Never before have we had the privilege of interviewing an individual as renowned and influential as Dahlov Ipcar. You could imagine our surprise when we found out that not only could we get in contact with her, but she was willing to answer a few of our questions as well! And now we get have the pleasure of sharing her words of wisdom with all of you.
I first want to mention that we connected with Dahlov through her son, Robert. Who graciously took the time to relay our questions on to his mother and get back to us. He told us that despite that fact that Dahlov is 96 years old, she is still taking interviews and painting everyday! She is living proof that creatives never really retire.
Though her work needs no introduction, I will give her one anyways. Out of the many illustrators throughout history that I admire the most, Dahlov’s work remains near the top of my list. Her stylization of animals, and ingenious use of bold, minimal color palettes is inspiring. She was born in 1917 and grew up in New York. Both her parents were prolific artist’s themselves with her mother, Marguerite Zorach, a painter, and her father, William Zorach, a sculptor. Highly influenced and encouraged by her parent’s work, she began painting at an early age. As she excelled and progressed, receiving many honors and awards for her paintings, she found her way into illustrating children’s books as well. At first only illustrating, and then writing and illustrating. Over her lifetime she has written and illustrated a total of 33 children’s books, not including her young adult novels. Her artwork continues to inspire children and adults alike even today.
Her is our interview with Dahlov Ipcar and some of her selected works:
How did advances in technology throughout your life affect your illustration style?
With the exception of one of my very last children’s books, “The Wonderful Christmas Tree”, I used to make “color separations” of all my artwork – that is, create a black on transparent acetate rendering of each of three or four individual colors that went to make up the whole. My publishers initially attempted to make me pay for all the color separations they jobbed out so I learned to do my own. Now everything is done by laser scans, though the just released reprint of “I Like Animals” by Flying Eye Press was rescanned to emulate the long lost original color separations. Otherwise, brushes and canvas haven’t changed much over time.
I can see evidence of your parents’ artistic style manifest in your own work. How was growing up under two prolific artists for parents? How did they influence your work?
As I look back on it, my mother, the painter Marguerite Zorach, had a tremendous influence. She had a sense of stylized design that caught your eye, especially the amount of detail found in her embroideries of flowers and animals. However I owe my father, the sculptor William Zorach, my sense of three-dimensional perspective. He was a direct carver and created any number of stone animal sculptures from dogs to cats to guinea pigs.
What inspired the change in your style from more realism at the beginning, to the colorful, geometric and modern style you pursued later on?
For a while I painted what was around me, “Social Realism” it was called. I backed off from abstract expressionism when it came along and tried to find my own path, find a stylized rather than realistic way to portray the animals that I loved – a vision perhaps influenced by cubism. Then I experimented with cloth sculptures of animals, keeping my eye open for printed cloth whose pattern evoked a wildlife counterpart. After that I was inspired to try a collage entitled The Garden of Eden, which led to my children’s book, “Calico Jungle”. Now my paintings are sometimes described as “kaleidoscope”, animals in motion against flowing planes of light.
What made you want to start illustrating books for children?
Just before I married in 1936, a friend of my mother’s asked me to illustrate a work of hers but nothing ever came of it. But I enjoyed the process immensely. It was my former teachers who gave me a boost. At the Lincoln School at Teacher’s Collage (a high school) our librarian, Anne Thaxter Eaton, really loved the art I was turning out. It didn’t hurt that she was an art reviewer for the New York Times as well. But it was through a teacher at Greenwich Village’s City & Country School (a grade school), Ellen Stelle, that I made contact with William R. Scott publications who was looking for young artists with a modern flare. They offered me Margaret Wise Brown’s “Little Fisherman” to illustrate. I went on to illustrate two other books for authors then decided that if I wrote my own stories, I could get to do the pictures I wanted. “Animal Hide & Seek” was the very first of my 33 books as author/illustrator.
How did you develop your own personal style? What practices did you use to better your illustration skills?
It just developed but I’ve always admired simplicity of vision like you might find in Japanese prints or cave paintings. I was drawn to the work of illustrator Feodore Rogankovsky who did the beautiful “Tall Mother Goose” series. But as a rule, I didn’t follow other people; didn’t follow trends. I just kept experimenting until I was comfortable with what I was doing.
Composing pages to have both the text and imagery feel harmonious, and creating good pacing between pages is a difficult task. What was your process for composing the layout for your children’s books?
I just learned to estimate how much space the text would take to work with the visuals which were usually strung across a double page. I would do sketches on paper and have certain fonts in mind. Both the text and the visuals should tell the story equally. However it annoyed me to no end that publishers always bought the text first; were less interested in the artwork initially.
How did writing fit in with your creative process? Was it something that inspired your artwork, or vice versa?
My artwork inspired my written text no mater what the publishers thought. However a few of my books were verse driven. “The Cat Came Back”,” I Love my Ant Eater with an “A”” were from folk songs and street games. “Bright Barnyard”; “Day Birds & Night Birds” and “Whisperings & Other Things” were all original verse. I also wrote several YA novels, such as “Dark Horn Blowing” and “The Warlock of Night”. Here text was all-important as there was no illustration beside the cover. Here the challenge was to create your visuals in words.
Looking at children’s books today, do you feel there is a decline in the quality of the art? If so, what do you feel is lacking?
I’m quite opinionated on this subject. Most illustration that’s out there has been dreadful for the past fifteen years or so: cartoony, messy realism best describes it. My own illustration feeds the story line in a simple manner: ”Cat At Nigh”t for instance was about shape recognition; where you first see the cat’s tail silhouetted against the outline of a garden at night, then a page turn reveals everything lit up and in full color as a cat would see it in the dark. I’m lucky that those who now review children’s books rejoice in my artwork. I now have Islandport Press, Down East Books and Flying Eye Press in the UK reprinting my children’s books at the rate of one or two a year.
For all the illustrators who are trying to get into children’s book illustration, what advice would you give them?
Sometime I feel I “don’t know nothing no more” when it comes to giving advice about how to break into illustrating. Selling a story that you yourself have illustrated is one way but it’s not easy either. You need to have faith in yourself; create for no one but yourself even in the face of petty criticism.
Networking has always been important and now the word has taken on a whole new meaning. I’m no expert of “social media” – don’t even have a connection though I write on an iMac – but I’m constantly amazed at the number of so called “views” I get when my children and grandchildren report back to me whenever something new is posted on my Facebook page. Some combination of all the above might be the answer.
Today you can find some of her work in the Met and the Whitney. And her work is still appreciated and relevant as it was in the mid-century era. Companies like Flying Eye Books, are now re-mastering, and once again reproducing, her classic children’s books! They are created with the same care and four spot-color printing quality as the originals.