Illustrator Spotlight: Lee White

© Lee White

Dec. 21, 2018

Today we are excited to feature illustrator Lee White and his latest book KATE WHO TAMED THE WIND, by Liz Garton Scanlon (Schwartz & Wade 2018). Be sure to enter to win a copy!

Tell us about your background and how you came to illustrate for children.

My background is a little bit different than most illustrators. I never drew as a kid and was never interested in art. I liked riding bikes and just being outside all the time. I never took art classes through high school and into college where I studied photography. In my late 20’s my television set broke and I wanted to make some images. At first I thought I’d take photos, but I wanted some magic elements in there that I didn’t know how to do with a camera. So I went to the art store and bought some paints and just started painting. I made a bunch of paintings and submitted them to art colleges and luckily got a scholarship. So I quit my job and my wife and I moved to Los Angeles to learn to draw and paint. It was very exciting and scary! 

© Lee White

All the work I did in college looked like it belongs in a kids book. Even work that I thought was dark and serious. Other people would say “Aww, that looks like it could be a kids book”. So I always sort of had that sensibility to my work. Right out of school I signed with my first agent and started doing books pretty quickly. That was a while ago and since then I’ve done around 25 books for kids and young adults. (picture books, poem books, and YA). It’s such a fun job and I love it now more than ever. 

You do a variety of art, from children's books to commercial work to personal projects. How do the other types of art influence your children's books?

I just like making images. So I don’t consider myself a “children's book” illustrator or a “fine art” painter” etc. I just consider myself someone who likes to make things. So I just go about making things and see where it should live once it is made. Sometimes it goes in a book, other times it goes on a wall. I think more about the making of the thing rather than where it ends up. That experimental nature is what drives me and that influences all the art I make, including the children’s books. The fine art work does change the children’s books somewhat in that I think the the work in a book should be art. It should stand on it’s own and be beautiful. So I’m not a very commercial illustrator. I like abstract areas in my work and that probably comes from experimenting with textures and techniques. 

© Lee White

Congrats on your many picture books, including your latest, KATE WHO TAMED THE WIND. Tell us about your illustration process for the illustrations in this story.

My process for the books always starts with asking questions. Who is this character? What do they care about and what motivates them? How are the characters connected? Once I answer these questions, I start sketching out little storyboards for what takes place in the book. This is different than doing rough sketches for the actual book layouts. This is more of a thinking stage and I add and discard things quite a bit.

©Lee White

Once I get a rough storyboard for what takes place in the story, I go about the normal practice of layout out the book in rough sketches, etc. I should add that once I have an idea for what will happen in the book, I go ahead and pick an illustration that might end up in the book and I go ahead and finish it. This image may or may not end up in the story, but it’s my way of testing the waters and seeing what might work. This painting is important because depending on how it looks, I may change the sketches based on the information I learned in the painting. It is also a GREAT way to start to discuss the story and images with the art director. 

What other projects are you working on?

I have all sorts of stuff I’m doing now. I’m doing a bunch of patterns for my agent because licensing work is something I want to get into over the next year. I’m also writing two picture books, illustrating another picture book for Atheneum. Also teaching a few classes for my school, Life is pretty busy at this point! : )

© Lee White

You are an instructor at the School of Visual Storytelling. How did you get involved and what are your favorite classes (to teach or take)? Tell us about #slowvember. 

Jake Parker and Will Terry started SVS and I was originally asked just to do an online critique through SCBWI with them. We all got along so well they asked me to join the company. We all work so well together and have a great time when we hang out. We all have similar visions about education despite our work and approach being so different. 

I started Slowvember as a reaction to some of the quick daily sketch prompts like Inktober (which Jake Parker started!). I love Inktober, but I wanted to emphasize that sometimes you need to slow down and really finish something. I noticed that students often struggle with finishing work and really have a tough time with that last 20-30% of a painting. Sometimes we make excuses for our work by saying “well, I had to turn it in when it was due”, etc. and we never actually end up finishing a painting. Slowvember is about making something that you care about and spending enough time on it to make it as good as you can. It doesn’t have to take the whole month, but it’s more about taking a breath and asking yourself “What do I REALLY want to make?” And then giving yourself the space to make it. 

What advice would you give to aspiring illustrations?

That is a tricky question because everyone’s path is so different. My main advice is to do more than you are asked and be excited about the work. Don’t be too discouraged in the beginning because your work doesn’t match the things you are looking at online. Your work will get there quicker than you think. 

What is one thing most people don't know about you?

I am a professional disc golfer. That is a super nerdy thing to admit, but there you have it. I have always been very active and was a competitive BMX racer as a young teenager, then an avid skateboarder as a late teen. Surfing and snowboarding soon followed and mountain bikes was in the mix too. I just like doing things outside and it really helps with my time in the studio. The one thing I dislike about being a professional artist is all the time just sitting there. I have too much energy for that so I need to burn it off. I started playing disc golf about 4 years ago and it’s so fun. And it’s free once you have a few discs! I encourage you all to try it!  

Where can people find you online?

Instagram: leewhiteillo

Lee White spends his days breathing life into his imaginary world. He works primarily in watercolor, but likes to include all sorts of media, such as ink, colored pencil and collage. He has illustrated a number of children's books, including Love, Santa and Emma and the Whale. His latest, Kate, Who Tamed The Wind, will be released in February 2018. 

He has also done commercial work for various clients, including Marks & Spencer, Amazon, Laika, United Airlines, Verizon, Disney and National Geographic. He is represented by The Bright Agency out of New York and London. When not busy with client projects, Lee creates his own personal work, which is shown at various galleries and art fairs throughout the year. Many of these images are included in a fancy coffee table book of his artwork, which came out in August 2017.

He also teaches all of his watercolor secrets through the Society of Visual Storytelling, an online art school for artists of all skill levels. Lee graduated with honors from ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena, California, and earned his MFA in illustration, also with honors, from the University of Hartford in Connecticut. He lives with his wife, little boy and two rambunctious kitties in Franklin Tennessee. 
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  1. Thanks for the awesome book!!

  2. I love Lee's beautiful watercolors! I'll be looking out for this book.

  3. Beautiful illustrations!

  4. I love the 3 Point Perspective podcast and I'm so glad we got a chance to learn more about Lee here. I didn't realize he'd gone back to school to study art in his late 20s (despite not doing art as a kid). I think that takes a lot of courage.

  5. The title and pictures are intriguing!

  6. Your illustrations are creative, fun, and definitely tell stories. I love the books into birds as it symbolizes (for me) that books give me wings.

  7. Wonderful work! I love Kate and her story. Congratulations and thanks for helping others along the way. :)

  8. Great post and great combination of talent for KATE, WHO TAMED THE WIND!

  9. Such lovely work, in your illustrations! They're positively dreamy.

  10. I love the idea for this book and I can't wait to find it.

  11. What gorgeous artwork. It would be a pleasure to share it with the children.

  12. Interesting journey into the world of #kidlit. Wonderful work. Wishing you many more successes!