Raúl Colón: The Boy Who Loved To Draw
As a child with chronic asthma, Raúl Colón, the artist known for his luminous watercolor and color pencil artwork, sometimes spent as long as eight weeks confined to his bed. “We didn’t have an X-box, so I drew,” he jokes. His latest book, Draw! (S&S, October, 2014; PreS-Gr 5), unfolds entirely through pictures, as a housebound boy and reader of tales of a faraway continent takes viewers on a journey of the imagination to the Serengeti plains of Africa. There he encounters an accommodating elephant, a belligerent rhinoceros, and some playful primates. Colón discusses his inspiration for the book and some of his artistic choices.
You’ve mentioned that you begin your books with text and pictures. How did you arrive at a wordless story for Draw!?
I created a mock-up for the book that included text. But I couldn’t quite finish it, so I showed it to my editor, Paula Wiseman. She asked, “What do you think about telling the story just in pictures?” So that’s what I did. I added some illustrations, a few sketches, and reworked it.
Would you say that this book is somewhat autobiographical?
I had chronic asthma as a kid and spent so many beautiful spring days at home, in bed, for weeks at a time. When I had energy, I’d draw.
Your story reminds me of the Robert Louis Stevenson poem “The Land of Counterpane,” from A Child’s Garden of Verses (“When I was sick and lay abed…”).
I know of another artist, who had asthma, and he did the same thing. Confined, we made art.
In the book, your palette changes when the child drawing in bed imagines himself on safari.
Yes. I thought about The Wizard of Oz [the black-and-white and the color sequences] and chose a muted palette for this boy’s life at home and then moved to full color when his imagination transports him to a different world. Although muted, I wanted the pictures to be colorful enough so children didn’t think that those scenes were unreal. But I still needed to transition to Africa. Did the boy go by boat? By plane? I wanted to show that he transported himself to Africa so readers see the pictures come out of his head….
Your signature style appears to be layers of color revealed through a scratch technique. How do you build those rich layers and manage to have them show through?
Usually I use colored pencil over watercolor wash. In this case, with the African images, I bought Pantone color papers, and I went straight onto the paper with Prismacolor pencils. The paper has a nice grain to it. If you’re going to use color pencils, it’s good to use a grain paper.
I found the etching instrument by accident—something [a former] boss purchased when I worked at a TV station in Fort Lauderdale, FL. It’s like a giant flat coin with prongs sticking out. First I sketch onto the paper. The boy’s pants may look brown, but there are actually layers of greens, purples, and blues, which make the colors appear much more vivid. (I learned this from the Impressionists, who put colors next to each other to enhance images.) After I know where everything goes, I start etching with this instrument—wherever I think I need movement or volume.
Some of the animals are moving and others are very still, which provides readers with a sense of pacing.
I wanted to include more animals, but was limited by the picture book’s 32-page format. Also, I wanted sweeping illustrations. So I choose the animals that I thought would best fill the page and were the most interesting to look at: zebras, I wanted stripes in there; a gorilla, he’s lots of fun; a lion, of course; giraffes moving fast, for the visual joke—the child’s trying to sketch them as fast as he can. At the story’s climax, the boy finds himself in danger, with a rhino charging him. And the final joke: a baboon drawing the boy.
Tell us about the sequence of four images of the rhinoceros charging the boy, each one showing the animal getting closer and closer.
The idea taken from comics, to show the passage of time. We’re fascinated with the illustrations and snapshots and paintings we see in museums, because the artists are freezing time. We can look at them over and over again…. We see things moving all the time, but seeing something frozen where we can study it—is fascinating. With the rhino, I wanted to show movement. How large, or how close he gets—the viewer has to figure that one out.
Let’s talk about the closing scene, when the boy gets out of bed and shares his artwork with his peers.
In my experience visiting schools, that’s exactly what I’m doing. I’m showing the work that I do to other people. The reason artists draw and musicians play, is that we want to communicate, to share what comes through us with other people.