Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Interview with Penguin Art Director Giuseppe Castellano

Giuseppe Castellano is an award-winning illustrator and Art Director at Penguin, where he currently oversees the imprints of Grosset & Dunlap, PSS!, Warne, PYR, and Poptropica. I had the opportunity to meet him during our Mentee Monday trip to Penguin, where he generously spent an hour answering our questions. Since then I’ve been following his wonderful #arttips series on Twitter. You can follow Giuseppe too at @pinocastellano
1. How did you get started working in kidlit?
Through architecture, insofar as I didn't want to do architecture. I went to the Rhode Island School of Design in 1995 thinking I would enter their architecture program. When I saw how hard it really was, during a tour, I chose Illustration. I always wanted to draw and paint classically, and RISD's Illustration Department was the perfect fit.
Through junior and senior year, I focused on learning how to be an editorial and children's book illustrator. However, I didn't think the freelance life would be right for me. So, I looked for design assistant positions at publishing companies to help support my illustration career. A couple interviews later, I was hired as a design assistant at Simon and Schuster in May of 1999. Fast forward 14 years and here we are. I do still have a small space in my heart for architecture—a very well designed space.
One of the books Giuseppe illustrated.
2. What are the core characteristics you look for in illustration, that go beyond the style? Is there a theme to the kind of images that appeal to you (other than good technique and characters)? 
For me, nothing is more important than the ability to draw. Everything else follows. It allows an illustrator to move through their piece with confidence; building a solid framework upon which to apply color, texture, etc. Nothing sabotages a piece more than the artist's inability to draw. Now, I don't mean that everyone should draw like Michelangelo. But the ability to convey a visual language that will appeal to a client, a buyer, an art director, etc., starts with drawing. 
I don't typically look for themes or subject matter when selecting an illustrator. I look for someone who I believe will visually convey the feeling of a book—and do it in a way that isn't rote. I'm proud of the fact that my designers and I have found incredible talents whose styles are artistically "next-level" and are commercially viable. It doesn't matter if a book is $3.99 or $19.99, the reader deserves great art. And that's what we strive for.
A collaboration with Loren Long
3. What are the best things an illustrator could say or do that makes you want to work with them again? 
It starts with their art. If the art is great, nothing they say really matters. I worked with an illustrator who complained about my job with him tacitly on Facebook. But since his art was great, and since he was relatively on time, I ignored it.
Second to "great art" is our need. As long as their ability lines up with what we need, chances are they'll receive more work. 
All that being said, an illustrator needs to be punctual; know how to problem-solve; follow direction; and go beyond what is asked. For me, an illustrator should try to bring more to the project than simply being a hired hand. Doing so helps set them apart.
The cover of "Literally Disturbed", illustrated by Adam F. Watkins, and written by Ben H. Winters!
4. What is the most common mistake made by aspiring children's book illustrators, in your experience?
There are so many, it's tough to pinpoint the "most" common. Here are a few:
• An illustrator fails to promote themselves though postcards, community websites, illustrator collectives, conferences, email, and social media. All of these things need to be utilized to keep you visible. 
• An illustrator fails to do the proper research. I receive countless postcards and other correspondence with art that doesn't fit any of my five imprints. So it's tossed/deleted/ignored and their time and money are wasted.
• A huge mistake illustrators make is thinking that their outreach is somehow a bother to the recipient. Countless times, illustrators have said they don't want to send cold-emails because they think it's an imposition. A relatively new illustrator I'm working with told me a story in which he cold-called a VERY prominent master illustrator (you all know him) because they lived near each other. That call led to their now very close friendship. Moral: you never know.
• An illustrator fails to consider formats other than picture books. There are too many to list, but some include: board books, chapter books, readers, and sticker/activity books.
• An illustrator fails to see the importance of working on multiple jobs simultaneously. It's vital that illustrators understand this. Working linearly—one job at a time—is simply no way to run a business.
• An illustrator takes rejection personally. First, remove the word "rejection" from the equation. It implies finality. Not all rejection is final. There are countless reasons why one passes on a submission. They include: the art/manuscript isn't good; the art/manuscript is good but isn't right for that imprint (do your homework); the art/manuscript is good and right for the imprint but the timing isn't right (i.e. your dummy is about robots and we just did a robot book). The point is, keep sending mailers and submissions. As Olivier Tallec puts it, an illustrator needs to keep at it until someone says yes.
Giuseppe's "Monday Pile" of postcards he keeps each week. I see Kidlitartist Maple Lam's card!
5. Who are your favorite bygone illustrators/artists? 
This is a tough question to answer. There are too many to list. And it evolves. I could list off my personal favorites like NC Wyeth, Robert Lawson, Beatrix Potter, Henry Moore, Cassatt, Bernini, Frank Lloyd Wright and Sargent. Though mostly representational, I like them for different reasons (nostalgia, technical ability, jealousy, architecture fetish). However, it's important to note that though having favorites is nice—bygone or not—too much adulation of another artist can stifle one's creative journey. Moreover, I hesitate to share my personal favorites because it feels exclusive. I also don't want to start seeing postcards of impressionist watercolors of mid-century architectural sculptures of babies holding rabbits drawing bulls in my mailbox.

Book 5 of Ann Hood's "The Treasure Chest" series, illustrated by Denis Zilber
6. What is the most fun or interesting part of the book creation process for you?
There really are too many to mention. 
As the art director, I'm involved in every aspect of a project from helping to find an illustrator, to signing off on proofs. Everything in between is interesting to me. There's always a prideful exhale when finished books show up on my desk. The journey from an author writing the manuscript, to a reader picking up this collective object of art can be long, arduous, frustrating, and challenging. But it is incredibly rewarding.
As a manager, it's always wonderful seeing my designers succeed. Every one of my team members—associate art director Christina Quintero (now with Little Brown), senior designers Ching Chan & Debbie Guy, designers Mallory Grigg & Katie Fitch, junior designers Yvonne Chan & Candice Keimig, and design assistant Katie Bayes, are making great design decisions with their projects. As a baseball fan, I'd say my team is on a (creative) winning streak right now. 
As a designer, the diverse lists the publisher and editorial group plan out affords me the opportunity to work on a wide range of artistically challenging projects. On any given day, I could be designing a chapter book series by Giada De Laurentiis; a sticker/activity book with Loren Long; a dark poetry book by Ben Winters; and a "dude-it yourself journal" for Adventure Time! 
And as a dad, my 5 year-old son knows I "make books". He called me a book wizard, once. I'd say that's a pretty fun part of the book creation process.

Samples of work Giuseppe's team has done recently
7. What is a project you are working on currently that you're excited about?
I'm excited about all of our projects. I really am. I oversee the art and design of five imprints: Grosset and Dunlap, PSS!, Warne, the Penguin Young Readers, and Poptropica. Each imprint has its own identity, and through each imprint my designers and I have been fortunate to work on great projects. We work on 270 books a year, in every conceivable format, with the most talented artists in the industry. And so my team and I have a lot to be excited about.

 Thanks Giuseppe!