Creative Inspirations: Ed Emberley, Children's Book Illustrator

with Ed Emberley
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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

- Not everybody has to be an artist. The big thing is feeling good about yourself. That's more important that the art part. (bright music) I've 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've made a little red bird, you make a half circle for the body, a triangle at one end, a circle at the other end, another triangle for the beak sticking out front, 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's 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're girls or boys, whether they're grown up or small.

My duty is to present me out to the other mes in the world, and that's what I do. 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 100 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 childhood? Perhaps. Mostly it's a visceral, the inside reaction when I look through the children's books that I just listen to this voice, and the voice said, I'd 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, that I think 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.

(bright melodic music) Welcome to Ipswich, 45 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 10 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 kind of is a good metaphor for our life which is 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 were all pegged and put together. There are large beams like this and you can take them all apart like a little toy, like Lincoln Logs or Lego. In the early 1700s, this house was an antique. If George Washington had come to this house, with the Battle of Bunker Hill, this would already have been an antique. So this is an old house. (bright melodic music) This is the art studio.

This is where I do all the artwork by hand, see all the markers standing around and 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 this is a Big Orange Drawing Book so inside are all the Orange Drawing Book things. So what I have to do is, if I'm 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 faces right there, well they are the pumpkins, the orange things that you see in the top will go like this and go up and be pumpkins like that.

They call these overlays. So it's a 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. When the book is out, the final printed book. This is Michael's, the original room has been converted into a computer work room. And some of the work that we've been working on with Rebecca, which is where a lot of the work from Rebecca's done.

This wall is used to layout a whole book. The sides of these are pieces of wire and they're 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 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 haven't been keeping books over the years.

There are drawing books in here. There are books done with woodcuts. There are picture books in here. There are flip books in here. There's a The Wing on a Flea, which is the first book. There are books that have been done 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 how to, that shows people how to draw things using their thumbprints and the word ivy lou. So there are 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's very successful.

Used a lot in classrooms. There's also books that were done specifically with what the computer's able to do. Which is the computer's able to make ovals and circles and rectangles and triangles. And 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'd be able to get some action out of it. The total number of picture books I've done are about 100, 100 titles and more, I hope, in the future.

(bright melodic music) 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 art school.

My parents said yes, that's a great idea. We can't afford it, he says, you can afford this art school. It's a very good art school, it's the Massachusetts College of Art. They'll charge you $100 a year, you can pay $50 in the fall another $50 at Christmastime. In art 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'd be good at is digging ditches for the engineers. So, I was a ditch digger, I used to dig targets. So they thought, BFA would be terrific for that.

Luckily, some time around halfway through they discovered I could paint signs. I could actually twirl a brush and paint a sign. So I became a sign painter. Get out of the army when to Rhode Island School of Design, so you had to take something new. So what I took was a course in advertising design. So I had to chance to work with type for a year. So the first time I was handling blocks of color, I was thinking about type, type sizes, type faces. Got 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 a paste-up artist, that is an artist who pastes type down.

So I brought my portfolio from art school, which happened to have a lot of silly cartoons in it. They said, well we want someone to order type and glue it down and you know. They said well, you do these drawing too? I said, yeah, oh, okay. Then we're gonna 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, you know, because I enjoyed doing it.

A year and a half later, I had published for them, for this company, two of these books, they're 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 do today on the computer, but this is an actual paper thing. 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 used the techniques that were 100 years old some of them 200, 300 years old and had no new materials whatsoever.

Certainly no computers, but not even a felt-tip marker, in fact, I still remember somebody coming in to school with a felt-tip marker, it was only $100 and the felt went in one end and they mixed color and put it in the other end. And they said, this is the latest thing. This is fine artist right pen, so. This one was done with, which is interesting, is a good example of it here. You can see the think and thin of the brush, learning to take the brush and go down and make them thick and thinner at just the right time. And then a few lines with the pen, but mostly with a brush, with a brush was done like that, that you get used to doing this.

But of course, the Crow Quill pen had the same problem. Crow Quill pen is very, very fine. It's finer than any pen point you've seen on a fountain pen, or anything like that. 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 $50 checks at the end of the week I started looking for freelance work by mail.

I 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 started, I was working nights and working weekends, so I went to Boston. Those people that know about Boston, down near Prudential Center and got an office with three other artists, you know, shared the rent. Went inside and for a year I said I'll 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 with the future.

And the first day, this is rather interesting, was I just felt like doing a children's book, and the first four days that I was freelancing on my own and salaried, I did the sketches for The Wing on a Flea. What I did was, I said well, I'll do something really nice and arty. That's a nice arty page, there's nothing on it expect these little scratchy lines that indicate the marshes like that. A little tiny triangle, little tiny. So that was easy. Again, Crow Quill pen. (ticking) Hundreds of Crow Quill lines.

(ticking) like that, some shapes like that. And that looked good, and it got-- It was chosen that particular year by the New York Times, a very important prestigious award. It was one of the 10 best illustrator 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 $50 every time a book came out, and I'd start getting royalties at you know, so many pennies a book. I was never going to be able to make a living, because not every one of those books in going to sell.

I said, well there's one solution and that is, I'll start illustrating other books. I said, well, what I'll do is, I'll do a woodcut book. I'll do something that's entirely different, absolutely entirely different. And so it looks like another artist did it, which makes me happy and so I got, I started to say, well, the thing that's the furthest from a pen line, the furthest from this line is a woodcut. That has a lot of solid blacks and mostly solid blacks. There's very few thin lines. So at a certain point, I decided, what I'm gonna do is, I'll 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 up. And we you get through, you get a picture that looks like this. You can see all the solids. Compared to this it's quite different. It looks 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 and 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, it's bigger than I am, anyway, and taller.

And it was done 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. And so the drawing was roughed out as I do with all the woodcut books, most of the work is done with a knife and with the gouging. You can see here how the knife cuts are here and large pieces are chipped out. So these are pine, these are 12-inch pine boards that are put together. And powdered raw zinc over the surface like this, black ink and 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 a print that looks like that.

(bright melodic music)

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