Doron Ben-Ami

Doron Ben-Ami

Doron Ben-Ami Interview

Doron Ben-Ami

Children's Illustrator

How and why did you decide to pursue illustration as your career?

By the time I was ten, I had already been drawing at a level beyond my peers, and was enjoying it. I began to ask the question, “How will I make a living doing this?” As a Marvel comics reader in the mid-sixties, I aspired to join the ranks of Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko. But soon afterward, I became aware of the concept of “illustrator”, and began to identify illustration as a vocation.
It quickly showed up as the answer to my question.

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Did you attend art school or undertake any other formal artistic training?

Yes. In my childhood years, my mother recognized my love for drawing and my unusual skill at it. She enrolled me in summer drawing classes and art camps. After high school I enrolled in Brooklyn College as a fine art major There, I took all of the standard drawing, painting, design, sculpture and art history classes. I loved all of them.

After graduation, one of the art professors, noted painter Phillip Pearlstein, invited me to apprentice in his studio that summer, an opportunity I eagerly accepted. I spent a happy and interesting summer stretching his canvases, washing his brushes and doing errands. In between, I had the privilege of doing my own paintings from his models, right next to him.
It was a slice of ancient mentor/protegé protocol!

Where do you currently live and where did you grow up?

I currently live in the Danbury CT area. I was born in Israel, emigrated to the U.S. with my family when I was three,
and was raised in and around New York City.

Who or what have been some of your major artistic influences?

As mentioned earlier, my first influences were comic books. DC comics at first (Superman, Batman, etc.) But I quickly became obsessed with Marvel comics, a company that was powerfully innovating in the mid-sixties in terms of both artwork and writing. I loved the work of Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko in particular. Stylistically, they could not have been more different from each other.
This contrast taught me much about personal style, and I followed all of the other Marvel artists as well, forming my opinions and taste along the way. Also, the muscular super heroes taught me most of what I now know about anatomy. I drew my own figures and comic books constantly, trying to emulate them.

Concurrently, I was enthralled by the irreverent writing in Mad Magazine, combined with the OUTSTANDING illustration work of Jack Davis and Mort Drucker. With every new issue, each of them demonstrated a combination of realism and comic distortion that amazed me! In the ensuing years, I began poring through art books. For realism, back then, I loved Caravaggio and Vermeer. For abstract work, it was Kandinsky and Picasso!

In college I discovered the more expressionistic abstract painters, like De Kooning. Philip Pearlstein woke me up to the importance of understanding abstract art in the effective execution of representational, or realistic work. It’s all about composition!

Later, during my first years as a professional illustrator, I discovered the Pre-Raphaelites (Alma Tadema, Waterhouse),
as well as the well known realists, such as Rockwell, Parrish, and two generations of Wyeths.

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Which books from your own childhood really stand out?

No children’s books stand out in my childhood memories. After the comics, I was completely absorbed in my growing art book collection; the classics.

Do you have a favourite picture book or recall one of the first picture books you saw?

I only really started noticing picture books as an adult. Early on in my career, I admired Charles Santore’s interpretations of Aesop’s Fables and Wizard of Oz. I also liked Patricia MacLachlan’s “All the Places to Love”, illustrated by Mike Wimmer.
Chris Van Allsburg’s “The Polar Express” made a big impression.

What was your first commission as a professional illustrator?

A little spot drawing in Fortune Magazine! I was 24 at the time. With that as a first assignment, I thought I had “arrived!”

Describe your working technique and how you came to perfect it.

That has changed several times over the years, so I’ll describe the current one. Since ’96, I have been working digitally, exclusively. My technique is as follows:

• I do a rough concept sketch, right on the computer. For this I use a Wacom tablet and stylus, working in Photoshop. Sometimes I’ll shoot quick photos or find some rough or temporary photographic reference, import it into my sketch, and loosely trace over it, using Photoshop layers.

• With client approval of sketches, I proceed to do a detailed photoshoot for tight reference. It usually involves people, and I use green screens as background, for later ease of workflow. I choose models, and pay attention to wardrobe and hair, as in a standard photo session. I light the shoots carefully to get the indoor or outdoor effects that I want for each illustration. I also direct the models, to get graceful body positions, expressive faces, clothes falling nicely, etc. Sometimes I pose myself, if the desired character matches.

• I import the resulting hundreds of photos into the computer, and begin selecting the best ones for my purposes.

• With photos selected and imported into my working file, I start “cutting and pasting” in Photoshop, positioning each figure and environmental element for maximum story-telling clarity and good composition. The positioning goes as far as tweaking individual arms, legs, and hands. Photoshop is powerful for this kind of work.

• With everything positioned the way I want it, I trace (on a new layer) over the composition to create a “tight” pencil to present to the client. I do this by selecting a thin brush in Photoshop, and using it as a virtual pencil. This is THE crucial stage.  The tight line drawing or “pencil” determines everything. If it is good, the finish will be good. Everything starts with the drawing work. I leave no drawing detail for the later color stage. I get it all of the details done at that stage.

• With the client’s approval of the pencil, I start the color. First step of that is to go through all the bits and pieces in the montage that I had roughly cut and assembled for the pencil, and throughly smooth out the edges  of all of them. Then, bit by bit, inch by inch, I look for what I refer to as ‘photographic artifacts’ in all of these assembled pieces. Photos are never graphically perfect. They have all kinds of 'warts' and ambiguous and confusing images inside of them. I simply begin looking for those parts that are thus visually distracting, and I start eliminating them, with an eye towards a sort of graphic balance and integrity. Also I start to digitally shift the colors and values of these pieces to my taste. Within a short time, they have become so “corrected” that they already begin to look more like illustrations than photographs.

• After I’ve done as much of that as I can see to do, I begin to digitally paint on the images, to keep making them “right.” And here again, I’m mostly working in an elimination process. I’m getting rid of photo imperfections, one by one. Before long, the photos themselves are essentially gone, and have been supplanted by my interpretation, realistic though it may be. (I think of it in terms of how a fossil comes into being:  a bone deteriorates, cell by cell, and is gradually replaced by more permanent matter, such as sedimentary rock.)

Thoughout all this, the line work that I did at the pencil stage is allowed to show through. It exists on its own layer, and I can control its visibility, strength and color. It becomes part of the whole. After a while, the illustration presents itself to me as complete.

What piece of software or hardware could you not live without and why?

  1. a 27” inch iMac, a second 27” monitor, a Wacom Tablet, and Photoshop CC.
  2. A Canon DSLR camera, a 3-light strobe set up, collapsible green screens, green tarps, a bounce flash, various tripods & monopods, and a good supply of rechargeable batteries.

Do you offer more than one style, if so – talk us through the different approaches and the audience you are targeting for each.

Yes.  Storyboard work has taken a prominent role in my professional life. TV commercials, or “spots”, require storyboards to be created for planning and direction. These are also used to show to focus groups, so that ad agencies can gather data in deciding
which commercial concepts to push forward into full production. My client is sometimes the ad agency, and sometimes the TV production company. My storyboard work has one basic thing in common with book illustration: It’s purpose is to tell a story.
All my years of doing book illustration trained me well to fulfill storyboard needs. The main difference is speed. With book art, I am slow and meticulous. With storyboard art, I move much faster; the work is less polished. The deadlines are very, very tight! The upside of that is, I have been forced to adapt, and to learn new ways of being concise and clear in my imagery, with a minimum of extra moves. This has had a good influence on all the rest of my work.

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What do you do in your spare time?

I’m an avid guitarist. I’ve been playing rock and jazz for most of my life. As a semi-pro player, I gig with various bands at events and venues.

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Take us behind the scenes and describe your studio / workspace.

Since I work digitally, my workspace is unremarkable. It looks like an office with two big monitors, a Wacom tablet,
and a stereo system for music. On the opposite side from my workstation there is a fair amount of lighting and photo gear standing in wait, in an orderly fashion, side by side with my guitars and amplifiers.

What would you say is a distinguishing feature of your artwork?

Clarity.  Good composition.  Human emotion.

Where do you get the ideas for your characters?

From the stories themselves, and from my interest in people and in what guides their actions.

Have you taken part in any speaker events?

Yes, a few over the years. I love interacting with people on any art-related topic.

Have you visited any schools to speak or hold workshops?

I have. In the early 2000s when my kids were young, I was often invited to speak at their schools. I enjoyed this, and expanded to do speaking engagements at other schools in my area. I also substitute taught at a few drawing classes at the School of Visual Arts. I spent a few years as an adjunct art professor at Western Connecticut State University. There, I taught courses in drawing, design and color theory. Also, in their philosophy department I was asked to teach a course called “Art and Experience.” For that, I was allowed to develop my own curriculum. I chose to introduce the students to the essential links between visual arts, music, film and literature. It was an exciting creative experience for me. I think it was for the students as well.   ...most of them.

Do you have a favourite soundtrack you listen to when you’re working?

It is varied. Music is a major part of my work process. It helps me stay “out of my head” and it keeps me working productively. My tastes lean towards blues-based rock and jazz. I subscribe to Spotify, which I run through the computer, into my traditional stereo system, and out through an old pair of Boston Acoustics speakers. It sounds glorious! I love music more than I can describe. Can’t imagine working without it.

What things affect your creativity?

Generally, the better I feel, both physically and emotionally, the more creative I am.

What’s the best piece of advice anyone has ever given you?

Always work on your integrity.

Remember that, as a human being, that you are whole and complete, unless you’ve got a running internal conversation that is telling you otherwise.

Keep your word. If at any moment, you cannot keep your word, then be honest about that. Be honest with yourself above all else.

What was your last ‘lightbulb moment’?

It is possible to stop being stressed out by deadlines.
It is possible to be relaxed and peaceful, while being purposeful with work.

What makes a good children’s book?

I have been asking this question for years. I do not know. I think the answer might have something to do with broader questions, such as What makes good art? What makes good writing? What makes good story-telling? Perhaps ultimately: what makes good communication?

Which project are you most proud of?

A book called “Gramma Darling” by Lissa Schroeder. I did this project fairly recently. It represents a nice coming together of things I’ve learned over the years, and I feel that I have expressed myself well through the characters and their environment.


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When you are not drawing, how do you like to relax?

Playing and listening to music. Watching great movies. Enjoying dinner and stimulating conversation with family and friends,
spending time with my wonderful, brilliant, funny, pretty wife, and spending time with my adult kids, who bring magic and love.

How important is it for you to be part of a creative community of people?

Only lately am I realizing how important it is! I have tended to isolate myself over the years, as illustration is quite the reclusive activity. Increasingly now, I am associating with other artists. And, in my musical endeavors, my association with others has been crucial.

If you weren’t an illustrator, what would you be doing?

I would be a therapist.

How do you overcome a creative block?

I don’t overcome it. I embrace it. I decide that there is nothing wrong with it. I continue to work while I wait for it to pass.
We can’t expect ourselves to be “on fire” all the time. We change from day to day, week to week. That’s simply how it goes.
The sooner one stops resisting that fact, the more gracefully one can move through the changes.

What are some of your favourite subjects to draw?


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How do you get your creative juices flowing?

I go to a concert. I watch a great movie. I play some guitar. I have a great conversation with someone. I hug my wife. But mostly, I just start working. Action counts for a lot. Prime the pump.

Animals feature heavily in children’s books – do you have a pet?

Yes, a cute and willful little King Charles Cavalier named Maya. I have always loved dogs.  Each dog that has entered my life has made cameo appearances in my work through the years.

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