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5 Questions With… Chris Soentpiet (AMERICA THE BEAUTIFUL)

by Chris Soentpiet
March 22, 2013
Chris Soentpiet (pronounced: soon-peet) is the recipient of a gold medal awarded by the Society of Illustrators; has received accolades from the International Reading Association, PARENTS magazine, the American Library Association, SCHOOL LIBRARY JOURNAL, the Chicago TRIBUNE, the San Francisco CHRONICLE, and THE SMITHSONIAN; and has been recognized by the American Society of Portrait Artists Foundation. When not painting, Chris enjoys visiting schools across the country promoting the love of children’s literature and the arts. An honor graduate from the Pratt Institute of Art, he lives in New York City with his wife and kids. To learn more about Chris, visit his Web site at www.soentpiet.com.

Your most recent work is AMERICA THE BEAUTIFUL: TOGETHER WE STAND. Can you tell us a little about the project and your involvement in it?

Ken Geist, an editor from Scholastic, approached me with a great concept. He wanted ten diverse and distinguished groups of children's book artists from different ethnic backgrounds and different art style to interpret the famous song "America the Beautiful." He believed using inspiring presidential quotes paired with the artwork deepens our experience of this beloved patriotic song.

I was delighted when he asked me to be a part of this project because I firmly believe America is truly a melting pot. I also knew a group of diverse artists would be able to capture the spirit of the song in our own unique artistic ways.

When you were eight, you and your sister were adopted by an American family, and the two of you relocated from your birthplace (South Korea) to your new home in Hawaii. Did growing up in such gorgeous, lush landscapes influence your art?

Seoul, Korea was basically a large city. However, when I was adopted to live in Hawaii, I was amazed at the luscious Hawaiian tropical landscape, especially the ocean with its vibrant colors. It must have subliminally stayed in the back of my mind because I try to replicate those crisp bright colors in my illustrations, even when painting people.

Your style pays homage to that of your idol, Norman Rockwell, and you describe your artistic process as being similar to his. What exactly is that process?

My idol Norman Rockwell and I have many similarities in our artwork:

ONE: We both love to paint people, especially faces of all races, genders, and ages.

TWO: To capture the realism, we both photograph real people to use as reference for our illustrations. We also use many different props, which we often make ourselves.

Also in many occasions, we paint our close friends, family, neighbors and even ourselves in the illustrations. I often dress them up in period costumes. This can be lots of fun.

THREE: Whenever possible, we both love going to the location where the actual story in the illustration takes place. For example, for my book MY BROTHER MARTIN I traveled to Atlanta, Georgia where the author Christine King-Farris, the older sister of Dr. Martin Luther King, showed me her childhood home where they grew up.

For SILVER PACKAGES I traveled to Malden West Virginia where the author Cynthia Rylant grew up. I sketched and took plenty of photographs of the beautiful Appalachian Mountains. I also interviewed and photographed many of the local town’s people. They even graciously invited me in to their homes (some I even used them as models in the book.)

By traveling to the locations, I get a real sense of the place, through sight, smell and even sound. In the end, the painting becomes that much more authentic.

FOUR: We both use colors and luminous lighting to create a believable atmosphere and mood. We want our viewers to be transported right into the illustrations and to feel the emotion of each character.

The only difference would be our actual medium. Norman Rockwell used oil paints, while I prefer using watercolor.

Nevertheless, our goal in end is the same. We both want to create a beautiful realistic work of art.

We’re honored that you’ll be presenting at this year’s Book and Author Luncheon, at IRA’s 58th Annual Convention in San Antonio, Texas. What can attendees expect from this event?

I am honored to be this year’s luncheon speaker! I hope to present an exciting and informative as well as entertaining presentation on my approach to creating picture books from concept to completion. I will also touch upon my personal stories, such as being adopted, and how it influenced me to become a children’s books artist. And I will also talk about the wonderful people especially teachers , who have guided me along the way to becoming an artist.

The theme of this year’s conference is “Celebrating Teachers Making a Difference.” Can you tell us about a teacher who made a difference in your life?

Many wonderful teachers along the way guided my path to becoming an artist. One is Mr. Ron Jansen, my high school teacher who I will talk about in my luncheon program.

The other teacher/mentor/friend is Ted Lewin. During my senior year at Pratt Institute, he and his wife Betsy Lewin gave a wonderful presentation about their artwork as guest lecturers. I was amazed at his illustrations. He did something unique with watercolors that I loved. Most realistic artists use only watercolors to paint landscapes, but he was able to paint people beautifully using watercolors and it fascinated me.

After his presentation, I nervously showed him my paintings. Upon reviewing my portfolio, he said, “Chris, through your pictures, you have a natural story telling ability—it conveys your skill as a children’s book illustrator.”

His words encouraged me to pursue a career as a full-time children’s books artist. He invited me to his home (ironically he lived across the street from me for years and I never knew that), and during my senior year he worked very closely with me to develop a solid portfolio of paintings which I presented to the publishers. He always told me I had “a fire in my belly”—a strong motivation. I will never forget his generosity and all that I have learned from him

Join Chris Soentpiet at IRA 2013 for this year’s Book and Author Luncheon on Monday, April 22, 2013, from 12 PM to 1:30 PM. Tickets can be purchased here.

© 2013 International Reading Association. Please do not reproduce in any form, electronic or otherwise.


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