Charly Palmer is an acclaimed fine artist, graphic designer, and illustrator. He received the Coretta Scott King-John Steptoe New Talent Illustrator Award for Mama Africa! How Miriam Makeba Spread Hope with Her Song (FSG). His other books include The Teachers March! (Calkins Creek), My Rainy Day Rocket Ship (Simon & Schuster), and I Can Write the World (Six Foot). His fine art explores racism, black identity, and activism, and his work has been commissioned for Time magazine, the cover of John Legend’s album Bigger Love, and many other high-profile clients.
EBYR talked with Charly about his process, his influences, and his work on A Plan for the People: Nelson Mandela’s Hope for His Nation (Eerdmans), released on March 30.
EBYR: Did you feel any personal connection to the story of Nelson Mandela before you started this project? And if so, has that connection grown or changed over the course of doing the illustrations for it?
Charly Palmer (CP): When I spend time in South Africa, I’m always amazed by the impact Mandela had. That strength, pride, confidence, and love are the things I’m hoping to convey to some degree in this book. That’s an impossible task, but as much as possible, I’m hoping I can convey my love and respect for him by illustrating this book.
EBYR: Were there any images that resonated with you as you were reading the manuscript?
CP: I think especially the friendship Mandela established as an inmate with the guy who became his security guard [Christo Brand]. Mandela was such an advocate for love — for building, maintaining, and creating good friendships and relationships. And even to this day you can see the absolute love and admiration South Africa has for Mandela in return.
EBYR: You’ve talked before about the influence of The Snowy Day on your work. Did that book inspire or influence you during this project?
CP: It’s so funny how powerful The Snowy Day is to the world, to the illustration world, and to the children’s book world. Even as a child, even before I was able to read—I think I first picked up the book at four years old—I was fascinated by its simplicity of patterns. And it has forever influenced everything I’ve done. I wasn’t conscious of it until The Snowy Day reappeared in my world. Probably about 20 years ago I saw it again, at the same time I had started to develop my fine art career. It was a beautiful little boy I could visually relate to, but there was more to it than just that. It’s that simplicity of texture and pattern. Everything that I’ve done since then is heavily influenced by his style of painting.
Beyond Ezra Jack Keats’s style of painting, his storytelling has influenced me. You know, his stories are wonderful, but when I look at how he approached stories, that’s something I want to try as best as possible to emulate and clearly be influenced by. And I would hope that you see it in some of the works that I’m doing. It might be subtle, or it might be very obvious, but it’s very much influenced what I do.
EBYR: Absolutely. Any other books or creators that inspired or influenced you?
CP: I have been a collector of children’s books for over twenty years. I love the storytelling in a Dr. Seuss book, and the whimsical nature of the imagery. I also love Crown: An Ode to the Fresh Cut, how the story was approached in a nontraditional way and how the illustrator used the page. And so there might be a little bit of an influence there. There are always books that I’m looking at and trying to figure out what’s to been done before and what can I do a little bit differently.
EBYR: What does a typical [pre-pandemic] day of illustrating look like for you?
CP: It’s been a little difficult since I came back from South Africa, but I find my daily routine is very much like Mr. Rogers. I come in typically around 11 o’clock. I always tell young people, if they come into my studio, that I have several shirts and several pairs of pants that are covered in paint. So I come in and I take off my street clothes and my street shoes, and I put on my studio pants and I put on some really pleasant music.
I start by looking at what projects I have in front of me. And then I start laying out my paint and getting prepared, since I’m working in acrylic. And I’ll just start working. And I do work, especially in the beginning of each project, like an assembly line, where I’ll do a sketch for each panel and then I’ll put basic color in the color panel. And then I’ll put in a little bit of the detail. Then I’ll stop, and then every piece becomes a visual piece where I start to put in the real details, textures, and patterns into each piece.
But every day is different because I might be painting for a book, but I might also be working on a couple of paintings for an art exhibit coming up. Because of my space in a building with 20 other artists, oftentimes there’s a lot of traffic coming through my studio. People walk up and talk to me, but I’m going to be for the most part painting while we’re talking, because I really don’t want to stop other than to have lunch or something. That’s almost every day. I get in around 11, but I love working late, so I sometimes don’t leave my studio until 10 or 11 at night.
EBYR: Do you find that, since you’re in a studio with so many other artists, that you have conversations you wouldn’t otherwise?
CP: I do. What I love about having creative people around me, whether they’re writers or musicians: in a way, the language is the same. We’re all talking about the creative spirit. We’re talking about getting in a zone. When we talk about an 11 to 11 day, those days go by so quickly. I don’t keep any clocks around because clocks will affect the way I’m working.
My partner is a writer and so we’ve talked about it before: when we get into a groove or a zone, we stay there. You know? I’ve told my partner before, because she used to feel pretty guilty about saying that we’re going to get together for dinner at 8, and then calling me at 8 and saying, “I’m in the zone!” But I say, “Stay in the zone!” Because when you leave the zone, it’s so hard to recreate that. There might be a day I come in, and everything is flowing out so naturally. But I’ll come in the next day and I’m like: “I got nothing.” Nothing’s coming up that day. When you’re in the zone, you stay in that zone. Even athletes talk about it when they’re on the court or the field. They realize it’s no longer just them; it’s bigger than them.
EBYR: How has working in paint (rather than another medium) shaped your approach to either this project or just illustrating in general?
CP: That’s a really good question. I was introduced to Procreate about a year ago and got it loaded on my pad and started trying to work with it. And it was a whole new medium, and I didn’t know if I was ever going to get it. So I gave up and gave my pad to one of my children, one of my teenagers. And then a year later, it came up again. I saw some work that people are doing in ProCreate, and I realized I needed to be somewhere where I wasn’t distracted by all the other things going on. And so I decided, when I went to South Africa for a month with my partner, I would spend at least two to three hours every day learning ProCreate. My goal is to eventually create at least one children’s book in ProCreate.
But there is something, as a traditional painter, about painting that I absolutely love. So I’m not saying I’m going to give up traditional painting to use this new medium. I think I could use this new medium as a tool, but I think I want to continue to do and always be able to do traditional work. I’m used to having paint in my fingernails that I can’t get out. I’m used to getting paint all over my clothes or discovering two days later that I still have paint on my elbow. Those are things that I’ve been doing for over 30 years. So I feel I’ll always be doing something traditional.
EBYR: Do you think there’s something about that physicality that informs the work that happens, too, that creativity and that flow?
Charly: Absolutely. I know that in ProCreate or Discovery that when you make a mistake, that you can immediately correct an error. So it allows you a certain amount of freedom to be able to explore. But there are times when I’m painting traditionally, I see what I initially thought might be a mistake or an error, but it might enhance the work. And so I’ve learned to appreciate what we call “happy accidents”—anything that I hadn’t intended to happen. But looking at it, I’ll think it really works. When I’m using acrylic or polymer or plastic water-based paints, those moments can happen.
EBYR: Both your fine art and your illustration work has dealt with civil rights and social justice themes. What makes you so passionate about discussing these topics—and Mandela’s story specifically—with young people?
Charly: There’s a famous quote that those who don’t know their past are doomed to repeat it. You are often in the presence of greatness, and you’re not even aware of it, possibly because those people might be traumatized. Those elders may dismiss their experiences as not being relevant or important. But all the things that they’ve gone through have helped us to be where we are.
These kinds of stories remind us where we’ve come from. I had a similar conversation with my teenage nephew several years ago about Martin Luther King, and I was horrified by how little he knew. I think that’s why it’s relevant to continue to tell this story, because you need to know where you come from.
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