We are pleased to introduce you to Tim Ladwig, the illustrator of Lily: The Girl Who Could See – a beautiful picture book about Lilias Trotter that delights child and adult alike. Tim has illustrated twenty-five children’s books, many of which have been recipients of various awards. The Fear Not Angel and Psalm Twenty-Three were Gold Medallion Award finalists; Psalm Twenty-Three and Silent Night received the American Booksellers Association “Pick of the Lists” award. He spent seventeen years with Urban Ministry at World Impact ministering in Wichita, Los Angeles, and briefly in Newark. He and his wife Leah have two adult daughters, a son in college, and two grand-daughters. The Ladwigs reside in Wichita where Tim continues to pursue his vocation as an “illustrator who loves illustrating picture books.”
Were there any experiences that influenced your early interest in art?
Tim Ladwig: I lost an eye when I was eight years old. While at home recovering from surgery to remove my injured then infected eye, my dad bought a beginner’s set of oil paints and a canvas board. He wanted to encourage me and knew I liked to draw before the accident. My first painting was of a clown – of colors straight out of the tubes. Dad had it framed. It wasn’t good, but he succeeded in showing me I could still draw and even paint with one eye the same as with two.
What other factors encouraged your love for art?
Tim Ladwig: I continued to enjoy drawing through high school, but didn’t aspire to be an artist. It happened that I grew up in Emporia, Kansas, which at the time had one of the finest teachers’ colleges. My dad worked at the college and we lived only a short walk from the college campus. In my roaming around the art building, I was exposed to the students’ and teachers’ art work. But what left the deepest impression was picture books. In the college’s library, a large section was devoted to children – a mini library for children. I spent hours and hours looking at the picture books. Mrs. Hansen, the children’s librarian, would read stories to us as we sat in a circle. From first grade on I fell in love with word and picture stories.
Were there any particular picture books which fed your love for illustration?
Tim Ladwig: Caps for Sale, Millions of Cats, Mop Top, and of course Dr. Seus’s books all took hold of my imagination. A display of original pen and ink illustrations from White Falcon fascinated me. Don Freeman, a wonderful children’s illustrator, came to speak to our school. He drew a character from one of his books on a large piece of paper with a charcoal stick. I was enchanted.
When did you decide on art as a vocation?
Tim Ladwig: As far as becoming an artist – it was more a matter of having only one path open. I worked the first summer of college at a small advertising studio. I learned about illustrating and graphics in general. The following year I spent a semester in Rome, on a lark. There again I learned, without intent, a lot about drawing and painting from an Italian teacher who taught these skills academically. He claimed it was the same way Michelangelo learned how to draw or paint accurately what the eye sees. I returned to Wichita to finish college and through my school years continued to work at the advertising studio. Interestingly, my employer actually had the art director take me to Wichita State and enroll me as a graphic design major. Again, even though this was not my choice, the classes while working at the art studio turned out to be an excellent way to learn illustration and design.
The next season of life was spent as a community minister with World Impact. Staff members lived in poor urban neighborhoods and taught children and teen Bible clubs. This turned out to be wonderful training for a picture book illustrator. We told stories from the Old and New Testaments with our own simple, large drawings as illustrations. We experienced the relationship of words and pictures through the live reaction of those city kids. It was a wonderful way to learn what worked and what didn’t work. How to pace a story. And it was most satisfying if children experienced the story and absorbed whatever truth was there.
It sounds like your life experiences continued to direct you toward art without it being an intentional career path?
Yes. The next step of actually becoming an illustrator was a matter of necessity more than anything. After about sixteen years in the city, I was up for a sabbatical. The only thing I could think to do was to try to make a children’s book that said something of what I had learned living in poor urban neighborhoods. God graciously provided an idea, places to work, and encouragement from several great friends and my very patient wife. After a year, Psalm Twenty-Three was finished and miraculously found a publisher who happened to be looking for an African-American picture book to publish. That publisher hired me and I’ve pretty much been illustrating since, as a way to support my family, and I can say now, as fulfilling what God prepared me to do and love.
How did you prepare to illustrate Lily: The Girl Who Could See?
Tim Ladwig: My preparation was to read all I could of what was written about Lilias. Without the biography, A Passion for the Impossible, the children’s Lily wouldn’t be. I tried to find all the visual references I could of where Lilias lived, clothing, places where she was at particular points in the story, and of course, her own paintings. I relied on descriptions of Lilias as a person from child to old woman a great deal. Her own writing helped me understand who she was. As far as the child Lilias, I had only her fiery response to the two brothers who threatened to mistreat her pet cat, her love of drawing and painting, and her taking a broken heart to Jesus when her father died. And these were enough.
The book design was partly dictated by printing standards. But they didn’t seem limiting. The book attempted to follow her life making sure that the important points of her life were included.
How did you approach the technique of illustrating Lily?
Time Ladwig: It seemed appropriate to use watercolor for the Lily book and try for the same technique, or as close as I could get, to the way Lilias made her sketchbook notes in Algeria. I chose to try Lilias’ method of watercolor on a toned paper. She used opaque light colors, but only where she had to. I did not succeed – Lilias was so masterful with a brush and she was honest in painting what she saw and nothing more. And she saw so well.
Lilias’s brush work is purposeful and not labored. It is fresh and spare. I knew I couldn’t come close to matching her but tried to let the brush do all the work and not to overwork. Like the great painter she is, she had a way of letting you know what she saw as most important whether by composition or by just a touch more detail (but only just enough).
Do you work exclusively in watercolor?
Tim Ladwig: I do sometimes mix media – starting with watercolor, sealing with acrylic spray, then at times using thin glazes of acrylic to boost chroma or deep dark. Then sometimes sealing again with fluid matte medium and using oils (water mixable) wherever it could to take up where the watercolor left off. Oils can be very rich in darks and of course, you can paint light on dark areas which is very useful (highlights, showing some textures).
Could you elaborate on how you, as an artist, view Lilias’s art?
Tim Ladwig: She was wonderful in her observation of colors. Water color gives a good range of color which can be applied fairly quickly. She didn’t shy away from strong color or strong values (she painted very dark when she saw dark). Sometimes watercolorists like its transparent quality so much they stay in a medium-value range. But Lilias’s paintings had strength and contrast – you had confidence that if you were there looking at what she saw when she saw it, you would see the same image as her painting. So, in illustrating Lily, I tried to use a full range of darks to lights as they would appear in a scene.
Then there was her use of the opaque white, or using full-strength color when it happened to be an opaque color (some reds and yellows or others). She did this better than anyone I know. We were taught not to use opaque white because it was not proper for watercolor when the paper is to be the only white. But Lilias was using tinted paper and she was working quickly since she painted life as it happened. I’m not sure if John Ruskin taught her this technique, but it suited her need perfectly. She did use opaque color sparingly – only when necessary.
The cover of the book seems to incorporate some significant themes of her life.
Tim Ladwig: The cover of the book shows Lilias looking at a lily and birds flying around. It seemed natural for her to be looking at her name-sake flower. It was her power to see that made her such a great artist. And she learned lessons from God through what He made. The small birds are from perhaps her last book, done in Japanese style. Like the story itself, the cover reflected her life from little girl to old woman and such a life of beauty.it was.
Do you have any final observations you want to share about your work on the Lily book?
Tim Ladwig: Of all the books I’ve illustrated, Lily along with Psalm Twenty-Three, are my favorites. Lilias is such an inspiring story of what it means to lay down our life, the promise of our talent and our pleasant situation in favor of trying to give the knowledge of Him to others from the motive of love. It is particularly meaningful to me because she was such a wonderful artist.