Illustrator Keith Mallett Takes Us Behind the Art of Take a Picture of Me, James VanDerZee!

Released this month from LEE & LOW BOOKS, Take a Picture of Me, James VanDerZee! is a picture book biograpy of James VanDerZee, a groundbreaking photographer who chronicled an important era in Harlem and showed the beauty and pride of its people. He took photographs of legendary figures of the Harlem Renaissance—politicians such as Marcus Garvey, performers including Florence Mills, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, and Mamie Smith—and ordinary folks in the neighborhood too.

We asked illustrator Keith Mallett to take us behind the scenes of his art process bringing Take a Picture of Me, James VanDerZee to life:

take a picture of me james vanderzee cover

The illustrations for Take a Picture of Me James Vanderzee! were rendered with acrylic paint on canvas. Here are a couple of examples of how the paintings were created. When James leaves his small town to seek adventure in Harlem a two-page spread was suggested. I wanted to show how James may have felt dwarfed by the size of the buildings and perhaps overwhelmed by the mass of people who populated the city.Since one of the most iconic structures in Harlem is the Apollo Theater, I wanted to find a way to include it in the illustration. I thought it might help to give a sense of place. In the past I had made a painting of the Apollo theater on 125th street, but it’s marquee was from the 20th century.

apollo theater

I needed to find a picture of how the original marquee looked. After much searching I finally found an old photo of the Apollo’s first marquee.

apollo theater's first marquee

Using some extreme perspective I made a drawing of the scene.

apollo theater sketch 1

I was later informed by the art director of the book (Ashley Halsey) that the Apollo had not yet been built. So I went back to the drawing board. I made a few changes, replaced James’s hat, and was ready to paint.

apollo theater sketch 2

This is the final painting. The font here was only used for the mock up.

apollo theater final illustration

Another key scene in the book is when James finally gets a camera.

camera sketch 1

At first I showed him surrounded by curious friends and neighbors. But it was decided that the focus should be more on just James and his camera. I zoomed in on James and gave him different attire.

zoomed camera sketch 1

Then I added some dramatic lighting.

zoomed camera sketch 2

Once I had finished the painting I realized that I had given James the wrong camera. It was a camera that would have cost far more than what he could have afforded.

zoomed camera sketch 3

This is the final painting with James holding a box camera.

zoomed camera final illustration

It was fun researching the clothes and cameras of the late 19th century, and it was fun illustrating Take a Picture of Me James Vanderzee! I feel honored to have helped to bring Mr. Vanderzee’s story to life!

You can check out Keith Mallett’s site here.

You can purchase a copy of Take a Picture of Me, James VanDerZee! here.

Read an interview with Take a Picture of Me, James VanDerZee! author Andrea Loney and editor Jessica Echeverria here.

keith mallettKeith Mallett has been drawing and painting for as long as he can remember. As an artist and designer, he has created posters and fine art prints for more than thirty years. He had the pleasure of attending the original James VanDerZee exhibit, “Harlem on my Mind”, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and was delighted to work on this biography. Mallett lives in San Diego, California, with his wife and their German Shepherd.