Drawing His Own Path, Chris Gall Creates Award-Winning Picture Books

June 13, 2011

by Donna Kreutz
Illustrations by Chris Gall

This spring he’s illustrating his fourth children’s picture book, building his own airplane, exhibiting art in New York, and taking up boxing.

Like the boy in his book, Gall moved often with his family while he was growing up. Acclimating to strange new worlds left Gall restless and bored. He learned to adjust by reading, drawing, writing, and seeking adventures of his own — he once tried to launch himself into outer space in an old, beat-up water heater.

“I was interested in everything,” he says.

Gall devoured subjects in phases, never sure what he wanted to be when he grew up. Astronomer. Geologist. Oceanographer. Spy.

“I’m the only kid I know who was grounded from going to the library,” Gall says. “My parents said I was spending too much time there.” So he would tell them he was going to the mall, and then head back to the library. As a teenager, Gall continued drawing and painting. He even completed an impressive copy of Van Gogh’s Starry Night, which now hangs by the fireplace in his Tucson home.

Today, as an award-winning author and illustrator of children’s picture books, Gall still lives a life full of imagination, adventure, and artistry. His books include America the Beautiful, named Best Children’s Book by Publishers Weekly in 2004; Dear Fish, a best pick of 2006 in Child magazine; and his most recent book — There’s Nothing To Do On Mars is acclaimed as “a visual stunner.” All of his titles are published by Little, Brown and Company.

Gall developed his engraving style while freelancing for the Tucson Weekly. “I just experimented and everybody started asking for it.”

Gall’s tales are accompanied by fine-line engravings that are both fanciful and nostalgic. Book reviewers rave about his illustrations, calling them “eye popping” and “breathtaking.”

Gall studied architecture at the UA for two years, then switched to fine arts, graduating with a graphic design and illustration portfolio that landed him a job at a Tucson advertising agency. “It was my first job. First and only,” Gall says. It’s also where he met first and only wife, Ann Courtney.

Gall developed his engraving style while freelancing for the Tucson Weekly. “I just experimented and everybody started asking for it. I won some awards, got noticed by an agent in New York. Things started happening pretty fast after that,” he says.

His signature woodcut style is described as having “a social realist, heroic WPA mural sensibility.” Though he grew up in the 1960s, the “visual vocabulary” that inspires him is from the 1940s and 1950s. “That was the great era of design,” he says.

He has created everything from small logos to 300-foot murals for clients worldwide — Sony, Pepsi, Nike, Lowenbrau, U.S. Steel, and Norwegian Cruise Lines. His illustrations have been published on the covers of national magazines and books, and he has won numerous awards from the Society of Illustrators, Communication Arts magazine, and Print magazine.

Gall’s process combines traditional illustration techniques with computer artistry and technology. After “mountains” of pencil sketches on tissue paper, he uses an X-acto blade to engrave the image onto a clay-based panel. He then scans the engraving, adds color using Adobe Illustrator, and softens and finishes the illustration in Photoshop.

In There’s Nothing to Do on Mars, young Davey Martin and his family liftoff for the red planet in a silver Airstream, powered with rockets found in a landfill. The space vehicle is imaginatively illustrated and looks like a family camper with jet-propulsion Mars’ landing gear.

Once Davey and family land on Mars, he becomes bored beyond belief, so he and his robotic dog, Polaris, venture out into the dry, dusty landscape. Nothing holds his attention — until he and his dog unleash a flood of water from a big red mountain.

Ironically, Gall’s fictional search for water on Mars parallels the real-time scientific space adventure unfolding at the UA now. The UA-led Phoenix Mars Mission is scheduled to land on the red planet in May. If successful, mission scientists will begin to unfold the mysteries of Mars and discover what lies beneath its soil.

Gall chose to illustrate children’s books because they’re art. “It’s the only book format where you can do as much art as this,” he says.

Gall’s first book, America the Beautiful, illustrates the popular anthem written by his great-great-grandaunt, Katharine Lee Bates. Family members often asked him to illustrate her framed hand-written poem, and just after 9/11 the time seemed right for a patriotic book.

His favorite children’s book is Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak, a friend of his grandmother. Other influences are David Wiesner and Chris Van Allsburg.

Always fascinated by machinery — cars, trucks, planes, and trains — Gall’s next children’s picture book is Dinotrux.

“It’s about an ancient race of trucks that existed in prehistoric times before the rise of man, but after the demise of the dinosaurs,” he says. “It’s their story.”

And after that? “Who knows?” Gall says. “There are rumors of Hollywood.”

To view Gall’s art