It would take a very advanced calculator to tally up the hours my children have spent absorbed in the work of Lane Smith, whose smudgecore aesthetic defies the idea that an image can ever be fully appreciated the first time you see it. The compounding layers and layers create an aliveness that pulls you close in the manner of the leaves and branches which inspire him. There is an awe to the intricacy of it all, which happens to be the subject of his latest book, Stickler. We spoke with Lane recently about the creation of that book and the joys of animal neighbors.
This book is a celebration of our world, one which operates on the belief that around every corner is something ‘so amazing, so weird, so wonderful.’ So it’s an interesting choice to open with a dark forest, ‘where shadow met tree,’ filled with scary-looking creatures with too many eyes. What went into the decision to begin a book about love on an image that evokes fear?
Maybe “mystery” is a better word for it. Some kids (and many more adults), are afraid of what they don’t understand. Stickler is an unusual-looking creature made entirely of sticks. I thought it would be intriguing to begin page one with several nebulous, multi-limbed, multi-eyed shapes in shadow. When the page is turned, the fog has lifted, sunlight slants through the forest and there is an explanation: the shapes are only trees, the eyes belonging to several birds, mice and squirrels. The gag is Stickler is the only shape left that still cannot be explained—What is that? It remains one odd-looking, multi-eyed being, and we might be a little dubious about its motives until the next page when we find that Stickler is the most joyous, happiest ambassador of our weird and amazing natural world one could ever hope to meet.
You describe Stickler as the strangest creature in the forest. What, to you, makes it strange?
Only its appearance, like many creatures of the natural world. Occasionally grown-ups say my characters look “too fantastical.” I say, “Ever see a blobfish? A platypus? An aye-aye?”
It’s celebrated for so many of its aspects, but to me your work is always a fascinating study in texture. Looking through this book, I see — and please forgive my amateur language here — scratches, smudges, washes, trickles, prickles, veins, splatters, spotting… There’s a whole grammar of texture here, and I wonder if you could share a little about your process. Do you illustrate with flat fields of color first and then add the texture? Since realism isn’t the goal, how do you know when you’ve landed on the right texture for a certain object?
“Scratches, smudges, washes, trickles, prickles, veins, splatters and spotting” are what excite me most about painting. In grade school we finger-paint and glue colored tissue papers together and use markers on tin foil. Then we go to art school and de-learn all that. However, I still experiment like a first grader. I usually start with oil paint but I might mix dirt into the wet paint. Later I might use sandpaper to sand off paint layers. Sometimes I paint with my fingers, sometimes I collage onto the illustration bits of torn paper or printed ephemera. Today nearly everyone works to some extent digitally. I do too. It’s another tool to play with. I scan all of my elements into the computer. I might rearrange things. I might draw with an Apple pencil, or an actual No.2 pencil over my painted surfaces. I play it by ear. I’ve been illustrating for forty years. It’s still fun for me.
By the end of the story, Stickler’s friend Crow — a jaded, world-weary traveler who’s seen everything there is to see and can never be impressed by anything anymore — is able to ‘see it all anew.’ Could you describe the last time that happened for you, the last time you were able to see it all anew? Who are the Sticklers in your life?
Isn’t Stickler the perfect spokes-creature for Orion? Stickler is all about the wonders of nature from the vast cosmos to the humble brown stick. And you may have noticed, the only disrupter in the story is the human-made tin can Crow gets his head stuck in.
My wife Molly Leach, the designer of all my books, and I lived in New York City for many years. There, I was inspired by weathered paint on walls or the texture of the concrete or a little weed breaking through the sidewalk. Around 2000 we moved to Litchfield County, Connecticut, and suddenly the palette changed, everything was new. At once, my books incorporated much more natural elements. It was an eye opener. Like a second childhood. Molly and I walk nearly every day or somedays I go it alone with our dog and cat who love exploring as much as I do. So much to see. The colors! The patterns! The critters!
One specific eye-opening incident: Not long after we moved to Connecticut there was a commotion in the middle of the night. We turned on the light to find the cat staring at a big-eyed trespasser. We didn’t know what it was at first. It was the most amazing thing we had ever seen (sitting on our shiny new kitchen countertop). It was a flying squirrel. Wonders! It was more fantastic than anything I could have drawn. The next day a very kind and gentle man relocated the squirrel (and her large extended family) to a wooded area miles away.
When you work, what do you see out your window?
I work in a refurbished barn. Looking out my window I see a gargantuan expressive tree in our backyard with an enormous zig-zagging branch that points to a bed of moss-covered boulders. Over there is a pond with a tall birch tree reflected in it. I see Ray, a Northern water snake sunning himself in his usual spot. Back the other way I see the hummingbird feeder all abuzz with little ‘helicopters’ and behind it an old ice house that is full of, what I think are, wolf spiders. On the house’s exterior is a hole made by a woodpecker and later nested by a Carolina wren. It’s all pretty inspiring.
Lane Smith is the author-illustrator of numerous award-winning and bestselling books for children. He is the recipient of the Kate Greenaway Medal, two Caldecott Honors, five New York Times Best Illustrated Book selections, and lifetime achievements from the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art and the Society of illustrators.