Behind the Illustrations
This is an interview with Don Clark, illustrator of The Biggest Story: How the Snake Crusher Brings Us Back to the Garden by Kevin DeYoung.
In the early 2000s, you and your brother saw some success with your Christian metal band, Demon Hunter. What led you both to get into print design and start your own design company?
Art has always been a huge part of our lives. Our grandfather was an illustrator at NASA and was a huge inspiration to us. The idea that you could get paid to draw spaceships was pretty enticing. As kids, we thought, “If Grandpa could do it, why can’t we?”
In 1993, my brother and I stumbled upon punk rock and hardcore, so our artistic goals shifted a bit from illustration to music. We were heavily involved in the skate and snowboard scene—punk music and board sports went hand in hand. So, we traded in art school for life as touring musicians. We formed bands in 1994 and 1995 and hit the road . . .
We had actually been playing in bands for years before Demon Hunter, but, ironically, our first design studio started the same year we formed Demon Hunter: 2001. Not only did we sign a deal with Tooth & Nail Records to release three Demon Hunter albums, we also signed a design deal as well. Asterik Studio, our first company, went on to design over twenty album packages in just eighteen months for the label. That’s really where it all started.
Your grandfather, Alfred Paulsen, worked for NASA as an illustrator for three decades. You’ve called him “larger than life” and said that he’s had a profound impact on your own artistic work. How?
Well, he was uniquely talented and worked at NASA. That was enough for us.
But he was also a multi-disciplinary artist, which means he was a master in many styles of art. That was always something we aspired to as well. He would draw the most amazing characters and cartoons for fun, but then turn around and paint precise and life-like spacecraft at work. His work was—and still is—stunning. We’d like to publish a book of his work some day.
How does your Christian faith influence your approach to design? How do you see your artistic work fitting into God’s purpose for putting you on the planet?
As Francis Schaeffer said, “Christianity provides a unified answer for the whole of life.” In other words, my faith dictates every aspect of my being. Art is just one outpouring of that.
My purpose for being on this planet is to simply reflect the beauty of my Creator—in everything. Sounds pretty simple. Unfortunately, we read in Genesis that this is actually very difficult for humans. Nevertheless, we push on . . .
In addition to receiving four Grammy nominations for music packaging, you’ve worked with high-profile companies like Target, Nike, WIRED magazine, Google, Nordstrom, and many others. How did you get connected with Crossway?
Josh Dennis just has a convincing smile!
Actually, Josh reached out about The Biggest Story and wanted to know whether or not I had any thoughts or recommendations related to the art. After chatting it over for a bit, I asked what he thought about the idea of taking a stab at it myself. For some reason he said yes, so here we are.
You’ve called The Biggest Story “the most intense project I’ve worked on to date, and also the most fulfilling.” What was it about the project that was so challenging? Why was it ultimately so uniquely satisfying?
The project was challenging because I’ve simply never taken on a project of this size, especially considering it’s my first book. Most picture books are 24-32 pages long. The Biggest Story contains ten chapters and is 132 pages long. I’m used to creating one piece of art at a time, so this was just beyond anything I had ever done.
And the pressure that I put on myself was immense. There was no reason for me to take this project on unless I was committed to making it great. I had to live up to my own (unreasonable, at times) standards—that was difficult. I collect children’s books (I have hundreds of them), so I knew how I wanted the book to feel. It looked amazing in my head; I just had to figure out how to get it out on paper. That was the hardest part.
Some of the illustrations in the book are pretty intense, which isn’t the norm for children’s books. Why?
I think kids are smart. I know I’ve had some of the most engaging conversations with my kids when I don’t talk down to them. I also don’t think art should be safe, especially when it comes to God’s Word.
Jesus wasn’t safe. There are some pretty heavy things happening in the Bible and I really didn’t want to gloss over any of that. I have obviously taken some creative liberties with much of the art, but I feel like that’s been done conceptually, tastefully, and in a healthy way that really makes the reader think. That’s my hope anyways.
What did your collaboration with Kevin DeYoung, the book’s author, look like? How involved was he in the direction you took with the illustrations?
Kevin was super cool and supportive of the style from the very beginning! In fact, I don’t think he ever really had one change for me, which is unheard of! I’m hoping we get the chance to meet someday.
What’s your favorite illustration in the book? Why?
That’s a tough one. I feel like there are some real conceptual pieces that hit the mark, but then I also like some of the more straight-forward pieces as well. I think I’ll pick the spread with Noah and the animals behind him. That was actually one of the last pieces I created.
Why should Christian parents buy this book for their kids?
First off, Kevin’s writing is great. The story alone engages kids with a great retelling of the gospel beginning with the Old Testament.
Second, I hope that the art strikes a chord with people. As I mentioned a few times above, I really hope that it sparks conversations in families, ultimately helping kids get lost in the story . . .
In another interview you were asked to share a piece of advice that you’d give to an aspiring artist and you quoted Paul Rand: “Don’t try to be original, just try to be good.” Care to elaborate?
It’s fairly simple: know your craft, know your audience, and know the world (artistically speaking) that you want to live in. Get good at that. Read. Research. Become skilled. That comes before any sort of originality. And let’s be honest: in terms of originality, there’s nothing really new under the sun. We’re all inspired by something.