Hi Eric! Tell me a bit about you and your background: where are you from/ where did you study? I was originally born in Hawaii, but we eventually moved to Toronto, Canada where I studied art and film at OCAD University in Toronto.
Have you always wanted to be an illustrator? When did you start working ‘professionally’? I’ve always loved to draw, for as long as I can remember. After going to OCAD I actually wanted to be a screenwriter for a while, with my two other brothers. We had an agent in Hollywood but had to work various non-art-related jobs as we pursued our dream, which eventually turned into a dead end. I didn’t actually get back into art until I happened to see an article in the paper one day about a company called Threadless. It was an online t-shirt site that allowed anyone to enter designs, which were then voted on by the community. When I got my first t-shirt design printed there it was a real thrill, since it was the first time I had ever been paid for a piece of art. I still couldn’t support myself as a full-time artist, but it paved the way for that.
Can you remember some of your earliest influences? As far as picture books, Maurice Sendak was always a big influence. Where the Wild Things Are was my favourite book growing up, and it definitely had a profound effect on my imagination. Other artists that have influenced me are Garth Williams, Ernest H. Shepard, Shaun Tan, Chris Van Alsberg, and too many others to name.
Your works are really meaningful and based on strong concepts? Do you want to talk about the basis behind your books? Thank you! That’s always nice to hear. Ideas can come from a lot of different places. Since I work collaboratively on my books with my brother Terry we’re both constantly trying to think of ideas. Our first book The Night Gardener was originally done as a standalone image for a t-shirt, and later when we were trying to think of a book idea, we went back to that design for inspiration. We also drew inspiration from people we knew – particularly our dad, who helped inspire the character of the Night Gardener. Our dad always had a great love of trees and nature and bonsai and grew up in the Taiwanese countryside. I think living in Toronto, one of the things he missed most was nature and being outside. I can see now that he tried to balance that love of nature with the cold Canadian winters, and so our house was always filled to the rafters with plants and trees, and even had a parrot flying free. Our next book, Ocean Meets Sky, also had its origins as a standalone illustration. You never really know when – or if – an idea will come to you. The best thing you can do is keep working and hope they manifest from the ether.
Which of your projects has been most important to develop your personal style? My style started to develop when I got back into illustration doing t-shirt design. The community of voters there were pretty tough critics, and you would find out very quickly if something wasn’t working. It helped me to develop a tough skin for criticism, and also helped me discover the things about my style that people responded too. It taught me to not try to be something I wasn’t, but instead to focus on those things that were true to me – because ultimately that’s what tends resonate with other people, because it’s usually what you can bring the most authenticity to. When I started doing books I was working with Terry, so both of our styles kind of merged into a new style that is as little distinct from each of us.
Tell us about your latest book which is selected by the Dolly Foundation. The Darkest Dark is a picture book by astronaut Chris Hadfield, co-authored with Kate Fillion. It tells the story of his childhood fear of the dark, and how he overcame that fear to realize his dream of becoming an astronaut. When we were offered the opportunity to illustrate his story we were thrilled, because he’s a Canadian hero and a real inspiration. The story was a lot of fun to illustrate because Chris invited us to his childhood cottage where the story takes place. It’s always great when you can draw inspiration from a real place.
We’ve talked about your background and the way that you have developed as an illustrator, what about clients or publishers! How do you connect with them, do you work with just some special publishing houses or not? Like I mentioned before, Terry and I were both submitting t-shirt designs to Threadless, and also selling artwork and prints on a site called Society6. Our agent, Kirsten Hall, saw our work online and approached us about representation. She was just starting a new children’s book agency called Catbird, and she brought some of our book ideas to Simon & Schuster; the rest, as they say, is history. Sometimes the path somewhere is direct and sometimes it’s meandering – in our case we came to publishing later in life after a very long and circuitous route. It’s always great to work with people who share your vision and passion for a book, and in that regard we’ve been very lucky. Our first book was published by Simon & Schuster, with our editor and art director Christian Trimmer and Lizzy Bromley. Our second book was with Tundra – an imprint of Penguin/Random House, and we worked directly with the publisher, Tara Walker. We also have a book coming out with HarperCollins, with Nancy Inteli and Chelsea Donaldson – so we’ve worked with a few different publishers, and have had amazing experiences with all of them.
In most cases , young artists can’t present their project , do you have any advice for them ? My advice would be to get your work seen by whatever means possible, and by as many people as possible – whether it’s through social media, or the other avenues I mentioned that Terry and I took. It’s actually a great time to be an artist because the internet has opened up the entire world as a potential audience. When I was starting out after art school the only avenue was to take a physical portfolio of artwork from door to door. A more traditional route – but still effective – is to send out a mailer or postcard to agents and publishers. Since most people are using email now, receiving something in the mail actually stands out a bit, because fewer people are doing it.
What factors should illustrators keep in mind when finding ways to improve their work? I still think the best way to continually improve your work is the most old-fashioned – and that’s drawing in a sketchbook every day. It’s a discipline that I need to get back to because it’s so critical. Sketching without any clear direction or agenda is a great way to remain creatively nimble and explore new ideas and styles; there’s really no replacement for it.
And finally, what do you think about social media platforms? do you use, and do you feel social media is very important to your practice? I post my work on Facebook and Instagram, and occasionally Twitter. I think social media is a great way to get your work seen by more people, and I can’t think of any reason why an artist wouldn’t use that as a resource. I think it’s good to step back from it occasionally, of course, but in principle it’s another great way to connect with your audience.
What do you have planned for the future? We have a book coming out next month, Ocean Meets Sky, that we’re excited about. We’re also working on a book called The Scarecrow, by Beth Ferry. Terry and I are doing the illustrations. After that we’re working on our own book, with our other brother Devin. It’s called The Barnabus Project, and will be published by Penguin/Tundra/Random House in Fall 2020.