Author Interview: David Frampton

David Frampton has been writing and illustrating books for young readers for thirty years. Some of his honored works include The Whole Night Through (HarperCollins), My Son John written by Jim Aylesworth (Henry Holt), and Rhyolite written by Diane Siebert (Clarion). David Frampton grew up in Brooklyn, New York and lives in Apex, North Carolina.

Books by David Frampton
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What made you decide to become an illustrator?
David Frampton: One night, as I lay sleeping, I woke to the clickety, clickety sound of someone shooting a toy cowboy gun. It's a sound that all little boys loved and recognized back then (1940s). I got out of bed and followed the sound into my father's studio where every shelf, table, and chair was packed with beautiful bright and shiny toys. It was like walking into Santa's workshop.

My father was an illustrator back when artists did all the advertising art the photographers do today. His assignment was to do a double-page spread of all these toys for a New York newspaper. It was then that I thought to myself, "This guy has a pretty good job. He gets to stay up late and play with toys. I think I would like to be an illustrator when I grow up."

What's a typical workday like?
David Frampton: I get up. I eat. I go into my studio and start doing art. In this studio there is a phone. The only people that have the number are my publisher, my rep, and my brother. No other people. No other relative. No other distractions. (When the grandchildren come over, I forget about doing art and instead I concentrate on some serious play time.) I work every day and every holiday. I worry that I will "kick the bucket" before I can get all the books done that I have to do. I have had the same worry since I was a freshman at the Rhode Island School of Design some forty years ago. Incidentally, that is where I first thought about illustrating my latest book, Mr. Ferlinghetti's Poem [forthcoming from Eerdmans in September 2006]. I had been thinking about it and drawing about it for all these years. So you see, I probably will "kick the bucket" before I finish all the projects I am working on. When I finish work for the day, I eat, read Dickens, and then go to sleep to dream of making some really nice pictures.
Do you do any research before you begin illustrating?
David Frampton: Yes, for example with Rhyolite [Clarion Books, 2003], which is a book about an authentic American ghost town, I spent a week in the Nevada desert at the site of the town. I did sketches. I took pictures. I went to libraries and museums to gather information about the town so that my pictures would be right and true. The most fun part of the trip was sitting in the ruins of the old school house trying to imagine what it would be like to be a kid going to school in that beautiful desert. The view out the school windows was so spectacular and inviting that I don't know how any kid could concentrate on school work.
an you describe the process of making the woodcuts?
David Frampton: Often when I describe the process to someone and they come to realize just how involved and time consuming the process is, they inevitably ask, "Couldn't you get the job done faster and easier with paint or crayons?" The answer is "yes," but it's not as much fun. I just like doing woodcuts. When you look at the finished print it has a certain look, a look that says, "This picture was done by hand." You can see the process in the picture itself. You can see that someone took a flat piece of wood and carved a picture on it. You can see that paint was applied to that surface and then that surface was pressed against a piece of paper. It is kind of like when your young nephew comes in the house and presses his hands on the wall. It's simple, it's direct, it's a print. The process gets a bit more complicated when you start adding more colors. This would require your nephew to invite all his friends to come in and each press their hands on the same spot but with a different color dirt on each kid's hand. The challenge, of course, is to carve the wood in such a way that when you print it you have something that looks better than the print that your nephew left on the wall.
Do you do many drafts?
David Frampton: By drafts I assume you mean the drawings I do on paper that I will eventually transfer to the wood. Yes, I do many drawings first to get the image right. Then I put the drawing on wood and start cutting.
Do you have any advice for would-be illustrators?
David Frampton: Once when I was a kid riding the school bus, a girl (upperclassman) came and sat by me. She knew I was one of those geeks that did art so she got right to the point. She said, "Let me see your thumbs." I held up my thumbs. She looked. She frowned. She said, "Real artists have thumbs that bend way back at the joint." Mine did not. I was devastated. I wanted to be an artist, so I began to practice bending my thumbs back. It hurt somewhat. It was not fun.

About six months later, the same girl sat beside me on the bus with another piece of art information. She said, "All 'real' artists have a highly developed sense of humor." I sat there thinking, "How am I supposed to be funny with my thumbs in so much pain?" Here is my advice to aspiring illustrators: If it's not fun, don't do it. And try to avoid public transportation.

What characteristics do illustrators need most?
David Frampton: We are talking illustrators here, not Sunday painters, right? Some people work well under pressure and some people don't. The people that don't are not illustrators.

Here is a little test you can give yourself to see if you would make a good illustrator. I am going to take a line from a movie and I want you to spend a minute thinking about how you would illustrate that line. To make the test just a bit more difficult, let's not think pencil or brush to illustrate the line. Let's use another means of expression, dance. So what you have to do is think about the movie line and try to figure out how you can convey the meaning of that line through the art of dance. Once you have come up with an idea, then go find someone to watch you dance, so you will know if you did a good job of getting the meaning across. Ok, here is a line from the movie As Good As It Gets: "You make me want to be a better man." Are you thinking? Is it a tough assignment? Do you feel pressure? Nervous? Fear? You should, these are the same feelings that illustrators feel before starting every assignment. It's what drives them to do their best. Are you still thinking about how you would do the assignment? If you are, then you would probably make a good illustrator.

I am not sure what word to use to give a name to the actual characteristic I am trying to describe. Actually I would guess there are many important characteristics a person would need to be a good illustrator. But I am not going to think about it now because I need to go find someone to watch me dance.

Can you tell us one thing people may not know about you?
David Frampton: Sure. I have never owned a TV. I don't think they are good for children or grown-ups or any of the other life forms on the planet.