Avi Katz have been in the illustration racket for 35 years now. His activity has been about evenly divided between editorial illustration (mostly in The Jerusalem Report magazine) schoolbooks (mostly for English language studies) and children’s books. He is also active in the science fiction and fantasy genres but in Israel, that’s more for love than a living. Avi has published about 170 books in Hebrew and English, which have won a National Jewish Book Award, four Hans Christian Andersen honors, seven Ze’ev Prizes, and others. His editorial illustrations regularly participate in Cartooning for Peace exhibits around the world.
How did you first get into illustration?
In second grade I would take commissions for battle scenes from my classmates—a penny per soldier, a nickel per tank, a dime for an airplane. Later, in high school, I babysat for a pair of infamously difficult children of a professor, who used to read Tolkien to them. I got the kids to play and go to bed quietly by drawing whatever scene they had gotten to in The Hobbit. After we got to Mordor and back together I sent a packet of illustrations to J.R.R.T., and got back a signed personal letter from the great man himself, where he told me I was the first illustrator to really understand his dwarves.
For a while I tended more to portraiture and landscape but at Berkeley I won a competition to illustrate the program for the Jazz Festival. I will never forget the mind-blowing experience of seeing my drawings in hundreds of copies around the vast amphitheater.
In Bezalel where I studied Fine Arts (there was no illustration course offered) I was told that my work wasn’t contemporary, I made pictures and told stories, and these were Not Art, according to the Conceptualist and Minimalist dogma of the day. I decided that I just wanted to paint draw and tell stories, and realized that what the art establishment scorned, illustration embraced.
What is your artistic process, creating a new illustration?
When computers became capable of quality artistic expression, in the 1990’s, I was very excited to be part of the exploration of this brand new toolbox and its possibilities. The Jerusalem Report allowed me to experiment, using different combinations of traditional media like ink, pencil and water-color together with digital painting and manipulation, Photoshop collage and texturing, 3-D software and so on.
In a children’s book the computer takes a back seat, where I like to have a final result which, though ultimately digital, looks hand-crafted as possible. Still the computer not only saves time it also helps us think and develop an illustration as we draw, scan, modify, print, draw more detail and so on back and forth.
Do you work with clients from the international market? Can you tell us about it?
My American connections and the exposure I got from twenty years in the Jerusalem Report have helped me build up a clientele in the U.S., mostly Jewish. It’s a big world, and now that all work is delivered digitally there is no problem working with a publisher on the other side of the world. I have an agent in the U.S. to handle all the business side of the work, and don’t I wish there was such a thing here in Israel!
Tell us about an interesting illustration project you were involved in.
A few years ago I was approached by a German NGO active in trying to clean the world of automatic weapons. They had a center in South Sudan which gives job training and money to people who leave their militia bands. Since most of these bush warriors are illiterate, I was asked to draw a comic book telling the story of a typical village boy, abducted by militia but at the end coming to the city, leaving the war behind. The comic was distributed in thousands of copies throughout South Sudan.
What would be your ultimate dream as an illustrator?
To be given a great manuscript that would become a great book which would become a permanent part of the culture, forever associated with my name—like Alice for Tenniel or Pooh for Shepard. But you can wait in vain your whole career for that privilege…. Or maybe I’ll get up the time and energy to finish the graphic novel that’s been sitting in my drawer for years.
More about Avi Katz at his Website