Peter J. Thornton received his BFA from the Rhode Island School of Design, the same school his father and mother once attended. Growing up, Peter was surrounded by art. We talked with the illustrator about his artistic childhood, his work with the late Steve Sanfield, and what it takes to master a trade. Through hard work and patience, Peter has produced beautiful art of one sort or another, including children’s books, greeting cards, and fine art prints. He continues to create artwork in Providence, Rhode Island.
Nikki: What are the origins of your interest in art?
Peter Thornton: My dad was a painter. He’s 94 and still alive. He doesn’t paint any longer, but he went to Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), as did my mom. She was a fashion illustrator; now it’s considered photography. Then she had three kids, and that ended that. My dad was an illustration major at RISD for three years and later changed his major to painting his senior year. He also worked as their museum photographer for about 37 years. He would come home at night from RISD and disappear into his studio and paint. So of course, we were surrounded by art.
At Christmastime we got pastels, paper, and all kinds of art supplies. While my dad didn’t push art on my sisters and me, it was all around us, so we happily picked it up and ran with it. I think what kept me interested in art was the fact that I really loved creating something. Most boys throw a football around with their dad when they’re a kid, for us it was just sitting and drawing. I, of course, wanted to emulate him.
The other thing that really impacted my childhood was not owning a television set until I was 5 years old. We spent most evenings reading children’s books. My dad, whose art doesn’t look anything like mine, was very careful in choosing the books that we looked at from an artistic point of view. We spent a lot of time reading the classics. I still remember, we had a big chair, and my sisters and I would pile into the chair with my dad, and we’d all read books. Then we got a TV and that went the way of the world. We were all excited, of course, when he got a television but it definitely impacted our time with books.
N: What was one of your favorite children’s books growing up?
Peter: I was always struck by Robert McCloskey books like Make Way for Duckling and One Morning in Maine. I really liked his style of illustration. I
remember my fourth grade teacher, in particular, would read to us after lunch sometimes. She would read Wind in the Willows and Tom Sawyer.
N: Have you ever reread those children’s books as an adult?
Peter: As a matter of fact, we did. When my wife and I first married, I think I bought Wind in the Willows, and we read it out loud to one another. I just loved it so much and thought it was such a classic. I still flip through the McCloskey books if I’m in a bookstore.
Another favorite of mine is Arthur Rackham. He did a beautiful illustration of Alice in Wonderland. His work is really Victorian with pen and ink. He had all these little gremlins and fairies. I love looking at his work. I tried to do that style for a while, but the pen and ink just escaped me.
N: What medium do you like to work with?
Peter: For A Natural Man: The True Story of John Henry, everyone thinks it’s charcoal, but I actually used graphite pencil for the illustrations. I wanted the images to be dark to express the mood of the story. It’s really kind of a sad story, but it’s also dark and gritty. I really lobbied hard to illustrate in black and white to reinforce the feel of the story, partly because I was afraid to use color since it was my very first picture book, and I felt more confident working in black and white.
N: You also have a lot of illustrations in color like your series, Providence Scenes. What medium did you use for that?
Peter: I used pastel pencils, and these days, I’m using pastel paper. Regular paper only has so much structural integrity. After a while, the surface starts to break down. It’s not as tough if you’re working in black and white, but if you’re working in color, it’s hard to layer colors over one another. The pastel paper is basically a very fine sandpaper. The material doesn’t really break down, so it’s a lot easier to work with.
N: Are you somewhat anti-technology when it comes to your art or do you prefer to work with paper and pencil?
Peter: I’m definitely not “anti.” I did a class with one of my ex professors, and one of the kids in the class was totally into using the computer. It was beautiful work; the kid is probably going to be phenomenally successful, but there’s something fun about the struggle of using and mastering the fundamental materials.
As a fellow artist, it’s really instructive and fun to be able to see the process, and you miss that with technology. I don’t mean to demean technology at all, and there’s been a lot of beautiful work created using technology, I’m just not a big computer guy. I like the challenge of mastering a medium. I suppose you could argue a computer is a medium, but it’s a little less personal, at least for me. If I was a kid today, I might be more receptive to working primarily with a computer, but I grew up in a generation that didn’t even have calculators until high school.
N: How did you begin creating art professionally?
Peter: The first job I ever had was doing freelance work for a woman named Lisa, the wife of Chris Van Allsburg. He was a grad student at the time, about to become a professor. Lisa produced a children’s art television program in Providence that was publicly funded but produced on a local television station. I served as their art director for the television series. I had no experience other than doing illustrations, but I was building the sets, making puppets, and creating set pieces. I did that for about a year and a half.
After that, I bounced around for about a year trying to work as an artist full time, but it was just not working very well. Then I met my wife, who was a grad student at MIT, and we got married and moved to Boston where I worked full time to support us while she finished grad school. She’s now an architect with her own firm. I did a bit of art on the side, but it was kind of hard to do that with a full time job. When she graduated, she got a job in downtown Boston, and we moved farther out from the city, and that’s when I landed the commission to illustrate the A Natural Man: the True Story of John Henry. I have fond memories of illustrating that book.
N: How did you connect with Steve Sanfield in order to work on John Henry?
Peter: Generally, publishers don’t connect illustrators and authors until after the project is done, but working with Steve Sanfield was a great experience. I think the book was actually completed by the time we first talked. He was kind of this cranky, old dude, but he was a very sweet guy. He was probably 15 or 20 years older than me, and this was my first book, so I didn’t know anything about illustrating books. We did get to meet at a book fair when the book was released. Later, I discovered that Steve was a freedom rider in the 60’s and was recognized for his work in the civil rights movement. He was quite something and a very talented writer, folklorist, storyteller and composer.
The book came back to life through August House and that was due to Steve Sanfield continuing to believe in the book. When the book was originally published, it wasn’t marketed very well, even though it got great reviews. Steve was able to secure the rights from the original publisher for A Natural Man: the True Story of John Henry. Then August House, his publisher for The Adventures of High John the Conqueror, got in touch with me to figure out how to recreate the drawings. But during the process, Steve passed away, and I was shocked.
After Steve passed away, I began to memorize the text in the book because he was a storyteller and I decided that I wanted to tell the story of John Henry in his honor. It took me about four or five months to memorize the whole story, sentence by sentence. I’ve done a couple of readings for different groups of people.
Even now, I like to recite it to myself everyday when I go swimming at my YMCA. So rather than counting laps, I repeat the story of John Henry.
N: What is your process like when starting a new project?
Peter: For my current series, Providence Scenes, all of the pieces are basically from a bird’s eye view. Since I’m drawing real buildings, I locate a scene I’d like to illustrate. Hopefully there’s a way to get into a corresponding building and take some photos. The last few scenes I’ve photographed using my friend’s drone. I’m committed to doing 10 of them, but after this series, I want to do something very different. I’d like to get away from illustrations and maybe use pastels out in nature.
In general, I’m pretty much a creature of habit when it comes to starting projects. I try to draw everyday for about four or five hours. I work at home, and I go to the YMCA usually twice a day. I’m not a reclusive artist like some people are. I’m very social. It kind of drives me nuts to not see people for a while so I need to get out of the studio and connect with other people.
N: Were you always confident that you wanted to be an artist?
Peter: I remember the sinking feeling when I was a freshman at RISD. They put you through a boot camp for artists. They just throw everything at you, and it’s really tough, because they want to weed out the kids who aren’t that committed. At a certain point that year, I realized we were all on the same playing field at RISD. We were all really talented artists so it was a rigorous test to see who was really committed to their art.
You kind of have to shift gears. It was definitely a gut check, because all of sudden, you’re not somebody special anymore, you’re just one of the bunch, and you have to learn to produce. It rattled me a little bit at first; I had to really buckle down. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned the value and reward of hard work. I worked hard in college but not as much as some of the kids around me. I worked hard on John Henry and enjoyed the process, but I think you really have to learn how to do that, and everyone learns that lesson at a different age or at a different point in their career.
N: When it comes to criticism, do you ever have trouble maintaining your confidence?
Peter: I think if you work hard and you give a project your best shot, then that’s the best you can do. I’ve had my share of bad reviews, but you have to satisfy yourself first. There are always going to be critics, especially in a creative endeavor. When you go to museums or take an art history class, you always see paintings by famous artists, but we only get to see their really “good stuff.” I’m sure that even Michelangelo and Leonardo Da Vinci had a whole bunch of sketches that they threw away.
All the famous artists were very capable of putting out subpar work, too. Let’s not forget that they were human as well. Criticism can be humbling, but it can also be instructive and serve as a motivator. A lot of time people receive criticism of their work and they take it personally. As a result, they don’t use it to improve their work in some way. You learn to be gracious and even grateful for criticism.
N: What advice would you give aspiring artists and illustrators?
Peter: Just work hard, love what you do, and continue to put in the time and effort. I truly love what I do so putting in the time is enjoyable.
For example, another hobby of mine is singing. I didn’t go to school for it, but I put in a lot of time towards my singing, and with practice, I’ve become pretty good. I think I notice my improvement in singing as opposed to my art, since I’ve been doing art for so long.
There’s that “magic” 10,000 hours formula: You put in 10,000 hours and there’s a certain degree of mastery or proficiency. I tell kids that the more time they put in, the better the outcome. That seems obvious, but you’d be surprised at how many people simply don’t do that. When you put in the time, you’ll notice that you’ll get better and better, then you’ll become more confident. As a result, the process itself becomes more enjoyable and rewarding.