Although he lost an eye as a child, Tim Ladwig is today a renowned children’s book illustrator.
He believes that the art in picture books can be life-affecting. “Children respond to what is true,” he says.
Ladwig remembers as a child being moved by a picture book about the life of Jesus as seen through the Apostle Peter’s eyes. He remembers thinking, “This really happened in this world. It triggered my faith.” Ladwig’s Psalm Twenty-Three, which won the American Bookseller Pick of the Lists Award, portrays the universal reality of the psalm through vivid images of an inner-city black family.
“Psalm Twenty-three is familiar to almost everyone,” says Ladwig, “but because it is so familiar, we don’t enter into its beautiful truth: the Lord’s care and presence are real no matter who or where we are.”
Ladwig visually translates the ancient prayer of a Hebrew shepherd into the contemporary trust of two children living with their grandparents in Newark, N.J. They live joyfully and courageously amidst urban dangers, but like the psalmist, they rely on the Lord.
The artist worked for 15 years in the African-American community of Wichita, Kan. with World Impact, an inner-city mission. He also worked in Newark, N.J. and Los Angeles teaching in teen Bible clubs, helping with reading enrichment programs and assisting in the mission’s elementary schools.
While teaching art classes in Newark Christian School, Ladwig had a discussion with the principal about the need for culturally accurate children’s books. That discussion led to the painting of Psalm 23.
Ladwig believes an illustrator must be able to tell a story without words and have a sense of playfulness.
“Too often illustrators are out to impress other illustrators which results in art books but not children’s books. I have to watch that I keep the work playful. Sometimes sophistication masks sincerity. And an illustration for a children’s picture book should have a sense of wonder. Stars are pinpricks in the sky where heaven pokes through. “And the better the marriage of words and art, the more wonderful the book. When teamed with a good illustrator, a writer can be economical with words. Pictures do some of the storytelling. Like a movie, a picture book must move and not be slowed down by words.”
After the publisher sends Ladwig the writer’s manuscript, Ladwig divides the text into scenes. He then sketches all the scenes on one page so he can see how they flow. There is no detail at this stage.
“It is one step above scribbling. Nobody but me knows what it means.” Like a film director, Ladwig works hard at a variety of viewpoints: some crane shots or aerial views, some at ground level, some close-ups, some wide-angle cityscapes.
Next he works on full-size “roughs.” When drawing figures he uses his wife Leah and their children Briana, 5, Makalya, 4, and David, nearly 1, as models. He takes photos of their poses with an inexpensive camera. Such poses show him how fabric hangs or how light hits a face. He purposely works with a poor camera so he does not become “too married to the photo reference” but flexes his imagination instead.
Then he must decide on type placement so that it neither obscures nor crowds his art.
Usually he completes the cover first because the publisher needs it for promotional purposes. And hemust get the cover right, because it sets the tone for the whole book.
Working an eight-hour day, it takes a week to paint one illustration. He starts with one he really wants to paint. He saves the most difficult for about two-thirds through the painting process and the easiest for last—just before the deadline. He can comfortably finish a picture book in six months.
Ladwig illustrated Walter Wangerin’s Probity Jones and the Fear Not Angel which also features an urban black family. He also illustrated Morning Has Broken and Margaret Hodges’ Silent Night. Just released this fall, Mary’s First Christmas, also written by Wangerin, has Mary telling the young Jesus of his birth.
Ladwig is currently illustrating The Lord’s Prayer. Again it will feature a black family, but this time set in a western city. The Ladwigs live in Wichita, Kan.
Ladwig believes, “Kids need friends and books are friends.” And he loves his work. “I couldn’t do anything else,” he says.
Sue Careless interviewed Tim Ladwig at the Faith and Writing Conference at Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Mich., in April 1998.