September 5, 2011

Guest Post: A Talk With Paul O. Zelinsky, By Tahlia Merrill

 When I was at the SCBWI conference (Society of Children’s Books Writers and Illustrators) in early August, I was lucky enough to attend a workshop by famous picture book illustrator Paul O. Zelinsky and he was nice enough to give me permission to share what I learned. He talked about his creative process and how fairy tales inspire his projects.

It all started with his grandmother’s Hansel and Gretel painting that hung over his crib. In the painting, the two children approach the mouthwatering house while the old hag lurks around the corner. As an adult, Paul set out to paint his own interpretation of the tale. After many trips New York’s Carl Jung museum to research witchcraft, Paul began the art for his book, emulating the Dutch genre style. Adding his grandmother’s painting to a background tapestry on the last page as a finishing touch, Hansel and Gretel was ready for the world and was published in 1984.

His next book, Rumpelstiltskin, proved more challenging. Having a fondness for the title’s namesake ever since he performed the role in a junior high play, Paul had a clear sense of the character’s personality (see video below for a glimpse into the evolution of Rumpelstiltskin). The main hurdle Paul had to overcome was how to paint large quantities of straw, especially since living in New York City didn’t provide him with easy access to the real thing. Through much trial and error, he eventually hit upon a technique using a toothpick to scratch away a layer of yellow paint to expose a darker brown oil paint underneath. Unlike Hansel and Gretel where he could use his editor to help him model the witch, Paul was searching for a special type of woman to model as his miller’s daughter. He searched high and low, people watching on the subway and taking recommendations from friends. But everyone looked too modern. Then one day, when he and his wife were eating at a Chinese restaurant, he found his miller’s daughter sitting across the restaurant. Her long dark hair and full features made her perfect for the part and much to Paul’s relief, when he asked her to come for a modeling session, she agreed.

Paul admitted that he doesn’t know where the inspiration for his third fairy tale book, Rapunzel, came from, but perhaps it was his curiosity about the logistics of painting so much hair. Whatever the reason, this time he brought in elements of legendary Renaissance artists such as Raphael and Rembrandt. He thoroughly immersed himself in the story, even ordering rampion seeds so he could grow his own rapunzel. Not only did the rapunzel make a tasty salad, but Paul used the small purple flowers to design of his heroine’s dress.

Although Paul currently has no plans for illustrating any more fairy tales, you can see touches of magic and fantasy in most of his work. He has illustrated two E.B. Nesbit books, a collection of Camelot love stories, and has even helped invent an original tall tale character named Swamp Angel. If you are new to Paul’s work, you can find all about his books on his website: If you are a longtime fan like me, you can like Paul’s relatively new facebook page or find him on twitter @paulozelinsky.

 Tahlia Merrill is a writer whose work includes fantasy and fairy-tale-inspired projects. She is also currently working as the intern for EC. Among her many projects is her site, at, and she is also in the process of taking over
Image by Paul O. Zelinsky.


unikorna said...

I declare myself hopelessly seduced by your magic space here. I am so glad I discovered you. My life would be sad and ordinary if I did not allow fantasy in it. I believe in fairies, pixies and unicorns and yes, I am a sane 33 year old grown up. Even Arthur Conan Doyle shared my belief, so, I am in great company :). Kisses.

Teresa Robeson said...

I recognize Zelinsky's name, but not so much his work, so this was a fun, informative read for me, thanks!

I've only been to local SCBWI conferences; my dream is to one day attend The Big One in L.A. :)

Sandie said...

Great information.

I have used some of his fairy tale books in my classroom. He's excellent with the detail work.

Thanks for the write up.