Way back in the day before I knew anything about making picture books, a friend introduced me to the work of Leo & Diane Dillon. Just a few months ago, my wife Selina Alko and I had the honor to meet with them in their home and discuss art, race, and the world of picture books. Sadly, Leo just passed on Saturday, the 26th. I’m forever grateful to them both for many years of inspiration.
The Dillons on the Dillions
August 1, 1977 By Leave a Comment
Diane Dillonby Leo Dillon
DIANE DILLON is one of the finest artists I’ve ever known, and I realized it even before I met her. I was at Parsons School of Design in New York City when one day I noticed a painting hanging on the wall at a student exhibition. It was a painting of a chair—an Eames chair—and I knew it had to be by a new student because nobody in our class at the time could paint like that. I looked at the painting, and I thought, ”I’m in trouble now!” This artist could draw. That was all right—I could draw too. This artist knew perspective, which is one of the most difficult things a beginner has to learn. And most important—this artist had the patience to render! This artist was a whole lot better than I. I figured I’d better find out who he was. He was Diane.
I hadn’t spoken to her yet—in fact, I wasn’t sure I was going to—when she came over to me and said, “You are very good.” “Hah!” I thought. “Talented Miss Wasp is now going to condescend to tell one of the menials he’s good. I know better. I said, “I see that one of your pieces is very nice too.” And that pretty much set the tone of our relationship for the next several years.
One of the things about Di’s work that is so incredible is her use of color. She can do things with color I can hardly believe—make reds look cool and blues look warm, things like that because she really understands color. Once, after we were married, we were working on a piece and she mentioned very casually that we should do the color in pink and orange. “If we do it in pink and orange,” I said, “that will be the end! I can’t live with someone who’d do anything in pink and orange. We’ll have to get a divorce!” We did it in pink and orange, of course, and a couple of years later everywhere I turned I was seeing things in pink and orange. It’s a common combination now.
People wonder a lot about how we work together. But I don’t think people ever realize how hard it was for us to learn how to blend our styles. It was years and years before we could pass a piece of work back and forth between us and not get into a fight. One time we were working on an illustration, and we just couldn’t agree about the approach. It was a book jacket, I think, something about medieval knights. I thought the style should be rough and strong; Di thought it should be fine and delicate. We fought about it, but neither of us could convince the other, and neither was willing to compromise. We ended up using both styles – the bottom half showing the horses was done in woodcuts, or anyway, something that was rough and crude, and the top half, which showed the knights, was done finely and delicately. As I recall, it worked out all right, but I know how!
Things are good now, though. It used to be that one of us would do the actual drawing and the other would make comments or draw a change on a tissue overlay. But now one of us can just pass the piece of art to the other, and he or she can erase what’s wrong and redraw right on the original. Our egos aren’t at stake anymore.
As a matter of fact, everything’s going well now. It’s really one of the nicest times in my life. The art is good, and our son Lee, now twelve, is old enough to work with. I love working on things with him -like on the house. Once I was putting in a floor and Lee was helping me. I’d measured everything and
shown him what to do, and we were both working away. In about ten minutes he came over to me and said, “I think your measurements are wrong.” Very quietly. Very modestly. Very correctly. I let him measure the whole floor, and it’s a beautiful job. He’s wonderful. Having three artists in the house—or maybe it’s four, since Di and I do so much work together— is better than anything I ever dreamed of.
Leo Dillonby Diane Dillon
WHEN I THINK about Leo, the first thing that comes to mind is his strength. Obviously he’s strong physically, but that’s not what I mean, although one strength is symbolic of the other. It’s more a matter of endurance and remarkable patience – although he’s terribly impatient waiting for rubber cement to dry! Leo is really a study in opposites.He’s patient with the big things, impatient with the small. He has incredible conviction, and yet he is able to admit mistakes, to change his mind and his direction if he feels he has been wrong.
The most wonderful thing about Leo’s strength, though, is his ability to transmit it to other people, to energize them, to act as motivator. He does this to many people, and he certainly does it to me. When we were first married, Leo had a job as an art director at a magazine. I was determined to be the model 1950s housewife, and that didn’t include drawing or painting. Leo took this for a while, then he casually began bringing work home, encouraging me to work with him on design problems, easing me back into art. That was really the beginning of our working together as one artist, I think. Finally there was a blowup and I got back to work!
Leo has incredible energy. I don’t think he’s ever quite understood that I need sleep occasionally; he feels sleep is a form of death—time spent not doing anything. In fact, until a few years ago he slept with his clothes on, so he’d be ready to go at a moment’s notice.
Leo is, I think, the kindest man I’ve ever known—and really that’s part of his strength and his ability to motivate people. He doesn’t like crowds, big parties— things like—that but he truly loves people, and love radiates from him. He’s concerned about how people feel, about what they think—of themselves more than of him— and he’ll go out of his way not to hurt someone.
He can be tricky, though: “You’re so much better at such-and-such,” he’ll tell me, implying, “Why don’t you do it?” He had me balancing the checkbook for years before he sat down and explained to me a faster way to add! Obviously I wasn’t better at it at all—but I’m still balancing the checkbook.
Someone asked us recently who was the perfectionist, and I’d say it was Leo, but sometimes it’s hard to tell when you work so closely together. I do know, though, that our real feeling about aiming for perfection began with Why Mosquitoes Buzz in People’s Ears. Suddenly it seemed that neither of us could tolerate even a tiny flaw, a minute speck on the black night sky, and we strove for artistic perfection on that book more than on any other except Ashanti to Zulu (both Dial). In a way, when Mosquitoes won the Caldecott Medal, it was as much a reward for us as an award. We had worked harder to achieve perfection—although, of course, we didn’t achieve it—than we ever had before, and people somehow knew it.
I don’t want to end a biography of Leo without saying something about Lee, for he is so much our pride. Lee has always been a sweet spirit and very much a part of us, never against us in any way. Other babies may have been fussy and colicky, but not Lee—he even seemed to know when we had a deadline to meet. And now that he’s growing up, he probably understands us better than anyone, puts up with our quirks, and stands now on his own in a beautiful way.
Leo and Diane Dillonby Lee Dillon
WHAT I REALLY LIKE about my parents is that I can work with them. I can work with my father on the house, and we can talk a lot of things out without blowing up. I make jewelry, and I really enjoy going to the jewelry district with my mother and talking about jewelry designs with her. And we all have fun teasing back and forth, too.
What I don’t like is that they’re always working. Since they won the Caldecott Medal the first time, things have been lots happier around here, but there’s been a lot more work too, and I don’t like that so much. They’re really nice people, my parents, and I’d like to have more time with them when they’re not working.
My favorite book my parents have done is Ashanti to Zulu. I like realism more than abstract designs. I like the way Ashanti to Zulu shows how civilized and advanced the African peoples are, too. Too many people think Africa is primitive and uncivilized, and I hope Ashanti to Zulu will show them that this is not true. The research was murder, though, and I’m glad it’s over.
Why Mosquitoes Buzz in People’s Ears is a nice book, too, but as I said, I’m more into realism. The animals were okay, I thought, but the guy got a little weird.
I’ve had a lot of hobbies. I’ve been making jewelry for a couple of months. Before that I was studying Arthur Rackham’s illustrations. Before that I collected comic books and original comic-book art. Before that I grew bonsai plants. Before that I collected stamps. And before that I collected coins. I think what I’ll be someday, though, is an artist. I haven’t decided what kind of art work yet, but I probably will not limit it to just one thing.
Since I’m living with my parents, I learn a lot of things about art, and I can do some specific kinds of things now, but I wouldn’t call myself an artist yet. I guess what I mainly want to do is to live nicely, but in the background. I don’t think I want to be famous. For instance, at ALA last summer, I liked rolling posters at the Dial booth. It was sort of like a race, to see if I could roll posters as fast as my parents could sign them. And I met a lot of nice people too, which I enjoyed. But once somebody asked me to sign one of the posters, and that really embarrassed me. Maybe I wouldn’t have felt embarrassed if I’d done something, but I’m not sure. I think I’d just rather be in the background anyway.
From the August 1977 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.