Mary Azarian, recipient of the 1999 Caldecott Medal for her artwork in the children's book "Snowflake Bentley", visited middle school students at my school to demonstrate her woodcarving and printmaking techniques. Ms. Azarian was in Virginia to participate in the "Virginia Festival of the Book"--an event sponsored by the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities each March to promote literacy and to celebrate reading and books.
Ms. Azarian began her demonstration by showing the children the wood and the tools that she uses for her prints. The wood, similar to poplar, comes from Japan, and she also uses Japanese knives for carving the wood.
She explained that she paints the wood in some contrasting color (in this case purple) before she begins carving so that she can more easily see what she has carved and what she hasn't. She draws directly onto the block, and then goes over it with permanent marker so that the lines do not smear as she begins to carve. She uses a small tool to first outline the areas that will not be cut, then she uses a larger knife to cut away the wood.
Ms. Azarian uses a caulking gun to squirt oil-based printing ink onto the back of an old cafeteria tray. While some printmakers use glass or plexiglass, Ms. Azarian said that the tray suits her needs. She then uses the brayer to spread the ink onto the wooden block.
When the block was evenly coated with ink (she spread it for a long time!) she carefully placed a piece of calligraphy paper over it. For her highest quality prints, she uses a type of Japanese paper called "washi." Both the calligraphy paper and the washi are very thin, but very strong.
For large prints in her home studio in Vermont, she uses a printing press, but for small prints such as this one, she uses a dowel about the size of a broom handle and rubs it over the paper. The ink bleeds through the back of the paper and takes a long time to dry. She donated this print to our school's library!
After making the print, Ms. Azarian talked about the process involved in publishing a children's book. Usually she has no contact with the author, as it's up to a publisher to match the story that an author writes with an illustrator whose work would be appropriate for the story. Once the match is made, the publisher sends the manuscript to the illustrator, and it is the artist's responsibility to determine how to divide and design the book. Most children's books are a standard 32 pages.
It usually takes Ms. Azarian about a year to complete the illustrations for a book. After she has come up with the design and layout, she sends a "dummy book" back to the publisher for approval. Once it is approved (sometimes after a few revisions), she often has to do a lot of research before she can really start doing the illustrations.
She recently completed the illustrations for a book called Louisa May and Mr. Thoreau's Flute. This one was challenging, she said, because it was a true story set in the 1840s--at a time before photography was being used. She wanted to have the characters' costumes and clothing colors accurate, but since she had no photographs to use as reference, she had to come up with other sources for these details. Ultimately, she used the colors and patterns found in an antique quilt!
When a book is to be printed in color, Ms. Azarian first produces a woodcut print, and then uses acrylic paint to add color and fine details to the print; she is both a printmaker and a highly-skilled painter! In the picture at the top of the page, she is holding up an original black and white print for her new book, as well as the publisher's color proof for this particular illustration.
She also showed the students another hand-painted woodcut print--a snow scene--and laughingly said that when she got tired of painting all of the snowflakes, one by one, she decided she was done!
Mary Azarian has illustrated nearly 50 books--some for children and some for adults--and she also produces a variety of fine art prints and calendars. She has great respect and admiration for a variety of children's book illustrators, and says that Chris Van Allsburg (the Caldecott Medal-winning artist who created The Polar Express) is one of her favorites.
She graciously answered questions from the students and teachers who attended her demonstration, and she gave me permission to photograph her as she worked.