Robert’s Snow…Meet Illustrator Cecily Lang!

Robert’s Snow is a fundraiser to help find a cure for cancer.  It was founded by Grace Lin and her husband Robert Mercer.  To learn more, click here.

Blogger’s Note:  I’m a children’s author and a middle school English teacher, so my students are collaborating on our series of illustrator profiles! Today’s feature is courtesy of the Global Citizens in 8th period English class!

Cecily Lang is one of the illustrators who volunteered to create a snowflake to auction off for the Robert’s Snow Fundraiser. 

Cecily Lang grew up in NYC, which was probably good, because she couldn’t keep a normal schedule (sleep at night, be awake in the day).

In her younger days, Cecily Lang had experience with art through colored pencils and stinky markers.   One time, she had a bad experience with a costume and chocolate milk.  No matter how many times she washed the costume the milk was still there.  Luckily, now she doesn’t drink chocolate milk while working.  Through comic books and museums, she formed a bond with art.  One of her favorite places is the Art Students League, where she attended her first life drawing class.
Cecily Lang does most of her art with cut paper.  It’s easy to work with, and it creates texture.  After she finishes her work and perfects it, that’s all she needs to make herself happy.
Cecily Lang likes doing her art on mythology and multiculturalism.  She is also trying to experiment with 3D art.
With the way Cecily arranges her day, it helps to have contacts in different time zones.  She’s happy with the way she lives, and doesn’t wish to change anything.  We got the chance to interview her about why she made her snowflake and to ask her a little bit about herself.

First of all, we love your snowflake, especially how three-dimensional it feels. What was your inspiration for your snowflake?  Can you tell us how you created it?

Hi!  Thanks so much. I’m really happy you like my snowflake took the time to go through my website.  It is still growing.  I plan to do more 3 dimensional pieces as well work using gouache. I love the feeling of night, especially in a city. I made my snowflake using small images I had painted on watercolor with gouache. 
Then I backed them with foamcore, which is like a thick styrofoam, to create a 3 dimensional or layered piece. This meant lots of glue time.  Good old Elmer’s!

What drew you to the Robert’s Snow fundraiser?

Well, it is multi-leveled. I was very touched by Grace Lin’s story with her husband.  It is so real when you attach a face with what is usually a concept.

The others are more personal:  My own father died of cancer from being exposed to radiation.  He had been a writer and had covered atomic/nuclear testing.  He must have been too close to the test site, if there is in fact a “safe” distance.  He died when he still wanted to lots of things and you could feel this terrible frustration.  He still had plans.

The other was when my mother in law died in the summer of ’06.  It was the most direct contact I had had with someone that ill who knew she would die and was in horrible pain and just wanted it to be “over”. She could have chosen for euthanasia, because it is legal in Holland, but she didn’t.  Every time she saw a friend it was with the understanding this could be the last time they would meet. I am glad we all got to say goodbye to her and to tell her how much we loved her, but it was awful beyond words.
As you get older, and see more, you realize you are also mortal When you are very young, or until something happens in your life, you don’t have this.   I mean, you KNOW you are mortal, but you are still trying to wrap your mind around it.  THAT is a GOOD thing!
If you constantly think about it, you stop yourself from really being alive in the present and it is important to enjoy each day; it can be something very small that makes you happy. And if you have bad days, well, that is life and you wouldn’t really know and appreciate the good days …(whew!)
What made you decide to take art in college?
I had always been an “artist” or something like it in school. It wasn’t the only thing that interested me though. At first I wanted to be a scientist (well, I was six), but I am TERRIBLE in math.  My other “career interests” were to become a late night rock and roll DJ, a printmaker, an art therapist, maybe a cabinetmaker or anthropologist  (because they are so closely NOT related..?) and I thought of maybe becoming a chef.
I then wanted to create alternative comics, worked in animation for a bit and then that segued into illustration.  I am also working at writing, but I always see creating some form of visual art as part of my life.
I had taken art before so it just was natural to continue.
Did someone in your life make you more confident in your work along the way?

My parents, first. In high school I went to a summer program in Maine, for two weeks. I was the youngest one there, which was both intimidating and inspiring.  The director had been a friend of my parents and I think he must have liked something in my sketches.
He very generously invited me up there and was surprised that I didn’t stay longer, but I didn’t want to take advantage of this gift.
That is person number 3. The other person is an art director in Holland.  I did editorial (magazine) work for him.
He always brought out the best in me because he gave me a lot of freedom. I remember he told me, ”You can use eggshells if you want, as long as it works.” I didn’t want to use any eggs, but I love this attitude and I felt it helped my work grow.
That is person number 4. Then my friends… So I am very lucky to have had more than one person at different points in my life.

When you live in a different place, you start to see things differently.  It could be the light, the weather, the design of houses and how people use their living and work spaces…it goes on from how doors are designed to how colors are used, all very small details that add up.

When you’re illustrating a book, do publishers tell you what to draw, or do you read the story and decide yourself?
Both.  If is for educational work, such as textbooks, there are can be very specific things that need to be shown in the story. If I have a rough layout already, then I know where to place people, trees, etc…and I know what should be the focal point of interest from the story’s point of view.  It is not always MY focal point, because we all can interpret text differently.
If I do the layout, it’s more “think work” but also more fun.

For the trade books I’ve done, I have much more freedom because I am a more “active voice” in telling the story; I can include some extra visuals that I hope add to the story and it is my own direct interpretation of the story. I read the story first and sketch out scenes that pop out at me in the text. It is at the sketch stage where I make corrections.  Once in awhile, I’ve had to make corrections on the finals, but they were very minor. I also research, looking at different faces. If it is for something more factual, I want it to be accurate.

What was the first book you illustrated, and who was the author?
“A Birthday Basket for Tía” by Pat Mora.

We like the piece called “Winter Night.”  What was the inspiration for that piece, and how did you go about creating it?

I’ve heard about animals that are now coming into cities.  I love old fairy tales and wolves make a lot of appearances in these. I wanted to make something a little more wintry and moodier in color, because a wolf’s howl is so haunting.  (Also, I think they are beautiful animals.)
I made it by starting with a sketch. I put the sketch backwards on a lightbox, and the rougher side of the rice paper backwards, because this is the side I will draw on.  I then trace onto the rice paper (from the sketch).
Then I cut it out, say the shape of the wolf, for example.  I might indicate w/ pencil where his eyes go, but very carefully on the FRONT (or smoother) side of the rice paper. I color on the back as well, mixing the colors as I apply them with a brush.  I paint on the back because if I paint on the front, the texture of the paper is ruined.
The color also blends in a different way by the time it seeps through to the front. I paint AFTER cutting because the ink “pools” towards the edges and creates more of a line.

Then it dries and I paint in the details using gouache or water soluble pencils. I do this last, after the piece is dry so the gouache details won’t bleed. Also the paper is still very delicate when it is wet. Then I place the separate elements using the original sketch as a guide and overlap them.  I use removable tape to put them in place before I glue them.
Do some projects challenge you more than others?
Some things are very hard to make convincingly in cut paper (which is another reason I want to do more gouache).  I have done some three dimensional pieces and those are challenging because they take lots of time. I usually end up covered in Elmer’s or some other kind of glue. Projects with VERY tight deadlines are challenging because I don’t work as quickly as I would like.  I have never been great about staying up ALL night and not sleeping.  I can do it but it’s not a pretty picture. If I make a lot of mistakes that could have been avoided, because I was tired, that is frustrating.
How long does it usually take you to create a piece?
It really depends on the piece and how complex it is and how fast I am working! I have to wait for things to dry, and that makes things take longer so I work on several illustrations at the same time, sometimes in a sort of assembly line way. I keep notes for consistency about what colors I use, how much of what color to make skin colors or tone, what someone is wearing.    It also depends what else is going in life.

I guess it could be 1 day for something simple, two or a bit more if it is complicated and if I make mistakes…well, then more.  I don’t like to think about that, but I build in “error time”…or try to!
Where do you usually work? Can you describe your creative space?
I have my own workroom at home.   I should have white walls because they are better for color accuracy.  I don’t.  I justify this by saying I use a color correct light and anyway I do work at night. My walls have art on them (not mine) and there are lots of “things” around me: A matrushka, books for reference and also picture books that I really like (that were presents), artwork my kids did. There are 2 drawing lamps which have beads and other things hanging from them along with a small stuffed (toy) koala bear.

There are files to keep my supplies and of course more “things” on top of them: Partly to organize and partly aesthetic so it is not a cold environment. I have some photos from my father  and some drawings my mother did. 
Then I have this crazy lamp, with different color lights.  It looks like an octopus: Each light shade is differently colored and you can bend each “arm”.

Finally, there are two worktables: One for writing and for my computer  (I am learning digital skills finally!) and the other table is for the really messy stuff I do, like paint.  Of course a CD/Radio/ tape player.
There’s also a basket on the floor  where one of the cats likes to sleep.
How many pieces have you done for art galleries?
I have been in maybe 5 group shows and had a piece travel the U.S. to promote peace.  I’ve had two pieces in a “real art gallery” as part of a group show. There is a specific type of art I want to do that is my “own”, and I hope it would fit in a gallery. Competition to be in galleries is very intense.
In most of your artwork, people appear very happy. Is that part of your style?
It is when it is part of the text or scene.   It depends on the story. I’ve made people looking sad, angry, confused, thoughtful, sleeping, laughing, etc.
If you weren’t an illustrator, what job would you want to have?

I would love to write full time…I would love to be able to write comedy for example.  That, or something having to do with interior design, like painting murals.
Some of the books you illustrated are offered in Spanish. Do you speak Spanish?
I speak okay Spanish.  I am stuck at the intermediate or advanced intermediate level.  I like languages.  I used to do my French homework in front of TV, which drove my parents nuts, but I did okay at it.
Since I lived in Holland, I speak some Dutch, but again I am stuck at the intermediate level because I don’t use it very often.
You write in your website bio that you’re “nocturnally wired.” What do you mean by that?
I just feel better at night, like I can concentrate while most of the world is sleeping and things are not as loud but I still hear city noises outside. As a kid, I was always a night owl.
I was not a good sleeper till I was in my mid-teens, although my idea of a great time was listening to late night rock and roll  while I drew. But even though I was a terrible sleeper as a kid, I ate all my vegetables and even the things most kids find “icky”.  So at least my parents didn’t have to worry about THAT.
So I  “wake up” at night, no matter how tired I’ve been during the day.
What are your favorite colors to work with?
All of them.  It depends on the mood or the topic.  I think I lean to reds, violets, certain oranges, very deep blues in place of black or I add some color to black when I use it.  I like colors that are intense and deep.  I also like working in primary colors .  They are so “friendly” :  Just red, blue and yellow.

No matter what colors I use I like to have them as saturated as possible but without making them thick.  There needs to be some “air” on the paper and in the colors.
What’s your favorite piece of artwork that you’ve created?
At the moment my favorite work is my 3 dimensional  work.  The pieces on my site were not commissioned so I let myself just go.  I didn’t have a set plan; this might be why they took longer than I thought.
They are the ones called “Big Dreams” and “Cityscape” on my site.

“Big Dreams” is pretty large..I wanted to try working on that scale. “Cityscape” is not large, but there were details I kept adding even though I did use a sketch as a starting point.

Do you ever do special artwork for family & friends?
Yes, I am working on a commissioned piece for a very good friend.  It is 3 dimensional and has quite a bit of  detail, even though the will be “portable”. When you do something for a friend, there is a different feeling you have. You want them to feel good when they look at it no matter where they hang it up.
We live in a fairly small town, and some of us haven’t spent time in more metropolitan areas. What was it like growing up in New York City, and how does that influence your artwork?
Wow!  I think growing up in NY prepared me well for any city I’ve visited, at least in the west. You learn to be alert, just by the sheer volume of people as well as careful.  You can take the subway and see a lot of people from all over and that is so interesting.  I love to “people watch”.  And if you are lucky, as I was, you have a parent who takes you to art museums now and then.  Later on, I went to see work in galleries.

It can influence one to see there are lots of possibilities to express the same idea.
Now the rapid-fire questions…things that kids (and adults who still think like kids) need to know!
Do you have pets?

YES.  We have five cats!  We are crazy!  It is like having a bunch of throw pillows except when they are hungry. Then it is like the Serengeti.
One is blind, but she plays with the other cats!  And she is the one with the loudest purr.
What’s your specialty in the kitchen?

Right now I am tempted to say take out, or prepared food. I do like to cook though and try new recipes.  If it’s got garlic or involves chocolate, and lots of chopping, chances are I’ll make it.
What kind of books do you like to read?
I like humorous books, graphic novels, mysteries, and novels with magic realism and just interesting stories.
I like short stories in magazines or collections.  I also read kids’ books because I like the content.  If it is a good story it speaks to you. I also like yucky horror stories but usually can’t finish them because they scare me too much! I would like to read more historic novels.
Who’s your favorite author?
THAT’s a hard question..  I like Margaret Atwood, Kurt Vonnegut, Doris Lessing, Nadine Gordimer, Oscar Hijuelos. David Sedaris and Carl Hiassen make me laugh a lot. Italo Calvino, Gabriel García Márquez, Zadie Smith, Francisco Goldman, John Irving. There are many more. Sometimes I forget the name because I am more interested in the story. Good authors can write bad stories though. There is a lot of unrecognized talent in writing.
If I read a short story in a magazine, chances are I will forget the author’s name and I hate that, especially when I have liked the story.
Favorite breakfast food?

I usually just eat a banana in the morning but I HAVE to have two cups of strong coffee.  I don’t really eat till about 11 so it’s “blunch” and I am very hungry by then.
Favorite artist?

Matisse, Gauguin, Malevich, Mondriaan, Cézanne, Monet, Toulouse Lautrec, Paul Klee, Egon Schiele, Klimt, Jackson Pollock, Edward Hopper, Rauschenberg, Kandinsky, Miró, duBuffet, Marc Chagall, Diego Rivera, Karel Appel, Red Grooms…Your basic Art History line up. I’ve seen some good contemporary work, but again, I’m very bad at names.
Favorite color?


Favorite kind of cheese (if you like cheese)?

I love cheese.  I would say Taleggio and Brie. I also like Muenster.  I don’t eat much cheese though.
Favorite dessert?
Generally fruit.  Sometimes baklava, or vanilla ice cream with mint chocolate chips.
Have you ever been to a Broadway show, and if so, do you have a favorite?

Yes.  I loved a production of “Guys and Dolls” I saw a long time ago. If I go, it is mainly to off Broadway shows.  I like “Blue Man Group,” “Stomp” and, before he died, Spalding Grey.  The New Vic shows interesting groups from all over the world and the tickets are much less expensive. The shows are often very good.  There is a mime group I love called  “Mummenschanz”.  They are very imaginative, wonderful costumes but they mostly tour in Asia and Europe so it’s been a  long time since I’ve seen them.
Thanks, Cecily, for taking the time to visit with us, and thanks for giving of your time and talents for the Robert’s Snow project!

Thank you for interviewing me!  If you have any questions, just contact me.
And I love the name Global Citizens!

Would you like to win a totally awesome signed copy of a cool book illustrated by Cecily Lang?  Visit the Robert’s Snow Auction site and make a note of your favorite snowflake.  Post a comment about it with your name and a way we can contact you to be entered into the drawing. 

8 Replies on “Robert’s Snow…Meet Illustrator Cecily Lang!

  1. The kids totally rocked the interview with their profile and choice of questions.

    And who’d have thought the interview would include discussions on euthanasia, foreign language proficiency and Mummenschanz?

  2. Word, Kelly! I love that about this interview!

    You and your students always deliver, Kate. How nice Cecily is and so forthcoming about her work. And her art work looks so fabulous. I must go get some of her books.

    I’m glad she chose illustrating over being a late night rock and roll DJ (though something tells me she’d be good at that, too).

    Beautiful snowflake!

    Jules, 7-Imp

  3. Super job with this feature! The questions really allowed us inside Cecily’s head. (Yay, 8th period Global Citizens!) Her work is amazing and I love how she once wanted to be a late night DJ and a CHEF!! She is definitely very expansive and open, with creative talent on multiple levels.

  4. Thanks for the interview! I’m going to miss reading all these. I think 1-2 days to complete that cut paper art is amazing. It takes me much longer!

    New day, new favorite! Today it’s: “Red Bird’s Hope” by Julia Denos.


  5. Fav Snowflake

    Well there are so many to pick from but I stand firm in my favorite being Blue Morpho (see butterflies and snowflakes have my heart because those are two of my fav things – funny I dislike snow – had my share of it growing up but love snowflakes and butterflies and a butterfly on a snowflake – that’s pretty awesome in my book.)

    Elysabeth Eldering

  6. I tip my hat to y’all on the interview. The range of art I’ve seen during the Robert’s Snow blogathon has been amazing. Each site I turn to has my next favorite snowflake!

    Susan Thomsen
    Chicken Spaghetti

  7. Jules, guess what? My students pulled your name out of our Robert’s Snow Winners Basket this afternoon, so you’ve won a signed book from Cecily Lang! Please email me your full name & address (kmessner at katemessner dot com) so Cecily can sign your book and pass it along. Congrats!