Award-winning author-illustrator Ted Lewin, known for his realistic and richly detailed watercolors, died on July 28. He was 86.

Ted Lewin was born May 6, 1935 in Buffalo, N.Y., the fourth of five children born to Sidney, a retail jeweler and Berenece, a homemaker. Lewin had early dreams of becoming an artist and wrote in his autobiography for Something About the Author that his “happiest hours” were spent painting model planes and animals he had built from kits. At a young age he began copying works by illustrators and painters he admired, including N.C. Wyeth and John Singer Sargent. He also collected pictures of the many things that interested him from books, old magazines, and newspapers, amassing what would become the root of his picture reference files. Lewin maintained that practice throughout his career and filled more than six large filing cabinets with images.

While Ted was growing up, the Lewin family had a pet chimpanzee, an iguana, and a lion, a menagerie that helped spark his lifelong concern for animals. As another influence on his creative path, Lewin fondly cited his father’s talent for storytelling, recalling how he would make up tales to entertain the children at bedtime.

After high school graduation in 1952, Lewin became a professional wrestler at the age of 17. He spent several months traveling to different matches and performing with his two pro-wrestling brothers and his brother-in-law, Dangerous Danny McShain, before making New York City his home base. From New York, Lewin could still work three or four nights a week on the wrestling circuit and earn a living (and tuition) while attending art school during the day at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn.

Lewin received his B.F.A. from Pratt in 1956 and noted he was “raring to go” with his art career, but found that work as a freelance illustrator wasn’t easy. He polished his portfolio and looked for art jobs while he continued to take several wrestling circuit bookings each week. Not long after graduation, he received an assignment from Boxing/Wrestling magazine to create an illustration for a story about the famous 1899 Jeffries vs. Fitzsimmons boxing match, and enlisted his wrestling pals as models. This experience led to a series of paintings Lewin eventually displayed in his home and featured in his 1993 memoir, I Was a Teenage Professional Wrestler (Orchard). Freelance gigs for Boys’ Life and adventure magazines, Readers’ Digest condensed books, as well as for some educational children’s books and YA book jackets for various publishers followed. Lewin officially hung up his wrestling shoes in 1967, feeling established as a full-time illustrator.

By 1957 Lewin had met his wife-to-be Betsy Reilly, who was then in her second year at Pratt studying illustration. They quickly bonded over a shared passion for wildlife and a dream of traveling to Africa to see the threatened animals of the Serengeti plains before they disappeared. The couple married in 1963 and in 1970 they were able to make their first big trip to Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania. Once back home, they embarked on a series of trips to the Florida Everglades to canoe, camp, and bird watch. Lewin recalled in his autobiography that it was at this time he began to write. An editor friend at Dodd, Mead (where Lewin had done some projects) encouraged Lewin to organize the stories from his travels and put them to paper. The result was a trio of books he both wrote and illustrated, beginning with World Within a World—Everglades (Dodd, Mead, 1976).

These early expeditions were the first of many and cemented the Lewins’ dedication to animal and environmental conservation. Their world travels were also inspiration for many of Ted Lewin’s books as well as a number of titles on which they collaborated, including Gorilla Walk (Lothrop, 1999) and Puffling Patrol (Lee & Low, 2012). They both worked out of studios in their Brooklyn brownstone and Lewin often recruited neighborhood kids (after getting permission from their families) as models over the years.

A trip to India inspired Tiger Trek (Atheneum, 1990), Lewin’s first full-color picture book which he both wrote and illustrated. He continued to illustrate book jackets as well as picture books for other authors. His illustrations for the title Peppe the Lamplighter by Elisa Bartone (Lothrop, 1993) earned him a 1994 Caldecott Honor. In all, he illustrated more than 200 books. In 2015 the Lewins were both inducted into the Society of Illustrators Hall of Fame.

Anelle Miller, executive director of the Society of Illustrators, offered this tribute: “When you stand in front of a Ted Lewin watercolor, you are transfixed. You are welcomed into his magical worlds by his beautiful brushstrokes. Aside from his extraordinary talent, Ted was one of the kindest, gentlest human beings I have ever met. He will be missed.”

Grace Maccarone, executive editor at Holiday House, worked closely with Lewin on several books. She shared a remembrance of him: “Athlete, artist, adventurer, advocate for nature and wildlife, and beloved husband to Betsy, Ted Lewin was always fun to be with and a pleasure to work with. My favorite Ted Lewin book has a very simple text that can be read by the newest readers, but the art is spectacular—with beautiful paintings of animals—gorilla, elephant, giraffes, warthog—as they do what's necessary to survive—eat, drink, run, and hide. Ted told me that these were images from his travels that he’d always wanted to paint, but he hadn’t had an opportunity to paint them until he created Look! “Look” is a word I associate with Ted, a man who would look, see, and enjoy, and then share his joy through his wonderful books. Ted has made the world a better and more beautiful place.”