When Rebecca Dudley’s artwork was presented in one of our acquisition meetings, there was immediately a murmur of excitement in the room. We all knew that we were seeing something very, very special. Building her own dioramas and everything in them, from charming forest creatures to tiny individual leaves — and then skillfully photographing them — Dudley is a truly original and unique artist.
Dudley's debut children’s picture book, Hank Finds an Egg, has been described by the New York Times as “a rare picture-book pleasure: a wholly original take on storytelling,” and it has garnered starred reviews from Publishers Weekly and Booklist. PPP recently sat down with Rebecca to ask her about her creative process and to get a sneak peak at some of her behind-the-scenes secrets!
Q: In various reviews, Hank has been referred to as a bear, a monkey, and even a “baby chimpanzee in a bear costume.” The verdict is still out. What exactly IS Hank?
A: I don't mind if people think he is a monkey or a bear, but he is neither. The great thing about working with an animal of no particular species is that I don't have to make Hank behave like a bear or a monkey. Chuck Jones said it was easier to humanize animals than to humanize humans, and I completely agree. Hank is an animal, that's the most important thing.
Q: Tell us a bit about Hank. What makes him "tick" and why do you think children can identify with him?
A: What I remember about being a child is being curious about everything, and Hank is curious about everything too. It is so natural for children to be curious — they have no control over where they are at any given moment, so they have to just make the most of whatever is in front of them. Hank loves to explore wherever he is and have fun with the things he finds around him.
Q: Part of Hank’s visual appeal is that he looks so sweetly handmade — right down to his actual sewn stitches. How long did it take you to make him?
A: Hank took about a month. I made dozens of prototypes. Sometimes they "stand in" for him if I need a reflection or a shadow but not his face or his body. I made patterns but when you are sewing such a small figure the tiniest mistake, even 1/32 of an inch, can completely change his attitude. The head was particularly hard to get just right.
Q: Do you really make everything in the pictures?
A: I do. I have seen lots of pre-made miniatures that are the right scale for Hank to use, but they always look out of place in his world. I prefer to make everything myself.
Q: What type of materials and tools do you use?
A: I use the most ordinary materials available: paper, clay, wire, fabric. That's it. I get nervous working with expensive materials, they feel too precious to experiment with. I have good scissors, an excellent X-acto knife, and a big box of blades. The only fancy equipment I have is a hand-cranked pasta machine which comes in very handy for making thin sheets of clay.
Q: Will you share a photo showing how you make the bird’s wings move?
A: Nope — Sorry! That's TOP SECRET.
Q: What has been the most challenging thing to make (besides Hank of course!)?
A: I experimented with a lot of modeling techniques for the trees. For a long time I was stuck on the idea that there must be a perfect type of paper to use for bark. There is a beautiful dark brown papyrus paper that I thought would look great, but it didn’t. It looked flat. I became discouraged because all the trees I made with paper looked so flat and I wanted to show all the wonderful irregularities of a tree trunk. Then I started thinking about the way the bark shows how a tree grows. The bark stretches and cracks to allow the tree to grow. I decided to try using a material that could stretch and crack, so I started experimenting with clay. That is what you see in the pictures.
Q: One of the most fascinating things about Hank is that he seems so real. And yet his facial expression never actually physically changes. How are you able to convey his different emotions?
A: I love the constraints of working with a character whose face is fixed in a single position. Few compliments are as gratifying as being told Hank’s face is “so expressive!” The book was considered, by some publishers, a risky venture, precisely because his face didn’t “change.” But it does change. I can evoke so many different emotions from Hank by changing the set, his body position, the camera angle and the lighting.
As children, we imagine our toys and stuffed animals are alive and I think children can tell that I take that idea very seriously. The pictures look the way they do because I imagine Hank is alive too. If I rush to take pictures—if I don’t take the time to set him up carefully—the pictures are not good. But if I slow down and imagine what the world looks like through his eyes, then he looks alive.
Q: Do you use studio lighting?
A: Never. I only use daylight from my windows. I tried to use professional photographer's lights for years; I drove myself crazy trying to replicate natural light and finally had to stop. It was obvious that the images lit with window light were so much better than the "professionally lit" images. I have one window behind my set and one to the left. I use reflectors to grab the light from behind the set and point it directly where I need it, sort of like I have a window at the front of the set, but I have more control over it.
Q: How many photographs do you take for each final image?
A: Ha! I try not to think about it because it is such an inefficient process, but OK, I just did a quick count: I took about 22,000 photos for 'Hank Finds an Egg', and there are 59 images in the book. 22,000 divided by 59 images = 372 photos taken for each acceptable final photo. But that's misleading because I know I took over 1,000 photos for some very difficult images, and less than a hundred for a couple images that came together easily. I know. It sounds crazy but I am not shooting a still life. Everything changes as the light changes. Sometimes a car drives by and there is a flash of reflected light that just zaps everything to life. I don't sit around waiting for that, but exciting things happen to the light all the time. I have trees outside my windows, the branches move and create great weird effects. And then there's the weather. Winter light can be great, even though the days are shorter, the leaves are off the oaks outside my windows which makes the studio brighter. But the late spring light with the trees just budding out is really lovely. The changing light makes it really fun. It is as action-packed as shooting a basketball game.
Q: Wow! 22,000 photographs for Hank Finds an Egg! Do you think having to take so many photos is a factor in why there are so few children’s books illustrated with photographs?
A: It definitely makes sense that it was a factor before digital photography. Film processing has always been expensive. Pixels are free! I could never have afforded to do this type of book with film. Although there are a few wonderful precedents for illustrating children’s books with photographs, we have barely scratched the surface. There are so many ways the medium can be used to make inanimate objects seem alive, ways that drawings cannot. I remember getting a chill the first time I noticed that author/illustrator/photographer Dare Wright had flipped a negative for a photo in one of her 'Lonely Doll' books. This made her character Edith seem shockingly alive because her eyes had always ''looked'' to her right, but in this picture they “looked” to her left. I remember thinking, “I knew it! She’s alive!”
Q: Elizabeth Bird, author of the blog A Fuse #8 Production that appears on the School Library Journal website, has described your work as ''beautiful from start to finish.'' In particular, she writes about the primary use of the brown and green woodland tones and how ''against this dull backdrop the white of the egg stands out brilliantly.'' How do you choose the color palettes for your pictures?
A: The color palette is determined completely by the materials I find. Typically I have one or two materials that I need to build the palette around. In 'Hank Finds an Egg' Hank himself and the leaves on the forest floor were the two materials everything else had to work around, because Hank and the leaves appear in almost every scene. The color of the leaves was a little darker than I would have liked but it was close enough to work. The leaves had to be dark enough so that Hank, even in shadow, did not disappear into them. The most important thing about the palette is that everything has its own color and texture so the images are not visually confusing, but, at the same time, it has to look natural.
Q: Do you start by creating sketches before taking photographs?
A: I do. Most are very crude, because I am only using them to remind me of what I want to build. But sometimes I have to return to sketching if I am having a problem with the photograph, for example if a lot of tangencies are happening; If the top of Hank's head coincides with the horizon line I have to change the camera angle, but then the entire composition changes, that's when I return to sketching to clarify what I am trying to achieve with this image.
Q: Are there artists that you feel have inspired you or influenced your picture book illustrations?
A: So many! I love the landscapes of Jacob Isaacksz van Ruisdael, John Constable, Meindert Hobbema, Pierre-Etienne-Theodore Rousseau — they are all so good at evoking the feeling of earth, their paintings smell like earth! I aspire to that. I know it is a little ridiculous to name them as my influences (and Rembrandt too!) but it's exciting to aim high! All the Hudson River Valley painters, also Winslow Homer, Edward Hopper and modern painters Richard Diebenkorn and Wayne Thiebaud — their light is dazzling.
Q: Are there advantages to working with photography vs. another medium?
A: The obvious advantage is that I only have to build something, a tree for example, once. I never have to build it again, and I can photograph it from different angles so nobody can tell I am using the same tree. But I think the best thing about the medium of photography is that I get to be genuinely surprised by some of the images I discover as I move my camera around the set. And the great thing about working with a character that actually exists, physically, is that you can literally spend time with them, without thinking about what may evolve into a story. You can get to know them just by being around them. I was so pleased with the way Hank turned out that I had him accompany me around my house. I saw the way light affected him. Hank on a sunny day looked so different from Hank on a cloudy day. When it rained I noticed he is not a ''run-outside-in-the-rain'' kind of guy. Rather, his temperament suggested ''let’s-look-at-the-rain-through-the-window.'' I feel like we are collaborators. Sometimes it even seems that he is dictating his stories to me.
Q: What, or who has been one of your greatest inspirations?
A: My parents. When I was growing up, they were both great craftspeople — they made dollhouses, kites and a small hot air balloon. My dad made a car! Their ingenuity gave me the impression that if I wanted something I could try to make it myself. And if I wanted to do something I could do it — even if everyone else was doing something different.
• View Rebecca’s blog Storywoods!
• In 2013, Rebecca was the subject of a short documentary film Storywoods, by Mary Horan, in which her creative process was explored. You can view the 8-minute film here.