Wendell Minor has illustrated over 2,000 covers, 55 children’s books and five stamps for the US Postal Service. Take a look at any of the thousands of pictures he’s painted and you’ll understand why his work has earned him hundreds of awards. His paintings have been featured in museums, displayed at universities and sold for private collections. Wendell is not only one of the most talented artists and illustrators in America, but after interviewing him for two hours, it’s safe to say he could be successful as a motivational speaker too; his philosophies are as brilliant as his paintings. With his success, you’d expect Wendell to be, well, a bit full of himself. But he’s not. He’s friendly, witty and is always looking for ways to improve his craft – as if that were possible. Wendell lives with his wife Florence, an author and collaborator, in rural Connecticut, with a most inspiring art studio nestled in their picturesque back yard. Together they travel the world to observe the earth’s natural wonders and find inspiration to write and paint. He shared with me highlights of his life from early childhood to present day, and his journey has been filled with challenges and triumphs that make as great a story as the many he has written or illustrated himself.
© Wendell at the Truro Lighthouse on Cape Cod
All Images used with permission by Wendell Minor. No Images or text may be used without permission.
I’ve read that you are dyslexic. How old were you when you were diagnosed?
It was early on, at the age of six. At the beginning of 1st grade, my teacher sent a note home to my parents that said, “We’ve been doing independent reading, but Wendell doesn’t seem to grasp it.” Following that I was in special reading classes from 2nd through 6th grades. I’m fortunate that it was discovered early on, though back then there wasn’t a name for it.
© Wendell as a young boy
Does dyslexia affect your reading ability only or does it also play a role in other ways too, such as with your painting?
I think three-dimensionally, meaning I can go in many different directions. I am a highly pictorial, big-concept thinker, envisioning things in different ways than non-dyslexic people do. I have an almost photographic memory, and when I read text, from the start I create images. When I write a picture book, first I illustrate and then I write the text, which is the opposite of the way most authors work.
How did your parents influence your love of nature?
My father was a hunter and a fisherman, so he dragged me out into the woods often. You can’t help but fall in love with nature when you’re constantly outside.
How old were you when you realized you had a talent for art?
I was born with a heart defect, which required three major surgeries, so doctors forbade me to participate in sports. This resulted in torment from my classmates who constantly called me a wimp. In 4th grade I started getting a lot of attention for my drawings. I became the go-to guy for creating play posters and later became the newspaper artist and editor in chief of my high school yearbook. So I figured, if I can’t get attention from sports, I’ll enjoy getting it from my artwork.
© Wendell at age 14 showing the sketch he made during his English class
Did your parents nurture that talent?
My mother did. She signed me up for art classes in the park when I was nine. My first artist’s palette was a cookie sheet. My mother was married at age 15, and my father was 24. Mom eventually got her GED, went to junior college then worked as the director of the nursery school at our church for 35 years. Her own artistic talents came out when she was working with kids. My dad was a worker in an auto parts factory that resembled something out of a Dickens novel, filled with soot, noisy machines and unsafe chemicals. Being practical, my father could never conceive of anyone doing something for a living he enjoyed. Once he knew art was what I wanted to do, he told me if I wanted an education, it would be my financial responsibility. My parents just did not have the means to help me out.
© Image of poster promoting Wendell’s exhibit at the Norman Rockwell Museum
© Postage stamps designed by Wendell for the US Postal Service
Did your parents live to see you succeed?
Fortunately my dad lived to see me design one of the stamps I created for the US post office. My mom died just six years ago, so she was here to see many of the books I illustrated and she was there when I received my first Honorary Doctorate degree.
Designing a postage stamp has to be one of the greatest honors as an artist. Can you tell us about those Honorary Doctorate degrees?
I received an Honorary Doctorate from Aurora University in 2004, where I once took a class many years back, and an Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters from the University of Connecticut in 2010. I’m honored to have received this recognition.
© Photo Credit: Lauren Cunningham – Wendell addressing the 2010 graduating class of The University of Connecticut, the day he received his Honorary Doctorate
Do you ever call yourself Dr. Minor?
No, I don’t. (Laughing).
So getting back to art school, how did you come up with the money to attend?
After high school, I worked for a cattle slaughterhouse. It was a real eye-opener. One poor worker washed out cow stomachs and liver bile all day long. He did what he had to do to pay the bills, punching the time clock and putting in his hours. Working there was one of the worst and best experiences of my life. I never wanted to be stuck in a horrible job like that with no future. It motivated me to do something I’m passionate about.
© Wendell’s cover art for Robert Morgan’s novel, The Road from Gap Creek, the sequel to the best selling Gap Creek.
I’d imagine that job changed the way you felt about consuming beef too!
I haven’t eaten beef since then, and I’d never touch fast food. At home, Florence and I eat vegetarian. When we get out, we occasionally eat fish or chicken.
” Given my heart defect, I always felt as though I was on borrowed time, so I vowed to never waste a minute.”
When you graduated from the Ringling School of Art, what was your first job?
Hallmark hired me right out of school to design cards in Kansas City, MO. I was flat broke, and I didn’t think I had enough talent to become an illustrator. So I was happy to take that offer. Then I got a job with designer, Paul Bacon, and one day he threw a book manuscript at me and told me to illustrate it. Given my heart defect, I always felt as though I was on borrowed time, so I vowed to never waste a minute. I worked hard illustrating from the start, and Paul turned out to be a terrific mentor.
© Image from Galapagos George
© Photo of the sun-drenched interior of Wendell’s Studio
How much time do you spend painting in your studio?
I often work on two or three illustration projects at a time. I’m in the studio ten to twelve hours per day, with between six and eight solid hours of painting. The rest of the time is spent on researching and communicating with authors and editors and all the other typical office tasks that take up your time. Florence’s day in the studio is about eight to nine hours. When I was in my 20s, I would paint eighteen to twenty hours a day. To develop your craft, you have to work long and hard and make sacrifices. I didn’t get married until I was older, because I was always busy painting.
© Image of the exterior of the Minor Art Studio situated on their residential property
What medium(s) do you use?
I use gouache paints, because they reproduce extremely well and unlike traditional watercolors, where the focus is on where not to paint, you can use a dry brush to build up opaque layers and even blot up color if need be. It’s what I like to call “faking a fix,” which you simply can’t do with watercolors. I love to use acrylic paint too and with the finishes you can apply on top of them, you can get a look similar to oil paint. It takes years to master any medium.
© Wendell’s studio palette
You must spend a lot of money on paint and paper.
No matter what medium you use, you must know where you are going when you start with your image, so you don’t waste paper and paint. I use Strathmore Bristol 4-ply, which is $10 per sheet. I have a special brush custom made, so I have to buy them in bulk at $1000 per order. Gouache paints run over $33 for just one .47 ounce tube. But all your materials must be archival quality so they last.
© Image of Florence’s studio
“As a person with dyslexia, if am going to struggle with reading, it better be nonfiction, because I want to learn something.”
After illustrating for 45 years, where do you store all your original work?
My original work can be found in museums and universities and I have some 350 pieces in private collections. I also store some in my studio and have two storage facilities.
What attracts you to illustrating nonfiction children’s books in particular?
As a person with dyslexia, if am going to struggle with reading, it better be nonfiction, because I want to learn something. Nonfiction may not be the most popular genre for children, but it’s so important. I want to inspire children to learn about history and to get outside and develop a respect for the natural world and all its glory. I never felt the need to have children myself, but I enjoy having a metaphorical presence in their lives through my nonfiction books.
© Wendell in a 1927 Waco plane
“I never felt the need to have children myself, but I enjoy having a metaphorical presence in their lives through my nonfiction books.”
Many people think authors get to decide what the illustrations in their picture books will look like.
If a young, unknown author is lucky enough to get a contract to write a book, he or she has no say in who illustrates it or what the pictures will look like. But the authors I work with are accomplished and well known, and I always work directly with them – some of them on numerous books. My wife, Florence and I have done four picture books together, and we’re working on more. I illustrated three books for author Diane Siebert. Then one day in 1989 I got an idea for another book, so I called her editor to see if Diane would consider writing a poem about the heartland. Three weeks later I received a glorious poem, and a new book was born. I am so pleased that the book is being re-released this year.
Can you explain how your illustration process typically works for a picture book?
First I speak to the author about his or her vision of the story. Then back in the studio I start sketching. I create a full dummy presentation based on collaboration with the author and feedback from the editor at the publishing house. Then it’s time to paint the original illustrations, sharing them with the author for feedback. I make the final touches and then they are off to the printer. I typically complete three books a year, so it takes about four months for each project.
“The second reason is that there isn’t any benefit to being difficult to work with. If I am truly a creative person, I should always be able to come up with different solutions.”
Do you ever disagree with changes an editor wants you to make?
I rarely disagree with editors for a couple of reasons. First of all, there’s often more than one right way to achieve positive results, so it’s best to keep an open mind. The second reason is that there isn’t any benefit to being difficult to work with. If I am truly a creative person, I should always be able to come up with different solutions.
© Image from How Big Could Your Pumpkin Grow?
Do you feel overwhelmed at times with your workload?
Of course, and there are always potential projects that never see light of day, because there isn’t enough time to get to them. From idea to finished book, it takes two years to get it all through the pipeline. You won’t hear me complaining about feeling tremendously overbooked though, because I am grateful for having had a steady stream of work for 45 years. During the last recession, I didn’t sign a contract for a year and half, but I had so much backlog, I was always working. An illustrator or author always wants to have a book in queue.
I understand you and your wife have traveled all over the world, often visiting a place before painting it. Do you paint from photographs, observation or from memory and do you ever paint on the spot or always in the studio?
I painted directly from nature for years, and when I have the time, I still sketch on site. I take a lot of photographs to capture perspective, but I never copy the photos I take. I tap into my electronic memory bank, which is quite full. When I am out, no matter where I go or what I am doing, I take note of atmospheric conditions. Due to my three-dimensional thinking, I am able to store what I see in my mind and remember it in detail to use any time in the future.
© Florence and Wendell Minor
That’s quite a spectacular gift you have. When you have finished a book and it has been published do you criticize your work as many other illustrators tell me they do?
Oh yes. There’s always something you wish you’d done differently. Plus with every just-published book, I think instantly, why did this take so long to paint?
Can you tell us how you managed to capture the mightiness of the giant sequoia so incredibly well in the beautiful picture book Sequoia, written by the talented Tony Johnston?
In order to depict the grandeur of a tree that is 275 feet tall and 100 feet wide, I had to accentuate the obvious by exaggerating reality as much as I could. Angle and light are important too. I wanted to capture what it would be like to stand in the sequoia forest and feel the mightiness of the trees and hear the close up and distant sounds such as the ambient wind whistling high on a branch or a ground squirrel chattering nearby. You’ll notice that I created a horizontal two-page spread to paint one enormous tree.
Before you got started illustrating Sequoia, were you familiar with these trees, and did you know they live for thousands of years?
Yes. I was so fortunate that Dr. Stephen Sillett and Marie Antoine from Humboldt State University shared their upper story tree photographs and research with me. Stephen is a botanist who studies the ecology of redwoods and sequoias, and he and wife, Marie climb these trees to study old growth. They were married between two redwood trees and even spent their honeymoon up in one of those trees! I call Stephen and Marie “Protectors of the Forest.”
Is it known how the Sequoia lives for as long as they do?
The life span of these trees remains somewhat a mystery. They come from ancient species that manage to adapt well to different environments and survive where other trees cannot. However, sequoias are a threatened species. One of the main problems is that the climate where they grow is getting drier.
They are truly fascinating trees. What’s the number one question you are asked when you are the visiting author at schools?
What’s your favorite of all the books you’ve illustrated? I always answer the same way with, “The one I haven’t done yet.” I ask the children if they have brothers and sisters and if their parents love one more than the other. Naturally they tell me their parents love all their children the same. That’s how I get them to understand why I simply can’t choose a favorite book.
© Image from Sequoia
© by Ed Hyman The Wendell Minor’s America Exhibit at the Norman Rockwell Museum in 2013
“Don’t ever stop dreaming, because if you don’t have a dream, you’re never going to escape from wherever it is that you don’t want to be.”
Do you find it rewarding to visit schools?
I’ve seen underprivileged children get excited because they are handed their first book to own. They ask, “Is this book really for me? Can I really keep it?” If I can reach one out of 100 children, then I know I’m doing the right thing. I tell them . . . You can write or illustrate too. Everywhere you look, there is an idea. Ask questions. Why is that the way it is? Maybe that’s an idea for a book. Most ideas come from reading. The more you read the better you speak and the more you’ll know. We all have shortcomings and struggles. Many people have overcome great obstacles, and you can too. Everyone of us has potential. If you’re a slow learner, that’s okay. Don’t ever stop dreaming, because if you don’t have a dream, you’re never going to escape from wherever it is that you don’t want to be.
© Wendell at Edward Hopper’s studio in Truro on Cape Cod
“We tend to think in terms of great art as that which is already recognized.”
How fortunate those children are to meet you! Do you believe that to be an artist a person must have natural talent? Or can a person develop an art ability through motivation and hard work?
It’s hard to say. Great art can come from any person any place any time. Someone can collect scraps of junk and put it together in a brilliant, original way. We tend to think in terms of great art as that which is already recognized. People judge success by those who are already known and don’t often consider talent that has yet to be celebrated. For those out there practicing their craft, it’s a bit like playing the lotto. Sometimes it just happens. But the key is to be persistent and true to yourself and your own style. You’ve got to work until it takes all the energy out of you. It’s a marathon, steady and strong. Too many new creations get a lot of attention because they are the latest thing, but they don’t have staying power, and they fade as fast as they came. It’s the long game that counts.
© From the book Heartland by Diane Siebert. Heartland will be republished by David Godine Books for a 25th Anniversary edition
Your Edward Hopper book looks extraordinary, and I can’t wait to read it. What draws you to his work?
© Image from Edward Hopper Paints His World
Edward Hopper is my hero. He struggled for years on end, having to look for illustration work in place of painting to pay his bills. It took him many years to sell his paintings, but he kept at it. By the time he was 50, he had a one-man show at the Museum of Modern Art. I so admire his work. He is known for oil paintings but was also a master at etching and watercolor. It’s stories like Hopper’s that inspire me to keep working. I also love the story of John Audubon and was thrilled to illustrate Bob Burleigh’s book, Into the Woods. Audubon was torn between who his father wanted him to be and what he wanted to do. He was somewhat of a lost soul for a while, with no direction and experienced a series of failures. But he loved to roam in the woods to observe birds, and one day decided to paint every bird he could find. The rest, we know, is history. I seem to be attracted to people who don’t fit into the system and go against the grain, somehow managing to rise above it all by contributing in innovative ways. It’s that monomaniacal pursuit of something that results in great success.
“Painting can be compared to going through a tunnel. At first everything is light but then there is a period where you can’t see where you’re going. You’ve got to stick with it and stay on course, because there is always light at the end of the tunnel.”
Do you ever experience creative blocks with your painting?
Yes, at times when I am just getting started, and it can be frustrating. Painting can be compared to going through a tunnel. At first everything is light but then there is a period where you can’t see where you’re going. You’ve got to stick with it and stay on course, because there is always light at the end of the tunnel. I tell myself it’s not about instant gratification, rather I must continue on and have faith that it will work out. And it almost always does.
Do you think the physical book will soon vanish and be taken over by digital technology?
A book is the purest of all man made designs. It’s an important part of our history and culture. A physical book has a function that simply cannot be replaced by an electronic device. Books are the most user friendly devises for the human brain, as our brains are analog. The proof is in the fact that the physical picture book is more popular than ever before. A child needs to hold it, manually turn the pages and admire the artwork. Digital reading provides information, but not knowledge. It may have its place with some books, but I believe children’s books are here to stay.
© From Morning, Noon and Night by Jean Craighead George
“Overconfidence is the most dangerous trait an artist can have, because it only works for the short term.”
When you started illustrating and writing children’s books did you ever imagine you’d have the great success and long career you’ve had?
I guess I’ve always thought that if people think you are successful, then you must be. But I don’t concentrate on that. I am always thinking about what I can do better next time and what I have yet to try. Overconfidence is the most dangerous trait an artist can have, because it only works for the short term. I like to surround myself with the most talented, down-to-earth, humble people because they know there’s so much more to learn and do. Accomplishments should speak for themselves.
What are some of the unique ways you feel validation for the outstanding work you do.
At a class reunion, one of star linebackers from my high school came up to me and said with sincerity, “I really admire what you’re doing with your life.” I was blown away, because he wouldn’t have given me the time of day back in high school. In another story, I received an email from a woman who said she saw my name on her son’s favorite book so she and her husband named their new baby, Wendell after me. That was quite an honor.
“The only tangible evidence of immortality lies in lines of text or paint on paper.”
I’d say so! Do you ever think about the fact that with every illustration in every book, you are possibly leaving your mark for future generations?
That is the hope. The only tangible evidence of immortality lies in lines of text or paint on paper. Some survive, and others don’t. I only know where my work is when I’m alive.
© Illustration for Atlantic Monthly, circa 1990
“Most people want safety, but nothing great comes from taking the easy road.”
Knowing what you know now, if you could give yourself advice on illustrating as a new art school graduate, what would that advice be?
Become a plumber! No, seriously, what I’d tell myself is believe in what you’re doing. Be patient, passionate, persistent and work until you perspire. You may have many different types of creative jobs until you find what you really love to do. Approach every venture with same amount of consistency, and work with an entrepreneurial spirit. Find a way to make it work. Take risks. Most people want safety, but nothing great comes from taking the easy road.
© Image of Wendell painting outdoors in 1997
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Wendell, I thank you for the opportunity to hear your personal story and discover a bit about what lies behind your creative genius. Your words and your work are sure to encourage artists who dream of having a career as successful as yours. I wish for my walls to be covered with your remarkable paintings. May you keep on creating masterpieces for children and their parents and teachers to admire, and may you never find yourself in a slaughterhouse again.
Readers, visit Wendell Minor’s website.
Read my review of Sequoia, a book I highly recommend.
– Written by Debbie Glade