Simple English ~ Nicola Prentis

Thoughts on ELT, English and whatever else comes into my head

An interview with the artist: Lance Tooks

I was really lucky in my experience with writing As Others See Us with CUP as they let me choose the artist. And I knew a brilliant one: Lance Tooks. Lance is one of those people everyone feels lucky to have met and his talent, honed over 35 years, is awe inspiring. I don’t know how often I’ll have the freedom to choose** but I think I’ve got a book that really stands out in ELT because of Lance.

Tell us about yourself and your work.

lanceI’m a 35 year veteran cartoonist. I have the good fortune of being the product of an artistic family. My dad was a singer–painter–photographer–playwright–musician and his kids all became crazy artists in one form or another.

I studied at New York’s High School of Art and Design and began an internship at Marvel Comics at age 16. I was an assistant editor by 18 and learned how to create comics from studying some of the most important cartoonists who ever worked in the field. I began a twenty year stint in commercial animation in my early twenties, and went on to work on over a hundred films, commercials, TV series and music videos as an animator.

I’ve written and illustrated six original and award winning graphic novels, and contributed to dozens of comics anthologies, adapting classic authors like Twain, Poe and Wilde alongside the most noted contemporary visual artists in the medium. I’ve exhibited my art at various sites in Madrid, in London at the Swiss Cottage Library and in New York in places as varied as CBGB’s and The Society of Illustrators. I’m currently illustrating a graphic biography of jazz artist Thelonious Monk for Duke University Press and writing and drawing a very original graphic novel entitled Thug Midwife.

How does the process of illustrating a story work for you?

Ideas can come from any direction … I keep a vigorous regimen of filling hard-covered sketchbooks with visual concepts, character designs and rough ideas, and have done so for over three decades. Numbered on their spines from one to fifty plus, they almost resemble encyclopedia volumes.

I almost never write a script before drawing… I keep prose journals filled with random scenes and story points, dialogue and titles, rough structural outlines, etc. I’ll draw key moments in my story first, and go back and forth through my pages until the various blanks are filled in.

Over the last dozen years I’ve scanned my drawings (done in light pencil and rendered in thick and thin markers) and dropped them into photoshop to arrange my finished page layouts. I like to collage these drawings with photographs, graphic shapes, graytones, and color. I often use fonts to do my lettering, even though I much prefer to do them by hand. No page is finished until they all are, so I have no qualms about throwing out pretty drawings, or even entire sequences of pages if they don’t feel organic to the storytelling point I’m trying to make.

Do the faces come out of your head or are they based on people you see around you?

Both. Often my subject never even knows that their face or personality inspired a character***, though it’s sometimes pretty obvious. Many times I’ve drawn a character repeatedly in my sketchbooks, for so many years, that their unique attributes take on a life of their own. They also evolve with time, as I grow better acquainted with who they are inside and out.

Character design is something that I’ve always enjoyed, and that I became known for as a freelancer in New York animation circles. There’s a line of thought that every artist and author is creating a self portrait with the fictional folk they give life to, and I definitely see bits of myself in my various protagonists and antagonists … for better and unfortunately, worse!

You do the work in a collage style. Can you tell us more about that?

Design-wise, I love the mixture of photo elements with the more abstract exaggeration of cartoon characters. It keeps the story visually interesting to me … maybe using photos roots these tales in reality. I like to take pictures myself and incorporate them into the graphic, but my favorite tactic is to steal images from films. Stray elements that are difficult to identify and up on the screen for a microsecond, are captured and cut apart themselves to create something new. It has a parallel to “sampling” in music, but I like transforming these pilfered elements with photoshop filters to better incorporate them with my drawings and to render them mostly unrecognizable in comparison to what they were in their original context.

An empty hospital corridor from a horror film can become a high school hallway in my art, but you’d never know it by the time I’m done with it! In another illustration, I constructed a school exterior using photo elements from three different films shot in three different countries (and decades) that, when combined with my foreground elements of children at recess, felt organic to me. I’m always thrilled by the process. It’s not always 100% successful (in hindsight, even my drawings aren’t), but when it works I definitely feel it’s worth the effort.

What’s your working style/routine?

Spain has had a very drastic effect on my work routine … whereas in New York, I drew standing up while living in a very active studio workspace, my current home is far too small and tidy for me to work in. As a result, I gradually began to do the lion’s share of my drawing in Spanish bars. I love the energy of the nocturnal crowds, and can illustrate entire projects with my headphones on and a glass (or two) of whiskey at hand. (Kids: Don’t drink & draw!)

How was drawing for an ELT publisher different from the graphic novels you usually do?

There was very little difference in what I did for Cambridge and what I would do for anyone else … what might be appropriate for a horror story or erotica would be incongruous in the context of a graded reader, and I’ve done more work for kids than I have for mature audiences. I love kids, in general, and am very protective of the kinds of images they’re exposed to. I consider them to be the ideal audience, in fact, for there are no limits to what they can imagine!

I worked for several years on a monthly newspaper for children, called ZUZU. The wonderful thing was that its content was 80% created by kids themselves, and we, the professional animators, cartoonists and kids book illustrators would marvel at the scope of the young contributors’ imaginations. Picasso always claimed to have spent his entire life trying to draw like a child, and that’s something that I aspire to as well.

Which is your favourite of the pictures and why? Mine is the one where Gemma is singing and playing the piano to Robert because it so perfectly shows exactly what’s happening.

From As Other See Us, CUP.

From As Other See Us, CUP.

I love that one too. You wrote a wonderful story and I think it came the closest to capturing the tale’s whimsical spirit.

I think your drawings are much more “live” than most static stuff I see in ELT. How do you create that effect?

Reading should be fun … I try to compliment the text as much as possible. My background as a veteran animator and comicbook illustrator has a simple idea at its core: you should be able to understand the story whether the words are present or not. In the case of our book, the editors decided which images were key to assisting in the telling of our tale [that was me actually! Next time I’ll ask you first 🙂 NP] … I might’ve chosen different ones, but for the most part we were in accordance.

I love dance … many years ago I taught myself to draw figures in motion by studying the human body in a personal collection of books on ballet and modern dance. Pantomime is an important dancer’s tool, and it applies to the other arts as well. Imagine a young girl in an exuberant state and what her body language might convey … then imagine that same child having lost her best friend and how her physical stance might be different. You would be able to visualize the world’s weight on her narrow shoulders if the illustrator is doing his job properly.

I’ve had the privilege to ingest the work of amazing artists of all kinds, from every corner of the world. I’ve learned as much from the mistakes of other artists as I’ve appropriated from their various successes. It’s my hope that my work is able to move readers and educate them in the same way that I myself have been inspired by the books I’ve read.

You can see more of Lance’s work on his blog.

** Until Graded Readers are higher on publishers’ priorities, I don’t suppose I will be writing many more anyway!

*** Lance put me in one of his books once. I might be remembering wrongly, but I think she was a lady of the night!


One comment on “An interview with the artist: Lance Tooks

  1. CycloneBringer
    March 12, 2015

    Amazing 🙂 Check out my blog too at

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This entry was posted on March 5, 2015 by in Graded Readers and tagged , , , , , , , .
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