Our illustrator of the month for August is a weaver of worlds. As a cover artist, David McClellan draws you into the universe of a story before you even peek inside. You’ve most certainly seen his work before: If you’ve picked up The Guardian Herd series by Jennifer Lynn Alvaraz or The Magnificent 12 series by Michael Grant, for example, you’ll definitely recognize his majestic landscapes and charismatic characters.
David’s first foray into illustrating between the covers is a picture book written by Chris Burkard titled The Boy Who Spoke to the Earth, released in 2015. He currently works for WBGames and has previously been a member of the Disney Interactive team as an art director and environment artist. We got to ask him a few questions about what he likes to read, the difference between book illustration and game artistry, and how to bore your children to sleep.
How did you get started illustrating picture books?
I didn’t really know what kind of artist I wanted to be when I grew up, just that I thought I should be doing something art-related. I started out as a graphic design major in college but I was pretty mediocre at that. Then I saw all the illustration majors making pictures and I thought “I want to make pictures, too.” So I changed my major to illustration and focused on learning to do book covers.
How does your work in publishing differ from your work in interactive games?
Those two things are different in just about every way you can imagine. The things they have in common are that in both cases you are working under an art director and you are using your knowledge of design, and your visual experiences. Everything else is different. When I do an illustration it’s just me making a single picture or series of pictures, and I need to be able to tell a story in just a single image. But I get to control the composition so the viewer sees just what I want them to see. In games, I work with a big team where everyone specializes in just a small part of a huge project that gets worked on for years. And, instead of making single images, we create an entire 3D world where the player gets to determine what they see and where they go. So, everything has to look good. In games, we are making something that no one person could do by themselves, which is pretty cool, and I do enjoy collaboration. But, I also really enjoy illustrating because of the ability to compose a single beautiful picture.
Have you always wanted to illustrate books for children? Do you have any plans to write one yourself, or would you prefer to stay purely on the image side of bookmaking?
Yes, but since my style isn’t a traditional children’s book style, I didn’t really plan on a picture book happening. But it always sounded fun if the right kind of book opportunity came along which is eventually what happened. I have had a couple ideas for children’s book stories, but they were more silly and whimsical and didn’t really fit with the kind of pictures I make. If I ever do think of a story where the subject matter fits with my illustration style, I might give it a shot.
When working on The Boy Who Spoke to the Earth, you drew heavily from the photographs taken by the author, Chris Burkard. What was that collaboration like?
It was a lot of fun. Chris provided some of his photos as a starting point for inspiration, but he and the publishers were really good about giving me a lot of free rein on the look of the illustrations, which I appreciated. No one wanted me to just recreate his photos as illustrations, so it was more about trying to capture the way Chris is inspired by the grandeur of nature in general. To get the epic look we were going for I ended up doing kind of a Hudson River School thing where you put all the amazing landmarks in the same picture even though you wouldn’t see it that way in real life. So, it goes beyond what can be done by photography. As an artist, I think if you aren’t bringing your own ideas and experiences to your work then you aren’t doing your job, so a lot of the book is Chris, and a lot of it is me, and the publishers, art director, and graphic designer all played a huge part too. I think by the end of the project, after all the back and forth between him, the publishers, and myself, the end result of the book is something better than any of us originally envisioned which is exactly how collaboration is supposed to work.
You’ve worked in with so many different mediums, from physical to digital painting and in-between. How do you decide which to use when an idea strikes?
Digital is the most forgiving and easily changed medium ever, so it’s great for illustrating because art directors always want changes. I also feel like with digital, if you can imagine it, you should be able to achieve it because there really are no limitations like there are with real paints. But sometimes I get tired of staring at a computer monitor or an iPad and I want to do something more tangible and so I break out the oil paints. I think all artists should learn to do both because the traditional keeps you grounded but the digital gives you superpowers.
Did you read much as a child? Are there any books that have really stuck with you into adulthood?
I did a lot more drawing than reading, but I did read a fair amount. The Lord of the Rings would probably be at the top of the list of enduring books for me. I’m jealous of the generation that grew up with Harry Potter (though growing up with Star Wars was great too) but I think JK Rowling got everybody reading again. I’ve probably enjoyed reading to my own kids as a dad more than I ever enjoyed reading as a kid.
What do you read with your kids? Do you enjoy the same books?
When they were little we read a lot of Dr. Seuss. Those just never get old. A couple other of their favorites were the Baby Brains books by Simon James and No, David! By David Shannon. I think we did end up liking the same picture books because if I liked the book I would read that one in a more fun/creative way which made them like it. If I didn’t want to read the book again I would use my normal monotone voice and bore them to sleep. I guess I manipulated my kids into liking what I liked. But now they are all old enough that they read on their own.
Is there a story out there you’d love the chance to illustrate?
All the ones that I had always wanted to do when I was younger have been done by illustrators better than myself, so at this point, I like the idea of being the first to illustrate stories that haven’t yet been told.
Do you have any advice to share with young aspiring illustrators?
Well, like any other part of life, being an artist/illustrator is a balancing act between being true to your principles while adapting as your world changes. The industry has changed so much over then years, and for all we know someday soon artificial intelligence will be among your competitors for work. But whatever happens, it’s super important to learn the principles of design. Every good art teacher I’ve ever had has basically taught the same design principles just in slightly different ways. If you analyze the work of any good artist you will probably see those principles happening in their work. Your style will be like your handwriting or your personality. It will be unique to you whether you try for a style or not. But if you base your work on solid principles and then use those to express your creativity your work will probably be good.
Could you tell us a bit about what you’re working on next?
I can’t say much. The project I am working on right now is unannounced and under NDA. But it’s going to be cool!
We can’t wait to see what else David comes up with! In the meantime, sign up for Literati’s monthly experiences and get your hands on other bookish loveliness at www.literatibooks.com.