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Erick Ingraham’s a lucky artist, finding success on his own terms.
By Katherine Cox
Sentinel Staff Writer Saturday August 13 1983
PETERBOROUGH- The field of aspiring illustrators is as thick as a cloud of lightning bugs on the evening horizon. And chances for success, money and fame are elusive.
For the artist, commercial illustration often provides the only glimmer of hope for recognition in a society that puts painters and sculptors in the same category as musicians and poets: an eccentric group that must suffer miserly rewards for its aesthetic contributions.
Erick Ingraham, 32, is one of the luckier artists who turned to illustration to make his name known and has found success on his own terms.
There were years of getting by as a janitor, a carpenter or a draftsman,but in 1974, with a contract to illustrate “Producing Your Own Power” for Rodale Press, Ingraham was able to begin making a living as an artist.
“Having something in print is important for ammunition when you get to the streets of New York,” he said.
The Rodale Press gave Ingraham plenty of ammunition. An environmentally oriented publishing house, it allowed Ingraham to illustrate topics that coincided with his own interests, including a variety of books on gardening an shelter and animals.
“They were right up my alley.” said Ingraham, the son of a veterinarian and a school teacher.
His work with Rodale Press led to other publishers, and in 1977 he was commissioned to illustrate his first children’s book, “Harry and Shellburt.” a story based on the tortoise and the hare fable.
One reviewer wrote, “The text’s even, smooth style is welcome; but the more so, the unusually creative, skillfully drawn illustrations, which borrow warm colors and softly sinuous forms from nature.”
The use of natural forms could be called Ingraham’s trademark. Even the peripheral details that find their way into his pictures bring to life the natural world.
“I’ve always been a lover of detail,” Ingraham explained. “I like to have new things defined every time you come back to look at artwork. I want my art to live along time; I don’t want people to get sick of it.”
He often uses models for his sketched because he feels perspective and proportion are important part of the details that enhance his work. Also, I always research before I get too far on a project.”
His second book, “Cross-Country Cat’ published in 1979 and now in it’s fifth printing, was a big boost for his career and won him the Boston Globe/Horn Book Award as Honor Book for Illustration.
The American Library Association Booklist review said, “Ingraham’s earthy blue and tan tones provide some beautiful lighting effects for the soft focus drawings. They interpret the story well, summing up absolute involvement with both the desolate setting and the drama of Henry’s ordeal. Fresh in both concept and execution.”
The story of Henry the cross-country cat was ideal for Ingraham, an avid skier and devoted cat owner. To prepare for the book, Ingraham went to Colorado to get the feel of what the countryside was like.
Explaining style and attention to particulars, Ingraham said, “I like fantasy with a firm foot in reality. I’m an illusionist; I try to make things believable through a very realistic style. I go through the steps of precise expression, proportion, perspective – all these things I can see – so the a cat skiing will look like a cat skiing.
“I’m able to pull off fantasy well because I take in things like climate, sun direction, motion, gravity and wind direction.”
However, for his next book, “Old Blue,” a story about a young boy’s first trail drive, “I didn’t feel like going to Texas,” he laughed. “But I did learn to ride Western style.”
He diligently studied horses and bridle and the specifics of a cattle drive. “I wanted to get horses in my brain. They’re so hard to draw.”
Ingraham’s careful rendering of the finer details doesn’t go unnoticed. When “Hot-Air Henry,” more adventures with Henry the cat, was published in 1981, one reviewer commented, “Ingraham’s accompanying illustrations are exquisite and strikingly original in their play with complex height perspectives. The paintings feature refined, muted textures broken by effective details like basket weaves, the balloon canopy lines, or the feathery ridges of Canada geese.”
Ingraham admitted he’s a perfectionist and said he does it right “the first time, even if it takes longer. You don’t take short cuts, because you’ll just have to correct it later. If it takes longer to do something , it will be worth it.”
And once it goes to the printer, “If I make a mistake, it will be repeated thousands of times.”
So he’s a stickler, and it’s not surprising he won an American Book Award for original art in the field of book illustration last April for his latest book, “Porcupine Stew”, his first full-color production.
“It’s one of the best things that could have happened to me,” he said, adding that the illustrations were exhibited in the Society of Illustrators’ annual show in New York last spring.
“Porcupine Stew.” written by Beverly Major, was published last year, also winning the Parent’s Choice Award for best illustration in children’s books.
Art critic Hilton Kramer said, “Call it superrealism, magic realism, and whatever you like – this is the style that characterizes Erick Ingraham’s vividly executed illustrations for this book. It is a style anchored in the tradition of realistic observation, but is not bound to the naturalistic materials of realism.
“The magic realist moves easily between the world of nature and the world of fantasy, and this is something that Ingraham accomplishes with the requisite gift for invention and improvisation.”
It is this latest book, with a more sophisticated style and rich colors, that most clearly show’s Ingraham’s early training as a painter.
He said he’s always been an artist. “My mother has promoted me since I was two; she’s always encouraged me. She knew there was a possibility that if I started early enough I could make a living as an artist.”
He graduated from Kutztown (Pa.) State College in 1972 with a bachelor of fine arts degree in painting. Yet in high school in rural Pennsylvania he’d diverted his attention to music, playing the baritone horn and string bass.
“It’s important to function in front of large groups,” Ingraham said. “I needed that alter ego of being bold and able to conquer stage fright. It helped when I received my award in New York. If playing music led to nothing else, it led to my being able to control my nerves in front of a crowd.”
Ingraham is a tall man with shaggy hair and a mustache. His quiet voice and fair features give him an aura of shyness, and one suspects he’s most comfortable hidden away in his studio, apart from the rest of life’s distractions.
Or perhaps gliding across a winter field, a solitary figure skiing through the silent countryside.
Ingraham said he leads a “flip-flop life.” While most people make their living during the day, Ingraham finds evening the best time to work.
“I like to experience life in the daytime without being chained to a desk. Normal business hours are better used for relaxation and enjoying the sun. When the earth darkens, I make use of that time to get work done at my desk.”
Thus he is able to spend leisure time on what he likes best – skiing. There’s also tennis, swimming, canoeing and sailing, but that’s just to stay in shape for the slopes. “I focus the year around on skiing. I usually ski to the max and collapse.”
Skiing is what brought him north form Pennsylvania three years ago. He wanted to be where there was more snow and opportunity to ski. After a visit with his grandmother in Peterborough, he moved up just before ski season in 1980.
And while the past few winters have not produced the abundance of snow New Hampshire is famous for, Ingraham has not been disappointed. In fact, he recently purchased a home in Peterborough with enough land for him to enjoy the nature he cherishes and recreates so vividly.
He’ll share the home with Olga the dog and Spider the cat.
Ingraham said he still doesn’t know a lot of people in the area, as his social life is subject to his upside down work schedule. “Work comes first,” he said. “I’m married to my work.”
Illustrating children’s books requires an enormous amount of time. “Porcupine Stew.” for example, took six months of preparation followed by six months of illustrating.
And while there’s an upcoming book based on a George MacDonald fairy tale germinating, Ingraham has decided to take time off from children’s literature and branch out.
He has not had to go far to find work – his artwork graced the July cover of Desktop Computing and the August issue of HotCoCo, two computer magazines published by Wayne Green Inc. in Peterborough. In addition, he has been commissioned to illustrate a cover for an upcoming book for the firm.
Is the transition from the fantasy world of childhood to the modern age of computers difficult? Not for Ingraham. “Children need to be entice into reading by pictures,” he said. And doing artwork for a computer magazine is similar in that he must draw the layman into computers.
Essentially, his art is not defines by age or genre. It’s allowed him to make a living and become known in the fickle art world. “I like doing illustrations for children of all ages,” he said.