Loren Long: Soul of the Heartland by Holly Davis

Children’s Book Illustrator Loren Long

Mr. Peabody's Apples illustration by Loren Long

Illustration (acrylic, 16×12) from “Mr. Peabody’s Apples” (Callaway, 2003) by Madonna

Lots of artists dream of illustrating children’s books. Many have fond memories of their favorite childhood stories, and children’s books may seem more approachable than other forms of  illustration. Nevertheless, it’s a crowded field, and it can be difficult to get your first big break and make a name for yourself. Illustrator Loren Long notes, “It’s one thing to get fairly accomplished in your craft, but it’s another thing to set yourself apart from everybody else who’s accomplished.” Learn how Long got started illustrating and how he distinguished himself in this competitive industry. You can read an excerpt from our 2013 interview below, or read the complete artist interview on ArtistsMarketOnline.com.

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Loren Long: Soul of the Heartland by Holly Davis

With a style born of America and a layering technique rooted in the Renaissance, Loren Long illustrates picture books he hopes will be shared across generations.

What do President Barack Obama, the rock star Madonna and artist Loren Long have in common? They’ve all written picture books. But it’s Loren Long’s pencil and paintbrush that truly connect the dots. He’s illustrated picture books by all three authors. Before that he created illustrations for the likes of Sports Illustrated, Forbes and Time. Before that he worked as a greeting card artist at Gibson Greetings in Cincinnati, Ohio.

So how does a Missouri-bred artist reared in Kentucky and working in Ohio attract the attention of big New York publishers and major American celebrities? The answer takes us back to the 1990s when Long got serious about becoming a professional illustrator—or to the early twentieth century, depending on how you look at it.

Breaking in

“What I did was jump out of Gibson Greetings and start working on my style,” says Long. “It’s one thing to get fairly accomplished in your craft, but it’s another thing to set yourself apart from everybody else who’s accomplished.” He’d acquired his drawing and painting skills from the University of Kentucky and the American Academy of Art in Chicago, but his self-motivated, informal studies gave his work its distinctive feel. Backing away from the hierarchical distinction between illustrators and fine artists, he felt drawn to N.C. Wyeth, Maxfield Parrish and J.C. Leyendecker of the American Golden Age of Illustration, as well as Edward Hopper, John Sloan and George Bellows of the Ashcan School. His greatest debt, however, is to American Regionalist painters—John Steuart Curry, Grant Wood and Thomas Hart Benton. As Long puts it, “I feel as if they gave me my career.”
. . . .

I Dream of Trains illustration by Loren Long

Illustration (acrylic, 12×25) from “I Dream of Trains” (Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing, 2003) by Angela Johnson

Big picture mentality

The art form for picture books requires a different mind-set from that for a single illustration. Long compares the picture book to cinema: “I’m like a director choosing moments to film, only with a certain pagination.” To establish the flow, he takes technical pencil in hand and creates a series of thumbnail sketches, a two-page spread represented within a 2×6-inch space. “I’m looser when I draw small,” says Long. The tiny space prevents him from including too much detail. “That’s a Thomas Hart Benton thing,” Long explains. “Benton called it the ‘grand design.’ No detail. If it works small, it will work big.”
. . . .

Classic layering technique

Once a full set of thumbnails has been approved by the editor and art director, Long blows up his sketches on a photocopier, which reveals any problems with proportions that he may need to correct by adding or subtracting content to the sides of his sketches. He then uses graphite paper to transfer his drawings to his painting surface—illustration board.

His choice of surface reflects the evolution of his thought regarding picture book illustration. Long has come to see the final book, not the individual pages, as the artwork he’s creating. He painted his first five books on canvas. He liked the archival quality this surface provided, but became more and more dissatisfied with the dominance of the canvas’s texture, which he associated with paintings that viewers take in piece by piece rather than in the flowing totality of a picture book. Illustration board offered Long a smooth, archival surface. Also, the finished painting could be peeled off the illustration board and wrapped around a printer’s drum for scanning, just like unmounted canvas.

Long generally paints in acrylic, using classic oil-layering techniques. “I wanted to paint like an oil painter,” he says, “but in today’s world of sometimes finishing a painting on the same day I ship it, oil paint didn’t work for me.” Following early Italian Renaissance masters, he first applies glazes of local color—up to eight layers in certain areas. Then, adopting a more modern technique, he adds thicker, opaque nuances, which are usually the lighter colors. “Go to an art museum and look at a classic nineteenth-century portrait,” says Long. The paint is thin in the dark areas, and then the face is done in thicker oils. If you stand to the side, you can see it.”

Artist as team player

A fine artist needs to please himself, but also potential collectors and, most likely, one or more gallery owners. A picture book illustrator deals with editors, art directors and, to some degree, marketing, publicity and sales people—all these before the book has a chance to reach a single child (not to mention the adults who buy the book for the child). To some, the situation would be a nightmare, but Long welcomes the input from members of a publishing team. “They’re smart,” says Long, “and I want access to their expertise in their respective fields.” Long also points out, “In my experience, children’s publishing offers more creative freedom than any other market for illustration I’ve worked in. The editor and art director want the illustrator’s vision for a book. Nobody directs me as to how to illustrate a book or what to include. They just hand me a manuscript and react to the sketches I present.”


Otis illustration by Loren Long

Illustration (gouache and colored pencil, 11×13) from “Otis” (Philomel Books, 2009) by Loren Long

Otis, the story of a tractor who befriends a calf—a book that Long both wrote and illustrated—exemplifies the artist’s ability to work as a team player without sacrificing creative integrity. Loren wanted Otis to feel timeless, like Virginia Lee Burton’s 1939 classic, Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel—something that an adult would remember loving as a child and then read to his or her own children. He felt that the story of Otis leant itself to a black-and-white look, quite a departure from the bright colors of his previous book for the same publisher.
. . . .

Organic approach

Although Long’s style is fully identifiable, he cultivates subtle differences in the look of his art from book to book. His illustrations for The Little Engine That Could by Watty Piper display rich, opaque acrylic color. Otis has a monochromatic feel with a transparent look to the paint. The book Long is working on now, Chiro’s Night Song by Ari Berk, features illustrations that are part colorful acrylic and part charcoal. That’s the current plan, anyway. The execution may change as the vision continues to come into focus. And Loren is open—to experimentation, to suggestions, to the organic development that ultimately fulfills the grand design.


Holly Davis is senior editor of The Artist’s Magazine.

Excerpted from the October 2011 issue of The Artist’s Magazine. Used with the kind permission of The Artist’s Magazine, a publication of F+W Media, Inc. Visit www.artistsnetwork.com to subscribe.


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