Friday, May 20, 2011

Bill Thomson Illustrator Interview!

ChalkLast year, as my family planned to go to my parents' house to celebrate Thanksgiving, I chose Bill Thomson's Chalk as one of the books to bring with to read to my older son before bedtime.  I had just picked it up from the library after hearing so much about it on Twitter.  You can see my review of Chalk here.  That weekend we fell in love with the book and Thomson's artwork.  It is amazing.  I thought maybe it was digitally created and then modified to look like it was hand-drawn...but no, that is all the skill of Bill Thomson!
I am thrilled to be share even more than the book with you now.  I had the pleasure of interviewing Bill, who I found out is a Chicago Bears fan just like me!
TMT:  On your blog, you talk about reading comic books and drawing your own comics.  What drew you to comic books?  Was it the books themselves (artwork/story) or did someone influence you to read them?
Bill Thomson: Coincidentally enough, it all started with the Chicago Bears. In the fall of 1970 while visiting my uncle in Atlanta, I saw a pro football game between the Chicago Bears and the Atlanta Falcons. The cover of the game program featured a bunch of Marvel Comics superheroes for an article called “Beware the Linebacker”. The article compared football players of that time to comic characters, and one of my favorite players, Dick Butkus, was depicted as the Hulk. It was the first time that I had ever seen the Hulk, and after seeing his comparison to Butkus, I loved him. When we got home from the game, I repeatedly tried to copy the Hulk illustration, failing miserably at every attempt. The artist, John Buscema, was way beyond my 7-year-old capabilities. My mother, who is pretty talented, tried her hand at it and did an AMAZING job! 

A few months later, I was home sick from school with a cold. My mother went out to get me some medicine, and remembering the Hulk drawing, she also bought me an Incredible HULK comic book. That comic made me feel much better than the medicine did and began my childhood obsession with comic books. I was initially mesmerized by the Hulk, but later became even more fascinated with the drawings and visual storytelling contained in comics. The comic books credited the artists who created them, so I became a big fan of particular artists and repeatedly tried to copy their drawings. Although I could never draw as well as them, I never stopped trying and continually improved. Eventually, I would invent my own comic characters and stories.

(Many years later, I tracked down the original artwork from both the NFL program and the cover of my first Hulk comic (Hulk #139), and both drawings are now hanging on the walls of my studio. It is pretty cool having the actual drawings that were at the core of my artistic career hanging in front of me while I’m working everyday.)
Here are links to each original drawing:

TMT: How cool that you seemed drawn to art since you were very young.  I remember loving to grab the Archie comics in the grocery store checkout lane but I liked reading about the characters and their crushes!  What comic books or books from your childhood do you distinctly remember reading?  Did any of them influence your artwork?

Bill Thomson: My favorites were the superhero comics, especially the Hulk, Spider-man, the Fantastic Four and Captain America. However, more than the characters, I was following the artists that created them. I would buy anything that particular artists did whether it was a superhero, horror, western or war comic. My favorite artist was Sal Buscema. I also loved the work of Sal’s brother John Buscema, John Romita, Gil Kane, Herb Trimpe, Neal Adams, Jim Aparo, Gene Colan, Jack Kirby and many others. I saw how each artist had their own style and way of storytelling. They essentially functioned as movie directors showing scenes from various points of view to make the stories more engaging and dramatic. Their drawings also taught me a lot about anatomy, perspective and foreshortening.

(When I was in high school, I worked stocking shelves at a supermarket. I was friendly with the butcher and one day I noticed the last name on his time card was “Aparo”- an uncommon last name that also belonged to a comic artist. When I later asked him if he was related to anyone named Jim Aparo, he replied, “My brother, Jimmy? He draws Batman and lives in town. Do you want to meet him?” I couldn’t believe that one of my artistic heroes lived right in my town! I later went to Mr. Aparo’s house and he showed me his creative process and critiqued my drawings. He was a very kind and generous man, and while I didn’t want to be a nuisance, I visited him a couple of times. He was the first professional artist that I ever met, and for the first time, I began thinking that I could possibly pursue a career in art too. Around that same time, I began doing editorial cartoons for a local newspaper. The editor was looking for a cartoonist and his daughter was in my class and told him about me. By the time I graduated high school, I had been published well over fifty times, but more importantly, was then certain that I wanted to be an artist.)

My children’s book illustrations reflect the lessons that comic book artists ingrained in me throughout my childhood. Although I work realistically, I try to incorporate dynamic perspectives to make the images more engaging so readers feel like part of the scene. I also try to make each page a completely different visual experience, constantly varying the vantage point and scale of subjects, while continuing to advance the story. Much of what I do in terms of storytelling and composition has its roots in comics. I found these things interesting when I was young; so I hope this generation of readers will too.

TMT: Can you talk about your workspace where you do your artwork?  Do you work during a specific time of day or have any kind of routine when it comes to doing your work?

Bill Thomson: My studio is in the lower level of my house. Because I work so realistically, it takes me a long time to paint all the meticulous little details. Each illustration takes around 100 hours to complete, and depending on the number of pages, an entire book takes a year to a year and half to complete. When I have a deadline, I keep pretty crazy hours and am usually working 7 days a week. I’ll work during the day when the kids aren’t home and often through much of the night when they are asleep. My prime time begins at 9pm when the kids are going to bed and interruptions are at a minimum. On days that I teach, I work for around 4 hours when I get home. My secret is Diet Coke- it is a great aid to sleep deprivation.

(Here is a link to my creative process: )

TMT: Meticulous seems perfect to describe your artwork, I can't even imagine all the detail that goes into producing such amazing work!  Lately, there has been an emphasis on encouraging boys to read.  As a father of three sons, what did you/do you do to encourage them to be readers?

Bill Thomson: My wife and I have always read with our sons before bed. In addition to being a wonderful source of learning and entertainment, I think that books also provide one of the best bonding experiences for parents and their children. Whether we read to them or they later read to us, books provide us with the chance to experience a story together, while also fostering casual discussions (about the book or anything else). Another thing that I have always done is telling impromptu stories to my boys. I tell them a story in exchange for them telling me a story. These complete flights of fancy, shared on a car ride or at the kitchen table, would stimulate their imaginations and encourage them to think. Both reading and storytelling involve participation exercising the mind- much better activities than being mindlessly dictated to by a television or video game. Unfortunately, it gets harder as they get older (my two older sons are now teens), but I like to think that we have ingrained something in them.

TMT: I completely agree that sharing books with kids is as much as giving them that bonding experience as it is about giving them the experience of reading the book!  Your book, Chalk, is a wordless picture book.  Did you ever think about writing the text with the book or did you know you wanted to tell the story solely with the artwork.

Bill Thomson: In addition to CHALK, I have also illustrated Karate Hour, Building With Dad, Baseball Hour and the recently released Soccer Hour. Each of these other books was written by Carol Nevius and published by Marshall Cavendish. Whether a picture book has text or not, I think the pictures should still generally tell the story. Without text though, the illustrations must be especially clear and informative. I absolutely love to tell a story and bring an idea to life through my paintings… I’m like a modern day caveman in that respect.

Regarding CHALK
, it actually was originally going to include minimal text. The first and last pages of the story were going to read, “Saturday was a rainy day” and “Sometimes rainy days are nice”. After seeing the finished art, my editor (Margery Cuyler) suggested making it completely wordless. I embraced that idea since the book was always about the pictures anyways- with a few simple words or none at all, the book would function the same. My bigger goal for the book was to create something with possible educational value that could be used as a confidence builder for beginning/reluctant readers, as a writing prompt for more advanced students or as a possible launching point for artistic activities. I love how the wordless format allows readers to participate and become involved in the story in a variety of ways.

TMT: If I had a piece of magical chalk, there are lots of things I would (try to) draw!  Maybe floor-to-ceiling bookshelves full of my favorite books, my time-stop/teleportation button I would love to have, or a Starbucks barista right in my kitchen...if you had a piece of magical chalk, what would you draw and bring to life?

Bill Thomson: I would draw ten more arms onto my body so I could make books faster and not be such a creative slow poke. However, I am not sure how my wife would feel about those extra additions, so I would also be drawing lots of rain clouds to get rid of them at the end of each work day.

TMT: Ten arms would definitely help you get more done!  It sounds like it might serve the same purpose of my time-stop button.  I would love more time to get things done without having to miss out on other things. Finally, people might not have known that you are a Chicago Bears fan.  We both know how awesome they are.  Just for fun, who is your favorite Bears player, from the past or present and why?  

Bill Thomson: Can’t I say “all of them”? I would single out Dick Butkus, Gale Sayers and Brian Piccolo as some of my favorite Chicago Bears, but place Walter Payton at the top of the list. After enduring years of embarrassingly bad records and accompanying childhood ridicule, I finally had something to be proud of when the Bears drafted Walter Payton in 1975. Although he wasn't the biggest, the strongest or the fastest, Walter Payton quickly became one the very best running backs in the NFL because of his heart, talent and tremendous work ethic. Payton held many of the most prestigious NFL records when he retired, and his career provided a shining example of the benefits of hard work and determination. When I was growing up, that really struck a cord with me and I tried to emulate Payton’s example in my life.

I remember celebrating the '85 Bears and doing the Superbowl Shuffle but not much of watching them play.  Since I've been married to a Bears fan, I know a lot more about recent Bears players.  Obviously, I know Payton's legacy as a Bear and also an amazing football player in general.  

Thanks again for sharing your passion for illustrating with us!  Now that the weather is warmer and we're getting more and more sunshine, it's definitely time to be grabbing Chalk and some sidewalk chalk and heading out with the kiddos!  

Have you read Chalk?  What activities have you used with Chalk?  On his blog, Bill shares two schools that used Bill's artwork to create some amazing experiences for students.  You can read more at Bill Thomson Illustration.


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