“I’ve finally finished the last painting for Dust Devil, Anne Isaacs’s sequel to Swamp Angel, and what a struggle it’s been! What was the struggle, exactly? I’m already beginning to forget. If only I had kept a journal!”
That entry, dated December 1, 2009, opens Caldecott Medalist Paul O. Zelinsky’s faux journal entitled “What I Did for Wood Or Making the Art for a Book Called Dust Devil: A Memoir.”
The Dust Devil picture book, a September release from Random House’s Schwartz & Wade Books, tells how larger-than-life heroine Swamp Angel rides a dust storm into submission and finds a horse—Dust Devil—at its center. Here’s how the journal—and the illustrations—came to be.
We'll start the story with Zelinsky’s visit to his publisher’s offices last March, when he displayed his finished art for Dust Devil to staffers, and talk ed about the process of creating his oil paintings on wood. “We had a great art show, and then Paul began talking about some of the problems he had along the way,” says Lee Wade, v-p and publisher of Schwartz & Wade, who was the book’s art director. “He had us all on the edge of our seats, since he has such a funny, natural way of telling a story. We were all so engrossed, and the idea of having him write the story down just popped up. It seemed to make perfect sense.”
Zelinsky obliged. “I realized that it would have been nice to keep track of each step as I went along, but I hadn’t, so instead I decided I’d completely fake a journal,” he says. “In the spirit of Dust Devil—a tall tale—I knew I could exaggerate a bit here and there.”
At the heart of the artist’s saga is the quest to find the right woods on which to paint his illustrations. At New York Central Art Supply, he found samples of “super-thin” wood veneer in cedar and aspen, both of which are woods he deemed well suited to Dust Devil’s northwestern setting. But then Zelinsky was told that the supplier could not cut the veneer to a size large enough for his purposes. “What a shame. What a horrible shame,” he writes in his journal.
While he procrastinated solving the veneer issue, Zelinsky encountered other problems as he created his preliminary sketches on paper: what should villain Backward Bart look like, and how could the artist improve on his horses? (“Those back legs always look weird when I draw them,” he wrote.)
When he did resume his search for suitable veneer to paint on, Zelinsky encountered several dead ends. An online vendor had cedar available—but when it was delivered it was too thick for his purposes and the grain was wrong. On another Web site he learned of a Belgian company from which he ordered samples of cedar and maple veneer that arrived in such small sizes that he couldn’t determine the maple’s grain—and the “cedar” was actually from an African tree in the mahogany family. “WAAH!” he exclaimed in his journal.
The cedar and aspen veneer that Zelinsky finally special ordered from New York Central wasn’t exactly what he expected. “When it arrived, the cedar was actually purple,” he recalls. “And the aspen was white. It would have been like painting on plain white paper.” But the inventive illustrator figured out a way to meet this latest challenge. “I was hoping that exposure to air and sun would turn the cedar from purple to brown, so I lay it out on every available surface in my studio and gradually it lost its purple color—but it took weeks. And I ended up staining the aspen.” Two varieties of maple—one procured from Belgium after frustrating communication problems and delays—rounded out the selection of woods for Dust Devil.
The next hurdle? “The wood didn’t take the paint,” says the artist, who notes in his journal that it was “like sliding paint around on glass.” He couldn’t understand why, since with Swamp Angel, which went on to win a Caldecott Honor, “the wood was a joy to paint on. I think maybe the technology has gotten so good that the lasers now make thinner and thinner slices from the logs, and it is so smooth a cut that there isn’t any longer the same texture to the wood.”
After overcoming that obstacle and persevering with his painting, one more presented itself. Some of the maple wouldn’t lay flat, so Zelinsky had a framer dry-mount it to heavy paper, yet that didn’t keep it from curling. Gluing the maple onto cardboard before applying polyurethane did the trick—but later Zelinsky discovered that the resulting size of the art precluded it from fitting on a drum scanner. Bravely, the artist “did what no one else dared to do and ripped the paper off the back, and the maple then separated into two smaller sheets that could fit on the scanner. They immediately curled up—but luckily curled in the right direction so they worked in the drum scanner.”
As he held a finished copy of Dust Devil in his hands several weeks ago, the ordeal seemed well worth it, says Zelinsky. “It was incredible to see that first copy. I turned the pages and thought about how hard this material had fought me—and how hard I had to fight it.”
Wade is equally thrilled with the finished book. “Paul is incredibly meticulous and amazingly creative and thoughtful about every stage of a book’s creation, and the issue of the wood was just one small part of the creation of this magnificent book,” she remarks. “He spends a lot of time working out every detail, yet he is also practical and can let go when limitations present themselves. That’s a great quality.”
Asked if he’ll tackle another book project that involves painting on wood, Zelinsky says, “That is something I’m happy not to think about for a good long time. I do have a lot of leftover veneer sitting in my drawers. It’s sort of beckoning to me—in the way that the Sirens beckoned to Odysseus. I look at it and tell myself I should be very careful.”
He has already found one use for the leftover cedar veneer. “I went to ALA last month and, hoping to get some notice for Dust Devil, I made a bow tie out of cedar to wear while I was there. I think at this point I am more inclined to think of alternative uses for the veneer other than painting on it. And I certainly have enough left for lots of bow ties.”
Dust Devil by Anne Isaacs, illus. by Paul O. Zelinsky. Random/Schwartz & Wade, $17.99 Sept. ISBN 978-0-375-86722-4