As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up? There was a short time in my childhood when I wanted to be a forester. On many Sunday mornings my father and I would go for walks in the forest. This was in Germany and occasionally we’d pass a forester’s house. It was nestled in the woods, surrounded by a large flower and vegetable garden, and enclosed by a picket fence. ‘Wouldn’t it be nice to be a forester,’ suggested my father, ‘and live in such a beautiful place?’ He then went on to tell me about the deer, foxes, rabbits, and owls that would come up to the house. My imagination began to spin and for a while I wanted to become a forester and live in this remote fairyland. But soon I went back to my first love: drawing pictures.
Who influenced you to become interested in art? My father, who drew rather well, wanted to become an artist. But his father, a state employee (customs official), would not have a ‘starving artist’ in his family. So my father became a municipal clerk. However, he never lost his interest in and love for drawing and often drew pictures for me, mostly of animals. Miss Frickey, my first grade teacher in Syracuse, NY, discovered my love for drawing that, undoubtedly, had been passed on to me by my father. In an arranged meeting, Miss Frickey pointed out to my mother that her son was talented and that she should nurture that talent. Herr Krauss, my art teacher in gymnasium (German high school) early discovered my love for drawing and painting. With great care and deliberation he set out to cultivate my artistic development. He showed me the works done by the German Expressionists and the Abstract Artists. Professor Schneidler, at the Akademie der Bildenden Künste, with whom I studied design from age 16 to 20. These 4 years were the most inspiring and exciting years of my artistic schooling. At the Akademie, I also met and related to my fellow students from various backgrounds. My artistic, spiritual and cultural horizons expanded. Schneidler’s message was, in short: as designers, we should shape in a responsible, noble and tasteful way all the things that confront us visually—the illustrations for a book, the color scheme for a shopping center, the shape of a coffee cup, the design of a poster, or the form of a typeface, for example.
When did you decide to start writing and illustrating books? My career began as a graphic designer. Later I was an art director for an advertising agency. In the mid 1960’s Bill Martin Jr saw an ad of a red lobster that I had designed and asked me to illustrate ‘Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?’ What an inspiring book! Now the large sheets of paper, the colorful paints and fat brushes of my earlier school came to my mind. I was set on fire! It was possible, after all, to do something special that would show a child the joy to be found in books. This opportunity changed my life. I found that illustrating alone was not entirely satisfying and wanted to try writing as well. I began to make rough books of my ideas and stored them in a small cardboard box. When I illustrated an historical cookbook, the editor heard about my box of ideas and asked to see them. I submitted ‘1, 2, 3 to the Zoo’. Then I showed her a story about a worm who ate holes through the pages. Ann Beneduce, my editor, wasn’t so sure about the appeal of worm. ‘Maybe another creature would be better. How about a caterpillar?’ Ann asked. ‘Butterfly!’ I exclaimed. That is how ‘The Very Hungry Caterpillar’ was born. Almost without trying, I had become an author and illustrator of books for children.
Who are your favourite artists? Among my favorite artists are Paul Klee (1879-1940), with his colorful, dreamlike paintings; and Pieter Brueghel (1525-1569), who painted peasants and landscapes of central Europe that remind me of where I grew up in Germany.
Where do your ideas come from? They come from parents, teachers, feelings, surroundings, experiences, dreams, likes and dislikes, things you’ve seen and heard, even your wishes… all these somehow add up to a story.
What inspires you to write about and illustrate small creatures? When I was a small boy, my father would take me on walks across meadows and through woods. He would lift a stone or peel back the bark of a tree and show me the living things that scurried about. He’d tell me about the life cycles of this or that small creature and then he would carefully put the little creature back into its home. I think in my books I honor my father by writing about small living things. And in a way I recapture those happy times.
How do you make your pictures? My pictures are collages. Artists like Picasso and Matisse and Leo Lionni and Ezra Jack Keats made collages. I begin with plain tissue paper and paint it with different colors, using acrylics. Sometimes I paint with a wide brush, sometimes with a narrow brush. Sometimes my strokes are straight, and sometimes they’re wavy. Sometimes I paint with my fingers. Or I paint on a piece of carpet, sponge, or burlap and then use that like a stamp on my tissue papers to create different textures. These papers are my palette and after they have dried I store them in color-coded drawers. Let’s say I want to create a caterpillar: I cut out a circle for the head from a red tissue paper and many ovals for the body from green tissue papers; and then I paste them with wallpaper glue onto an illustration board to make the picture.
Do you use computers in your work? Computers are used in the production, but not in the creation of my books. Until recently, I assembled my collage pictures on art board. On an overlay sheet, I would specify the type face and size and how it would be placed on the page. I would send this to my publisher. Then the typographers would set the type and printers print the book. But now I have a big computer in my studio and when I am ready to do the final design for the book, I sit at the computer with Motoko, my assistant. First we lay out the pages to combine the pictures and the text. Then I choose the type face for the text. When we are through, the whole book—the jacket, end sheet, title page, pictures and story — is transferred onto a disc, and it goes to the publisher and then to the printer. Working with the computer has made me aware of other possibilities for its use. For instance, we’re considering scanning and storing all my painted tissue papers into the computer. It would then be possible for me to cut and assemble a collage on the computer screen. The mouse would becomes the scissors and the glue. If I were to illustrate a bird, for example, I could pick out the No. 33 green for the bird’s wings and use the mouse to “cut” it out and “paste” it down. And then I might choose the No. 30 red for the beak and do the same thing until the bird is finished. I’m still old fashioned and computers may be foreign for me, but I am intrigued. It’s my next ‘terra incognita,’ my unexplored territory. Ask me again in a of couple years.
Do you have any hobbies? I would have to say my work is my hobby. And my hobby is my work. Even when I’m not working in my studio, I might be thinking about future books. I will probably never retire from creating books.
What is something that most people might be surprised to know about you? I was born in Syracuse, New York and I spoke English until I was 6. But then I moved to Germany with my parents who had been born there. I quickly learned German and forgot most of my English. I learned English again in high school and came back to the United States when I was 22, so I know two languages. Interesting things happen when you know two languages. Occasionally a German word for something will pop into my head and I won’t be able to think of the English word for it. And sometimes it works the other way around. Probably because I’ve been speaking English exclusively for more than 45 years, I think and dream in English and now it is perhaps better than my German. When I visit Germany, I need to refresh my German, I do that by watching and listening to German television for a few hours and then I’m okay again.