Interview with Dennis Nolan
Erin Daly and Daniella Bordonaro visited Dennis Nolan in his studio in Easthampton to admire his beautiful view and talk about illustrating The Perfect Wizard.
Erin: Tell us a little bit about how you came to illustrate The Perfect Wizard.
Dennis:  I’ve worked with Jane on a number of books over the years.  That project came through an editor asking me if I’d do it but I’m sure it was Jane working with that editor saying, “ask Dennis.”  And the idea of working on a book by Jane about Andersen was great because of the connection that I feel Jane has with the book market and the art of the book, working with somebody like Andersen just seemed to fit.  I always like working with Jane.
Erin: How many books have you worked on with Jane Yolen?
Dennis: Dove Isabeau, Wings, Sherwood, This.  So Four. I painted a number of covers for her young adult books and sort of adult crossover books, so I’ve worked with her a bunch.  Besides her being a good friend and seeing each other socially it’s been a great artistic collaboration.
Erin: What did you have from her first? Did you have the full manuscript when you started with this book?
Dennis: Yeah, they sent me the manuscript and right away I liked what she’d done with it, the treatment she’d done with it.  I called her, you know that she-- Jane is a collector of stuff, she’s a collector of stories, a collector of art, and she’s a collector of  books, a collector of  reference material.  So I knew if I was going to find anything on Andersen, I just ought to start with Jane. She had a great deal of material on Andersen, photographs of Andersen, and the buildings that were associated with Andersen: the school house and the houses in town and all that. So I knew that I could go there and then after I saw what Jane had, she loaned me a lot of her material, I called the historical society In Solvang, California.  Having been to Solvang a number of times they are probably the best source of material on Denmark, in the country.  I called the historical society there and they sent me a lot of material as well.
Erin: Did you see photographs of Andersen to get inspired for how to draw him?
Dennis: Yeah a lot of photographs of him.  There are a great many photos of Andersen to work from and the books on him - there is an early biography of him that has a lot of pictures of where he grew up and specific spots.
So after I got the photographs I started piecing together—I worked like I always do, I break it down into what pictures I think will work with the text.  Jane thinks in pictures.
I’m sure she imagined the entire picture book all laid out in front of her.  So, it’s easy to pick illustratable bits out of her story.  I won’t say it’s easy, it’s hard  ‘cause there are way too many so I have to trim it and say, “ Ok, This one.”   Everywhere in there you can find something to work with and his life was great -- his life was… whether it’s the rather exaggerated life he wrote down in his bio or the real one they were both full of good moments to illustrate.  So, I broke that down into what I thought would make an interesting sort of narrative just looking at the pictures and then I went searching for the references to see what I could sort of plug into what I originally thought would make a good narrative. Sometimes concentrating on characters, sometimes concentrating on landscapes, sometimes concentrating on a specific incident that was maybe humorous or one that was really poignant or even kinda tough, so I would have a balance all the way through.
Then I just started sketching.  At that point I sent my rough pencil into the editor.
Then we kick that around for a while.  As I remember my first treatment was considerably changed, he went through and said, “let’s try it this way.” I had a whole different take on it and he had a different idea.   Some editors say that and I don’t’ agree with them at all, but he was good.  I remember going back through there and changing a great deal of it and since there was so much different material to work with,  it was easy to.
Then from there I have to add bits and pieces from the sketches that I’ve got.
In this case because it’s historical, I didn’t have every picture of Andersen in exactly the position that I wanted him.  So, I have stand ins for that and then take Andersen’s features and add them to the pictures so that I can maintain a likeness of an actual character- Andersen, and then still make it an interesting picture based on what I thought the composition ought to be.
Erin Daly: What medium is this book done in?
Dennis Nolan: Originally, a watercolor wash all the background is painted first just a color.  I build up about four or five layers of watercolor just to get the color and texture and then the drawing is drawn on top of the watercolor with colored pencil.
Erin Daly: Do you frequently work in that medium or do you use other mediums also?
Dennis Nolan: It’s almost always watercolor.  Sometimes it’s straight ahead watercolor all the way without much pencil work, just a guide, and sometimes it’s the wash tech with the colored pencil on top. Sometimes I’ll do a fully rendered graphite drawing underneath and do layers of glazing of watercolor on top. Three ways of working… I really don’t know what it depends on when I choose one over the other. Sometimes the full blown watercolor that has more of a realistic say tone than this as which I say kind of stylistic. Sometimes the more full blown work I reserve for complete fantasy so that it’s reaffirming the crystal clarity of a dream—where dreams feel even more real than reality at times the colors are more intense, the objects are solid. And when I’m dealing with something that’s real especially historical I try to put it in a stylistic way so that I have a balance between the artwork offsetting the realism of the story by being stylistic and at the same time the realism of the story offsetting the kind of dreamy quality of the artwork, if that makes any sense.
In this case I wanted the feel of that era with a sort of a photographic tintype old and glass negative sort of feel to it without copying an old photography.  I just wanted the feel of it being set back in time a bit and rather dusty.
Most of his life, the early life and especially the life Jane concentrated on in this story Andersen is not in any way successful, financially, certainly and it was pretty rough going for him. So I wanted the book not to be full of a lot of bright, happy colors because It was not easy for him. It’s a real, a real, Dickens story. He was just a kid with no money in his pocket for a long time.
Daniella Bordonaro: How long does it take you to finish the drawing?
Dennis Nolan: Boy, that’s hard to say, I can almost always calculate it what it’s going to take me when I start the painting.  Because that’s almost a matter of – I don’t want to say it’s this simple or this sort of robotic- but that’s almost a matter of filling up square inches of the paper, I can pretty much calculate how long it’s gonna take. It’s getting up to the point where it’s drawn down on the piece of paper that I can’t calculate at all, I might have to draw that picture ten times before it feels right before the editor and I agree before the art director and I agree before Jane and I agree.
She pretty much stays out of the agreement process, she just likes to see the work
I might change things in there so It’s really difficult to calculate that time when I’m signing a contract and have a due date that’s the worst part of it.  I have no idea how long its gonna be leading up to my painting time this is even going to take I might be stumped.  And life is always in the middle of that, too.
Erin Daly: So you said you’ve done about two books a year?
Dennis Nolan: Yeah, I look back on it.  I wouldn’t have been able to calculate that very accurately except I had to for my tenure process where I’m teaching- I had to go back and look at 20 years worth of work that I’d done and when I did everything and it’s been about 2 books a year but some years there’d be four books then there’d be a year with nothing or where I’m just planning something and it’s sketches and sketches or there are dry periods where there is nothing - -no contracts no calls no nothing or I’ve decided to take time off. So it’s not always every six months there’s a book in but it’s over that long period of time.
I don’t remember how long this book took for me to do, but I could imagine 3 to 4 months on this one.  It was simpler than most because of all the reference that was right there, I didn’t have to invent a lot of characters and find a lot models and clothes and all that for it like if it was a fantasy peopled with a lot of folks. It’s mostly concentrating him and a few scenes and I had all of that information.
Erin Daly: When you have a model, especially for this particular page (see below), do you have the big coat on them the same way?
 Erin: We have the book here, Do you have a favorite page in the final copy?
 Dennis: Let me go through it.  I have some un-favorites but I’m not  going to tell you those. When you look through a book you can remember exactly where you were when you were doing each drawing.  That can be disconcerting…
I like that one a lot and the woman he visits Jane called her a wise woman if your father has died you will meet his ghost. I remember liking drawing that dress.
The Troll was fun. This was, this to me really felt like Andersen sitting with the candle in his room.  This was Jane’s favorite (street scene).  I really like this one (overcoat) And I like that one. These three in a row.  I like that troll – very fun to draw that troll.
Daniella Bordonaro: What about you and Jane do you come here and do your own work and she is kind of in her own part?
Dennis Nolan: She never comes to the studio and leans over and says do this.  I don’t tamper with her biz over there.  And when we see each other socially we see each other socially.  It’s never let’s figure out that book and she really keeps that separate.
Most editors keep authors and illustrators as far away from each other as they can and I’m not even sure that they tell the authors who’s working on their book. In only a couple of cases have I had a relationship with an author or even talked to an author while I’m working on their book. I knew Jane before I worked on any of her books so that came the opposite way it usually does.  Jane’s in such a position that she can suggest people for her books, which is great and when she was editing her own books and choosing people for books herself and commissioning them for covers we worked a lot together.  And that’s good.  I don’t know what it would be like to know all of the authors I’ve worked for. I’ve met many of them later and they’re all great people.  I know it’s been great working with Jane because she knows what she’s doing with all this.  I’ve heard stories of authors getting in the mix with all this and it’s not good. But with Jane it’s always good.
Daniella Bordonaro: What’s it like just the basics of putting a book together- when you do that first illustration to the very end when you drop that last bit of paint or draw that last color what’s it like beginning to end?
Dennis: I think that was my wife leaning over wearing the overcoat and then I attached Andersen’s great nose.  He did have a really great nose.  That was fun. His whole face was fun to paint. There’s a lot going on there. He’s not your average features, big ears and sleepy eyelids and the high forehead and the Victorian collar, that was wonderful.
Dennis Nolan: The excitement of getting a contract reading the manuscript is great then you visualize the whole book, as soon as you visualize the whole book the rest is just work right, I mean just work- wonderful- I like to work so that’s okay but that initial state is so exciting imagining what it’s going to be. And then getting to work on it is so different from what you imagined. Trying to bring it up to that can be difficult and demanding on your feelings of how you’re performing as an artist. They can be rough.  I like the challenge.  Starting out is a hard bit of work. Starting out then gathering reference then sketching it all out, making changes getting all your drawings done and then the painting stage are definitely for me anyway--  three different stages. I feel like a completely different person for each one of those.
When I’m doing research it’s fascinating and it fascinates that part of me the student the investigator. And when I’m sketching it out I at that point I really feel like I’m being inventive and that satisfies the storyteller in me. And the painting part, it’s very technical at that point, just trying to get that down so to go across that I go through those different personalities and then I’m ready to get onto the next one because I’ve kind of done that whole – I’ve done it three times, once in my head, once in pencil and once in paint. And I’m really done with it for then. When I send it off there’s a great feeling of relief.
When it comes back I hardly want to look at it for a long time I put it on the shelf because I know that when it comes back it’s a completely different thing from the paintings that I sent off – the paintings are larger, they are originals, the color is always different just the texture just the very feeling of a book being a physical object that you can only see two pages at a time ever, but I can lay all these paintings out on the table and see the whole book.  It’s a whole different feeling and I like to just put that book away so there’s a lot of time in between so that when I finally go back and say, Okay I can look at this book now.
All the rest of that working on it has gone into the-- into my box upstairs [points to his head] I don’t bring that in with it I don’t want to judge it against the paintings or remember all the stuff, like I said, I can remember everywhere I was when I’m looking at those but, I don’t want to remember the three or four different versions that I had.  I want to remember that [the book].  So I want to experience that new.  I never can, I can never see that book for the first time but putting it away for awhile helps and then I can look at it and enjoy it for what it is just like I said a completely different thing than a bunch of paintings. It’s not.
A book is an art piece all by itself, hopefully, it’s that.  I try to make it that. It is in its entirety is what I mean.  I’m not elevating any of my work to the capital “A” art category I’m just thinking of a  book as being a piece of art from the front to the back you can’t separate it, you can’t say see these two pages, that’s art.  It’s the whole thing. It’s an art experience for a child.  I know Jane feels that way about it. She loves books and all of us who are lucky enough to be in this whole area feel that way.
Books are-- just the physicality of a book is a wonderful thing.
photo by Daniella Bordonaro
photo by Daniella Bordonaro
photo by Daniella Bordonaro
photo by Daniella Bordonaro
photo by Daniella Bordonaro
photo by Daniella Bordonaro
photo by Daniella Bordonaro
photo by Daniella Bordonaro
photo by Daniella Bordonaro