Illustrator Spotlight: Dave Szalay

© Dave Szalay

Feb. 21, 2020

Today we are excited to feature Dave Szalay, illustrator of THE TRUE STORY OF ZIPPY CHIPPY, THE LITTLE HORSE THAT COULDN'T written by Artie Bennett (NorthSouth Books, Feb. 25, 2020).

 Enter to win a copy below!

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

I had trouble learning to read but loved books as a child. My grandmother worked in the book section of a big department store and supplied me with dozens of picture books. My favorite thing to do was to draw and I looked at book and magazine illustration as inspiration. I continued to draw and won a few art contests in grade school. It was what I was best at. 

Later, I studied graphic design in college, then worked in advertising and communications designing logos, and various printed advertising material. I learned to design and write for all types of corporate and retail advertising. I was always an illustrative designer but the illustration market was in decline and desktop computers were new. I taught myself how to use the computer with Adobe design software and that helped me move up the ladder. I advanced to creative director and then V.P. at a commercial printing company, before opening my own creative agency. All the while, I included as much illustration in my designs as clients would allow. 

© Dave Szalay

When the economy was hit by a recession, business slowed and I downsized, eventually closing my agency. I was freelancing when I began teaching undergraduate design part time. It was 2005 and I felt my career changing once again. I decided to go to graduate school so I could teach full-time and completed a masters in Communication. My last class was international public relations in London, England. We stayed in Bloomsbury, an area known for its literary history. My wife travelled with me and we spent much of our free time in used book stores looking for old picture books, it was 2008. 

That experience sparked the idea that I might like to write and illustrate books for children. By this time I had been a designer for over 20 years and I felt I was losing my drive. I decided to go back to graduate school once again the following year for an MFA in Illustration at the University of Hartford. I felt this would not only rejuvenate my professional work, but also allow me to migrate toward teaching illustration at my university. Several of my teachers at Hartford illustrated children’s books and one of them advised me to join SCBWI if I wanted to go in this direction. Attending a few regional conferences and getting feedback really helped me gain traction in children’s publishing. In 2017, I participated in the portfolio showcase at the SCBWI Winter Conference and was contacted by a few agents to discuss representation. I felt the strongest connection to Christy T. Ewers at the CAT Agency, and signed on. With Christy’s help, I started getting assignments for education, magazines and trade books. 

Congrats on your recent book, THE TRUE STORY OF ZIPPY CHIPPY- THE HORSE THAT COULDN'T. Tell us about the story and how you approached the assignment.

I was thrilled when Beth Terrill sent me the manuscript and asked if I was interested in illustrating this story. With Zippy Chippy, I could see the images in my mind right away. I found the story to be so charming and I smiled as I read Artie’s words. To prepare, I researched everything I could find about the real Zippy Chippy. I also looked through hundreds of horse racing photos. It was so meaningful to design the characters based on real life horses, and people. I had the most fun giving Zippy his carefree attitude and silly personality. I had to cover a whole range of emotion in this story and that was really enjoyable.

© Dave Szalay

There was one particular sample from my portfolio that NorthSouth preferred for this book. That one piece used loose contour outlines around the figures and objects, unlike the majority of my work which is more shape and texture based. The challenge was to maintain the look from the sample by employing those whimsical contour lines. I had to keep reminding myself to work them in. The color palette and compositions are true in style to most of my work, as are the compositions and other elements. So the process felt very natural and usually moved along without a hitch.

Was your road to publication long and winding, short and sweet, or something in between?

I think it depends on when we start counting. I could say it was a lifetime that led to publication, or just a few years if I say it began when I joined SCBWI. 

© Dave Szalay

What projects are you working on now?

I just completed illustrating my third picture book. I completed three books during the 2018-2019 period. While I wait for the next illustration project or hopefully book to come along, I’m drafting ideas for my own author/illustrator material. 

What is your preferred medium and illustration process?

When I started working toward kid lit, I elected to go digital. I was very comfortable with the hardware and software I use from my graphic design days. It was easy to blend my painting and drawing techniques into a digital format. That was a great decision because I’m fast and can edit and revise immediately spending more time on good ideas than laboring over traditional media. I don’t have a formal painting background so it wouldn’t be the best method for me anyway. I have a world of respect for those who can really paint. I feel like I’m cheating sometimes even though the computer doesn’t really make it easier.

© Dave Szalay

What advice would you give to aspiring illustrators?

Get to know your specific audience so you know what work can carry you. Get your work out there, online and in person. Build an evolving portfolio and only show work similar to what you want to do. Don’t show a bunch of dragons and wizards if you don’t want to do fantasy stuff. If you like nonfiction, for example, then work on compelling images that speak to that work. 

© Dave Szalay

Observe the successful professionals that you admire and pay attention to why they’re successful. What makes their work stand out? There are so many specialty areas, you should explore and discover where you fit in. Some illustrators work on a wide range of topics and others within a small niche. Just figure out where you belong and keep getting better at that. It’s ok to experiment and try new things too. Don’t be afraid to take a risk now and again. You’ll grow and learn, even if it fails.

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

I make it look easy but I still struggle. I work very hard and for all the good work I share, there is a fair amount of bad work that I keep to myself. 

Where can people find you online?



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  1. This looks like the perfect pairing (I'm already a fan of Artie's humor)! And the personality of Zippy Chippy really shines through in your artwork--I can't wait to read it.

  2. What a great book for animal-loving kids.

  3. These are great illustrations, and they match the heart of this story perfectly. :)

  4. Horses are my favorite animal and this book looks so enjoyable. I admire your artwork.

  5. Fascinating interview, Dave! Bravo! You've perfectly captured the heart and soul of Zippy Chippy with your lovely artwork. I couldn't be prouder. Here's to bountiful collaborations!

  6. Beautiful work! I enjoyed learning about Dave's varied career and how this book came to be.


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