Timothy Basil Ering
Below is an edited transcript from our interview with Timothy Basil Ering. The transcript is divided into the following sections:
Becoming a children's book illustrator
How did I get into doing books for children? Well, I have always loved sketching, drawing, painting. You know, through elementary school, middle school, high school I would you know draw and sketch and do little things for contests or whatever, you know. When it came time to go to college or do something after 12th grade — we're done with high school, this is great. I wasn't sure what I wanted to do at that time, I was actually looking to all kinds of different stuff.
Even like becoming like a park ranger or something. You know, go out to Colorado because I love the outdoors so much or some kind of, you know, in Hawaii, because I love surfing and the beaches and everything. But I went to junior college, very local on Cape Cod for one semester and I did take some drawing classes. I also had all the general education stuff, I was going home with all these books. I'm like, you know, I'm just not ready for this yet, I'm loving the drawing class is kind of all I really wanted to do.
And I don't want to go some big college yet because I'm not sure yet. And so I joined the United States Navy, I just had ants in my pants. I just wanted to get out and have an adventure. And it was unbelievable. When I finished the Navy after being on aircraft carriers sailing around the world, stationed in San Diego, California. Then I knew for sure that I wanted to go to college and I wanted to study art. And I couldn't wait.
So, I went to the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena and during that time learning everything, composition, figurative drawing, you name it everything. I also took some children's book illustration classes because I have always admired children's books and the art that's in them. And I said I think maybe I can do this. Just a fun, you know, avenue for me to investigate.
After graduating from art center I still wasn't positive that's what I wanted to do because there was a big editorial kind of push, be an editorial illustrator. And I did that a little bit. It was so fast and furious, I was just like I don't have a big flashy style to get kind of get a project done in one night or two nights. And it's just short lived, you get this piece done, you send it in, bam it comes out the newspaper or magazine, that issue is done. See you later.
I said, books are so alive for so long, you know they're precious, cool things. You can take your time to develop them and, and create this world that's inside these covers you know. And that's when I knew I wanted to do books. I took a trip to New York and met some publishers, and that's a whole another story how I did that. It was just a fun adventure, but I also had ideas for my own books and, and I met Karen Lotts.
She was at Dutton Books and she moved over to Candle Lit years ago and I followed her over there, and history from there. We did some work on so many fun projects.
Adventures in New York City
I knew I wanted to go to New York City, because growing up on Cape Cod, I'd never really been to New York. So New York, you know, it's a huge giant place, filmmakers, writers, illustrators, you know actors. I need to go there. So I moved back to Cape Cod and my parents rented cottages. That was very common, as 5 of us kids grew up. I started working with my dad just to get a toe hold after I moved back from school and everything. And I was living in Provincet Town, that's where we had some of the cottages.
And I knew that I couldn't do that for long because I needed to get to New York. So I was always sketching, drawing, getting a portfolio with all kinds of stuff together. I didn't have the 12 or 15 pieces that all look the same. I had this big huge box I bought in a thrift store filled with like sculptures and like figure drawings, and sketches and paintings and all kinds of stuff.
So I would go to like book stores Barnes and Noble, Borders, independent book stores. And I would just look at book and pour over them. And I would see who any book I kind of got excited about I would see who published it. So I got this big fat New York phone book and I just started calling, and finding out these numbers. Usually it was just a general number for the front desk or something. And they would tell, "well drop off policy, you can leave your portfolio Monday through Wednesday 9 to 5" or whatever. And I was like I don't want to just drop something off, I can't.
It's just I need to show this and talk. So I would come up with this thing where I would tell them I'm a lighthouse keeper on Cape Cod, I went to Art Center, I'm painting all the time, and I have some really cool stuff I want to show you, I just have to show you this stuff. And I was in that week, it was like acting. I kind of had the phone setup and everything there. My little notepad, I'd take a deep breath and pick up the phone and call, put on the show kind of thing.
And they just, the ladies I talked to or whatever they would just be so happy to hear you know the excitement and they said the exuberance that you showed and was kind of, you know contagious. So let's have you over here, we'll make an appointment. So, within that week I probably 6 or 7 appointments to see art directors and go up and show my book. And I remember going to Grand Central Station and first leaving the Cape was a funny thing, getting on this little bus.
And here's a couple of people locals from Province Town, and they're heading out of town. And they never head out of town, you know, so I just hop out with my little box and I'm sitting there. There's always little nicknames like this guy Squeaky, and this guy over, you know. They're all fisherman and everything. You know, "Squeaky, why are you leaving town?" and he's just like, "I'm going to my brother's birthday, I'm leaving Cape Cod." He's all dressed up and his hair combed and stuff.
I was like "I'm going to New York" and so, I get to Grand Central Station and I didn't know how to get out of there. I was just like a little kid looking around at the signs and the amount of people and I actually went up to one little booth, and I said "how do you get out of here to the street?" He thought I was kind of kidding, I was wise guy or something. So eventually I get to the street and there's no GPS so I didn't have any of that at that time.
Just had these addresses and figured it out. And I felt so great about going up an elevator knowing that I actually have an appointment with an art director, you know when you go to art school and you're just so excited to get a job when you're like wow I'm going to possibly get something, maybe not, but just the fact I can go have an interview this is awesome.
I do love the process. That's like a huge part of my art. I love the entire process. I love getting in the studio, somehow getting into the whole mode and mood and trying to forget about everything else that's going on — that's obligations, family, and bills, and everything. And that's tough because you don't want to forget about all that or you have to. You have to set it aside and just focus on the art and really get into that paper or canvas or whatever you're going to start with. And that's the whole start of the process and the mediums.
I used to- in art school- be very uptight. I actually liked it. I liked the pencil drawing classes and everything and having everything nice and sharp and neat. And clearing the little brush and whisk everything away. And just get right on there, sometimes you'll have a paper towel under your hand to make sure you're not getting grease on there. Or it's wet or whatever, little marks.
And I used to love that, but there was something I loved when I saw loose fun aggressive painting and splattering. When I got into painting classes it was tough for me how to learn how to paint, I didn't know a lot about color and painting. I didn't do a lot of that up to my point in life. And once I got into that medium and learned more about what colors were doing and color theory and what to do with that liquidy paint that's in a tube. You got blue, red, and green. How do you put this all together to make something look like something, you know?
So once you understand what's happening with those paints, it just makes it that much more approachable. Not necessarily easy, but welcoming or something. So that got me into the whole chemistry of things, like the mediums. I started to loosen up a lot. And I loved how each medium of the mark making was different. That charcoal pencil, the graphite pencil that I was so neat with all the time, I was looking, I could scrape into there and sand them and sand the graphite, you know onto the paper and burnish it in.
And again, the paint slap color in and wipe it around. All that kind of stuff. So I really started getting loose by the end of school, and that's how I wanted to paint. It was just more fun and much more freeing and much more real. It was just real to me. It's art making. It's emotional.
So that whole process became just the way I paint. And starting with sketches I like to just burnish in some kind of texture or cover that white surface with some kind of color or tone or something and then rub into it. And start to pull out images that, you know, I have something in my head, I'll just kind of almost sculpt them. Like, if I'm painting waves or something I just like to push that paint around and move it like I would feel them and see them if I was in the water myself. And so those marks will be in that first layer, and, and the trick is to keep that looseness. there somehow, because at the beginning it will not make sense to everybody but you can kind of feel and see it.
So you're going to have to later on make it understandable for everybody to read what you're thinking but somehow leave that looseness, because that's what I really love.
I haven't put any thought into the whole digital e-book thing, you know, and the invasion, as you know, of this e-books coming. Especially with you know picture books. I could see maybe sitting down, reading something, you know an adult book or something, online. You might be on a train or something and just like reading it on the computer or whatever. And it's like okay. But reading to kids, especially now that I have kids, is so special when you have a book and they are sculptural little wonderful things that are on that book shelf. To go over to the book shelf and select one. And all cuddle up on the bed or on the couch. And open that up with your kids in your arms and everything where they can just
I mean oh when you're reading and you look at their faces, looking at those pages and when they want to reach out and turn the page, when they know the page turn is coming I mean that is just priceless. So, you know, I guess that with so many computers and games and texting and all this kind of stuff that kids have in front of them. You know, if they grow up with this whole e-book thing, it's just saddens me to think that a book, you know, that's old-school, look at that thing, you know, it's a book. That's just such a shame, I just don't think that will ever happen. I think you know, books are always going to be there and picture books. And it's just going, they're always going to be there for parents to choose which way they want to go.
I can't imagine not grabbing a book and reading to a kid. And having books in the back seat of the car. Their car seats, where they can reach out and grab one, when you look up at the rear view mirror and you just see them poring through a book, it's just such a great feeling. So yeah the smells and the feeling of just a nice new book or an old book.
The Tale of Despereaux, that came to me with a phone call from Chris Paul, the art director over at Candlewick Press. And she asked me if I wanted to be part of a little — not necessarily a competition or a contest, they had I don't know how many, illustrators, a handful- a couple, they were going to give a little snippet Kate's new manuscript called The Tale of Despereaux. Of course I knew right before was Because of Winn Dixie and she won the Newbery honor, and it's like, wow, this is probably going to be good -- she is outstanding and a wonderful writer, so I was like I would love to be involved in developing something for this book.
Immediately getting off the phone she had mentioned there is a king in this, a little girl, a mouse with a sword, there's an evil rat. So I immediately got off the phone and started sketching and I sketched just that, this kind of king looking figure. A mouse with a sword, and kind of fencing off this evil rat and stuff like that. When I look back at that, it was actually kind of close on how I illustrated without reading anything yet.
Then, I get in the mail I think it was about a 10 page snippet from the book, from the manuscript. And it was just like every paragraph was so descriptive and so wonderful I was like this is just, oh man, this is going to be a good book.
So I remember staying up, definitely two all nighters, I was just working through the night, trying to figure out what medium would work best. Because they did tell me they were probably going to do it in black and white. And I could have done it in acrylic, charcoal, pencil, but I wanted to try a little bit of each and I was just pushing stuff and they also wanted it to look very classic. The acrylic paint could have worked, anything could have worked, charcoal, acrylic. But there was something about, after, literally the birds start chirping. And I was like going wow, this is the second night in a row I stayed up doing this.
I touched the pencil a little bit, and there was something about it, it was nice and soft you can get some great details. I was at that time point where I was thinking I might have enough. I remember there was a deadline like that Wednesday, maybe there was a day left or something. I handed everything in and I was happy about it because I worked very hard. I said if I don't get this done, then that's that I definitely put my time in. I was walking back from Candlewick Press, and I stopped at Starbucks to get a cup of tea or something. I was just — hairs out to here, eyes are red — I was just so tired.
There was no one in there. I was standing at the counter and that guy was pouring my tea and I was just thinking: you know what, I have one more, it's not really due till tomorrow, and I just slammed my hand right on that table and I said, I have one more night and I'm going to go back and I'm going to draw. And so I got back and I just start drawing and I drew one of the better pencil drawings that I definitely out of the group of drawings, I just handed everything in, and I went back and handed that in and that was it I did the best I can. Eventually I got the call from Chris they said they definitely wanted me to illustrate the book.
That's where it really started and it was my job to go back and just start drawing, start inventing these characters, and I think one of the first drawings I did after that was, was Despereaux, I got him going, and I fell in love with the whole book and everything.
Re-imagining Despereaux – in color
The book finally comes out and everything is done, the cover is done, it's just like, wow we have this in our hand and there it is after all this hard work. And the next exciting moment, I remember I got a call from Karen and she said you have to turn on the "Today Show" right now, and I was standing next to the studio I did all this work and there's TV, and there's Ann Curry holding The Tale of Despereaux, announcing the Newbery winner.
And there's this book I just like did all this hard work and all these illustrations and the cover, I was just looking at that mouse right there on TV and I was — like it was surreal, it was unbelievable.
So, cut to the whole world falling in love with this book and it's just published everywhere, complex Chinese, Hungarian, Czechoslovakian, Japanese, Dutch, just you name it, everywhere. And then we get word it's going to be a movie. So we had a meeting and Candlewick wanted to do something special for a new release of Despereaux and we decided to make a little bit bigger, a slipcase, and go in full color.
Chris Paul says, "Are you sure you want to do all these in color?" And I said, "Yes." And she goes, "Okay let's do it." So I got to revisit all this art and I used oil glazes and just watched these things come into vibrant, just even more life. It was just really fun to do that and very relaxing. Something about it, it was kind of revisiting all that hard work that we went through to get those images and just to be able to enjoy composing that color on there was just a wonderful experience.
So the book looks fantastic. It's bigger, it's got that gorgeous slipcase, the book openers have the full color decorative edge on there and the frame, and then a big gold page opposing that and white crisp pages and big words. It's just beautifully done, gold stamping on the hard cover and everything.
At sea with Dr. Frankenstein
The first illustration project, the first book illustration project was a huge adventure. A trip of a lifetime, literally a trip of a lifetime, sailing from Florida to Guatemala with my dad on a 30 foot boat. And I illustrated my first book called, The Diary of Victor Frankenstein.
So when I was in Pasadena, before I left California, there was an art director that announced to the school I think that she was going to be in this hotel and she had reserved a space there to review portfolios. And I said. "Well I have to do this. Here's an opportunity, I mean, I got to just show my book now. I'm out of school, I need to do these things." So I brought everything down there, and she looked through all these different things I had.
And again little sculptures and sketches. There was a lot of my figure drawing in there and anatomy drawing. And that one thing she was very interested in because she had this project that they were hoping to do. And she asked, she actually asked me, "Would you be interested in illustrating a book?" And I said, "Oh are you kidding me? I would love to." I skipped out there and she said "We are going to stay in touch." And exchange numbers and everything.
And she said, "Well just keep in touch and just keep drawing." So I skipped out of there just like so excited, I couldn't even tell you, just the fact that she even asked, oh a book, are you kidding me? This is going to be great. So we kept in touch for a good, over a half a year, a year, and just once in a while she would say "Are you drawing?" Yep I'm still drawing this is great. [unint.] We're kind of waiting on a writer and this and that.
Meanwhile I had moved back to Cape Cod. And my dad has been learning how to sail his whole life, breaking up his knuckles and his knees and his elbows. Still learning how to move a little tiny sunfish. You know a little boat through the wind. And over the years, five of us are gone from the house. He saves up his pennies and gets a boat worthy of sailing, you know not just in Cape Cod but a whole new world out there.
So he planned a trip to sail from Florida to Guatemala. And he was going to do this and he says. "Now that you're out of college, would you like to go on this trip? And I said, "Oh my god that would be amazing." So again meanwhile waiting for like this project to kind of go through, I'm drawing, I was shown in galleries and doing different things, always drawing.
And a couple of editorial, editorial pieces. And so my Dad says. "Okay we're going to pack up this week. We're going to start provisioning the boat, we're going." I get a phone call and this art director says, "The project's a go. Are you going to be around?" And I can't believe this, I was actually getting sweaty on the phone going, I can't believe this. I can't miss this project, but I can't miss this trip. And I just, I just had so much enthusiasm about this project.
And she said, I said, "Is there anyway", I said, "I'm not going to be around. I have to be honest. I'm going on a trip a huge trip. But it's with my dad, I can illustrate this on this boat, I mean you go to trust me I can do it, I love that kind of adventure." And she says, "I trust, I'm going to trust, go out and buy anything you need. And here's a calling card for around the world." Set me all up. And I did it and I took off. And we sailed.
All the way to Guatemala. Five months just around Cuba, across the Yucatan straight, across the Gulf Stream, over to Mexico, all the way down through Belize. Up into Guatemala, the Rio Dulce. It was amazing. And the whole time I had used willpower everyday. I think I remember reading about Ernest Hemingway, like he would take an allotted amount of time during each day from his fishing and boxing match.
Excuse me boxing matches on the docks and everything to write. And he would go back to his boat and write. So I did the same thing, I would come up from the water, dripping wet, living in just a pair of surf baggies, you know? Mask and snorkel and flippers. And I'd take all that mask and snorkel off and set it over the cockpit and it's just dripping with that Caribbean water, and I'd go into that cockpit and just start drawing. And read that manuscript.
And they wanted that book to look old and they wanted me to write everything all the text on an acetate. And I would read the manuscript and I was writing it out like I was a doctor myself. Writing out this journal like I was experiencing all this stuff, and I would sketch and sketch and sketch what I thought the doctor would sketch.
Palapas, a pig's foot, and the Rio Dulce
So one of the great memories, there's so many different memories in this, in this adventure. This is a trip of a lifetime. So there's huge swells and I couldn't get any drawing done, on the boat. We were anchored off of Belize. And so I said you know what I've heard these little grass hut palapas. These little, well they're grass huts. It looks just like "Gilligan's Island", I've actually said this when I visit schools these little kids, and, "What's Gilligan's Island?"
So for like $8 night you could rent one of these places. So I said, "Dad I'll go in and for a couple of days while we're riding out this storm, I'll crash in one of those little places and just bring my drawing stuff in. I was in this little like wicker table and this little transistor radio, and like, I think just one little station came in, it was like Jimi Hendrix playing or something.
And there I was barefoot with a pair of shorts on drawing. And there was a, there was a part of the manuscript where Dr. Victor Frankenstein was drawing or needed a pig's foot to experiment with electrical impulses and he was using frog's legs and everything. And I was telling my dad about this, I was like. "Oh I'm going to draw a pig's foot." So he went down meanwhile to the little market that was from like 5 a.m. to like 8 a.m.
And he showed up with this little bag and comes into the grass hut and hands it to me. And I was like opened it up, a couple of flies buzzing around, and I said, "No way, look at this." So I actually got to draw from life. And that's in the book and you can see that pig's foot, and I just set it on the table and I did a pen and ink drawing of it. So it just like added to this wonderful experience of being an illustrator.
And I would gather up those drawings and because we were, near a place Belize City, I could actually make a phone call to my editor. And she set-up a flight and would fly me back to New Mexico. They were White Heat publishing back then. And I fly out of the jungle and the one time I took this little tiny plane. It was like no bigger than a Volkswagen and we were like waiting at this little airport that was, the airport was like a little bamboo deck with a little office.
And they said, "Yeah your plane will be here in about 10 minutes." And there's this burnt spot in the jungle, there's sand everywhere and stuff. And here comes this (airplane noises) This little plane (air plane noises) just lands and there's dust everywhere. I was like, "This is amazing." So I say, "See you later dad, I'm going to meet you on the river, the river of sweetness, the Rio Dulce.
And, because we couldn't really contact each other once I left. I hopped that plane, put my backpack full of drawings in there. And I tried to shut the door and the pilot looks over, with his little ear phones and says, "You got slam it." And I just slam that door, the little tin door, and he starts up those propellers and we just took off. And I was looking down at the Caribbean it was just amazing.
Worked for about 3 or 4 days with my publisher. And hand them all the drawings, talked about new stuff, and developing the book. They called New York and said we're going to fly him back to the jungle, do you need anything else? And they fly me back down, and I remember getting on a chicken bus when I got down there, and going through the jungle and we were way back in Guatemala. We stopped at this little village.
There was like little fires going on. And banana leaves everywhere. And these little kids would come on the bus and I was like the biggest person on the bus. And I was the only American, I was white, it was, it was just, it was, it was a neat experience. And they were like touching my legs and giggling, I have hair on my legs. It was like and my big sneakers. You know or sandals and everything. They were just bigger, they were all tiny people.
So that was a really neat experience. And eventually I get this little dugout canoe. I'm just going across that river and the jungle. And I get up to this dock and there it is. It was gosh I can't remember the name of that little marina. Oh, I can't remember it now, it was just special. Suzanna's, I think it was called. So I get up there and there's all these boats that had been sitting in there for so long. They just kind of like live in there and there's cruisers, you know from different parts of the world, just anchored right in that little marina.
And big palm trees hanging over. And I hear this little VHF radio in this little kind of bar area and this is just ropes and dock, creaky wood and everything. And I said, "Can I use that VHF radio?" And I got on there, and my dad's boat's name is Dulcinea and I said, "Dulcinea, Dulcinbea, this is Poncho Sanchez", and I just couldn't believe I hear my dad's voice. He just says, "Go ahead this is Dulcinea" And I just almost, like, cried right there.
I was like I made it back to my dad after huge trip. And we started, we just go on the water again. And there's just a million stories about meeting other captains, that spoke different languages, you know, it was just phenomenal. So the whole time I illustrate that book, The Diary of Victor Frankenstein, and the last leg was when I got finished with the trip back in Florida. They flew me to New York City and I met with Neil Porter.
Who was with D.K Inc. at that time. And that's who published The Diary of Victor Frankenstein and it came out in 1997. So that was my first experience as a book illustrator and I said, "Oh man." That was a trip of a lifetime. Nothing like that has happened like even close but every book is an amazing adventure.