David Diaz defines his approach to art in one word—curiosity. The Caldecott Medal winning illustrator for Smoky Night by Eve Bunting says he continuously asks himself, “How do I draw?” Drawing and painting are lifelong crafts for Diaz—always evolving depending on where his level of curiosity takes him.
According to Diaz, “I try to get to a place where the technique doesn’t get in the way of the art, [capturing] the image as close to the initial moment of inspiration as possible.” Over the course of the three to four months it takes Diaz to illustrate a book he says it is easy to get bogged down in the technique of each painting. His ultimate goal is to produce a comprehensive set of illustrations that tell a story with freshness and spontaneity despite the time the creative process consumes.
One of the most profound influences on Diaz’s work is George Ohr, America’s first art potter. “[Ohr’s artistic] influence is not about the images, but the approach to the work,” says Diaz. “No two pieces are alike; each piece is unique.” Diaz tries to achieve uniqueness by working with a variety of media, often mixing media in one book. He used watercolor and pencil for The Little Scarecrow Boy and pastels for Angel Face. The illustrations for Smoky Night and Wilma Unlimited: How Wilma Rudolph Became the World’s Fastest Woman are acrylic and ink. Textures also creep into Diaz’s two-dimensional pages—he’s painted on wood, paper, masonite, and even used sand and shards of broken pottery in his trademark backgrounds. Although his style may vary between books, Diaz is rewarded when his readers recognize his work from book to book.
Like most illustrators, Diaz has no direct communication with the authors who write the text of the books. An editor sends the manuscript to Diaz’s San Diego studio where Diaz decides if the story resonates with him. “I have to be deeply interested in the story,” says Diaz, “or in the third month [of work] I’m going to be bored to tears.” If Diaz agrees to illustrate a manuscript, he rereads it, making thumbnail sketches and notes in the margins. Then he puts it away for a while.
The next step, the initial conceptualization, is the hardest for Diaz. He defines it as, “What can I pull out [of the text] to create the most interesting picture possible?” In this phase, he determines the technique and media he will use and the pagination of the text. It’s also the phase, according to Diaz, where he’s filled with self-doubt, believing for an instant that he’s used up all of his good ideas.
Diaz also designed the font styles used in some of his books. “God bless the computer,” he quips, because software programs allow him to design each character and import the new font into his project. Going Home by Eve Bunting is an excellent example of the way in which Diaz draws in his readers with the entire design of the book—background photographs, vivid paintings, custom-designed typeface—a Diaz book is a complete artistic experience.
Prior to illustrating books, Diaz was a commercial artist. His high school art teacher first planted the seed that he didn’t have to settle for the stereotypical starving artist role. As an apprentice to sculptor Duane Hanson, Diaz was exposed to what he describes as “top tier” talent. After graduating from The Art Institute in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, Diaz moved to San Diego and began work as an artist, remembering the wisdom of his former art teacher. In addition to drawing and painting, Diaz experiments with ceramics, emulating Ohr’s no-two-alike philosophy. Although Diaz has never illustrated a book using ceramics, he has included some shards of his broken pottery in the backgrounds ofSmoky Night.
“It’s wonderful to be influenced by artists,” says Diaz, “and to take that influence and interpret it and let it come out and still be [my] own voice.”