Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Mr. Pig Visits . . . Matthew Cordell!

Oh, hello! Mr. Pig here. I've just kicked off my summer road trip. First stop--this lovely suburb of Chicago, where I'm just about to visit the studio of bestselling illustrator Matthew Cordell. Want to join me?

Matthew is the illustrator of more than twenty-five books for children. Several of which he has also written, including the New York Times Notable picture book, HELLO! HELLO!. This year he will have four new books, including WISH and SPECIAL DELIVERY. 

Oh, there's Matthew outside his house now! Hi, Matthew! 

Hello, Mr. Pig! Come on in. . . .

Welcome to my studio. It’s a basement studio and that’s the door to the basement. Um… I should say that it’s pretty messy down there. This is going to be a sort of unvarnished warts-and-all tour here. So if you don’t like basements or messes, or warts (there’ll be no actual warts) you might want to just turn around and get back in your car and leave. But I’d rather you stay. But do whatever is comfortable to you. Really, it’s fine.

Oh, I'm sure it's not that messy, Matthew.

Seriously. Look down there. It already looks pretty messy, right? Are you sure you want to do this? Yes? OK, follow me down, and mind the coats.

What's this hanging on your hallway wall?

Good eye, Mr. Pig. This is a Dylan poster on your left. You know the one. The classic Milton Glaser one that came in the Greatest Hits (vol. 1) album? I love this thing. I love Glaser. I love Dylan. It’s OK if you don’t. I realize he’s a little polarizing. I love that too.

Whoa. You've been busy!

Welcome to Thunderdome! You might find this difficult to believe, but I actually cleaned up before you got here. I’m not kidding. When I’m working, I get so wrapped up on my work that I’m more concerned about the work than the cleaning up down here. But the mess does grow to a point where it becomes hard to find stuff, you can’t walk much without stepping on something, etc. and it actually gets in the way of getting work done. Or my wife gets totally annoyed by it. (We do have to walk through here to get to the laundry room!) Then I have to clean up the place. Having a messy studio can get a little uncomfortable at times. If I get too stressed about it, I think about Francis Bacon’s studio. Then I feel less stressed. 

There’s a little couch down here where I can sit and draw or read or write if I don’t feel like drawing or reading or writing at a proper desk. Half of this couch is for sitting. The other half is for… not sitting. Unless you’re that bear there. That’s where he sits.

Can you tell me about this area and how you work?

This here is where I do my drawing and painting. Most all of my art is drawn with pen and ink (nib pens and bamboo pens) and colored with watercolor paints. The surface of the desk has a great, big light box or LightPad that I use for going from final, approved sketch, to final, final pen/ink drawings. It’s kind of like tracing but without being too careful about it. Straight-up tracing can make a finished line look pretty boring. I’m all about trying to make a fresh, free, spontaneous line. As if I’d just sat down and drawn it for the very first time. It’s a very tricky balancing act, making a final art drawing from a final sketch. It’s like re-drawing it without actually re-drawing it. If that even makes any kind of sense.

Oooh, this is a fun little shelf!

My wife (YA author, Julie Halpern) and I are big time toy lovers. We used to consider ourselves “collectors” but when we had kids (also big time toy lovers), anything we collected, the kids have ransacked, opened up, and played with by now. But there’s lots of shelves down here with toys that Julie and I have collected over the years. “For display only.” Ha ha…

Oops! Sorry, Matthew. I just stepped on these books. Did they fall out of your bookshelf?

No. The books I’m loving the most end up not spending a lot of time on my bookshelves. Could be newly purchased books I love, or ones I recently pulled off the shelf again and got re-inspired by, or just ones I love so much I don’t want them squeezed into the shelf not being seen. I just like them laying around staring at me, making me like them so much.

What's this space all about?

This low table houses a bunch or random papers and clutter. I keep this little lazy susan-y thing there that holds my pens, pencils, nibs, etc. Wireless router on the other side of the table. The main thing this table’s for is my big ol’ printer that sits on it towards the wall. This is a large format ink jet printer that can print on 140 lb. watercolor paper. The inks it runs are waterproof. So… for every line drawing of every piece of final art I create, I scan that in and save to my computer. If I go to paint the original drawing and happen to mess up the color or some other mistake occurs in the painting end of the piece, I can then print a new drawing on this printer and color that printed drawing instead. It’s like a big safety net. I also occasionally make entire books with the intention of printing all the drawings. I can draw bits and pieces of drawings and Frankenstein them together on the computer and print out the fully composed pieces. Ready for color!

Above this table, above the printer, is this corkboard of stuff that’s been tacked down over the last, like, 7-8 years. Some of it is from books that were in progress. Some of it is from book ideas that never turned into anything (at least not yet), photos of old friends, my wife and kids, drawings and posters from art heroes, etc. and so forth. I could probably keep it more organized with more up-to-date stuff on it, if I were more organized. But I kinda like it like this. It’s sort of a monument to my past and near-present in life and illustration.

Aaaaand… my computer desk. Work-wise, I use the computer for writing, emailing publishing folks, scanning/sending sketch dummies. Not much else. I don’t use any of that wacom/cintiq stuff. (I’m not even sure if I’ve spelled those right.) I wonder if I ever will. Probably not. My computer is tragically old. I feel like it’s just hanging by a thread. One time I turned it on and it sort of wheezed and then all this dust poofed out of the top of it. (I’m serious. It only did that once, and I don’t know why, but I was terrified it was about to die. It didn’t die.) I keep toying with the idea of buying a new Mac, but I just can’t seem to pull the trigger. I’m waiting on some kind of big windfall or something. Where’s my windfall at?

Hey, it's Mr. Rogers! I love him, too.

By my computer desk hangs a poster of one of my biggest heroes, Fred Rogers. (And his pal, Mr. McFeely! Speedy Delivery!) He was one of the finest human beings to ever live. I could really go on about him, but I won’t. But one thing… I’m usually afraid to meet my heroes. Or I’m just not interested in meeting them—finding out what they’d be like in “real life.” Him, I would’ve loved to meet. I think about that a lot. I wish he were still here. I wish someone like him were here. But there’s no one like him.  When I’m feeling down, jealous, angry, sad, nervous, negative, etc. I like that I can glance up at this poster, and it serves as a sort of reminder. That life doesn’t need to be so petty and small. 

I love that.

On the wall adjacent is a drawing I did in the college years—a collaborative piece I did with an artist friend.

The worst thing about working in a basement is that there’s next to no natural light. I need light. I’m one of those folks that gets depressed when winter rolls around, because the light is gone and will be gone for a long time. So working down here is a challenge in that respect. But there are two covered window wells that let in a sliver of daylight down here. And in this one over my desk, somehow some greenery has made its way down into the darkness, as if to say, “hey, dude.” I appreciate that.

Ha! Snort.  

The second worst thing about working in a basement is that it is cold down here 24/7/365. Even in the summer, it’s cold! We used to have a dehumidifier down here which helped keep it dry and cut down on the cold. But that thing conked out on us at the end of last summer. We’ll probably get a new one sometime soon, but for now, I’ve got this little space heater that my mom-in-law loaned me and I keep it pointed right at my feet. Speaking of feet… hey, there’s one of my feet.

What's in this big closet over here at the far end of the room?

I keep those accordion doors opened up at all times. In this space, I keep drawers of art and shipping supplies, used and unused sketchbooks, old photos and postcards and other things.

If you go all they way back into this closet space, you’ll find this little death trap. We’ve had our share of mice check-in to Chez Cordell from time to time. Sorry, mice. Nothing personal. It’s a “you or me” situation.

Eep! Don't tell Itsy-Bitsy Baby Mouse.

Another view of the inner workings of this supply closet.

And a close-up view of the complicated system I use to store my shipping envelopes.

While we’re here by the closet, note this awesome Frog and Toad poster I scored off of ebay a while back. I love this thing. We got a frame for it, now all I need to do is just cut the mat. Sweet!

Here’s where I keep all the other books I love. Picture books, graphic novels, novels, image ref books, dictionary and thesaurus, art books, etc. I can fit most of my favorite stuff on this one shelf. There is some run-off onto another shelf or two, but I try to limit my hoarding to this one shelf. I went through and weeded some stuff not too long ago. And I have bought more stuff since.

Who are those little guys on this bookshelf?

A couple of hand puppets I made from old t-shirts. These guys are the title characters from a picture book I illustrated, BAT AND RAT, written by Patrick Jennings (Abrams 2012). Also the Christmas stocking that I had all through my childhood is hanging here for no particular reason.

Here's a pile of sketches from finished books, and some other things here, waiting to be filed or thrown away. To be determined. I know, I know… I’m working on it!

And with that, I shall abruptly end this studio tour. I know it was messy down here, but there’s a lesson to be learned from all of this. I’m not sure what that lesson is or who should be learning it, but… Lumpy Space Princess, here, will see you out. 

Thanks for showing us around your studio, Matthew! It's interesting to see the place where you've created so many favorite books -- like your new picture books, WISH and SPECIAL DELIVERY.

Thanks and thank you for coming! (Now if I could just find that thing I was looking for, I could get back to work…)

Matthew Cordell is the illustrator of more than twenty-five books for children including picture books, novels, and works of poetry. Several of which he has also written, including the New York Times Notable picture book, HELLO! HELLO!. This year he will have four new books, including his newest author-illustrator picture book, WISH, and SPECIAL DELIVERY, a picture book he illustrated by Philip C. Stead. Matthew lives in a suburb of Chicago with his wife, author Julie Halpern, and their two children. Visit him online at

by Philip E. Stead
Illustrated by Matthew Cordell
Roaring Brook Press, March 2015
ISBN 978-1596439313 

Sadie is on her way to deliver an elephant to her Great-Aunt Josephine, who lives alone. She tries everything from mailing the elephant to boarding a plane, a train, and an alligator to get to her aunt's home. Along the way she meets an array of interesting characters, including an odd postal worker and a gang of bandit monkeys, who all help her get where she is going.

"A read-aloud winner sure to deliver laughs to young readers." --School Library Journal

*"Animal lovers and stamp collectors, especially but not exclusively, will be enthralled." --Kirkus Reviews, starred review

by Matthew Cordell
Disney-Hyperion, March 2015
ISBN 978-1484708750

"Cordell’s intensely personal account of parents awaiting the arrival of a child bubbles over with anticipatory joy. He draws, in his loopy pen-and-ink style, two elephants who live in a house by the ocean. Their new baby sets sail toward them from a tropical island, and they build a boat of their own to meet the baby. At sea, they send forth a beam of rainbow-colored love, but something goes wrong: “We listen.... And we wait... but you never come. And everything stops.” . . . . At last, though, the baby elephant’s boat arrives in triumph. . . . It’s easy for parents to forget to tell their children how much they longed for them to be born; Cordell provides words and pictures to help." --Publishers Weekly

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