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Central California Life Magazine

Local Fresno Artist Finds Inspiration in California

Jul 25, 2016 01:24PM ● By Melanie Heisinger

Local author and artist Doug Hansen illustrating.

Local-area native Doug Hansen has been an artist since he can remember. Having served on the Fresno Bee art staff for over 22 years, and transitioning into a teaching position at Fresno State where he has worked for 13 years, Hansen certainly knows his stuff when it comes to art. 

We were able to get in touch with him and hear his inspiring and creative story.

Tell me a little bit about yourself. Did you grow up in the Fresno area? 

             I was born in Fresno and my parents are Fresnans. I didn't grow up in Fresno because my dad was a Naval aviator and we moved frequently: to Texas, Hawaii, and Maryland, but the family moved to Fresno in 1970, the year I began my art studies at Fresno State. Ever since my return to Fresno at age 18 I've been a "Fresno guy", and Fresno, the Valley and California have been my inspiration and the focus of my art and illustration ever since.

Did you always know you wanted to be an illustrator & writer? 

            Yes. I grew up in an artistic family. My mom, Janice, is a lifelong artist and she certainly influenced me and my five siblings;  three of us have careers in the visual arts. As a boy I had certain favorite pictures in storybooks that I would return to again and again. Even as a youngster I understood that someone out there was creating those wonderful pictures and at a young age I wanted to be that guy. In college my focus was on creating comics and I enjoyed a fun four years as cartoonist for Fresno State's Daily Collegian.

I couldn't support myself on comics, so after jobs at an advertising agency and a printing plant I was fortunate to join the editorial art department in the newsroom at The Fresno Bee. I worked in that great department of talented artists for 22 years. Bee readers might remember a weekly feature I did for five years called Fresno Sketchbook. I drew and wrote about buildings in town that caught my fancy. Those drawings were collected in two out-of-print books published by the Bee.

Tell me about the 3 children's books you've published -- California the Magic Island, Aesop in California, and Mother Goose in California. Do you have a favorite?

Mother Goose in California

            I am most proud of Mother Goose in California because it was my first children's book. It started the ball rolling on the California theme that I've developed in all three of my children's picture books. I started painting the illustrations when I was fifty years old. Maybe illustrated Mother Goose rhymes seem like an odd choice for a guy of my age, but I had wanted to try my hand at them ever since I was a child. My dilemma was how to make them a personal artistic statement. My solution is evident in the title - I brought Mother Goose to California and imagined what the characters and rhymes would look like in California. The rhymes are the original rhymes - I didn't change them. The art has a classic poster-like feel. It's a very traditional, colorful, and detailed look. I painted in gouache (opaque watercolors).

            My publisher - Heyday, Berkeley, CA - specializes in California themes so Mother Goose was the successful beginning of years of collaboration. I must mention that David 'Mas' Masumoto introduced me to Heyday and helped launch my book illustration career. Heyday published two of his books that included my illustrations - Letters to the Valley, and Heirlooms.

            For Aesop in California I re-imagined 15 classical fables and re-told them in my own words. I had such fun traveling the state and researching the settings for the fables that are set all over the state. For example I went to the Mojave Desert where a desert tortoise races a black-tailed jackrabbit in my version of the Tortoise and the Hare. I painted those pictures in watercolor.

            The new book, California, The Magic Island, is a mixture of fantasy, history, and talking animals. It contains 26 stories, one for each letter of the alphabet, embedded within a larger story about mythical Queen Calafia, namesake of California. This book just came out in April and is also painted in watercolor. 

Your books center around California. What is your inspiration? 

Aesop in California

             Back when I created the Mother Goose book, I asked myself "what do I know about? What is an approach that is authentic, personal, and worth devoting five years of work?" and the answer was "California." Our Golden State is so rich in natural landscapes, animal life, and historic settings that it has provided a bounty of great material for my stories. I love doing research, and including authentic detail in my artwork is important to me. I learn so much as I write, that all three books include endnotes that tell even more about what is included in the stories.

What is one of your most memorable memories in relationship to your work? 

Here are four:

  • I love meeting fans and friends at my book signings. Sometimes they show up with pieces of forty-year-old art they have saved from all the way back in our college days.
  • I enjoy it when people share photos with me of their children or grandkids reading my books.
  • An epic California road trip (to research Aesop) with my biologist-brother Rob to the Carrizo Plain, Salton Sea, Twentynine Palms, and the Alabama Hills was a truly memorable adventure.
  • I also love driving up to the publisher's offices in Berkeley and delivering a giant pile of artwork for a completed book. 

You are also a Professor at CSU Fresno. How long have you been there?

I've taught in the Graphic Design area of the Department of Art and Design for 13 years.

I am so fortunate to be teaching illustration at my alma mater. It was a perfect transition from the newsroom to the classroom. I teach what I have learned in my art career - creating illustrations in both traditional and digital media. I am semi-retired now but will be teaching illustration for the spring 2017 semester.

Anything else you would like us to know about? Any upcoming books we can look forward to?

1) Illustration is "art put to work." In my case it's pictures that are inspired by and grow from the words of the story. Illustrators are artists who work in any kind of media to make their pictures. Their art is made to be reproduced and distributed via printing or electronically and reach thousands or millions of viewers.

2) Readers can see more of my work and an event calendar on my website

3) I have ideas for at least three other books in my head. As soon as the time is right I'll approach my publisher with my next book idea. It takes two-to three years for me to write and illustrate each book, but I love that creative process and intend to keep at it.

To learn more about Doug Hansen, his work, and where to purchase one of his books, you can visit his website.