James Ransome: Running, Building, and Steering His Career as an Illustrator
Billed as a workshop to help you "Work Long and Prosper," I was expecting the usual 10 tips for finding-the-happy-in-your work or some lame variation of that. Instead, along with the more than 200 people in the room, I got an invitation from acclaimed illustrator James Ransome to come take a look into his life as an illustrator – literally. Known for vibrant colors, striking design, and skillful drawing, Ransome took us inside his studio, thrilling us with a presentation chock-full of slides, showing us exactly how he creates, how he organizes his work, where he sits, why he works in one visual form rather than another at one time versus another, as well as how the hundreds of books lining his studio fuel his art and how his children and wife, author Lesa Cline-Ransome, figure in his creative process.
I'm not an illustrator – indeed, I can't even fake it – but like the professional and wannabe illustrators in that jam-packed conference room, I was mesmerized by Ransome's open, warm, insightful talk about how he, an African-American illustrator of children's books, has successfully built and sustained a long and fruitful career. He has illustrated nearly 50 picture books, book jackets, greeting cards, and magazine features, in a career spanning more than 20 years.
The following day, still holding on to what felt like a chat at Ransome's home – with about 200 more people present – I met author and children's book illustrator Don Tate. I learned that Tate, a champion of diversity and equity in children's literature, interviewed Ransome for the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators conference blog this year. The two illustrators talked about a range of subjects, including the following exchange about artistic challenges:
Don: In the past few years, it seems that you've transitioned in the mediums you use, from oil to watercolors, and now pastel. Can you talk about that transition? What were the challenges, if any?
James: Being an art geek means I enjoy a variety of mediums. I have done books in oils, acrylics, watercolors, pastels and mixed media with collage. The desire to work in different mediums actually comes from a number of sources, but I would guess it mostly comes from a class I teach at Syracuse University. The class is entitled Media Arts Techniques where I teach the students a variety of mediums. So, I spend a good deal of time discussing, discovering new materials and studying artists who work in different disciplines. When I pick up a manuscript, I try to let the text tell me how and what medium needs to be used for the illustrations.
In the future, I plan to work in graphite, gouache, collage as well as digitally.
Ransome's generous sharing at the SCBWI workshop on "Work Long and Prosper" offered a rare, intimate look at his work and indeed his life. Like the vivid colors that are the hallmark of his illustrations, his workshop inspires illustrators everywhere -- far beyond those in the room that day.
James Ransome has been illustrating children's books for over twenty years with almost fifty picture books, many book jackets, greeting cards and pieces in magazines. Winner of several awards for his illustrations, including the Coretta Scott King and NAACP Image Awards, James received his Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in Illustration from Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York. He recently became a published author with his book Gunner, Football Hero. James' work is part of both private and public children's book art collections and a number of commissioned murals, including three for the Underground Railroad Museum in Cincinnati, Ohio. An Assistant Professor in the Illustration Program at Syracuse University, James lives in Rhinebeck, New York, with his wife, author, Lesa Cline-Ransome and their four children.