Kadir Nelson has painted everything from picture book illustrations and fine art to advertisements and album covers. August 23 sees the release of his latest entry under yet another category on his résumé: postage stamps. For the 36th stamp in the U.S. Postal Service’s Black Heritage series, the Coretta Scott King and Caldecott Honor-winning artist painted an oil-on-wood image of Althea Gibson, who in 1957 became the first black tennis player to win at Wimbledon.
Nelson said he enjoys the challenge of working in multiple formats. While children’s books use many images in order to “tell the arc of a story,” he said, “when it comes to illustrating a stamp, you have to do it all in one shot. That one image has to tell a story within itself.”
Easier said than done, of course. “The stamp has to translate to the person who sees it instantaneously, because a stamp is really the size of your thumb,” said Layne Owens, a stamp development specialist at the U.S. Postal Service. “For artists who are used to working on a huge canvas, working on something the size of a stamp is challenging.”
Owens said that Nelson, who also illustrated the 2009 Richard Wright and Anna Julia Cooper stamps, the 2010 Negro Leagues Baseball stamps, and the 2012 Major League Baseball All-Stars stamps, was the Postal Service’s first choice to illustrate the Gibson stamp.
As with any artwork, a stamp illustration requires that the artist consider not only size constraints but also what medium will work best. In Nelson’s early picture books, he worked on paper, but moved away from it both to change his style and to be kinder to his back, which he hunched when he sketched and painted on a drafting table. Now, he tends to work either on wood or on canvas – “whatever I’m in the mood for,” he said.
For his stamps, he chooses wood. With canvas, the texture shows through; wood, he said, provides a smoother, harder, flatter surface” for the paint. The artist paints his stamp images on a piece of wood roughly the size of half a sheet of 8x11 paper, the largest possible for a high-quality reduction to stamp size.
Nelson submitted three possibilities for the Gibson project – one showing her face and two with different body poses. Art director Derry Noyes’s final choice: the tennis star returning a low volley. Nelson painted it more than two years ago. Then the post office competitively bid the printing for 40 million Gibson stamps, which are now sitting in 30,000 post offices awaiting the August 23 on-sale date.
“It’s an honor to create artwork for a postage stamp,” said Nelson. “It’s a piece of history. It’s almost like it’s an official document that’s produced by the United States of America.”
The Althea Gibson stamp will be officially introduced in Flushing, N.Y., home of the U.S. Open (formerly the U.S. National Championship), which Gibson won in 1958.
Nelson’s newest stamp depicts Gibson, a real-life heroine. But U.S. stamps have also featured plenty of characters found in children’s literature. Click here for a sampling, from Louisa May Alcott’s March sisters to Maisy and beyond.