Ed Emberley: The man who inspired me to draw, not to be an artist

Ed Emberley: The man who inspired me to draw, not to be an artist

As a kid, I spent a lot of time drawing. Is that because Ed Emberley’s drawing books unlocked the key to my imagination, or was it just because there weren’t any iPads? Well, the point is, I drew a lot.

I didn’t grow up to be an artist, and in fact I’d forgotten how much time I used to spend drawing until I looked through a preview of Ed Emberley, the forthcoming monograph on the life work of the guy who inspired countless kids—me included—to draw little universes of figures, vehicles, and structures, all helpfully sorted into monochromatically themed worlds.

When you open one of Emberley’s big drawing books, you not only learn how to draw, you learn what fundamental color family basically anything you could ever imagine existing in the whole wide world fits into. For a kid whose preschool report card included the praise, “excellent at sorting,” that may have been as strong an attraction as the promise of art instruction.

There are several themed sections in each book, with subjects of gradually increasing complexity. Emberley’s Big Green Drawing Book includes a dragon, livestock, and Irish people shaped like potatoes. The Big Orange Drawing Book starts with a pyramid of oranges, then goes on to tigers, UFOs, and a lot of Halloween-y stuff. The Big Red Drawing Book has apples, Santa, fire trucks, and everything you need for a Fourth of July.

One of the shelf’s-worth of books I’ve saved from my childhood is my well-used paperback copy of the Big Purple Drawing Book (“Library of Jason W. Gabler,” I wrote inside the front cover), which opens with the eminently reasonable declaration, “Purple is a just right color for making…GRAPES.” There’s a big section for “Things Piratical,” culminating in a fantastically detailed ship. There are sections for bugs and—my favorite—robots, and on the last page, Emberley reassures his young students that, “If you found some of the things in this book difficult to draw that is because some of the things in this book are difficult to draw!”

The monograph begins with a brief biography of Emberley, who at 83 is still alive and well and living in the same Ipswich, Massachusetts house where he’s created virtually all the work he’s known for. The workmanlike artist realized early on that he’d have to hustle and be flexible in order to make a living as an illustrator, and is proud but unromantic regarding his body of work. The need to churn out books in quantity, in fact, is exactly what inspired the drawing book series: he needed something that he could pop out quickly between the more time-consuming picture books that were his specialty.

Todd Oldham and Caleb Neelon, who put Ed Emberley together, set out to represent the breadth of Emberley’s accomplishment—a worthy goal, given that picture books can be among the most ephemeral media. (There are so many produced that thousands get lost in the shuffle, and God help you if they go out of print.) The famous drawing books are represented here, but so too are Emberley’s early woodcuts and charming drawings in a variety of styles—as well as rarities like The Wizard of Op, an book of painstakingly handmade illustrations that create the illusion of movement.

Many were inspired by Emberley to become artists, but maybe it’s even more of a tribute to his skill that his drawing books engaged kids like me—kids who weren’t natural artists and wouldn’t go on to professional, or even dedicated amateur, pursuit of illustration. In his introduction, Neelon puts it well: “The brilliant thing about Ed Emberley’s Drawing Books is that they manage to teach drawing in a way that rewards accuracy without privileging it.”

Emberley tells Neelon that it’s worth showing kids how to copy things because drawing is an alphabet. “If you can reduce things to a simple ‘alphabet,’ then all you do is take those ‘letters’ and put them together.” We like to reward kids for drawing as pure expression, hanging their artwork on the kitchen cabinets even when it’s just scribbling. That’s well and good, but Emberley’s drawing books illustrate (so to speak) the importance of also teaching art as craft. Emberley kept me drawing—including drawing things that weren’t in his books—well past the age when I might otherwise have been frustrated at my evident lack of ability to sketch intuitively.

The monograph will be a nice treat for those Emberley kids who grab a copy—but even if you don’t, open your box of childhood books or otherwise find a copy of an Emberley drawing book in your favorite hue. It will remind you of when you knew how to draw—and that you still do.

Jay Gabler