I had the pleasure of interviewing Jon Davis, the illustrator of The Knish War on Rivington Street. That's his self-portrait to the left.
Since Jon lives across the pond and I'm in New York, we have not met, but I had the unusual experience of seeing his illustrations evolve from black and white sketches to the finished images that brought the book to life. You may be surprised to learn that editors in the U.S. tend to keep their writers and illustrators apart…on the theory that each should bring their own unique view of the book to the editor. It’s the editors job the mix and stir and blend the two. In this case, our editor, Andrea Hall, invited comments as the work progressed, although Jon and I did not communicate directly with each other until the deed was done. It was good to have some say as the script progressed from dummy to finished book. That’s when I asked Jon if he would do an online interview, to talk about the art of illustrating, his experience of working on this book and if he likes knishes.
JO: When did you know you wanted to be an illustrator?
JD: When I was a teenager I really wanted to illustrate comics, I read 2000ad, Spiderman and various Batman, Sandman and other DC comics. And later on, as I got older, this sort of morphed into wanting to illustrate children's books, which I feel are a cousin to comics/graphic novels.
JO: Did you draw a lot when you were a schoolboy? What kinds of things?
JD: When I was a teenager I used to like to draw characters from comics, and films I'd seen, mostly science fiction stuff, and younger than that I drew knights in armor, big battles, galleons on the sea, and cowboys.
JO: Did you study art in college or art school? Where was that?
JD: I did an illustration course at College in Wrexham North Wales.
JO: Do you do other kinds of art work other than illustrations for children’s books?
JD: I have designed a few greetings cards, but otherwise, I would love to do big oil paintings of landscapes.
JO: When you read The Knish War on Rivington Street for the first time...what was your reaction? What did you like about it? Did you get a quick picture in your mind’s eye or did it have to evolve?
JD: I liked the build-up, it reminded me a bit of a chaotic comedy film.
Once I'd looked through some picture reference for the era and place I started to get an idea in my mind’s eye of what it would look like.
JO: I know you’ve illustrated dozens of picture books…was this one harder or easier than most?
JD: They are all hard or easy in different ways. One of the challenges and one of the interesting things about Knish War was drawing the street scene over and over again, but making it interesting and changing and different each time.
JO: I know you began with black and white sketches. Do you use pencil for that?
JD: I work totally in Photoshop on a computer.
My initial sketches are done using a pencil-like brush in Photoshop, which is used to do loose drawings, which I refine a bit more and add detail to at each stage.
The color is then added using a watercolor-like brush on a different 'layer' under the line drawings. And finally, the line drawings are finished and colored.
JO: Most publishers in the U.S. do not allow authors and writers to communicate. Is that true in England?
JD: Most communication is done via the publisher/editor, they project manage and guide and coordinate all the art, so there generally hasn't been a need to communicate separately to that in my experience, I'm not sure if it's actually not allowed or not.
JO: In the past, I’ve never had a chance to see or comment on the work in progress. Was it unusual for you to have me and several editors looking at your sketches as the book proceeded? Did you find it helpful or frustrating?
JD: I always have at least one editor commenting and giving feedback at each stage, and often the author gives feedback via the editor too. It is pretty much always helpful, a second, fresh pair of eyes can spot things I've missed or mis-understood, or even spot mistakes, or things that look odd, and either suggest fixes or give me ideas that I wouldn't have had on my own, without their input.
JO: How long do you usually take to do a picture book from start to finish?
JD: That generally depends on the deadline the publisher has, it has been as long as ten months, or as little as five weeks.
JO: You live in England, so how difficult was it to do a book that was set in New York City in the early 20th Century? Have you ever been to the Lower East Side?
JD: I've never been to New York at all, but I've seen films etc. Laurel and Hardy and Charlie Chaplin for instance seemed to offer a bit of insight :) Also, I suppose it's the job of an illustrator to imagine and express things he hasn't necessarily experienced. I've never been to a wood inhabited by talking, clothed animals, and yet I can imagine and empathize with their story, and put it into my work :)
JO: What kind of research did you have to do to get the settings and clothing of Lower East Side 1916? How did you do it?
JD: I must admit that Ellen at the publishers was absolutely invaluable when it came to picture research, and I have to say thank you very much to her. She supplied a lot of research of clothes and environment. I could then use that as a base to search the internet and find more of my own images when needed.
JO: Do they have knishes in England? Have you ever tasted a knish? If so, do you like them and if so, which do you prefer? Baked or fried? What filling do you prefer?
JD: I've never had a Knish, I'm sure they'll be available somewhere, most likely in London, but I've not happened across them. I'm sure I'd notice them if I see them now, though :) I imagine the baked kind might be similar to Cornish Pasties, which are common over here, and are very nice indeed!
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“Davis’s crisp-line cartooning makes the cacophony and comic high anxiety of the neighborhood downright appetizing.” Publisher’s Weekly
“Davis’ watercolor illustrations emphasize the fun, the crowds, and the sly undercutting…Both tale and art (with neatly evocative costuming) bring readers back to the turn of the last century, but this story, with its keen observation of human nature, feels very much of today.” Booklist