Friday, February 20, 2009

Marcellus Hall • Interview Adventure Series • 2

Marcellus Hall is an illustrator based in New York. He was born on the great plains of the midwest and spent languid summer hours as a youth at the fishing hole or playing video games. His clients have included the New Yorker, the Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic Monthly, and Time, among others. His work has appeared in American Illustration, Communication Arts, and the Society of Illustrators annuals. His first cover for the New Yorker was published in 2005. In addition to illustrating the books White Pigeons and 57 Octaves (, Hall has self-published books of drawings and writing including "Hard Luck Stories" and "Legends of the Infinite City" (a collection of black & white drawings of New York City). Hall has illustrated for ABRAMS a children’s book entitled Because You Are My Baby (2008) and CITY I LOVE
(Spring 2009).

As a musician Hall has made recordings with bands Railroad Jerk, White Hassle and has toured the U.S., Europe, and Japan. Hall continues to make music under his own name.

CW: Where are you from, Marcellus?

MH: I am from Minneapolis, Minnesota
(although I no longer speak like I am).

CW: What is your educational background?
What courses or training might
helpful in beginning a career in illustration?

MH: I exhibited a strong interested in drawing at an early age. My parents recognized this and encouraged me. I took summer art classes and had good teachers in the Minneapolis public schools. I made drawings for the yearbook, the school newspaper, and countless school functions. All of this was helpful to me in my evolution as an illustrator.

After high school I spent two years at St. John’s University in Minnesota and then transferred to Rhode Island School of Design (RISD).

I developed a love for literature while growing up too which has served to ground me and instill in me an appreciation for the narrative as well as an understanding of human nature.

CW: How did you like RISD? Do think it prepared
you for where you are today?

MH: I liked RISD. Alongside the usual drawing and painting regimen, I benefited from classes in performance art, printmaking, and sculpture. I also met musicians at RISD and I broadened my philosophy of art. I began learning guitar and harmonica. I learned the most from other students while at RISD

CW: How did you develop your current art style?

MH: I wanted to have my style develop naturally and not self consciously. My method was to carry a pocket sketchbook and draw everything around me constantly.

CW: A perfect approach.
An illustrator shoul
dn't have to force or create a style.
If you are, most likely it won't be easy or
rewarding. Its should just come naturally.

CW: After you graduated, what was it like for an illustrator?
What was it like for you?

MH: When I arrived in New York after graduation, I was determined (despite a simultaneous goal to start a rock band) to give illustration my best shot and I decided that, if I failed, I could at least say “I tried.” I scoured magazines at newsstands for addresses and sent photocopied mailers to art directors. On my days off as a part-time bookstore or art supply store clerk, I dropped off my portfolio at magazines.

I produced a comic strip for three years for a short-lived alternative free newspaper. And I made small photocopied booklets of my drawings (and writings).

My first illustration job was for Screw magazine. Later I was hired on a regular basis by Mike Gentile at the fledgling New York Press.

CW: What are some of your favorite books for children?

MH: My favorites include Curious George, Babar, Stuart Little, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Ferdinand, The Little Prince, Sasek’s cities series, and books by Robert McCloskey, Theodor Geisel and Syd Hoff.

CW: Who are your artistic influences?

Bill Elder, Jack Davis, Harvey Kurtzman, George Grosz, Franz Masereel, Ben Shahn, Rockwell Kent, Paul Klee, Arnold Roth, Ralph Steadman, Saul Steinberg, Ronald Searle, John Sloan, Ernst Kirchner, Erich Heckel, Emil Nolde, Sue Coe, George Luks, Edward Hopper, Thomas Hart Benton, Robert Crumb, Basil Wolverton, Mort Drucker, Aubrey Beardsley, Marc Chagall, Hiroshige, Henri Toulouse Latrec, Heinrich Zille, Hansi, Raymond Pettibon, Al Hirschfeld, Charles Demuth, and Pieter Breughel.

CW: You have done work with New Yorker, the Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic Monthly, and Time, among others. As musician you have made recordings with bands Railroad Jerk, White Hassle as well as solo have toured the U.S., Europe, and Japan. What drew you to children's book illustration? How did your first book come to be published?

MH: After years drawing for magazines and newspapers, I had an itch to work in a field where the printed piece isn’t thrown away. The children’s book field was the obvious place to look. I asked my illustrator friends for contacts and John Hendrix pointed me in your direction.

CW: I had worked with John for a couple of years at that point. He sent me an email suggesting I take a look at your work. I had already known your work from New Yorker covers. I asked you to come into the office, after seeing your work online. But really it was one image of a garbage man that completely sold me on you.

CW: CITY I LOVE is your second children's book project we have worked together on.( The first being
Because You Are My Baby
!) Can you describe your creative process? And how you approached the challenges of this particular book?

MH: My favorite part of the illustration process is making sketches. Here I can be the most free and loose. But the thrill of executing well a final piece of art is no less rewarding. With City I Love I was particularly excited because I am naturally drawn to urban life and its variety.

I began sketching compositions that I felt were dynamic and fun to draw. simultaneously I incorporated city landmarks. Later I sought more specific reference material from the New York Public Library picture collection.

I created a character (a dog) to establish continuity in the book (which is a collection of poems).

Once the sketches were approved, I began work on the final art. Using graphite transfer paper I redrew the compositions onto Arches 140 lb cold pressed watercolor blocks. Then I painted the line work with a brush and brown waterproof “Calli” ink. Finally watercolor washes were applied (Winsor Newton) and “touch ups” were made digitally or with opaque acrylics.

CW: What is it like to work with an Art Director?

MH: When I was younger and less experienced, I resented the role of an art director. I have since learned to value a good negotiator between the artist and editor. There are good art directors and bad art directors. A good one makes you feel trusted and gives you freedom. Eventually an art director can be a collaborator. A bad art director causes you to second guess yourself.

CW: It's good to see that I made a such a good impression on you . . . just kidding.

CW: During the making of CITY I LOVE, what was (were) some
of the oddest requests or changes you where as asked to make

MH: Without question, the oddest request made during the making of City I Love was that I not depict a hot dog vendor so near to the U.S. capitol. The reason given was that it was implausible considering current national security measures. I inquired subsequently whether it was plausible to depict a dog on his hind legs with a backpack, but I was not given an answer.

CW: What frustrates you about your own work and
how do you go about changing or adapting to you
r frustrations.

MH: I struggle with color. It is not easy for me to envision a finished colored piece beforehand so my painting process is like groping in the dark. Sometimes the result is a failure that must be thrown away. That said, however, this highwire act (painting without a net) can at times yield a better piece than one that is more carefully planned.

One solution for me with regard to color has been to establish a base color (eg. sometimes yellow) that can unify all the watercolors that come after it.

I have never warmed to the technique of coloring digitally. Although I do make corrections digitally.

CW: What did you find to be the toughest and most
rewarding aspects of your
work on CITY I LOVE?

MH: The toughest part in making City I Love was to create a natural flow. The text is made up of disparate poems about a city and I was asked to assign various international cities to the poems. At times it was like putting square pegs into round holes. Establishing recurring characters and a consistent style was an attempt to achieve continuity.

CW: Your watercolors have been called
"cosmopolitan", a little French with a splash of
nostalgia, "vintage" what do you think or (of)
your work and hope the
viewer takes away from your work?

MH: I hope that people come away from it thinking that it is rural, futuristic, and a little Japanese . . .

Hmm, I have a high regard for my work. But not too high. But not too low either. It is right about where it should be. I am not too egotistical . . . and yet I am not too self deprecating either. I have a healthy relationship with my work. There is sort of a give and take. Not too much give... and not too much take. I don’t think my work is
better than everyone else’s. Nor is it worse. I am just average, I guess. Moderation is best taken in moderation . . .

I hope people enjoy my work... and I hope they think of it as being a little French. But not too French. Maybe a little German for balance.

Or Thai.

You’ll notice that, of the 33 artists I listed as influences, only two
are French.

CW: What is next for you in books as well as in your music career?

MH: Do you mean besides winning the Caldecott and outselling Coldplay?

I am currently writing children’s stories of my own and have finished recording a solo album that I plan to distribute and promote.

I also aim to publish a collection of semi-narrative graphic vignettes that I call graphic poetry. A
visual “Leaves of Grass,” if you will.

I am starting a blog at the moment called “Kaleidoscope City” on which I will post my efforts in this, as well as my many street sketches (which may one day also become a book).
I am also finishing up the sequel to Because You Are My Baby! called Because I Am Your Daddy! The first book followed a Mom and her baby boy this one is the opposite of the first book, following a Dad and his daughter. This will be coming out in Spring 2010.

CW: My last question is a simple one, what city do you love?

MH: It rhymes with ‘blue stork.’

MUSIC by Marcellus

Lee Bennett Hopkins, Marcellus Hall (Illustrator)
Abrams Young Readers
full color illus. Throughout, 32 pages, 8.5 x 10.5
Hardcover with jacket
ISBN: 0-8109-8327-3
EAN: 9780810983274
US $16.95
Availability: Preorder (available in March 2009)

Also illustrated by Marcellus Hall

Interview Adventure Series • 3 •
Starring John Hendrix author of JOHN BROWN

7 comments: said...

this was an awesome interview, and marcellus hall's work is so classic. (and french!) ;) it's really enchanting! i think it's funny he mentions his struggle with color, because the beauty of his palette is what i was drawn to! bravo!

Chad W. Beckerman said...

Thanks. I can't wait to interview you as well. Just have to finish the book first. :)

James Preller said...

Nicely done, smart and entertaining. Thanks.

James Preller

tess said...

I guess I stuck my neck out with that "little French" comment but I could have sworn that the little hound had a baguette in his bag and was humming a song for accordion accompaniment, something by Yann Tiersen?

Chad W. Beckerman said...

Tess, I loved the french comment that is why I included it. Thanks for the great review!


Brien Hall said...

Any chance at a reprise of "Bud Man" on a basement wall? Glad you're doing well cuz.. if i ever get around to finishing a book ill have to hire you to illistrate it:)

Anonymous said...

i have been following this blog for some time now, good job by the way