberately to be a children's book illustrator. I wanted to be a person who drew pictures.

And I would say after about a month of reveling in the fifty-dollar checks at the end of the week, I started looking for freelance work by mail and started getting magazine illustrations for children's magazines, greeting cards, stuff like that. In fact, that's what precipitated my leaving of the direct mail advertising firm, because I was working nights and working weekends. So I went to Boston, those people who know about Boston, on to Prudential Center, and got an office with three other artists, shared the rent, went inside, and for a year I said, "I will do anything anybody asks me to do for one year.

At the end of the year, we will stop and we will think about the facts about the future and the past and figure out what's going on, make some decisions about what to do in the future." And the first day--this is rather interesting--I just felt like doing a children's book, and the first four days that I was freelancing on my own and not salaried, I did the sketches for The Wing on a Flea. What I did was, I said, "Well, I will do something really nice and arty." This is a nice arty page. There is nothing on it except some little scratchy lines that indicate the marshes like that, a little tiny triangle, a little tiny--so that was easy.

Again, Crow Quill pen, (mimicking sound of pen scratches) hundreds of Crow Quill lines, (mimicking sound of pen scratches) like that and some shapes like that, and it looked good. And it was chosen that particular year by the New York Times. It was a very important, prestigious award. It was one of the ten best illustrated books of the year, it was chosen. So that was the start of it. The thing that was presented to me then is if I work for Little Brown and did a book a year and I made fifty dollars every time a book came out and I started getting royalties at so many pennies a book, I was never going to be able to make a living because not every one of those books was going to sell.

Well, I said, "Well, there is one solution, and that is I will start illustrating other books." I said, "Well, what I will do is I will do a woodcut book. I will do something that's entirely different, absolutely entirely different, so it looks like another artist did it," which makes me happy. So I started to say, "Well, the thing that's the furthest from a pen line, the furthest from this line, is a woodcut." It has a lot of solid blacks and mostly solid blacks with very few thin lines. So at a certain point, I decided what I am going to do is I will make a woodcut.

This is the wooden drawing that I made just to make the inquiry to the publishers. So you can see the chisel marks in there, like that. So you chisel out, you rub ink on the surface, and pull the print off. And when you get through, you get a picture that looks like this. You can see all of the solids. Compared to this, that's quite different. It looked like two different artists did it, but it's the same artist. Now, I had fun doing this. This has a lot of accidentals in it, things, little pieces that stick out like that. This is extremely neat, with no accidentals.

I just loved it to pieces. We have another Paul Bunyan that's a little bit closer to the real Paul Bunyan, that's bigger than I am anyway, and taller. And it was done for--to promote the Paul Bunyan book. Now for some reason or other, I thought it would be a good idea to make a giant woodcut. This would actually be printed. So the drawing was roughed out, as I do with all the woodcut books. Most of the work is done with the knife and with the gouging. You can see here how the knife cuts are here and large pieces of wood are chipped out.

So these are pine. These are 12-inch pine boards that are put together. And poured ink over the surface like this, black ink, then a piece of rice paper, which is a nice transparent paper, like that, and you rub it and you rub the surface, and when you do, you get the print that looks like that. (music playing)

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