Q&A: “Aesop in California” author and illustrator Doug Hansen

Doug Hansen’s Aesop in California is a greatly anticipated follow-up to his first book, Mother Goose in California, also published by Heyday. Retelling these ancient fables in a California setting updates and invigorates the tales, renewing them for another generation of children and adults alike. Fall 2012 intern Daniel Wikey interviews Mr. Hansen on his artistic journey and editorial process.

What is your favorite fable to read? What was your favorite fable to illustrate? If they are different, why?

DOUG HANSEN: I am really looking forward to reading some of my fables to young audiences. I spoke them aloud as I wrote them to see how they sounded. The Tortoise and the Hare is a favorite one because Hare repeats his words in groups of three – ”When I race, I always win, win, win!” He even loses the race the same way – “Jackrabbit stumbled, then bumbled, and tumbled across the finish line.” It sounds funny and should be fun to read.

I personally like stories where the little guy comes out on top, so I love it when the mouse saves the lion from the hunter’s trap in the Lion and the Mouse.

As far as my favorite to illustrate, I had to fall in love with each story in turn and be inspired by the visual possibilities offered by the animals and the scenery. I am very happy with the plumage of the magpie (in The Magpie and the Basket Bottle) and the magical tide pool world in The Little Crab and His Grandmother.

What medium do you use in your illustrations? Is this your usual stylistic choice as an artist, or did you choose it for Aesop in California in particular?

DH: In my 22 years experience as a newspaper illustrator, I relished the opportunity to experiment with at least a dozen different media, and I enjoy using the format of an illustrated book project to really dig in and get familiar with my materials and improve my technique.

Mother Goose in California, my previous book, was painted in opaque watercolor (also called gouache) a kind of poster paint. For this book I switched to transparent watercolor with colored outlines drawn in liquid acrylic with a Crowquill pen.

Transparent watercolor is notable for its brilliance as well as its capacity to render subtle colors. Watercolor can be tricky to reproduce… not everything you see on the original comes through to the printed page, but Heyday had achieved such fidelity in the production of Mother Goose that I was excited to try the watercolors. Outlining the watercolor painting gives an effect much like a stained glass window with bits of color glowing between the lines. The outlines allow me to correct flaws in my painting and to add detail and texture.

In picking which fables you wanted to include, was your choice based more on the illustrative potential of the tale, or simply on the merits of the text of the story itself?

DH: The illustrative potential of the animals and the diversity and visual appeal of the landscape were my primary motivators. I included as many well-loved fables as I could, but my search for varied California settings led me to discover and re-tell some less-known stories like The Meadowlark and Her Children and The Prospectors and the Bear.

Do you have a personal connection to any of the fables in particular?

DH: My most personal connection to each fable came about while researching and illustrating them. In preparing for this book I visited most of the locations to “get the feel” of the place and take photos. Just getting to some of them was quite a challenge. My wife, my brother, and my sister-in-law joined me on different trips, and memories of our adventures in driving and hiking are now intertwined with my feelings for each fable.

Give us an overview of your creative process from the planning stages of illustrating a fable to its completion.

DH: I’m happy to do this. I teach illustration at Fresno State and my students hear all about the creative process from me! I first made lists of possible fable selections and researched and plotted them on a big California map, trying to spread the stories all over the state without repeating any of the places I illustrated in Mother Goose. Next, I wrote the fables. I’m a better illustrator than writer so I thought I’d do my best to create wonderful word pictures and memorable characters first, through my writing. I tell my students that the text must come first in an illustration.

The next step is to sketch quick little drawings called “thumbnails” (because they are small) and try different compositions. I tried to pick moments in the story that were eye-catching, and memorable, but that wouldn’t give the ending away. Then I did my visual research – visiting the sites and looking at reference pictures in my “clip file” or gathering images online – particularly of the animals. Often the research led to new thumbnails. After that I took the pictures one-by-one, choosing to work on whichever fable seemed most appealing at that moment.

I would draw more complete pencil sketches at a modest size, frequently revising them again and again on tracing paper until I had a complete picture outlined in pencil. Then I would use a table-mounted projector to enlarge my pencil drawing – shining the image on a big, fresh sheet of watercolor paper. I would carefully re-draw the image onto the paper – this way the pencil work had the least erasures and I could keep the paper as clean as possible.

Sometimes I’d paint the background first, sometimes the foreground. I had a strategy for each painting that included what to paint first, what to mask, and when to paint transparent layers or add details. Then I’d add the outlines, choosing different colors like gray, purple, brown, or blue depending on the subject. The outlining is really fun for me – that’s when I finally get to see the picture come together in its finished form. Each painting took about 30 hours to complete.

To what extent did you use creative license in adapting the fables? Did you alter the original tales or morals to fit a more modern sensibility?

DH: I did take liberties with the stories – creative and artistic license – whatever was necessary to tell the individual fables while also crafting a bigger, highly visual, story about the wonders of California. In some cases the animals in my fables were much the same as the originals – a peacock is still a peacock and a rooster is still a rooster.

In most cases I chose specific animals that fit in with the California locales, animals that readers would recognize and relate to, and that would add a certain authenticity to my claim of putting Aesop in California. So in The Heron and the Fish I portray a green heron and native fish like the tule perch to illustrate a particular environment on Coyote Creek. The larks in one fable are meadowlarks and the jay in another is a scrub jay.

Others were more of a regional substitution. Instead of an African lion that readers in the Mediterranean might expect, I made mine a mountain lion. Europeans might expect a brown bear but mine is a grizzly.

Some substitutions were more adventuresome and established my fables in more varied California landscapes. I started with the original fable titled the Fly and the Bull. A bull seemed pretty routine, but it led me to think of a bull elephant, and then elephant seal. Once I got to the beach with an elephant seal the fly became a kelp fly! Similarly, I transformed the well-known fable of The Crow and the Pitcher to The Magpie and the Basket Bottle because I wanted to paint the yellow-billed magpie – it is such a striking bird and found only in central California. They are intelligent birds related to ravens and crows. My magpie led me to the Carrizo Plain and Painted Rock and eventually to the waterproof woven vessel  – called a basket bottle – made by the Chumash people.

As for the morals, they are quite variable. Different tellings of the same fable have different morals. The Victorian era produced some elaborate, instructive morals, while some collections include no specific moral at all, leaving it to the reader to appreciate the lesson themselves. I grew up reading fables with morals, so I include them. I tried to keep them short, and understandable to contemporary readers.

Were there any other Aesop adaptations that you found inspirational in the creation of this book? What texts would you recommend to a child or parent who wanted to read more books like Aesop in California?

DH: When I started researching I found there are hundreds of fables and probably thousands of books through the centuries that collect and re-tell the fables. I checked out about ten volumes from the Arne Nixon Center for the Study of Children’s Literature (located on our campus at Fresno State). An important realization for me was that no definitive version of the fables exists. It’s liberating to recognize that every writer and illustrator from every period is privileged to re-tell and interpret the fables in whatever way is meaningful to them… that was the key that freed me to bring Aesop’s fables to California.

Parents and children will discover dozens of Aesop stories at their neighborhood or school library, just like I did.

What is it about fables or stories that makes them such natural accompaniments to illustration?

DH: Stories of animals that behave like humans, thus exposing our vanities and foibles, hold enduring appeal for listeners and readers, writers and artists. Animals just make great subjects for illustration. The texture of feathers and fur, patterns, colors, and shapes endlessly delight and inspire many artists and I’m no exception.

Once we enter the world of talking animals, anything else is possible – with costume, settings, and action – a feast of possibilities for the illustrator.