Elisha Cooper is the 2018 Caldecott Honor-winning artist of Big Cat, Little Cat and its 2021 companion novel, Yes & No (both Roaring Brook). He is the author-illustrator of many other books for young readers, including Train, Farm, Beach, 8: An Animal Alphabet, and River. He lives with his family and two cats in New York City. Here, Cooper reflects on the frustrating, and ultimately humbling, experience of creating the art for Yes & No.
There was something wrong with the paper. After painting an ink outline—a puppy in my next children’s book—I filled another brush with watercolor and washed it across the paper. But something was off. When watercolor reacts well with paper it’s like oil spreading across the surface of a smooth pond. But here the reaction was like oil spreading across a sidewalk. Sludgy, granular. This was disconcerting. And baffling, as it was happening only with half of my paintings.
I biked to my art store and complained.
“Something is wrong with your paper,” I said to the worker at Da Vinci Artists Supply, who stared at me. Some sheets were good, I explained. Some were bad. The worker said she’d never heard of such paper. I bought more paper and biked down 5th Avenue, holding the huge sheets in front of me like a sail.
But the next day was the same.
I stared at my painting, ripped it up, tried to breathe. A morning’s work ruined. Though not entirely—a few paintings came out fine—so I taped those above my desk and wondered what was wrong.
I was new to this paper. I’d painted most of my previous books on Strathmore paper, but had been seduced by what I heard was the highest quality paper: Fabriano Artistico. Thick, expensive, Italian. It came in big uncut 30x22 inch sheets. Hot press, 300 lb., extra white. When I painted River on this paper, it felt luxurious, the paper smooth and warm beneath my hands, my fingers barely registering the Fabriano watermark on one side, and the paintings flowed out of me on my first attempt. But with this new book, something was different. I was a little flustered inking the puppy, sometimes turning the paper over and painting the other side, trying to get his expression right.
I decided to switch art stores. I went to BLICK Art Materials in Soho, theorizing that an entire batch of paper might have been bad. I bought their Fabriano Artistico, came home, inked, painted, watched the watercolor turn to sludge, yelled, woke up my cats, took the subway to the BLICK store in Harlem, explained the good/bad paper situation, bought all their Fabriano Artistico paper, came home, inked, painted, watched the watercolor turn to sludge, gave up, and went for a run along the river.
At dinner, I told my family about my day. My daughters stared at me with the same blank expression as the workers at the art stores. I tried to appear calm and show them how adults deal with frustration: It’ll be okay. It’ll be okay. It’ll be better tomorrow.
Days tumbled into weeks. Ripped-up paper spilled out of my garbage can and covered the floor around my desk in a tangled nest that my cats liked to play in.
I asked other artists for advice. I met my friend Brian Floca for coffee and told him about my paper problem.
“Hmm, that’s weird,” Brian said. Then we spent an enjoyable hour talking about Texas, bourbon, and cattle-rustling.
I went to Soho Art Materials and bought their Fabriano Artistico, I went to BLICK in Brooklyn and bought theirs. I ordered paper from an art store in Bushwick. At all the stores, I explained what was wrong. Once home, I ran my fingers over the paper and tried to guess if that individual sheet was good or bad, my eyes an inch from the surface. I smelled it. I thought about tasting it. Then I’d spend a day inking the landscape of a peaceful field, and when I started to paint, watch the field turn to mud. Days ruined, weeks lost. Sometimes, though, my paintings were fine, and I couldn’t understand why. Was the paper conspiring against me? This was paper paranoia.
About two months into painting the book I feared I was losing my mind. And, my money. I think I’d bought up every sheet of Fabriano Artistico Hot Press 300 lb. extra white in New York City. If that was your paper, and you couldn’t find it a few summers ago, I’m sorry.
One night (well, it was two in the morning), I was at my desk testing the paper. I was cutting small pieces off each sheet, testing them with a wash of blue to see if the piece was good or bad, when one of the bad pieces fell to the floor, and flipped over. I picked it up, painted the other side, and the wash was perfect.
There are moments in everyone’s life when they realize, with a slow intake of breath, that they are an idiot. This was that moment. The paper had two sides. One treated, one not.
Maybe it wasn’t obvious. My fingers couldn’t differentiate between the two sides. More importantly, my brain couldn’t. I never understood that the Fabriano watermark indicated that one side was treated for watercolor; never realized that when I’d messed up inking the puppy I often turned the paper over and painted the other side; never considered that what was wrong was me.
I finished the book in a rush of relief.
The relief, though, like the paper, was double-sided. It was as if I’d spent the entire summer walking around town without any pants on, so while I was relieved to know that now, and to be wearing pants again, I felt a little sheepish to think of my summer without pants.
I wonder now if I should be kinder to myself. Art, after all, is about false starts, experimentation, making mistakes. I can say that now with the benefit of reflection. I can say that now, two years later, with the finished book in my hands. It looks pretty good, the work of an accomplished artist, but I know better.