Acrylic painting by Terry Widener


Put yourself in the painting – Terry Widener

November Critique Part 1

A gifted athlete as well as artist (he attended the University of Tulsa on a golf scholarship), Terry Widener worked as an in-demand commercial and editorial illustrator for many years  before a children's book assignment came out of the blue. An editor who'd been watching his work for years asked him to tackle the art for a PB biography manuscript he had by author David A. Adler – about baseball great Lou Gehrig.


Since then Terry has illustrated more than 30 picture books, working for most of the top U.S. children's publishers. Nonfiction topics – sports and history themes, often – figure prominently in the books. But he's also illustrated fictional stories. His work has attracted notice, awards and many starred reviews.

Terry presided as our guest instructor for the November 9 critique night November 9. accompanied for a few minutes by his wife, children's illustrator Leslie Stall Widener.  (She showed pages from her recent picture book, Chuckfi Rabbit's Big Bad Bellyache, a trickster's tale told by Greg Rodgers and published by Cinco Puntos Press. The book won the Oklahoma State Book Award for best children's book last year.

Like many fine illustrators, Terry is interested in lots of things, not just sports. He loves history, fine art, popular culture and different kinds of storytelling. So our visit roamed many topics – native American Pow-Wows, Thomas Jefferson's farm tools and creating paintings for murals with seasonal themes for a Tokyo shopping mall.Cover by Leslie Stall Widener

We talked about grouping picture elements to create abstract forms in a composition (a technique Howard Pyle referred to as 'shape welding'), hunting and choosing visual references, materials, mediums and bristle brushes.

He made sketches to illustrate his points in his reviews of several of your fairy tale scenes. (Scroll down to read the assignment details.) And he posted an addendum in an e-mail  after our hangout: some final thoughts on illustration for the group which you can read below the Part 1 video.

Part 2

Terry's postscript to the group:

"I do have a couple of tips that you might pass along to your students," he wrote me.

"First, I see my job as an illustrator is to not do an illustration of the author's words. My job is to enhance the text with my own vision of the story. An example is when the author goes into great detail about something in their story, then there is no reason for me to illustrate that. I let the reader use their imagination and vision. Instead I'll illustrate something that is not written but relates to the story.

"Second is to not be 'married' to one idea when you are doing your sketches. Try a couple of completely new directions to see how they might work. But after you do this your first idea might be the best. It's good to learn how to push yourself. It makes you a better illustrator or author."

cover and book illustrations by Terry Widener

Terry paints his illustrations in traditional acrylics. Many of the the more than 30 books he has illustrated have been recognized on state reading lists, ABA, SCBWI, ALA, and a number of 'Best Book' lists. You can see a list of his awards here.

His work has appeared in the Society of Illustrators #’s 26,27,29,30,31,33 annual exhibitions and The Society of Illustrators Original Art exhibitions in 1997, 1999 and 2005. His work was also selected for the Communication Arts Illustration Annuals in 1985, 1986, 1987, 1988, 1989 and 1991.

His artwork is also a part of the Mazza Museum of International Art from Picture Books at the University of Findlay (Findlay, Ohio) and in collections of national and international corporations.


Part 3

On Terry's latest book...

What two reviewers are saying about Terry Widener's latest collaboration with author Winters, My Name is James Madison Hemings, published just last month by Schwartz & Wade/Random House:

Kirkus Reviews

"Winters creates a tone of secrecy and distance in a place where no one is allowed to speak truth. Widener’s acrylic illustrations with their pastoral palette contribute to this with stillness, though they are not static. The many images of Madison as an observer of his surroundings reflect the fact he was the only one of Sally Hemings’ children to leave a written record of his life, a major source for Winter’s story...

"The strength of this telling is the way it encourages readers to empathize with Madison’s plight, making it a solid entry in that class of picture books tackling tough topics. (Picture book. 5-9)"

Publishers Weekly

"The creators of You Never Heard of Willie Mays?! bring poignant and personal dimension to the story of Thomas Jefferson’s family with Sally Hemings through the fictionalized first-person perspective of one of their sons. A somber mix of historical details and plausible fictional particulars, the book was inspired by an 1873 newspaper interview with James Madison Hemings (1805–1877), in which he described his Monticello childhood and claimed his paternity. Alongside Hemings’s candid narration, Widener’s emotive acrylic art underscores his perception of his life’s station: he’s repeatedly pictured peering in from the outside, with Jefferson (who isn’t identified until late in the story) shown at a distance..."

"A moving final scene reveals Hemings as a free man and accomplished carpenter who is still perplexed about how his father—and master—viewed him: “Perhaps he would be proud. I do not know.” Ages 5–9."

In the video above, award-winning children's book illustrator Terry Widener shares how he created the lenticular cover for You Never Heard of Willie Mays!?, the 2013 picture book he created with Jonah Winter for Schwartz & Wade/Random House.

You can see more of Terry discussing his process from earliest thumbnail compositions to final paintings in my recent video blog post about him here.

Your fairy tale assignment (revisited):

Terry loves a dramatic fairy tale picture, too and so we pressed on with the assignment given by Robert Quackenbush for the October 26 group critique, that is, a finished illustration in any media – a spread (two facing pages is a spread) showing  an important moment from a fairy tale, fable, nursery rhyme or a story of your own.


Size/format? 10" x 16" or 8" x 20", depending on whether you want horizontal or vertical 8" x 10" book, which a standard size for a picture book when closed.Terry Widener, illustrator

Robert had said last month, "For subject matter I suggest a fairy story or nursery fable – one that hasn't been done before. You can find that out by googling the name of your selection and see if it has been done. There is always a market for unusual folk tales and fables," Robert told us last month.

"You might even consider a fable or folk tale from India that has not been published before in the U.S for a wide audience including India that looks for books in English. Or write your own story, which is even better."

Questions? Comments? Share your thoughts.

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