This archived Web page remains online for reference, research or recordkeeping purposes. This page will not be altered or updated. Web pages that are archived on the Internet are not subject to the Government of Canada Web Standards. As per the Communications Policy of the Government of Canada, you can request alternate formats of this page on the Contact Us page.
Interview with Ron Lightburn
Interview by Josiane Polidori with Ron Lightburn, illustrator of A Poppy Is to Remember, published by North Winds Press/Scholastic Canada.
JP: You were born in Cobourg, Ontario. You spent your summers as a child near the sea, lived in British Columbia for several years, and now you live by the Atlantic Ocean in Nova Scotia. Do you feel the environment you live in influences your art?
LIGHTBURN: Yes, and I think it shows in my work. The environment plays a major role in my books Waiting for the Whales, Eagle Dreams, Driftwood Cove and Wild Girl and Gran. If I was not an illustrator, I would probably be a landscape or wildlife painter. I feel very connected with nature when I am strolling along a beach, watching the endless patterns of ocean waves, or walking through a sun-dappled forest. When I sit in my garden, I am fascinated by the effect of late afternoon sunlight on leaves, the subtle colours in an evening sky, and the actions of birds at our backyard feeder.
JP: Who are the visual artists and book illustrators who have inspired or influenced your work as a children's book illustrator?
LIGHTBURN: My earliest influence was Alfred Bestall and his illustrations for the Rupert annuals. The 1959 Rupert Annual is one of the first books I remember, and I still have the copy I received as a Christmas gift. His beautifully designed covers and endpapers with his sensitive renderings of the natural world left an indelible impression on me. Next I discovered the work of Jack Kirby, one of the greatest storytellers in the history of comic book art. He used a bold, cinematic style to illustrate his stories, with a variety of camera angles and dynamic figures. I could follow the narrative of the stories that Bestall and Kirby illustrated before I could read, and their work demonstrated the possibilities and importance of visual storytelling to me at an early age. Then I fell head over heels for the lush paintings of Frank Frazetta, in particular his brilliant cover illustrations for reprints of the stories of Edgar Rice Burroughs in the 1960s and 1970s. I still find his imaginative concepts, bravura technique and rich use of chiaroscuro to be very exciting and inspirational. I also revere illustrators from the Golden Age of Illustration such as N.C. Wyeth and Norman Rockwell, who were masters of figure rendering and narrative art. In art college, I was introduced to a wide range of influences, and my interest in landscape painting was stimulated by studying the work of the Impressionists and the Group of Seven. In recent years, I have admired the work of Ed Young, who illustrates picture books with a graceful simplicity. And I love the irreverence of Lane Smith! If you want to know my sense of humour, read his picture book, The Happy Hocky Family.
JP: You have worked as an illustrator for magazines and have exhibited paintings in galleries. In your work as a children's book illustrator you have mostly used coloured pencils. Can you tell us why this is your favourite medium? Do you plan to use paint again?
LIGHTBURN: I began using coloured pencils when I was very young to create my own comic books. When I became a professional illustrator, I discovered there were a number of practical advantages to the medium. Pencils are excellent for rendering detail and gradations of colour and shading, and you don't have to wait for them to dry. Depending on the type of paper being used, pencils can make sharp, expressive lines or soft, sensitive textures. The drawback is that it takes a long, long time to cover a large surface area with a series of pencil strokes. This can be a disadvantage in a business where deadlines are important. Looking for a change, I stopped using pencils as my exclusive medium after illustrating Driftwood Cove in 1998. Since then, I have been using oil and/or acrylic paints for the most part, and have enjoyed experimenting with a variety of styles. And depending on the area of the painting I am working on, I can use a wide brush to cover a large area quickly, or use a small brush for details. I can use thin layers of paint to impart a soft, watercolour effect, or impasto brush strokes to create bold textures. This change from pencils to paint was a natural progression, as many of the artists who influenced me were painters.
JP: The illustrations in your books are infused with introspective qualities: the characters and environments exude a kind of closeness. How do you give so much depth to your illustrations? How do you create these moods and feelings?
LIGHTBURN: I try to be sensitive to the text. I give a lot of thought to the body language of the characters, and employ a cinematic approach to my compositions and lighting to create the appropriate moods. For example, I might use a close-up view of a character to create a feeling of intimacy, and contrast this with an overhead perspective in the next spread to distance the reader and create a feeling of isolation in the scene. Altering the palette from monochromatic to full colour; moving from a shadowy scene to one in bright sunlight -- these are all ways of using contrast to create drama.
JP: You once said that you can actually "tell a story with light." Can you explain how you modulate the chiaroscuro, the contrast between light and dark, in your illustrations? Do you use specific techniques to bring light into a drawing?
LIGHTBURN: It is an intuitive process for the most part, so it is difficult to explain. I try to imagine where the light is coming from, since the strength and/or the placement of the light source in a scene will alter the mood dramatically. Sometimes the brightest light in a scene will be a white highlight, but other times it might be a middle tone. The effect should always be dictated by the requirements of the story. In How Smudge Came, the character of Jan is initially shown partially hidden or in shadow, but as the story progresses he is depicted with more light and the reader gets to know him better. This echoes the change in Cindy's relationship with him. In Wild Girl and Gran, Wild Girl is hiding in the shadows of a tree when she first encounters Gran. As they get to know each other in the scene, Wild Girl emerges into the sunlight. We feel closer to characters when they are shown in bright light and full detail.
JP: Most of your books depict characters and their surroundings realistically, but not literally. The reader always feels that details are accurate and appear anchored in reality, but there is also a certain dreamlike quality to your illustrations. Can you tell us more about your approach to realism?
LIGHTBURN: I like to be able to guide the viewer to the key elements in a composition, and one way of doing this is to soften certain areas and sharpen others. This may explain the dreamlike quality you mentioned. Usually a figure is a key element, and I like my figures to have a very naturalistic feeling. This is always a challenge, even in my current picture book project for Annick Press, where I use a non-realistic style that does not involve photographic reference. I think it is important in my interpretation of a story to make the details in the illustrations as accurate as possible. To research Eagle Dreams, I accompanied a veterinarian on her rounds for a couple of days, and I was surprised to discover she used a fishing tackle box to carry her supplies. This is a small detail, but one that I never could have guessed. Another example is the tree stump house in Driftwood Cove, which might seem far fetched but is based on one that actually existed a hundred years ago in what is now downtown New Westminster. I discovered this while studying archival photographs of British Columbia.
JP: You often use photographs to document the planning aspect of your work. Do you start with sketches and place characters in specific settings or do you walk around with your camera until you have the right composition? Can you explain your creative and planning processes before the actual drawing or painting is begun?
LIGHTBURN: It has been different with every project. I generally make a series of preliminary black and white sketches to determine the compositions. These might be simple line drawings, or they might include complex shading and detailing. Sometimes I will make a second set in colour. For Driftwood Cove, I started by providing the publisher with a written description of each scene before taking a series of reference photographs, from which I went directly to making detailed, preliminary colour drawings. In these photo sessions, I was like a film director: moving the models around until they matched the compositions in my head.
JP: How did you do the visual research for an historical topic that spanned several decades, such as for the book A Poppy Is to Remember?
LIGHTBURN: I began by taking out almost every book on the two world wars from our local library, in addition to borrowing a number from our local branch of the Legion. I had so many stacks of books on my studio floor that I had to navigate around them each morning to reach my easel. I also watched many, many documentaries and films on the subject, surfed the Internet, and interviewed a number of veterans who provided me with reference material.
My publisher also helped out a great deal by doing research when I could not find what I needed. The challenge was to condense two wars into a short series of images, make it all as accurate as possible without being too intense for younger readers, and do it within a deadline. I worked every day, seven days a week, for a six month period. I spent a whole day reading, just to determine how much smoke should be shown coming out of the funnels of the corvettes (ships) in the background of one of my illustrations.
One of the veterans who posed for two of the paintings was Mr. Joseph Samson, a resident of Kentville, Nova Scotia, who served in the Korean War. He is seen with his grandchildren in the background of the cenotaph illustration; and in second one, he is again with them as he explains the history and meaning of his medals. As they posed for the painting, I learned that this was really the first time that Mr. Samson had discussed his medals with Alex and Colin. Mr. Samson passed away less than a year later, but I am glad that he was able to share an important part of his life with his grandchildren as a result of taking part in the book.
JP: When you work on a children's book, you are dealing with an author's story. Do you try to enter that author's imagination or do you work with the story itself and bring in your own imagery?
LIGHTBURN: I do not often have the opportunity of consulting closely with the author, so I generally have to rely on my own imagination to interpret the story, while being as true to the text as possible. Driftwood Cove was the exception -- I was able to discuss the story and illustrations with my wife Sandra on a daily basis, often while we were doing the dishes together.
JP: Do you think about the young reader when you illustrate a story? What do children tell you about your books when you meet them in the classroom?
LIGHTBURN: I always try to make my picture books as interesting as possible for a young reader to enjoy. How can I make it funnier? How can I make it sadder? How can I make it more accurate? How can I make it different? How can I make it better?
Children often want to know how I make my pictures "look so real." I have seen readers stroking the cover of How Smudge Came because they like the soft, coloured pencil effect I used for rendering the puppy. In my classroom demonstrations for older grades, I try to show how the use of light and shading can make objects appear realistic, including those from the imagination. Often, to complete an illustration, I have to make things up in such a way that they match the parts that have come from a photographic reference. This ability comes with my years of artistic studies and experience as a professional illustrator. And, as with the comic books I drew as a child, making things up can be a lot of fun!