In addition to having a really cool and creative artsy-sounding name, London Ladd has an exceptional talent for illustrating. His path to success was a long one indeed, as it took him 11 years to finish his art degree. “Life in general – work, bills, fatherhood – got in the way, and I gave up on school twice,” explained London. “I even got kicked out for bad grades. But I eventually appealed the decision and did what I had to do to finish my degree.”
Once you see London’s work, learn about the extraordinary effort he puts into it and read what he has to say about his art, you’ll agree that the long, bumpy road he took to illustrating was well worth the journey.
How old were you when you realized you had a talent for art?
Well, there are no other artists in my family, but I loved comics as a young kid. I was an only child, so I had a lot of time to myself. My mom was a single mother and we sometimes struggled to pay bills. Our cable was shut off for a while and rather than watch TV, I’d spend time getting fully absorbed into my comics. Sometimes I would draw out interesting stories or action scenes. In high school I took an art class for a requirement and started to dabble. My art teacher took a liking to my work but at that time it hadn’t hit me yet that this was what I wanted to do. It wasn’t until I was in college studying computers that I realized I preferred art and enrolled in Syracuse University.
How did you get started illustrating children’s books?
After I graduated from art school in 2006, I was 34 years old, raising a family, and wanting to establish myself as an illustrator. My friend and fellow artist, James Ransome, knew an editor who was searching for an illustrator with a new voice for a children’s book about Martin Luther King, Jr. called March On. He suggested I just send her some samples of my work.
I understand you traveled to VA to visit Chesapeake Bay, the Freedom Tree and Fort Monroe for inspiration. What was that experience was like for you?
© Copyright photo by London Ladd – The deep Chesapeake Bay waters with arrow pointing to Ft. Monroe
First I contacted historians and did a lot of research and discovered this is Ground Zero for African American Slavery. I followed the footsteps of the three slaves, at the shores of Chesapeake Bay with its deep, murky waters and at Fort Monroe. As you walk toward the fort, the road is only wide enough for one car, reminding you just how old it is. I stood on the wall where the cannons were, closed my eyes, listening to the sounds of the waves slapping and the wind whistling and imagining what it was like there for the slaves in cramped conditions with the cannons blasting and smoke filling the air. On the grounds I discovered a cemetery from the 1800s for dogs that served in the military. Inside the fort, with its worn walls, there’s a jail cell for Jefferson Davis.
Fort Monroe in the 1800s – Image in the Public Domain
© Copyright by London Ladd -Present day image of the spot as photo above where canons once stood at Fort Monroe
Just being there in person must have given you an incredible perspective for your illustrations. Did you take a lot of photos for reference?
Yes. I took more than 500 photos while there. When I illustrated the books for Martin Luther King, Jr. and Oprah I wanted to travel to Washington DC and Mississippi to experience the true setting of each story. I was unable to travel then for a variety of reasons, but later when I visited DC I felt like I would have painted March On with different angles and perspectives had I seen it before illustrating the book. There’s just no substitute for being on location. Sitting under that tree in VA was what I needed to do to illustrate this book.
Now that you’ve seen it, how would you describe that giant oak tree?
It’s situated on the campus of Hampton University on a peaceful part of the grounds. The branches of the tree are huge and wide and on one side they rest on the ground. Out of those branches on the ground greenery grows like shrubs. The mighty oak provides so much shade with its leafy limbs; it is truly a glorious site, as the original old school house sits right next to the tree. I discovered through old photos that the tree was very large back when the slaves sat there, but of course it is much bigger now. I see the Freedom Tree as a symbol of protection and education.
© Copyright by London Ladd – Photo of the actual Emancipation Oak and little school house in Hampton, VA
My favorite illustration in Under the Freedom Tree is of the three fugitive slaves running for freedom. How did you capture the feeling of that event so well?
I really wanted that image of the slaves to depict the reality of the situation, so I went to the thrift store, bought baggy clothing and well-worn hats and set up a studio at my home. Then I took photos of myself in those poses using the self-timer on the camera. I even took some of the photos on my front lawn and my neighbors sure gave me some strange looks!
© Copyright -Image of fugitive slaves in the moonlight courtesy of Charlesbridge Publishing
© Copyright Photo by London Ladd – the artist posing to create the perfect perspective for his illustrations
© Copyright image by London Ladd – fugitive slaves by moonlight in black and white
Ha! Ha! I can only imagine what your neighbors must have been thinking! It’s both fascinating and overwhelming that you go to such great lengths to get your illustrations so perfect! Can you tell us what mediums and paper you used for your illustrations?
I create layers with my illustrations using pencil, pastels and acrylic paints on two or three-ply Bristol Boards. I seal the layers using matte medium paste and water to keep the drawings in tact. I use the pastels because they give the illustrations a dream-like quality. By the time I’m done painting a picture, with all those layers, the board looks more like a canvased paper.
© Copyright image by London Ladd – an under drawing from the book showing colors the artist tested and notes before starting the final painting
It sounds like a time-consuming process.
The hardest part is in the planning. The entire process can take anywhere from a couple of days to two weeks to complete an illustration. And there are always one or two paintings that just don’t look right to me, so I have to start over. It can be frustrating, but I’ve got to get it right.
Are you working on a new book now?
Yes. It’s called Lend a Hand and is a book of poetry for kids by John Frank. It’s all about children who do different things to help other people out.
“If you don’t have enough passion for it, you’re not going to have the patience for the perseverance.”
After the challenges you faced to finish your education and get started with your career in art, what has it been like for you, illustrating three wonderful children’s books now and seeing your talents as an artist being celebrated by those around you?
I’m very grateful. I’ve learned that anybody who loves what they do and wants to achieve great things, will face many obstacles; it’s an inevitable part of the process. I tell myself to keep going, and when I make a mistake, rather than look at it as disastrous, I look at it as another opportunity to get it right. As a father, I have always been motivated by setting a good example and making my daughter proud of me. If I can follow through and finish what I set out to do, no matter how long it takes, perhaps she’ll be inspired to do the same.
That being said, do you have any advice for others who want to illustrate children’s books?
Keep working on your craft, sketching, drawing and painting. The more samples you have the better. An editor may see one little part of a drawing you did and decide that you are the right person for the job. It could be that little duck you decided to paint in a corner of your illustration at the last minute that makes you stand out. You just never know!
Always be learning. Take your work to be evaluated by someone whose opinion you value, and look into your heart. It’s going to be difficult, but it will happen if you keep pressing forward. When I visit schools I tell children that success comes from passion, patience and perseverance. If you don’t have enough passion for it, you’re not going to have the patience for the perseverance. Push yourself forward and prosper!
London, Congratulations on your outstanding illustrations! I can’t thank you enough for all the time, thought and honesty you put into this interview. Please let us know when your future books are published. I sure hope you collaborate again with Susan VanHecke on another children’s books in the near future.
Note: No part of the text of this post or the images from Charlesbridge or London Ladd may be used without permission.