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Ron Lightburn

Meet the Man Behind the Pictures

by Janet Collins

Volume 22 Number 4
1994 September

If you've ever thought of children's book illustrators as being creative types with lofty goals, you wouldn't be far from the truth. Not if you mention Ron Lightburn's name in the same breath.

The soft-spoken Victoria resident's career has more than "got off the ground." He was, after all, awarded the prestigious Amelia Frances Howard-Gibbon Illustrator's Medal for his work on Sheryl McFarlane's Waiting for the Whales (not to mention the Governor General's Literary Award and the Elizabeth Mrazik Cleaver Canadian Picture Book Award).

However, it was while taking research photographs for his new release, Eagle Dreams (also written by Sheryl McFarlane based on an idea of Lightburn's), that Ron Lightburn had his most uplifting experience.

"Much of my work is based on photographs," Lightburn explained. "Many of the illustrations I did for magazines and other publications in the past had to be very accurate, so I was often supplied with a photograph of what I was to illustrate. I continued doing that when I started working on children's books. Not many Canadian children's book illustrators do this. It's a great way to meet new friends."

Whenever possible, he seeks out people living in the type of setting he envisions the characters in the book living in. The people look the way he imagines the characters in the story looking, do the things he imagines the characters doing. He may change the colour of someone's clothes or create his own background while working on the final illustration, but the series of photos provides a general frame of reference.

"I found the perfect family for Eagle Dreams while travelling around dairy farms near Cobble Hill (near Duncan, B.C.)," Lightburn reported. "But I was having trouble locating the right window of their house to use in a certain picture. I imagined Robin, the boy in the story, looking out a window at eagles flying against the sky. Janice, the mother in the 'model' family, suggested I use one of the second-floor dormer windows. It was perfect. "

The next problem was getting up high enough to take the picture. A piece of farm machinery known as "the bucket" was used to raise Lightburn to the desired position.

"I needed to take several pictures of the boy sitting in different positions," Lightburn continued. "The family decided it was best to leave me to my work, so they all went away. I soon finished and found there was nobody there to let me down! I felt a bit like Steven Spielberg getting a crane shot."

Such concern about detail is reflected in the realistic aspects of Lightburn's illustrations. He feels he owes it to his readers to be as accurate as possible. If something isn't just right, chances are a reader will pick up on it. Getting the tiniest detail right also makes the stories more believable.

"It was difficult for me to imagine what a wounded eagle might look like, never having seen one up close. I probably wouldn't have been able to do a proper job of it without photographing a real birds Lightburn said.

As luck would have it, the artist not only found a real eagle, but one that was easy to pose. It seems the Royal British Columbia Museum just happened to have a dead eagle in its freezer and was willing to let Lightburn photograph it. Better yet, Tracy, the "model" veterianarian, had once worked with large birds, so she knew how to position both the bird and herself for what was to become the wingbandaging illustration.

As well, Lightburn's range goes beyond the realistic style relying on photographs.

"When I illustrated Patti Farmer's I Can't Sleep! I chose a different style of artwork based on flat pattern rather than three-dimensional form using light and shadow as I had done in Waiting for the Whales," pointed out Lightburn.

To say that the work Lightburn is best known for is highly realistic is not to say that it is always literal. He often incorporates symbols in the illustrations to add to the story's underlying message. For example, the grandfather's hat in Waiting for the Whales becomes synonymous with the man himself. When he dies, all that is left is the hat. But when the man's granddaughter wears the hat, the reader understands that something of the grandfather's knowledge and responsibility has been passed on to her, something more than the love of whales and of gardening.

Light also plays a major role in Lightburn's illustrations. It not only sets the tone--the mood--it also acts as a symbol.

"I've found that you can actually tell a story with light," Lightburn said.

In Waiting for the Whales, for example, we know much about the grandfather's feelings from the amount of light in a given illustration. When the old man is alone at the start of the story, the light is subdued. Things brighten when his daughter and granddaughter come to live with him, and are brightest when the grandfather and child are either in the garden together or waiting for the whales. Light lends a ray of hope, and we see the granddaughter at the end of the story standing in the sunshine, looking at the whales swimming by. While these are rather sophisticated techniques, their effect is by no means lost on the intended audience.

"I will never forget how one young girl reacted to a picture in Waiting for the Whales," Lightburn recalled. "It's the picture where the man is sitting on the porch, his head tilted back, hat in his hands. There's a strong sense of light and shadow. This is the last time we see him before he dies, so I was trying to make his face reflect what he was thinking about--that he was content with his life, that he knew his granddaughter would wait for the whales, that he was at peace. Well, at this one reading I did, a young girl told me she thought the whales would like the man because he has a kind face. So I guess I got it right."

Lightburn says it's important that his illustrations be accessible to the audience. He not only uses images and symbols that young readers will easily recognize and understand, he also employs a medium that most children already have some experience with.

"I like using coloured pencils," Lightburn said. "I used to paint a lot, but, since about 1982, coloured pencils have been my main tool."

During book tours, Lightburn, who attended the Alberta College of Art in Calgary, sometimes finishes the formal session with a bit of an art class. First, he makes a simple line drawing, usually on coloured paper (he says using coloured paper gives drawings a unifying colour scheme), then adds white to illustrate highlights and black to indicate shadows. The children then try what they've learned, with Lightburn offering advice and encouragement. "Coloured pencils are something almost every child has some experience with," he said. "I show them a few simple techniques, and they become so inspired. I'm always amazed by what they come up with after a simple demonstration. A light seems to come on in their heads when they see how they can play with light in their drawings. I wish a professional artist had been available to show me a few things when I was young."

Even these days, Lightburn's work is not restricted to the realm of picturebooks. His illustrations have appeared on the covers of many adult and young adult books as well. Margaret Buffie's My Mother's Ghost and Ann Walsh's Your Time, My Time are just two examples of the two dozen book covers he has created over the last ten years. More covers are on the way, including Speak to the Earth for Doubleday and King of the Class for Scholastic.

"It's fun setting up a book display for teachers and librarians," Lightburn commented. "They're familiar with these other books, but they usually don't know I illustrated the covers. They seem to know me only for Waiting for the Whales."

Early indications are that we'll soon know Ron Lightburn for Eagle Dreams as well.

"My illustration style seems to suit Sheryl McFarlane's writing style," Lightburn said. "We work well together."

Who knows to what new heights that collaboration will take him.

Picture-Books by Ron Lightburn

  • Farmer, Patti. I Can't Sleep! Orca Book Publishers, 1992.
  • McFarlane, Sheryl. Eagle Dreams. Orca Book Publishers, 1994.
  • Waiting for the Whales. Orca Book Publishers, 1991.
  • Mother Goose--A Canadian Sampler. Groundwood Books, 1994. (contributor)

Book Covers by Ron Lightburn

  • Bates, Martine. The Dragon's Tapestry. Red Deer College Press, 1992.
  • The Prism Moon. Red Deer College Press, 1993.
  • Bayless, Maureen. Abra Kadabra. Scholastic Canada, 1993.
  • Bell, William. Speak to the Earth. Doubleday Canada, 1994.
  • Buffie, Margaret. My Mother's Ghost. Kids Can Press, 1992.
  • Gom, Leona. Zero Avenue. Douglas & McIntyre, 1989.
  • Hardin, Herschel. Closed Circuits. Douglas & McIntyre, 1985.
  • Julian, Donna. Innocent Obsession. Zebra, 1992.
  • Millar, Judy. The Rules of Partial Existence. Red Deer College Press, 1992.
  • Olaizola, Jose Luis. The Thirteenth Summer. Translated by Susan Ouriou. Red Deer College Press, 1993.
  • Robertson, Denise. None to Make You Cry. HarperCollins, 1991.
  • St. Pierre, Paul. Sister Balonika. Douglas & McIntyre, 1986.
  • Sherman, Gisela Tobien. King of the Class. Scholastic Canada, 1994.
  • Tesseracts. Edited by Judith Merrill. Beach Holme, 1985.
  • Tesseracts 3. Edited by Candas Jane Dorsey and Gerry Truscott. Beach Holme, 1990.
  • Walsh, Ann. Ghost of Soda Creek. Beach Holme, 1990.
  • Your Time, My Time. Beach Holme, 1984.

Janet Collins is a regular feature contributor to CM. Her most recent assignment was learning paper engineering for an interview with Celia King ("Celia King: The Art of Book Making, Pop-Up Style") in the October 1993 issue. Janet lives in Vancouver.


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