Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Trucks Chug and Dolphins Dive: Meet Steven James Petruccio

For the third year, hundreds of children's book illustrators are contributing their time and talent to raise money for cancer research, by creating illustrated wooden snowflakes for auction. This year, bloggers are also getting into the action, by highlighting some of the wonderful pieces of art that have been donated and the artists that created them.

I'm happy to introduce you to Steven James Petruccio. Steven is a watercolor artist and children's book illustrator; his work for children ranges from a popular series of Tonka truck books to several titles in the Smithsonian Oceanic Collection.

As I studied Steven's nonfiction work, I was struck by how his illustrations maintained a strongly realistic look while incorporating touches of warmth and playfulness. Those elements are also very apparent in his contribution to this year's auction, a piece entitled "Sea Star":

Steven was kind enough to answer some questions for me:

Q: The books of yours I've seen have all been illustrated in watercolors. What draws you to that medium?

A: Early in my career I worked in acrylic on board, canvas or paper. I even used oil paints on gessoed paper for a series of books. I made the transition to watercolor after studying the medium and exploiting its ability to produce certain effects I found desirable. My early attempts at using watercolor were not that successful but I sought out artists whose work I admired and studied their technique in order to refine my own. Watercolor also gives me a greater flexibility of color. Most people think it's a difficult medium to control but it's really no harder to master than any other media. For book illustration, watercolor is a great medium to use because of the way it looks, the transparency of it gives any subject a lighter feeling.

Q: Are there other media you enjoy, or one you'd like to work in someday?

A: In my fine art works I move back and forth between acrylic on panel or canvas and watercolor. The subject usually dictates what medium to use. Everything depends on the overall feeling you want to achieve in the piece. I've used, and taught the use of, many media including pastel, colored pencil and marker and I'll often pick up whichever of these are nearby when caught in the moment of capturing a subject. I'm comfortable with everything. It all depends on the end result the artist wants.

Q: You've done some lovely pictures of sea life for the Smithsonian Oceanic Collection. Is that a special interest of yours?

A: Marine life paintings were never a particular interest of mine but after doing so many paintings and so much research beforehand , including snorkeling on reefs and visiting aquariums, this type of subject really intrigues me. There's so much that's mysterious about the ocean. It's exciting for me to be able to introduce a variety of ocean life to young audiences. When all is said and done, any good illustrator will absorb themselves in the subject to be able to present it in an interesting yet totally accurate way. That's the balancing act. Why not use a photograph? Well, the illustrator or painter can achieve compositions and effects that make even the most common story seem special.

Q: Is there an aspect of creating works especially for children that you find particularly satisfying?

A: When a young person hands me a book which I've illustrated, to autograph, and the cover is torn or scratched and you can tell it's been read over and over again... well, you just know your work is having a great effect on that person. They're interested in reading. They're involved in looking at art, and it's all on a level they can understand and relate to. To be able to present to young people art which I've really thought about in formal terms as well as interesting, story-telling terms is a privilege. I'm teaching them and entertaining them and it's all very accessible.

Q: You've won several awards for your work, including Parent's Choice awards. Is there one recognition in particular that you found especially gratifying?

A: There's a lot involved in winning any award. My greatest reward comes from the letters and reactions I get from young people who've seen my work. I'm in this business for them. The fact that people enjoy my work is what enables me to do what I do. I can win countless awards but, honestly, if no one outside of an award selection committee sees the book, would I really be successful at what I do?

Q: Is there a children's book you wish you had gotten to illustrate?

A: I was asked this question, recently, at a SCBWI conference at which I was speaking. My answer is the same now as it was then. The illustrator whose work interests and energizes me most is Charles Santore. I wish I could have been on the end of the phone being contacted to illustrate The Wizard of OZ and then have the vision and ability to bring the same power and technical expertise to it as he did. He created a classic!

Q: Your three snowflakes for "Robert's Snow" have all been quite different - a whimsical Humpty Dumpty in 2004, a lovely dove of peace in 2005 and the dolphins this year. Were there special influences on your design choices?

A: Each snowflake for Robert's Snow has been influenced by whatever I was feeling or motivated by at the time I was asked to create it. I've used stylizations and subject matter which I've illustrated over the past twenty years. Maybe next time it will be a TONKA truck! I want the buyer to have, not only an interesting snowflake shaped ornament, but a genuine work of art so I do spend time thinking of creative compositions to take up an unusual space in an interesting way. In the end my ultimate goal is to motivate someone to feel good about contributing to a most worthy cause. My family and friends have been affected by cancer so it has become a cause to which I contribute throughout the year. If my talents will bring someone joy when they look at my artwork and they can own it and feel great about buying it... then my creativity goes way beyond making pretty pictures. I thank everyone who created a snowflake and all who've purchased them... you're all part of the cure.

Steven's snowflake is included in Auction #2, which will be held from November 26th-30th. There are three auctions in total, running from November 19th to December 7th. This is a wonderful opportunity to acquire original art at reasonable prices (starting bids range from $50 to $150.)

For complete schedules of all the blog posts about "Robert's Snow" illustrators, and to see snowflakes that were completed too late to be included in this blogging project, see the blog Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast. And see another piece of Steven's art here.

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Anonymous Anonymous bligged...

Fantastic feature - thanks for sharing this one! I love dolphins, so this snowflake is definitely one of my favorites.

11/06/2007 4:17 AM  
Blogger Liz Garton Scanlon bligged...

This is a lovely one, and I love the sentiment on the back...

11/06/2007 6:20 AM  
Blogger Jules at 7-Imp bligged...

Thanks, Wendy and Steven!

I love what he says about the worn, loved books (this is how I feel about cookbooks; if they're not dirty or tomato-sauce-stained, they're not loved).

And that Halloween illustration I just clicked on is fabulous!

Jules, 7-Imp

11/06/2007 7:17 AM  
Anonymous Hino Trucks bligged...

Love the illustrations, so intricate and yet so simple, very bright and vibrant, excellent!

12/01/2009 3:35 PM  

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