Some families take their children to art museums, while others don’t have the opportunity or the inclination. Raúl Colón, who grew up in New York City and Puerto Rico, didn’t get to visit an art museum until he was a grownup. “Even though I was an adult, I reacted like a child. The emotions I felt were overwhelming,” he writes in the author’s note that accompanies his wordless picture book, Imagine! The book’s artwork expresses the excitement that comes from encountering great works of art directly, face to face. The boy in the story rides his skateboard across the Brooklyn Bridge to the Museum of Modern Art, where he encounters paintings by Picasso, Matisse, and Rousseau. In a sustained fantasy sequence, the characters in the paintings come to life—animated, perhaps, by the boy’s elation. They dance with him, then set out on a whirlwind tour of beloved New York City landmarks before returning to the museum. PW spoke with Colón about how the project took shape, and how it ended up putting him months behind schedule.
In the author’s note, you talk about how powerful it was to see Van Gogh’s painting “Starry Night” for the first time—the actual painting itself. Before that, you had only seen reproductions. Do you remember where you were when you first encountered Van Gogh’s work?
I probably saw my first Van Gogh paintings in an art book in a local public library in Caguas, Puerto Rico. I must have been 13 or 14 years old. I remember being impressed by Vincent’s unusual use of color, but I was ignorant enough to think, “He can’t draw well.” Of course, time changed all that!
And when you finally got to see the paintings themselves, did you feel joy?
I did feel joy. “Finally, the real thing! And yes, the colors are even more beautiful than any of the reproductions.” It was like I felt his presence by being so close to an object he had actually held in his hands. It kept me fed for years to come.
Did the story of Imagine! take shape the way it is now, or were there other twists and turns to the story?
There were very few changes. At first I was going to have the boy go into the paintings and interact with the objects in the paintings. But I found out that idea has been used a lot. When I started researching, I found films where the characters go into the paintings and the world of the painting becomes 3-D. So then I thought, the boy goes into the first painting, and then everybody follows him out into his world.
Was it always going to be set in the Museum of Modern Art?
Well, the original idea was I wanted it to happen in the Met. But they didn’t have work I wanted. I visited the Museum of Modern Art, I took notes, I picked out the paintings I thought would work. I already knew I wanted Picasso, and I wanted one of the Matisse dance series—I wanted all those dancers to come out and dance with the boy. I wanted “Starry Night”—I was just going to have it as a night scene at the end—but unfortunately that could not work out for copyright reasons.
It took weeks, thinking about it and doing sketches. Then I put it all together. I did tiny little thumbnails. And I thought, “What do they do?” Well, they go on a tour of the city and have a ball. Central Park, the Statue of Liberty, I was going to have them go to the Empire State Building....
I kept drawing these things. It was a funny thing, it just kept growing—I thought, “It’s getting a little out of hand here!”
Did your editor make changes, or offer suggestions about things you hadn’t thought about?
Paula Wiseman was my editor, and no, there weren’t many changes. I thought through all of that when I was working on it by myself. I asked myself questions: “Will my editor tell me I can’t have him crossing the bridge by himself?”
The only issue was the use of the paintings. The museum holds the copyright, so if I was using a painting I had to make sure it wasn’t the full image. I couldn’t show a whole full painting by itself. I had to make sure the boy or something else was in front of it. When the characters came out of the painting I was allowed to change them around. That’s why the Matisse character has a hat and heels.
What role did your art director play?
Laurent Linn and I talked a lot about how we were going to put this together. One of the questions I had was about some of the pages that are multiple panels—whether he wanted them separately, or could I put the images together directly on the page? We worked through things like that, how the title page was going to be laid out—we talked to each other quite a lot.
Did he do the layout?
I did. I combined a little picture book with some graphic novel and some comic book panels... that was what I was thinking.
The boy is like the boy in [Colón’s 2014 picture book] Draw!, but older. Is it meant to be the same boy, and are they both you?
Yeah, it’s supposed to be. It’s not a sequel, but it was going to be the same kind of character, since it was based on some of my own experiences.
The whole trip is his own idea, with no adults in sight. He sails up to the museum and checks his skateboard and helmet at the coatroom like he owns the place
One of the things about living in a city is, you learn certain things. When I moved back to New York from Florida in 1988, I moved to Queens, and you’d see kids, they’d get on the subway with their bikes and ride to Willets Point on the number 7 train and go to the game at Shea Stadium. These were 12-year-olds. In New York in those days you kind of had that savvy. This child knows what he’s doing. He’s street-smart. I’ve always thought children are a lot brighter than we give them credit for. We try to do everything for them and if we just let them do it themselves, they learn.
And the mural the boy draws at the end? He’s talented!
I had to ask myself, should he be a pretty good illustrator? Should he draw stick figures? Then I remembered that I could draw people when I was five or six. I drew a portrait of President Kennedy—my dad taught me how to do the grid system. So I decided, I’ll have the kid be pretty good at it. My parents lost a lot of my drawings. When we moved, forget it. That box ended up in the trash.
You’ve published something like 40 books since your first one in 1995. You started out doing editorial illustrations; do you think that experience made you faster?
You have brought up a good point. With editorial drawing, you have to think fast. You have to come up with two or three concepts using horizontal thinking, conceptual thinking.
It’s where you put two things together that are not related to each other. Like Gutenberg’s printing press. He took a wine press that rotated to press grapes and the stamp used to seal letters and he said, “What if I put them together and use the press to stamp the letters into the paper?”
In editorial you have to have an idea yesterday. When the Berlin Wall went down I had an assignment Monday, and they needed sketches by Tuesday evening. A full cover. That’s an all-nighter. Then they called back and said, “We need it Tuesday morning.” So yeah, that may help when coming up with ideas for a book. Some editorial artists can’t even do books. For them it’s too slow.
And you don’t work with digital media at all, right? It’s all layers of colored pencil and watercolor?
Right. I’m an analog being. I like working with my hands.
One of the most distinctive things about your artwork is those hatched lines—it makes the work look like a print, like an etching.
Yeah, it’s called a scratcher. I used to work at a closed circuit TV station for the Broward County [Florida] school system and my boss used to buy art materials. She bought this metal piece for doing scratchboard and it was lying around and no one was using it, so I played with it. But instead of doing scratchboard, I started etching into the paper and using the colored pencil with it.
What are you working on now?
I’m working with Paula on a biography of a physicist. And I’m finishing that because I have another book I’m working on. This all happened because of Imagine! I felt I needed more illustrations, more pages. Draw! was 32 pages and Imagine! is 10 more pages than that. I knew it was going to take time, and it did, and I’m finally catching up.
I think it’s time to take a little break, not do so many books. I have enough of a body of work that I’m hoping I can go out there and talk to people about the books. That’s what I’m looking forward to.
Imagine! by Raúl Colón. S&S/Wiseman, $17.99 Sept. 11 ISBN 978-1-4814-6273-0