by Margaret Riedell
An Interview with Children's Book Illustrator
In April 2002, Chris Soentpiet traveled to schools across South
Carolina and shared his illustrations with hundreds of youngsters.
This interview took place following his presentations to Schofield
Middle School students in Aiken, South Carolina.
Q: When did you start drawing and painting?
A: All my life I have drawn. Ever since I was in second grade I
can remember drawing. Of course I was encouraged by my teachers.
I had my first contract when I was still in college.
Q: Who encouraged you to pursue a career as an artist?
A: The person who influenced me the most is a man named Ted Lewin.
He and his wife Betsy Lewin came to my school my senior year in
college. Ted gave a speech and I sat in the audience. I was so inspired
by his artwork because he paints realistically. I wanted to get
to know his artwork better. Actually, we became friends even before
I came to the presentation. We worked out together at the gym. I
didn't even know who he was. I said, Oh my goodness, he looks so
He's my mentor. My major was commercial art and he really encouraged
me to not do graphic design. He said,I don't think you're that good
at graphic design. You'll be better at children's books because
you paint realistically and you do people well. He influenced me
Q: Where did you study?
A: I studied at Pratt Institute which is in Brooklyn in New York
City. I got a full scholarship to attend there.
Q: There's an interesting story about how you got that scholarship.
A: It was due to my high school art teacher. He took my paintings,
sculptures, and collages in my senior year in high school and secretly
made transparency slides out of them and sent them off to all the
art colleges. And that's how I got the scholarship to attend Pratt
Q: So, he had a major influence and impact on you?
A: Yes, he absolutely did.
Q: How exactly did you start your career as a children's book illustrator?
A: From the encouragement of the Lewin's, I made appointments.
I got the addresses from the placement service at Pratt and had
interviews. What I did was take four of my paintings, the ones that
I thought were the best. There is a drop off policy. They won't
accept original artwork because they don't want to be responsible
for damage so you have to give them transparencies of your artwork.
Once they have that, if they like it they'll call you. Most of them
don't call. (laugh) So without an agent, I literally shopped my
stuff around in New York City through different publishers Lothrap,
Lee, and Shepard, who are now owned by Harper Collins, actually
gave me my first chance to write and illustrate. If I had to do
it over again, I would actually get an agent. It would have been
much easier. But what do I know? (laugh)
Q: Who are some of the authors with whom you have worked?
A: Some of the authors I have worked with are Eve Bunting, Marie
Bradby, Cynthia Rylant, Liz Rosenberg, Alice McGill, Susan Newness,
Haemi Balgassi, T. A. Barron, George Ella Lyon, Sharon Dennis Wyeth,
Susan Nanes, and my wife of course, Yin.
Q: How many books have you illustrated?
A: I have illustrated sixteen books. I'm working on the sixteenth
Q: How closely do you work with an author in creating your illustrations?
A: Most authors and illustrators don't work together. I don't work
closely with any authors accept my wife.(laugh) From my past experience,
the book comes out so much better when you do not get to know each
other on a personal level. Most people think the opposite but having
done this many times it works so much better that way.
Q: Do you do research to prepare to illustrate a book on a given
topic or in a given setting?
Oh, absolutely! Researching is basically a third of my preparation
into a project. Because I do a lot of historical books, they require
a lot of research. I always like to go to the location where the
story takes place if I can and if I can't find everything I need
at the library. I do use the library for all of my books. The resources
there are great. But on top of that, I like to go to the locations.
Coolies, takes place from China into San Francisco. My wife Yin
and I actually went to the lower part of China. For Peacebound Trains,
I actually went to Korean War Museum in Seoul Korea to do the research
on the Korean War. For Silver Packages, I went to Appalachia and
took pictures of Cynthia Rylant's hometown, Logan, West Virginia.
For More Than Anything Else I went to Roanoke, Virginia. There's
a museum there for Booker T. Washington. I try to go to the locations
to get the feel of the atmosphere.
Q: Do you take photographs when you are on location? Do you sketch?
A: I do both. I take photographs and make sketches at the location
because sometimes the photographs can't pick up everything. Even
though it looks like it can, because of certain lighting I can't
control the little details. If the light is too low or the speed
of the film is not right, I sketch. They are very quick sketches.
I don't have to make them tight. The sketches are mostly for facts.
Q: Where are you from?
A: I'm from originally Seoul, Korea and I was adopted by an American
family when I was eight and my sister was twelve We traveled quite
a bit. I lived in many different places with my family because they
had different businesses. So I lived in Hawaii, Alaska, and Oregon,
but now I make my home right in New York City.
Q: How does your heritage influence your work?
A: My upbringing has helped me to illustrate. I'll give you an
example. I was adoped from Korea so I already had my Korean life,
heritage, and culture when I came to America. I learned about the
American culture which is completely different. My adopted father
is actually from Indonesia so he brought a lot of his own culture
and my mom is German so she brought the German heritage. Then we
adopted a baby brother who was Hawaiian, so it's really like a United
Nations. Through my upbringing plus living at so many different
locations, I saw so many different people. My short life that I
had as a child, really influenced me more so than just coming from
Korea. My eyes opened up to many different things. My whole life
has just influenced me to paint that type of books.
A: When you take a look at the type of books that I do, they're
mostly human interest stories. But even though I do many different
cultures, they all have the same common thread which is the human
interest story. It doesn't matter if you're rich or poor, you can
still understand them.
Q: How do you decide what mediums to use?
A: The medium that I use right now is watercolor. I have tried
many other mediums: oils, acrylics, gouache, pastels. You name it,
I did it. But once I got hold of watercolor, there was something
about it that I understood right away. I was painting in oils for
so long. When I got into watercolors, something
I guess there
has to be some natural ability there. But I would say it's about
20% natural ability and about 80% learned. Someone had to teach
me how to paint. It's not like I was born one day and I said OK
. But you do have to have some talent You do have to
have some natural eye-hand coordination. With watercolors, I think
there is something in my brain that understood how water worked
in a transparent type of medium. And I understood that part without
being taught. I liked the way the water moved around. So, I guess
I grasped it naturally.
Q: Your use of light is so distinctive. How do you achieve that
A: Light in is very important to achieve a realistic look. Norman
Rockwell used a lot of light. If you want to paint realistically,
using light helps to make something look three-dimensional. You
achieve that sort of glowing look by using light and shadow, especially
shadow. You have to understand how light and shadow work and the
values of colors in order to paint realistically. As an artist I
have to differentiate the values of colors. So let's say I'm looking
at this table and that color is brownish. This Coke (can) is a red
color. I have to know the percentage of each color. So this color
on the table from zero to a hundred on the gray scale, the value
scale, I'm going to say it's about 60%. And then the red is a little
darker so I'm going to say about 70%. So as an artist, I have to
know that in order to paint realistically. The light is achieved
by knowing that value. It's hard. That takes years of training to
understand and learn.
Q: I've seen your presentation and you seem to do the illustration
and come back at the end and insert more light. Is that accurate?
A: I start usually with the dark background. Once I pick that dark
color and put it down, I can judge the values of every other color
against it. So I usually try to pick a dark black and paint that
first. Then looking at that I can judge everything else. If I paint
very lightly at first I can't seem to judge everything else. Then
once the background is done, I can go in with the layering technique
which is going backwards using the light colors and adding them
on top. So that's why knowing the values is very important. If you
don't know values you're going to be sitting there forever. You've
really got to know how to do that.
A: Light symbolizes enlightenment, of coming out of the dark.
In my books, light provides a subliminal message.
Q: You and your wife have collaborated on one book, Coolies. Are
there plans for additional books?
A: Yes! My wife and I have finished a Christmas book. It's actually
a Santa Claus book. So many of my books have very heavy, heavy serious
historical subjects. This one is just plain fun. It has a message
of course but it's a very fun book that all kids and adults will
like. I'm very excited about this book.
Q: When it will be on the market?
A: This November, 2002. We also we have one more book that we're
working on, the Martin Luther King book.
Q: Tell me about the Martin Luther King book.
A: The Martin Luther King book has been worked on for quite some
time. I'm just very flattered that the sister of Dr. King wanted
to work with me. She introduced me at the San Diego International
Reading Association Conference three years ago. She met me and liked
my work in More Than Anything Else.
Q: Will it be a picture book or a chapter book?
A: It's a picture book. It focuses on the childhood aspect because
we have seen so many books on civil rights and all those images.
We all sat down and we said how can we make this book different
from other books? There's no other book out there that actually
focuses on and recreates Dr. King's entire childhood life in a realistic
way. There have been collages or black and white photographs of
their houses but never full-color paintings of their kitchen, of
their living room, the Baptist church, how they actually grew up.
It doesn't focus so much on civil rights but really focuses on the
family. Again, I like to do human interest stories, something that
everybody can understand. I like Martin Luther King and I love his
message but it's really the dad who is remarkable. The book doesn't
focus on him but his dad was a sharecropper who was poor. He built
himself up and became this great minister who loved everybody. They
grew up in the depression era, his house is immaculate, it's not
poor. He did it himself and really instilled education and values.
Q: So, you've been to that location?
A: Oh, yes. I've been to the location. I've interviewed some of
the King family. In fact, I'm going to tell you a little secret
here. The King family's nieces and nephews are the ones that portray
him because I use models. So the nieces and nephews are actually
portraying Dr. King's brother and his sister, Christine. Christine's
daughter is actually portraying her mother in the book, so it's
all connected. I took the pictures at the Ebenezer Church where
he used to preach. I brought the crew with lights and we did it
right upstairs. We were sweating, six hours of photoshooting.
Q: You're working on those illustrations right now?
A: As we speak! In fact I was supposed to be done
A: So we can look forward to the Martin Luther King book that you
are currently completing, as well as the Christmas book with your
wife, Yin that will be available November 2002.
Margaret Riedell is a Professor at the University of South Carolina
Gratitude is extended to Chris Soentpiet who so graciously completed
this interview after delivering three back-to-back presentations
in a very warm auditorium in April. Thanks go to Joan Stevenson
of R.L. Bryan and Jane Sharp of Schofield Middle School who arranged
for Mr. Soentpiet to visit Aiken and conduct this interview.
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