Michael Garland’s artistic development began when he picked up his first crayon. “My parents would make a big deal over anything I drew or painted,” he says. After the first few days of kindergarten, he knew his artistic abilities surpassed those of his classmates. He remembers copying Disney cartoons early in his school career, then moving on to DC Comics and Mad Magazine as he got older. “Teachers never held up my math tests,” he says, “but they held up my pictures. It was a constant affirmation that [drawing] was my thing.”
Garland parlayed his talent into a successful freelance commercial illustration business with high-profile credits like Forbes, Fortune, and Newsweek. He learned to do everything—from textbook illustrations to magazine covers to book covers—stringing together a 32-year career. His break into children’s books occurred after he illustrated book covers for some of HarperCollins’ backlist titles. Sales of the books picked up immediately and editors asked him if he’d like to illustrate children’s picture books. At the time, Garland knew that 18 paintings in a picture book paid far less than his commercial illustration jobs. He countered with an idea for his own picture book where he didn’t have to share the royalty with an author.
“I realized that I wanted to write after years of illustrating other authors’ work,” says Garland. But he knew he had to prove himself. “Everyone thought of me as an illustrator; the author was always someone else.”
My Cousin Katie, Garland’s first book that he wrote and illustrated, developed from a walk he took with his daughter around his sister-in-law’s farm. During the walk, Garland’s daughter asked questions like, “Why do cows switch their tails?” and “Why do cows eat grass?” The question-answer pattern became the structure of his book. Using his daughter as a model, Garland’s illustrations evoke the Hudson River landscapes he was painting at the time.
Garland’s favorite character is Miss Smith, the perky red-haired heroine from Miss Smith’s Incredible Storybook and Miss Smith Reads Again! “She is a metaphor for reading,” says Garland. The better the book, the more involved readers get. In a great book, readers are transported to another time and place. According to Garland, “Miss Smith represents all the teachers who inspire kids to begin the adventure of reading.”
Garland just completed his 20th book as author/illustrator and has illustrated 25 more books for other authors. His luminous illustrations have wide appeal. Although he describes his style as, “progressive and eclectic, constantly changing and developing,” one can immediately recognize a Michael Garland painting by its intensity of color and the expressions on his characters’ faces that convey a wealth of emotion. In earlier books he used nearly every medium—oil, watercolor, pastel, collage, pencil, ink, and woodcut—but now he prefers the digital medium for its flexibility. “I can be much more creative because I’m not bound by the physical limitations of traditional mediums.”
He begins illustrating each book with simple character sketches, followed by rough sketches in half-size scale that he scans into the computer. “I work in Adobe Photoshop mostly,” he says. “In Photoshop you can work in layers. The top layer is my sketch that serves as a template. Ultimately, I delete the sketch after I have painted all the elements below on separate layers. I work freely, adding scanned textures, patterns, and bits of old etchings where I think they work.”
This year, Garland and his wife, Peggy, are supporting three children in college. “Buy my books!” he quips. So more than ever, he’s motivated to be as prolific as possible. Depending on the project, Garland writes early in the morning from his Patterson, New York home. “My brain is freshest in the morning,” he says. Then he’ll work on sketches or final art. “I’ll end the day with some form of exercise.”
Garland attributes his success to “leaving his mind open and receptive to moments of inspiration.” He says, “Once that seed of inspiration appears you need to take the time and energy to cultivate it.” His books are stories he would have liked as a child; and his readers confirm this opinion. The most often repeated statement in his fan mail is, “Your books are awesome!”