An interview with Dušan Petričić

Dušan Petričić is the award winning illustrator (and upcoming first time author) of children's books. He is the winner, with author Kathy Stinson, of Canadian Children's Book Centre top award for 2014, the TD Canadian Children's Literature Award, for The Man with the Violin. Petričić has illustrated dozens of children's books, including In the Tree House (a finalist for the same award), Mattland and My Family Tree and Me. His editorial illustrations have appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and Toronto Star. 


Do you still travel back and forth between Belgrade and Toronto?

Yes, I do. Right now I'm more in Belgrade, but I also travel to Toronto for the publishers. 

For twenty years, I worked for the Toronto Star. From time to time I still do some illustrations for them, but I am not working for them as I did. 

Do you miss doing editorial cartoons? 

I'm not missing it because I am doing exactly the same thing here in Belgrade, for the newspaper, every Sunday. It's the biggest newspaper in Serbia, called Politika. I always find a way to express my political feelings. I enjoy that.

And when I am full with politics, I have the way to escape to a children's world and vice versa. So I share my time between political editorial cartoons and children's illustration.

You drew a lot as a young child. Did you draw your surroundings, people or from your imagination? 

I did a little bit of everything, as kids usually do. I did do portraits, of course, but also I liked to draw animals, as a very young kid. Later, when I was ten or twelve, I tried to imitate comic strips, as a game. Then I started to work a little more seriously. I tried to draw some nature landscapes. But all that time I continued to do portraits and people, which was my preoccupation all those years. 

Only with people is there a different level, a psychology. I love psychology. To draw expressions of the face, the eyes. That's always a great challenge for me.

We love the expression you put into the faces of the characters in your picture books. In the award-winning The Man with the Violin you added so much to the words through your illustration. 

I find that important, particularly when you're working for kids. They love that, to see certain expressions. Again, that's something that I’m doing the same way for the political cartoons. Psychology and expressions. That’s important everywhere, for kids as well as grown-ups. They love to see when you draw a funny expression on the face. Half of your job is done, if you do that the proper way.

The Man with the Violin , by  Kathy Stinson , illustration by  Dušan Petričić

The Man with the Violin, by Kathy Stinson, illustration by Dušan Petričić

The author describes how the boy notices things and his mother does not. You created a wonderful illustrated stream of the boy’s thoughts in contrast to the mother’s blank thought stream. How did you come up with that idea? 

I'm sure you remember that when you were a kid, there was a lot of things you saw around  yourself, that your parents or adult people didn't see. I have four children and six grandchildren. So I spend a lot of time with young people and I am always observing how they react to things. I learn from that.

In that book, there's a lot of funny faces to see. I'm sure that the best part of my books always is the humor. There is a little bit of humor everywhere. Kids love to laugh, love to enjoy funny things. That's why I always introduce humor in my illustrations for kids. 

The Man with the Violin  , by Kathy Stinson, illustration by   Dušan Petričić

The Man with the Violin, by Kathy Stinson, illustration by Dušan Petričić

Some authors and illustrators try hard to teach kids, to pass knowledge to them. We love when that can be done with humor.

It is the way to reach kids’ souls. Through the humor, absolutely. 

You taught illustration and book design for many years. Do you still teach?

Not regularly, not now. Though from time to time I do. For example, soon I am going to my Academy of Arts, here in Belgrade, to talk with the students about illustration, books and to share my experience, my years with them. 

What did you enjoy most about your teaching experience? 

The best thing about the teaching experience is that you're working with young people, definitely. Young people are always a huge inspiration for artists. This is the most important thing — the communication with young people. The second thing is the great pleasure, when you are teaching young people, that you can see in them (if, of course, they understand what you are talking about) the huge advance in their way of thinking, in receiving and accepting the world around themselves. That's a huge thing for me, to see that I do help them see the world better.

In an interview, you told kids you always keep a pencil handy, tucked into your shirt. Do you keep an ongoing sketchbook? Do you jot down ideas or things from your imagination?

No, no, I don’t. The pencil that I keep with me, that is true. But it is only if I have to note something. But I'm not making sketches, like artists did a hundred years ago. 

So you don't keep a sketchbook with you . . .

Oh, no, no. I keep it in my mind, in my brain. And when I go home, into my studio, then I try to realize, to put on paper, what is smart and not smart, that I can do. 

In the Tree House   , by  Andrew Larsen , illustration by   Dušan Petričić

In the Tree House, by Andrew Larsen, illustration by Dušan Petričić

You have said your advice to young artists is to “Think, think, think, then draw.”

Yes, that's been my personal experience from working in cartoons and illustration. I did a lot of thinking first. Always I do a lot of thinking. Hours and hours sometimes . . . while trying to reach the best possible solution, the best possible idea. And then I take a pencil and paper. 

I saw students, particularly very young students, do this: as soon as you give them an item to draw, they immediately, seconds after that, they start to put something on paper. And I would tell them, “No, no! Please don't do that first. Wait at least two days before you put any line on your paper!” It is very important.