Meet the Illustrator: Tomie dePaola

by the Brightly Editors

Photo credit: Julie Maris/Semel

Tomie dePaola has been contributing to children’s books since 1965, and has won awards such as the Caldecott Medal, Newbery Medal, and Laura Ingalls Wilder Award for his work. He is widely known in homes across the globe for his charming and timeless Strega Nona books, and has illustrated and/or written over 250 children’s books to date. (Go ahead and take a moment to let that sink in.)

We are thrilled — and incredibly honored — to chat with Tomie in the latest installment of our Meet the Illustrator series. Tomie shares the bedtime stories he loved as a child, explains how collecting “stuff” can motivate young artists, and gives shout-outs to other artists who continue to inspire his work.

What first made you excited about art?

As far back as I can remember, my mother read aloud to me every night, mostly from a collection of books called The Children’s Hour. They were excerpts from fairy tales, folk tales, classics, etc., published by Riverside Press, Houghton. They were illustrated with a smattering of full color pictures by a variety of artists, so I was exposed, subconsciously, to many different art styles from a very early age. My favorite was an artist who signed his work H. I. Bacharach. I loved his pictures. I remember as a child poring over them, looking through all ten volumes, just to find Bacharach. (I still have the set of books and on one Bacharach illustration from “The Arabian Nights” I obviously didn’t think Mr. Bacharach had “rouged” the cheeks of the dancing girl enough, so if you look closely, you can see my gentle handiwork with a pink crayon.)

What illustrated book from childhood has stayed with you over the years?

So many illustrated books have stayed with me from my childhood and I had many more than one favorite. As an art student, and eventually a working book illustrator myself, I’ve gone back and revisited many books from my (long ago) childhood. And in only a few cases was I mildly disappointed that the memory was better than the original. The work of Fern Bisel Peat, who was art director and often the only contributor to Children’s Playmate Magazine, is such a case. But, in all honesty, I still do like her work. But, I’ve not been disappointed when I revisited the work of the d’Aulaires, Ernest Shepard, Robert McCloskey, Virginia Lee Burton, and Dorothy Lathrop, to mention a few. Of course, I really remained faithful to my discovery of children’s book illustrators during my art school days: Maurice Sendak, the Provensens, Sheilah Beckett, Feodor Rojankovsky, Gustaf Tenggren, Jan Balet, Fritz Eichenberg, among others.

Where do you find inspiration for your illustrations?

The most asked question from children and adults alike is, “Where do you get your ideas?” And I answer, “From everywhere,” and that is really true. First of all, once I discovered the world of Art, not just Illustration, I began to devour art books, and I still do. I still get excited by Giotto, Fra Angelico, Matisse, Bissier, Ben Shahn, Mark Rothko, Grandma Moses, Anita Lobel, and many others, as well as a host of up-and-coming book artists almost too numerous to name. I’m always thrilled to find “something I’ve never seen before.” Recently, I’ve begun looking at my early work and actually some pieces really re-inspire me.

What does your workspace look like?

My studio (illustration studio — I have a separate painting “area” as well as a computer desk) is a bright space, all white with stuff on the walls that I call my “Household Gods.” It could double as a sort of kitchen. There are drawers and cupboards holding paints and papers and all sorts of other art implements, and lots of surface space that has a distinct tendency to get filled up with jars of paints, lots of pencils and brushes and markers and most importantly — a pile of ERASERS! There’s a TV, which I mostly “listen” to, but look up at every once in a while. It helps to re-focus my “old” eyes. (An eye doctor recommended it years ago.) It’s my Dream Space. I’ve had it for about 15-20 years.

What materials do you most like to use?

I use acrylics these days because of their permanence. I use them in a transparent way (to echo watercolor, which is an unstable medium that fades quickly) and also in an opaque way (much like tempera, which is not “waterproof” when it dries like acrylic). That way I can build up “layers” either transparently or opaquely. I’ve used collage (which I like), pencil, colored pencil, and even markers. I try to be “conversant” in many mediums that an individual book style might secretly dictate.

What design resources would you recommend to young artists?

Years ago when I taught painting, design, and illustration, I encouraged my students to look at as much STUFF as they could — paintings in museums and galleries, illustrations in book and magazines and posters, patterns on fabrics and wallpaper, movies and plays and dance pieces — everything and anything. Just get your eyes and heads full of all sorts of images because you’ll never know when and what you might need to get inspired. I’ll stick to that.

What’s the best name for a color that you’ve ever heard?

I have two “best names” for two colors: “Turquoise” and “Raw Umber.”


Tomie dePaola is the acclaimed author and/or illustrator of more than 250 books for children, including the upcoming The Magical World of Strega Nona. He has received the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award, a Caldecott Honor for Strega Nona, and a Newbery Honor for his autobiographical chapter book, 26 Fairmount Avenue, among many other awards. He lives in New London, New Hampshire.