Chantel Acevedo will once again be my kind host at the Auburn Writers Conference in November. She's so generous to other writers, so it is my great pleasure to help her celebrate the release of her latest book, A FALLING STAR. Take it away Chantel!
One of the questions writers are often asked has to do with inspiration, and the places where ideas come from. I thought I’d share with you where the idea for A Falling Star came from.
First, you need to know that it was an idea twenty years in the making. Second, you need to know that A Falling Star is set against the backdrop of the Mariel Boat Crisis of 1980, and the Cuban rafter crisis of 1990—two massive Cuban exoduses ten years apart, with enormous consequences for the island and for South Florida. In the story, Daysy, a 14 year old girl who arrived in Miami as a child as part of the Mariel boatlift, discovers that her parents have been keeping a very tragic secret from her. So, Daysy goes on the hunt for answers to her past.
The story is inspired by the very true Mariel story of my childhood friend, Arlenys Casanova. She was five when she came to the U.S. with her parents as one of over 100,000 Cubans who sought exile on our shores over the course of one spring. Upon disembarking in Key West, she was lost for hours among so many thousands who milled about the docks. Her parents, panicked, inhibited by the language barrier, searched and searched, exhausted by the boat ride, terrified that after everything they’d gone through, they’d come to a new country only to lose their daughter. Arlenys was found, eventually, in the arms of an elderly blind man, who huddled with her in the shade, waiting for someone to come and claim her.
This is a photo of my favorite writing spot, which is in my living room, beside my colorful bookshelves, with my grandparents' engagement photo from Cuba looking on. My grandmother, who is still with us, is a wonderful story, and I feel as if I owe my artistic sensibilities to her.
Arlenys gifted me with this story when we were fifteen, sitting on the sidewalk waiting for another friend to emerge from her house. She told it casually, softly, and I always remembered it.
When I sat down to write a story about the many ways that Cubans have come to the U.S., Arlenys’ story bubbled up in my imagination, and I found myself asking, “What if parents never found her? Or worse, what if she’d been lost at sea?”
Those are the horrifying and gripping questions that novels are born out of, and so Daysy came to be. I will be forever grateful for that afternoon in Miami, when Arlenys told me her story, for her enduring friendship, and for her parents, who had the courage to seek a better life for their little girl and brought one of my dearest friends into my life. Bio: Chantel Acevedo has received many awards for her fiction, including the Latino International Book Award and an Alabama State Council on the Arts Literature Fellowship. A Cuban-American born and raised in Miami, Florida, Acevedo has spent time in Japan and New Zealand as a Fulbrighter, and currently resides in Auburn, Alabama with her family, where she is the Alumni Writer-in-Residence and Coordinator of the Creative Writing Program at Auburn University. Acevedo’s fiction and poetry have appeared inPrairie Schooner, American Poetry Review, North American Review,and Chattahoochee Review, among others. She is the editor of theSouthern Humanities Review, the founder of the annual Auburn Writers Conference, and the author of two additional novels, Love and Ghost Letters (St. Martin’s Press) and A Falling Star(Carolina Wren Press), as well as a novel for young adults, Song of the Red Cloak. A new novel, THE DISTANT MARVELS, is forthcoming from Europa Editions. She holds an MFA from the University of Miami.GIVEAWAY!
Chantel has generously agreed to give an autographed copy of A FALLING STAR to one of my lucky followers. Must live in the US to win - enter below.
Growing up in the '50s, the biggest joy of my life was throwing a ball. True, Easter was bountiful in candy; Christmas was full of toys; birthday parties were fun; and the tooth fairy always paid off, but that perfect pink rubber ball symbolized heavenly slices of childhood, and both of my parents knew it
Our front door looked dented and battle worn from hard rubber projectiles pounding its surface. My father’s ritual nap after work was constantly interrupted by mortar fire. Our ball playing broke windows, tore up the lawn, cheated serious injuies, and created lasting memories.
A month ago, while riding my bike for exercise, I had an unusual daydream that reminded me of how important a rubber ball could be. As I slowly drove through a plaza, my eyes caught an old brick wall with a perfectly drawn stickball batter’s box. Suddenly I imagined the batter’s box screaming at me, “Stop! Get off your bike! Play here! Practice! Fire your best pitch!”
I yelled, “I don’t have a ball!”
The box declared, “Your loss fella, not mine!”
The rest of that day I couldn’t think about anything else, except the most popular sport played during my childhood—baseball, in any form, including stooball and stickball.
As a younster, I had two choices as what to do with my time. I could go outside or I could go outside. Rain? Rainy days didn’t count. They were strange interludes in baseball limbo before we could take the field again. On rainy days, I played ball by seeing how close I could throw the ball up to the ceiling without hitting it until I exhausted my mother’s patience. In the bedroom I could play “All-Star Baseball” with players represented on cardboard disks. But I’d rather be playing ball outside because inside the house I felt like a baseball without a cork core, hallow and bounceless.
When I played stickball near my cousin John’s house, his ballpark was on the side of a factory building. If you blasted the ball on the roof of a distant factory, that was a Mickey Mantle home run. As soon as it was hit, the batter automatically yelled, “Going! Going! Gone!”
A Mickey Mantle home run was a joy to hit, but a small nightmare to retrieve Now we had to climb on the roof to retrieve our rubber Spalding. A collection of galvanized pipes, running from one building to the other, formed a makeshift “ladder.”
It was like climbing a fire escape with half the steps missing. Fortunately, workers never caught us. They were too busy working, and they always missed our death-defying aerobatics. We used every limb to reclaim our twenty-nine cent investment in fun.
There was that one time we used the back of the house as a backstop and my Aunt Frances warned us, “You’re going to break a window!”
We assured her that the ball never goes near the windows. Of course, we were
absolutely right about that. Wanting to hit a home run with my first at-bat, I slashed at the first pitched ball with all my might, and the wooden-broom-handle bat sailed through the kitchen window.
In disbelief Aunt Frances stuck her head through the shattered window and said, “I thought you couldn’t break a window!”
It was obvious that we had to focus on playing ball at my house for a long while.
Fortunately, I did have special parents.
To play stoopball properly, you needed parents who were enlightened enough to realize that it was “okay” in the long run, if their child periodically broke the amber bug light above the door, bent the scallops on it with erratic foul balls, and riddled the bottom of the door like a car crusher. It was “okay” if John and I wouldn’t allow cars to park near the house or across the street in front of the home run trees, while a game was in progress. It was “okay” to redirect traffic and parking on the block. Playing ball ruled.
We needed access to those trees because that’s where the home run balls were headed. The fielder, standing in the middle of the street, he had one chance to make a miracle catch by swiveling around, racing to the trees, and snatching the ball out of mid-air. These miracles occurred with the frequency of Brooklyn Dodger World Series victories; but when they happened, it felt as if we just had won the Golden Glove Award for fielding.
We knew that we were good at something: catching a little pink missile as it scrambled down through the maple leaves or hitting majestic home runs. And we never had any trouble with self-esteem. We didn’t need brown certificates of merit, blue ribbons of achievement or towering silver plated-trophies. We just needed a special moment in the sun and parents who understood the joys of youth.
That pink ball had magic. We just had to unleash it.
Dave Hill graduated from Glasgow School of Art in 1983 and began his career as a painter with exhibitions in Glasgow, Edinburgh, Liverpool and London.
He worked in the video game industry for ten years as a concept artist producing character and environment designs in both 2D and 3D.
As a freelance illustrator Dave’s passion is children’s books although he has also illustrated comic books, storyboards, greeting cards and product packaging.
Dave produces most of his work digitally although he still accepts traditional commissions and paints in oils and watercolour.
The rough sketch.
I begin by preparing a rough sketch in Painter using a custom pencil. I prefer drawing in blue line because its less obtrusive than black or grey.
I create a new layer and begin inking over the blue line rough, tightening up as I go along and working on multiple layers as I draw new areas.
The finished inked drawing is flattened onto one single layer.
Creating a mask in Photoshop to help with colouring.
The inked layer is set to ‘Multiply’ so that all white areas of the drawing become transparent and this is renamed ‘Line’ and placed at the top of the stack in the layers palette. I create new layers beneath the line drawing and block in each area of interest with different colours which will easily let me select and isolate a specific area of the image.
In Painter, I hide the mask layer and create a new blank layer for the colour. I don’t need to be precise at this moment so my brush work can be loose and fluid which is the look I prefer. Painters ‘digital watercolour’ brush variants are terrific at creating that rich dabbled texture of traditional watercolour painting and because I’m laying in washes I need to use large custom brushes to achieve that effect.
The large brushes are difficult to control but it’s ok if the colour bleeds over the line work at this stage.
Edit in Photoshop using the masks.
Once I’ve blocked in the main areas I need to tidy up the edges and to do this I select areas using the mask I made in Step 4. By simply selecting with the magic wand tool I can very quickly balance up the coloured layers and remove any colour that has bled over the lines. I do this in Photoshop because it’s far superior at colour management and much more accurate than Painter at selecting intricate areas.
Back to Painter and on a new layer I start adding the finer details and use my masks to help if needed.
Creating the background.
I usually create my backgrounds as separate files because I like to play around with brush marks and textures. These are pretty experimental exercises and they’re great fun to do but they can result in really big file sizes which is another reason for doing them separately from the main image.
I begin by using washes to build up the sky keeping things simple as I want the figures to stand out heroically. I also want to create the illusion of depth so I keep the sky soft and I add some texture to the ground since it’s in the foreground.
I drop the flattened background into the main image file at the bottom of the layer stack. Some of the sky shows through the figure work because they were painted with semi-transparent washes and I need to rectify this.
Using my coloured masks I simply select and fill the areas with pure white.
This white mask is then positioned between the figure layer and the background layer and the illustration is complete.
Can’t show you all of David Book Covers, because there are too many, but the above cover illustration was created for SPLASH written by Lucy Courtenay and David Hill.
Below are some additional covers to view:
ABOVE AND BELOW: Front and back Book Cover
When did you know you wanted to be an artist?
As far back as I can remember. From a very young age I realized that I attracted attention whenever I drew pictures and this made me feel good.
How did you decide to attend Glasgow School of Art?
The Glasgow School of Art and especially the ‘Mackintosh’ building is famous the world over not only for its architecture but also for its reputation as one of the finest painting schools there is, so the opportunity of actually studying there and painting inside those hallowed walls was such a thrill. I knew I just had to go there to benefit from the expertise of the tutors and staff if I was to be serious about a career as an artist.
What was your favorite class?
What was the first piece of art you did and someone paid you for your work?
The first paid commission was a very long time ago when I was aged 12 or 13 and was a watercolour landscape of the River Clyde in the village where I grew up. I think I got £20 (about $30) for it which at that time seemed like a small fortune.
How did you get involved with doing the art for video games?
By pure chance as it happened! I was in a print bureau in Glasgow having some of my comic book pages and character designs photocopied when the creative director of ‘VIS games’ walked in to get some stuff copied too.
He had nowhere to lay his artwork since mine covered the entire counter space, but instead of being annoyed he started leafing through the illustrations and asking if he could have copies made for a games pitch he was preparing. We struck a deal there and then and that was the start of a brilliant 10 years in the games industry.
Can you tell us a little bit about lanarkshire, where you live now? Is it near London? Is it a strong artist community?
Lanarkshire is a large county comprising several satellite towns on the outskirts of Glasgow, which is roughly 400 miles from London. Coatbridge, the town where I live is formerly a ‘coal town’ but all of the mining and steel industries have gone now, leaving the town much cleaner and greener. There isn’t a strong art scene in the town but Glasgow with its rich history is only 10 minutes away and it has a wealth of artworks dating from the Renaissance to the present day.
How did you get interested in doing illustrating for children?
I always loved including a narrative element in my work and telling stories with pictures led me initially to drawing comic books. I did this for several years before I realized that my real passion was children’s stories. I used to write adventure stories for my children when they were young and adding illustrations to those ideas was the first step in finding my vocation.
Have the materials you use changed over the years?
Yes indeed! I graduated with honours in Fine art so my materials were all traditional painters tools. Charcoal sticks, putty rubbers, sables, oil paint, turps and oily rags. They cost a lot of money too.
Nowadays and for the past 18 years I’ve been working digitally. This was a conscious decision as it suits the nature of the industry where editing artwork can be quite extensive and time consuming. This would be disastrous for ones profit margin in a traditional workflow but is made relatively easy in a digital workflow. I still draw occasionally in pencils and I miss the smell of linseed oil and getting my hands dirty. I don’t miss the expense though and I love the Undo button.
Do you have an artist rep?
I do have a rep. It’s a very open agreement though compared to some agencies, which suits my creative exploration. I keep my own clients and any new work that comes directly to me. I would be interested in forging new relationships with other reps but only if it’s not exclusive and allows me to work with my own clients too.
When did you illustrate your first children’s book? What was the title of that book?
My first book was ‘Speak Along French’ by Isabelle Bennett for Mantra Lingua Publishers in 2005.
How did that job come your way?
The art editor saw my website which had gone ‘live’ just two weeks before. I couldn’t believe my luck.
How many children’s books have you illustrated?
How did you get the contract with HarperCollins to illustrate SPLASH?
Through my artist rep. I love that book. It was a real joy to draw and I had so much fun with the changing weather.
Was that the first contract to illustrate a picture book for a US publisher?
No. It was done for Harper Collins London.
‘What happened to Merry Christmas’ for Concordia was my first U.S. contract published in 2006.
Have you thought about writing and illustrating your own books?
All the time! I have loads of ideas and character designs but no time to pursue their development. I’m always too busy illustrating for everyone else which is a nice complaint I suppose.
Are you open to illustrating self-published books for other children writers?
Yes. I work a lot with self-publishing authors and have done many books like this. I’m working on two right now both of which are for American authors.
Have you done any work for educational publishers or children’s magazines?
Yes. I do a great deal of educational illustration. I’ve only done the odd job for magazines though.
What type of things do you do to find more illustration work?
I don’t really have to look for work anymore. I’m very fortunate in that I have built up a respectable client base and they return to me or if it’s a new client they’ll come directly to me through my website. If I did have a quiet spell I guess I’d prepare a digital portfolio and send it out to as many publishers as possible.
Do you ever use paint as a medium or is it all digital?
It’s all digital.
When did you start working digitally?
In 1996 when I started working as a concept artist in the video games industry.
Do you use Photoshop with your illustrations?
Yes. Photoshop is priceless in my workflow because of its stability and efficiency at handling and processing extremely large files. I use it at every stage of my process and flit between it and Painter constantly, using each programmes strengths to maximum effect. Final stages of an illustration like compositing and colour balancing are always done in Photoshop.
Do you use other software programs when you illustrate? If so, which ones?
Most of my colouring is done in Corel Painter which beats photoshop hands down when creating an organic looking illustration. Painters brush engine is fabulous. It feels so natural and you can create digital artwork that looks just like it was made using traditional media.
I use Adobe In Design for creating dummy books to help me get a better idea of the flow and pacing of the story. I build the page layouts, drop in the script and then import my rough sketches to give a clear view of how the final book will look and feel.
I also use Adobe illustrator when scale able artwork is required or if the client is looking specifically for a more graphic approach.
Do you use a graphic tablet to draw your illustrations?
Yes. I use a Wacom intuos 3
Do you spend a specific amount of time working on your own illustrations?
Unfortunately I can’t seem to find the time to do my own illustrations.
What is your biggest success story? The thing you are most proud of doing?
Making a living as an artist is probably the biggest success story for me but the work I’m most proud of doing is probably an illustration titled ‘Dancing Mouse’. It was done as a self-promotional piece way back at the start of my career and shows my daughter Amy watching in amazement at a little mouse doing a handstand.
The amount of work this one image alone has generated is quite staggering, so for that reason it’s my most successful piece.
Do you still exhibit your art?
Not in the conventional sense, but I subscribe to a couple of online galleries who host my work.
Do you take pictures or do any other type of research before you start a project?
I take photographs of everything and anything and also buy licensed pics from image banks whenever specific references are needed. I do quite a bit of historical illustration where attention to factual detail is of paramount importance so having good reference is essential.
Do you think the Internet has opened doors for you?
Absolutely. The world is your market place and getting a website to show my work has been the biggest factor in my success. Most of my clients are British or American but I also have clients in Ireland, Israel, Egypt, Germany, and South Africa. Being able to transfer digital files electronically has made things so much faster, safer, cheaper and easier.
Do you think your style has changed over the years? Have your materials changed?
My style changes to suit the demographic of each particular job. As a professional illustrator I think it’s beneficial if you can adapt your style to encompass a variety of situations and not limit yourself to a single area of the market. One day I’ll be drawing realistically for 7th graders with perhaps close attention to historical detail, the next I’ll be drawing for 4 year olds completely from my imagination.
Do you have any career dreams that you want to fulfill?
Yes. To one day have my own story books published. Oh how I would love that!
What are you working on now?
I’m doing 3 book covers for different authors, a picture dictionary for Egyptian/English Schools, some black and white spots for a poetry book, an isometric map of a fictional American town and two 24 page picture books for independent self-publishing authors.
Do you have any art type tips (digital or traditional) you can share with us?
I work digitally so my tips relate to that process.
Mask! Mask! And Mask! I can’t stress how important it is to produce accurate masks before you start to colour digitally. If done properly your production time will be drastically reduced and your work load will be so much more streamlined and made much more manageable due to the control you’ll have over isolating, editing and finishing.
Decide on a file naming convention at the start of your project and stick to it. Save regularly with Sequential numbering to keep your files organized and easy to find. On average I have about 15 variations of each illustration saved throughout the production process.
Any words of wisdom on how to become a successful writer or illustrator?
Dedication. I work on average 14 hours a day but it’s worth it to be doing something I love.
Build up a reliable reputation by always meeting your deadlines and your clients will come back time and time again.
Draw everything you see that interests you and take a sketch book and camera with you always.
Get your own website or rent space on one of the many host sites out there. You need as much exposure as possible and the web is a window to the world.
Thank you David for taking the time to share your process and journey with us. We look forward to hearing about all your future successes.
To see more of David’s illustrations visit him at:
Please take a minute to leave a comment for Annie, I know she would love to heard from you and I always appreciate it. Thanks!
Filed under: authors and illustrators
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Tagged: David Hill
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