My name is Don Tate, I am an author and illustrator of children's picture books. I also speak at school and public libraries, and conferences. Here's a brief bio: http://dontate.com/media/
When did you first decide to become an illustrator? Was there a pivotal moment?
At school visits I tell children that I've been drawing since I was old enough to hold a pencil in my hand. That's true. I've never considered doing anything else. In college I focused on illustration (though I'm self taught). In my first few jobs out of college at a print shop and an advertising agency, I was hired as a designer. But my design was illustration heavy. Later I was hired as a designer at an educational publishing company, but soon I became the in-house illustrator.
Who do you look up to? Who are your heroes in the industry?
I have a lot of people in the industry that I look up to and respect. It's hard to pick one or even a few. I especially appreciate illustrators who have a range of styles, like me. Illustrators like Daniel Kirk, Paul O Zelinsky, James Ransome, Eric Rohmann, AG Ford, all have nuanced styles. But I also have a high regard for others like Mark Teague, Kadir Nelson, Brian Selznick, Floyd Cooper, Brian Pinkney. But then there's also newer-comers like Arree Chung and Christian Robinson. And I can't forget the ladies, Melissa Sweet, Shadra Strickland, Vanessa Brantley-Newton, (Editors note: We had the distinct pleasure in interviewing Vanessa last year - http://designinspiration.blogspot.com/2014/09/vanessa-brantley-newton.html) Marla Frazee. And Ashley Bryan, I love his work! See, told you that I could not name a few.
Where does your training come from? Self-taught? College/Art School?
I attended a two-year community college, so I consider myself self-taught. Professional illustrators taught some of the courses, but I don't remember anything about how-to or technique, other than airbrush. They were big on airbrush in college. I've never touched an airbrush since then. I learned by trial and error.
Tell us a little about your process. What tools do you use?
I pride myself on being versatile. I've illustrated books using oils, acrylic, watercolor and pen, digital. Lately I've been using my Cintiq to sketch my books out, and then to establish a color pallet. But I am one who still enjoys getting my fingers wet. With my last few books, I used acrylic watercolors and ink. I'll draw the images out on the Cintiq. I'll print those out and lay them atop a light table, where I can then add pencil or ink. Then I finish with an acrylic watercolor wash.
How do you keep it "fresh"?
I'm not afraid to try something new. In fact with each book, I try to work differently than the previous book. That keeps me from getting stuck in a rut. Also, I try to use my art in different areas other than books. I've illustrated for books, textiles, apparel, wallpaper, digital clip art, calendars.
What are you currently working on?
I have several books that I am working on. Currently I'm illustrating a book called WHOOSH!, the story of inventor Lonnie Johnson who invented the Super Soaker squirt gun. I've finished writing a short story to be included in a middle grade anthology. And I'm working on thumbnails for a book about some homeless street children who some historians credit with creating jazz music.
Which of your projects are you the most proud of? And why?
I am most proud of the books that I wrote -- "It Jes' Happened: When Bill Traylor Started to Draw," and "Poet: The Remarkable Story of George Moses Horton." "It Jes' Happened" won an Ezra Jack Keats New Writer Honor. I always knew that I'd be a visual artist of some kind, I did not think I'd write a book. I take pride in trying new things and finding success in places I never considered before.
Are there any areas, techniques, mediums, projects in your field that you have yet to try?
I've never tried woodcut, though I did experiment with it at a Highlights conference once, in a class taught by Eric Rohmann. I'd like to learn how to paint successfully on my Cintiq. I now spend a lot of time on the road (typing this interview while stuck in a snow storm in Chicago). When I travel, my artwork comes to a stop. I need to be able to take my work on the road with me. Or travel less.
Any advice to the novice illustrator?
Probably seems basic, but you must draw/illustrate a lot. Every day. And some nights. Establish a web presence, so post your work on your website, Facebook, Instagram, and follow others in the industry.
What makes an illustration successful?
Depends upon the context. A successful illustration for a children's book does not complete the text but extends it. Picture book illustrations tell the story that the text can or should not. When someone flips through one of my books and follows the story without reading the text, I've done my job.
What do you do to keep yourself motivated and avoid burn-out?
Ironic. I'm feeling kind of burned out as I type this. Exercise in important. Typically I walk or run, work out at the gym, do yoga. Exercise gives me energy. I'm recovering from a back injury, so I haven't been able to exercise. Explains my current burnout. Also, I collect picture books. My studio bookshelves are filled with picture books that inspire and motivate me.
Finish this sentence. "If I weren't an illustrator I would have been a..."
Bodybuilder. I've always wanted to look like a superhero.
And finally, what is the best thing on TV right now?
Honestly, I do not watch TV. Almost never. As I type this, I'm watching the Super Bowl. I never do that.