Do you have a favorite picture book? I have a few, and it’s so delicious when my kids choose one at bedtime that is both visually beautiful and a delight to read. My recommendation: Matthew Forsythe’s Pokko and The Drum. With a background in animation, graphic novels, and painterly illustration, Matthew Forsythe created a children’s book that I want to hold right up to my nose to see all the brush strokes and layers. The story is simple enough for very young kids to follow but has funny, subversive moments that appeal to my son and set it apart from the sea of moralistic picture books.
Our Interview is your kick-start to creation this year: we discuss Forsythe’s career as a working Illustrator, and he gives you permission to stop networking (yes, please).
In teaching his craft to students all over the world, Forsythe has had the opportunity to examine his artistic process, and his interview is equal parts insightful and inspirational. Enjoy!
Berry from Trial by Inspiration: Will you share the story of how you got started as a working illustrator?
Matthew Forsythe @mattforsythe: I did not go to art school. I studied political science and kind of drifted from job to job and traveled in my 20s. When I was teaching kindergarten in Korea, I started making my first book – which was a comic inspired by Korean comics. That did pretty well and a few books later I was able to leave my office job and focus on illustration full time. Very shortly after, I was asked by Cartoon Network to come down to LA to work on Adventure Time as lead designer. I worked on about 100 episodes of that show and then came back to Canada to focus on books.
Anyone who has chosen art as a career, knows there are many sacrifices (personal time, sometimes relationships or friendships, financial stability – especially in the beginning and especially if you’re not well off); but it was something I’ve always wanted to do, so I just kept working at it.
TBI: What are some of the challenges collaborating with an author and editor? Have you had disagreements on content or composition? Was it clear from the beginning what the expectations were, or did you learn with each project?
MF: Everyone always has wonderful ideas. Often there are no right answers, but I’ve learned that if my name is going on the cover of the book – I need to be absolutely happy with what’s inside it. I love notes and criticism from editors and peers, but in the end, we have to make the decisions that are attached to our names.
TBI: How does marketing your work play into your process? Does promoting on Instagram or Twitter come naturally, or have you had to develop it?
MF: I’ve been on the other side of the desk – as an art director looking for artists; so I do tell students – DON’T worry about networking or “getting your work out there” – there are many art directors very actively looking for great new work. With social media it’s very easy to be visible; so don’t worry about that. It’s our challenge to go deeper into our work; and go deeper into our own personal weirdness. I try not to pay attention too much to what other people are doing; especially if it’s exciting – I just want to make the best version of my work that I can make.
TBI: Your illustrations are works of art, but they also speak to my kids. We have other gorgeous books that never get picked to read at bedtime. How do you think about making artful illustrations that are also compelling to children?
MF: Thank you! I think the distinction is in the writing. Anyone who reads to kids knows they don’t really have patience for poor writing. They will literally walk away if they don’t like what they are seeing. There are important energies between text and image and from page to page. There need to be really strong energies between these things or we will lose people.
TBI: Conversely, I still see so many books that seem generic or slapped together. What are some of your pet peeves when it comes to picture book illustration? Anything you advise your students to avoid?
MF: I do recommend students try to use traditional media. I think there is so much beautiful digital work; but it’s so easy to be expressive and unique with paints and paper. It also feels better as a daily practice.
TBI: What I find so compelling about your work is how dynamic your compositions are. Do you have a method or jumping off place when composing your initial thumbnails?
MF: Thanks! This is something I learned from animation. When I work on thumbnails, I try to work quickly to try and capture the movement on each page and from page to page. When you work quickly that comes through. I also feel like I learned a lot about staging and depth and blocking and composition while working in animation. It was like going to art school for me.
TBI: Your latest work has gotten more painterly and layered, especially in The Gold Leaf, The Brilliant Deep and Pokko and the Drum. Can you talk about how your style has evolved and/or how you discovered your favorite materials?
MF: Hand painting everything was actually a rejection of working on a computer for 60 hours a week in animation. When I left LA, I was pretty burnt out and I thought about quitting art altogether; maybe working in a kitchen or something; but then I started playing with a bunch of paints in a junk drawer and that really rekindled my love for illustration and making art.
TBI: In your work, are you more rewarded by your creative process or the end product?
MF: For sure, seeing a book resonate with an audience is incredibly gratifying. But I have to really detach myself from that and focus on the day to day work; which I do really love.
TBI: Where did the idea for Pokko and the Drum come from? Do you plan on writing more picture books?
MF: Pokko is a mix of different elements. The frog character was probably influenced by Over the Garden Wall and Frog and Toad; but conceptually, I wanted to write about a character who does one thing while the background changes around them. Because that’s kind of how I feel about being an artist; we just do what we do every day; and good and bad things happen but we just keep chipping away at our trade.
TBI: Do you have any tips on how to get unstuck creatively, when you can’t find your muse?
MF: Take a walk! I think most of my writing and ideas for imagery and character development come while walking around.
TBI: I have heard many people say they could write and illustrate a children’s book, but it’s not as simple as it looks. Any words of advice to those just getting started?
MF: The advice I give is to never have the image repeat the text. It sounds easy; but it’s very difficult. There’s a great book by Gianni Rodari – called The Grammar of Fantasy – which is all about this binary energy of storytelling. How the differential between one word and another (he calls it the fantastic binomial) and, by extension, the differential between image and text are the engines of story.
TBI: What are you working on now?
MF: I’m working on my next book for Simon & Schuster. It’s called Mina. And it’s about a family of mice that lives in a treehouse. It should be out Spring 2022.
I also illustrated a re-edition of the Grammar of Fantasy, the book I mentioned above – and that should be out later this year from Enchanted Lion.
Animation-wise, I designed a stop motion Christmas movie for Aardman Animation in the UK. It was a dream come true to work with them and see my paintings translated. It’s called Robin Robin and it will be out this fall on Netflix.
TBI: that sounds amazing! I can’t wait to see it.
Thank you so much Matthew for your inspiring interview!
If you want to learn more about Matthew Forsythe’s other books you can check out his website and follow along on Instagram. Need more Matthew Forsythe content? I am totally captivated watching him build up his paint and pencil in this talk with The New York Times.
With the exception of the landing image, all photos are provided by Matthew Forsythe 2021.
*What? No Amazon links? No: All book links go to BookShop.org, an online bookstore that helps support the fragile ecosystem of bookselling and keeps local bookstores an integral part of our culture and communities. Many of the prices are comparable to Amazon, and you’re supporting independent bookshops. Power to the People.