I was lucky to be among the people in the upstairs gallery of the Philadelphia Sketch Club who witnessed a magical evening Friday night, wading through lions, crows, mermaids, foxes, Red Coats, cyclones, herons and Patriots. The Sketch Club graciously shared its venerable and historic Center City home with the Bucks County Illustrators Society, as members of both clubs spent the evening in delighted awe of the extraordinary work and charming commentary of Philadelphia illustrator Charles Santore.
Mr. Santore is certainly one of the most renowned illustrators of classic children’s books today, with titles including The Complete Tales of Peter Rabbit, The Little Mermaid, The Wizard of Oz, Paul Revere’s Ride and The Night Before Christmas, among many others. His art is part of the permanent collections of the Brandywine River Museum and the Museum of Modern Art, as well as many private collections. He is a winner of the prestigious Hamilton King Award from the New York Society of Illustrators, where his work was recently featured in a solo exhibition, “Exploring the Narrative Picture.”
He compares the creative process of illustrating a story to ‘staging a ballet or visualizing a musical composition,’ designing his pictures to build throughout the book to a grand finale. The artists and fans who attended this talk, accompanied by a slideshow of his illustrations, saw these processes clearly unfold in the flow of the illustrations for The Wizard of Oz, where all movement in the first half of the book streams left to right, concurrent with the Yellow Brick Road; until the story encounters the Wicked Witch of the West, whose forces move relentlessly right to left. Mr. Santore explained many instances of the ‘choreography’ of his illustrations, and delighted the audience as he pointed to example after example of his deliberate placement of shadows, gestures and framing of elements in his work for Aesop’s Fables and The Little Mermaid.
Amid the many charming and funny stories of his career, Mr. Santore also shared heartfelt moments that touched many in the audience. He read aloud the Longfellow poem Paul Revere’s Ride while slides of his illustrations for the book were shown. Since the story takes place through a moonlit night, the images were powerfully composed between light and dark elements: a massive ship’s hulk, the spark from a horse’s hoof, a brilliant moon, a skyward view through the belfry of the Old North Church. Once during his reading he faltered briefly, murmuring, “I’m sorry, it still gets to me.” His emotion over the bravery in that historic event and the beautiful language of the poem was evident in his voice; his admiration also echoed in the remarkable detail and vitality in his artwork.
Mr. Santore cheerfully stayed after his talk to answer questions, accept congratulations from students and fellow artists, and autograph books. I had bought his Wizard of Oz earlier in the day, and he chatted with me while he signed the title page (he’s left-handed, by the way) and made the book a complete treasure by drawing a little lion there too. I asked him how he ever imagined and designed that stunning illustration from the perspective of looking up through the belltower of the Church. “There’s a funny story to that,” he said. “I called the Old North Church office and told them I was doing this book. I asked if they had any photo references of inside the belfry.” He paused and made a wry face. “They wanted ten percent. Ten percent of the profits on the book, to give me the information. So, I called friends of mine who lived in Boston and asked if they could go to the church’s gift shop and find anything. They found a terrific book with plenty of photos, and they sent it to me.”
Afterwards the audience enjoyed a wonderful dinner together in the dining room of the Sketch Club – a building that since 1860 has served as a meeting place and forum for artists and supporters, counting among its illustrious past members Thomas Eakins, Henry Pitz, Edward Redfield, Daniel Garber, N.C. Wyeth and Thomas Anshutz. The evening concluded with members of America’s oldest club for artists exchanging stories with Bucks County’s newest club for illustrators, where for this evening the topics of conversation revolved around art, books, and the magnificent illustrations of Charles Santore.