In August, I had a wonderful opportunity to talk with award-winning poet and painter, Douglas Florian, in New York City. He shared stories about his creative process, writing style, research and art mediums. As I walked around his art studio, I was surrounded by years of his amazing paintings and collage pieces. I was excited! Right away, I could see Florian’s passion and expertise with art. In his studio, huge canvases lined the walls, piles of collage materials were ready to be used, his children’s paintings were framed along the top of the walls and there was a bookshelf full of books (some his own and others for research).
Paige: I appreciate how you creatively try new things for each children’s book. Do you have a favorite poetry style?
Florian: I love a variety and try to have poems with rhythms and emotions in each book. Two or three voice poems, shape poems, poems that move across the page. To make sure the reader accents the right word, I add bold or italic to certain words. Ogden Nash is probably the greatest influence on me, my mentor. I remember in 5th grade discovering his short poems in the library.
Paige: Your themes always make me smile – friendship, nature, animals. Do you have a collection of poems you pull from?
Florian: I like to write fresh poems. If I write 40 poems, 21 will end up in a book.
Paige: Your latest poetry book, Friends & Foes: Poems About Us All, is the perfect classroom read aloud. I appreciated your use of crayons and bright colors. Do you start with pencils or do you dive right in with water colors?
Florian: I start with an outline of colored pencils. Or I will start with colored crayons like in Friends & Foes and Turtle Day. In Friends & Foes, I used crayons and colored pencils on manila paper like kids use. Manila paper really goes well with crayons and creates a nice texture.
Paige: You use so many different art mediums: water color, gouache, colored pencils, candy wrappers, rubber stamps, oil pastels, shredded papers, stencils, primed brown paper bags. All of your illustrations are playful and filled with beautiful colors, do you have a favorite art medium?
Florian: Water Color with Collage
Paige: What is primed brown paper bag? (An art medium in a lot of your books.)
Florian: I take a paper bag like from the super market and open it up. There’s something called Gesso which comes in a big bucket and I thin it with water – otherwise it’s too chunky. Using a thick brush, I paint the the paper bag white. So having the paper bag white lends a brilliance underneath. But at the same time, paper bags don’t buckle so I can add three, four, five layers. A lot of my collages start with primed brown paper bags.
Paige: What is the actual size of your illustrations before they appear in children’s books?
Florian: The illustrations are the same size. I do sketches and send what we call a dummy to my editor. How to Draw a Dragon started as a bedtime story but turned into a school story with all these different kids drawing dragons and then we had to bring it all together. So at the end, there’s an art show at P.S. 117 which was my public school in Queens.
Paige: I love how you connected art, school and friendship together.
Paige: You’ve had several art exhibits in New York City, how do you balance your children’s books vs larger art pieces? Do you ever use designs or collage from your paintings in your children’s books?
Florian: Well, actually the whole idea of doing collage on paper started from a painting. The first children’s book I did with collage was Insectlopedia which became even more popular after Daniel Pinkwater read it on the radio!
Paige: I’ve enjoyed sharing your new board books Play! Play! Play! and Bath! Bath! Bath! What are you working on now?
Florian: I’m working on a new children’s chapter book. Funny stories from my childhood, school adventures illustrated with dark ebony pencil drawings.
Paige: Wonderful news, I can’t wait!
Paige: Where should we go for the latest news about a new book or tour?
Florian: Go to Simon & Schuster for the latest on books. Facebook, or my blog Florian Cafe Blogspot which I need to get back to.
Watch Douglas Florian read “You’re Not My Best Friend” from Friends and Foes: Poems About Us All.
As I walked out of his art studio, all of the images from his poetry books followed me home. Thank you, Douglas Florian, for an amazing afternoon of stories, poems and paintings.
Stay tuned for Part Two: Program Ideas from Poems and Paintings by Douglas Florian.