Eric Wilkerson at the 57th Annual Boskone Convention
last updated 28 February 2020
Each year, more than 1,200 sci-fi/fantasy fans and professionals gather at Boskone, the longest running science fiction convention in New England, for a weekend filled with panels, readings, activities, discussions, and more. This year, Bright artist Eric Wilkerson was honored as the Official Artist at the convention, the first artist of color in the near 60 year history of the event. During the event, Eric participated on panel disuccsions with Rick Riordan award-winning authors Kwame Mbalia and Carlos Hernandez about the Tristan Strong series, fighting stereotypes, and the importance of representation in middle grade books. Eric’s art also won Best in Show! We were delighted to catch up with Eric about the convention as well as his creative process behind illustrating the covers for Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky and Tristan Strong Destroys the World.
Eric Wilkerson at the 57th Annual Boskone Convention
Can you tell us more about your experience since the release and overwhelming positive response to Tristan Strong?
My experience since starting on the Tristan Strong series has been a feeling of validation. I have been working professionally as an illustrator for nearly 20 years, and I have never seen this huge of a reaction to anything I’ve painted. When it comes to representation of black characters outside of the comic book industry, we typically only appear as slaves, sports heroes, civil rights leaders, or other sporadic offerings across adult and middle grade sci-fi fantasy publishing. I always wanted to put more people of color in my art but felt like I had to sneak it in or do it as personal work—so you can imagine my surprise when publishers saw the first Tristan cover and started asking if I was available to do something similar for their upcoming series! The industry has changed so much over the past 20 years, and we’re slowly seeing a paradigm shift.
Left: Final cover for TRISTAN STRONG PUNCHES A HOLE IN THE SKY, a New York Times Best Seller and Coretta Scott King Honor Book
Right: Final cover for TRISTAN STRONG DESTROYS THE WORLD
How do you strive to advance diversity and representation in children’s publishing through your artwork, and what would you like to see more of on the shelves?
I’d like to do my own sci-fi children’s book one day. As important as it is for black kids to know their past and see books that let them know that they are loved and special, I’d just love to see a fun book about black kids having an adventure. I would also love to see more diversity in adult and middle grade sci-fi fantasy novels, and it’d be great to see fresh offerings with cool cover art that would attract new readers that have been ignored for several decades by major publishers.
Illustration by Eric Wilkerson displayed at Boskone
Can you describe your creative process behind illustrating the covers for TRISTAN STRONG PUNCHES A HOLE IN THE SKY and TRISTAN STRONG DESTROYS THE WORLD? Was there an element of research behind creating the characters?
Every commission I do starts with sketches done on my Galaxy Note phone. I then send those sketches to Photoshop where I develop more refined color sketches for approval. For book #1, I knew I wanted to push for an overall palette that suggested something magical, ethereal, and ominous. I’m a huge movie fan and am inspired by how certain colors affect the mood of a scene or in my case an entire illustration. I was inspired by the colors of the Aurora Borealis for the hole in the sky. Everything in the scene needed to be bathed in that light, so I focused on using violets, blues, and greens. There is a subtle touch of red orange added to suggest danger as well, a color scheme I hoped to use more of for the second book. For the design of Tristan, Disney was very specific about how he should look and what he should be wearing right down to the logo on his hoodie. I had a bit more flexibility with John Henry and based his design on myself—bald guy with a goatee. The handle of his hammer is inspired by an African totem pole, and since I was told that the author Kwame Mbalia was inspired by West African mythology, I decided to etch the adinkra symbol for strength into the hammer itself.
Sketch progression for book #1
Most of my illustrations start with posing and lighting 3D models. Since this was planned as a series, I wanted a 3D model for Tristan that would be consistent throughout. After rendering my models I shot additional reference photos of myself wearing a hoodie and cargo shorts, then I began my final line drawing and painting.
Reference photo and line drawing for book #1
The creative process was similar for Tristan Strong Destroys the World using new poses and reference photos. When I was given a description of what Disney wanted to see on the cover of book #2, I got really excited to try and build up more of an action scene for the wraparound cover. I pushed for a red palette to elicit feelings of danger and tension in the scene. Disney also asked that I incorporate some of the ethereal purples and greens from book 1 for the sake of consistency which I thought was a great idea. I chose a low angle because I wanted us to feel like we’re looking up at Tristan and for both boys to appear confident in the face of danger.
Color sketch for book #2
I put a lot of time and effort into every illustration I do. This series means a lot to me and I’m still blown away that I get to make art for Disney Publishing.
Look out for Tristan Strong Destroys the World, publishing October 6, 2020 with Rick Riordan Presents.
View Eric’s full portfolio here.