Interview: Chris Silas Neal

With a touch of nostalgia and restraint, award winning illustrator Chris Silas Neal delights your eyes and tugs at your heartstrings.

His playful style is clear and honest; it has a way of pulling you in and quieting the world around you for a few moments. Initially drawn to music, Chris spent his early adult years playing the drums, but eventually decided that creating pictures would make him happier. His high profile projects range from editorial, animation, band posters, hand lettering, and children’s books.

We caught up with him to chat about childhood inspirations, lullabies, rock n’ roll, and how he fills his days in his Brooklyn based studio.

Let’s start off with a description of a typical day in your life?

A typical day starts with cooking breakfast for the family and playing with my son Jasper who is now 17 months old. Then I ride my bike from my condo in Bed-stuy to my studio in Greenpoint. I check email and make a to do list for the day. Then, I do a little drawing and grab lunch with my studio mates Sam Weber and Jon Han. After lunch, I’m busy making work until it’s time to ride home. I might stop to do a little exercise on my way. Back at home I cook and play with Jasper. Then we take a bath. Afterwards, with a binky and bottle of milk in hand, I take Jasper to his dimly lit room where we sit in a rocking chair and read six or so board books. Then I sing him Good Night, the song that Ringo sings on the last track of the Beatles’ White Album. With Jasper asleep, I watch a little TV and read and then go to bed. Jasper wakes up at 6 am—sometimes earlier. The earlier I can fall asleep, the better.

What about your free time?

Free time? You must not have children.

True! However, I am so looking forward to your next children’s book with Kate Messner, Up in the Garden, Down in the Dirt. Are you able to share an image from it? And tell us a little about the project.

Thanks for saying so. After we published Over and the Snow, Kate wrote me a message fishing for ideas that might work for a follow up book. She had mentioned Over and Under the Sea and perhaps another idea or two. It was my wife who suggested that a garden book that explores bugs and critters would be fun. Turns out Kate is an avid gardener and must have loved the idea because a year later I received a call from Chronicle Books with a new manuscript.

In this book we follow a little girl and her Nana as they plant a garden. The cool thing about this book is that we follow the characters through an entire cycle. Kate is an amazing writer and she moves from month to month and season to season with fluidity and grace. The book begins in late winter—the ground still frozen and covered with a blanket of snow. As the snow melts and the ground thaws, the pair of gardeners begin planting seeds.

I can’t pick a favorite spread from the book but here’s an image that you might like—while the cucumbers grow, the girl plays in her green garden, playfully hiding from her Nana.

Up in the Garden and Down in the Dirt will hit the shelves in March 2015 and can be pre-ordered here:

Your children’s books already seem like classics. Where does your connection to classic stories and folktales stem from?

Again, thanks for the kind words. Like most people, my connection and inspiration are the picture books I read as a kid. One of my favorites is Frederick by Leo Lionni. It’s really simple and poetic. I hope to make books just as beautiful and heart warming as he did.

To say that writing is a challenge would be the biggest understatement, ever. But I enjoy the process and hope to write many more stories for books and other formats as well.

You’ve mentioned before that you would like to write and illustrate your own children’s books. Is that something we can still look forward to?

I’m finishing the final art for my first self-authored book. It’s called Everyone and is scheduled to release in Spring 2016. I signed a two book deal with Candlewick and am also doing some preliminary writing for the second book.

Everyone is a book about a boy and his feelings. Through visual metaphors I describe how expressing our feelings effects our surroundings and how the world reflects those feelings back at us. When you are sad, it may feel like you’re the only one who has ever been sad, but we learn that you are not alone. The world feels it too. So when you are happy, it makes the world happy. It’s heavy subject matter—big picture stuff. Hopefully I’ve delivered it in a way that readers young and old will unpack it with ease and delight. To say that writing is a challenge would be the biggest understatement, ever. But I enjoy the process and hope to write many more stories for books and other formats as well.

Through my childhood picture books and my Mother’s record collection I experienced art for the first time.

You’re inspired by vintage illustration and design, can you tell me a bit more about why that’s an aesthetic you’re drawn to?

I really enjoy making images with a sense of magic that illicit an emotional response from the viewer—images that tug at the heart. Nostalgia plays a big part in what we find emotional and comforting. Even if I’m referencing an era long before I was born, those old and tattered references add a layer of nostalgia and wonder because they no longer exist. Through my childhood picture books and my Mother’s record collection I experienced art for the first time. They formed the foundation of my creative experience along with music videos and films. So, these childhood pop culture ephemera find their way into my work. We are witnessing something similar with younger illustrators just entering the field. Their references may be slightly different than mine — anime, old HTML website graphics, and RGB colors. Beyond my childhood experiences I also enjoy mid-century graphic design—Paul Rand and the like. I enjoy how simple shapes and color play such a big role. Also, anything outsider art I find interesting. Perhaps because I didn’t go to art school and am sort of an outsider myself. 

I enjoy how simple shapes and color play such a big role. Also, anything outsider art I find interesting. Perhaps because I didn’t go to art school and am sort of an outsider myself.

Oh that’s right, in college you started off majoring in music. Can you tell me about that, and maybe share some of your recently played songs?

I majored in music at the University of Colorado in Boulder for two years before switching to liberal arts and then eventually Mass Communication. I played the drums and at the university performing concert music, playing in the drumline, and taking music theory.

Outside of class, I was playing in bands. I started college in 1995. It was the height of the grunge era and I was sure to bring my grungy canvas, cd-logic case filled to the brim with class acts including Nirvana, Weezer, Stone Temple Pilots, Jane’s Addiction along with my classic rock such as the Beatles, Pink Floyd, Led Zepplin and my hip hop such as Dr. Dre and Snoop, De La Soul, Wu Tang…

In college, I started listening to jazz as well as more contemporary, improvisational and instrumental music—Tortoise, Trans Am and the whole Thrill Jockey Records scene. I got into the Bristol stuff like Portishead. A little bit of Bowie. And started listening to Afro-cuban. In Boulder, musicians were taking all that stuff and layering it into one messy Jam band sandwich. So that was my scene. Here’s a couple of live recordings from a band called Bug Powder I performed with right before moving to Brooklyn. Sort of a noise rock meets drum and bass meets jazz fusion. Wow.


By the time I moved to Brooklyn, I shed my jam band veneer and was listening to folk, indie rock and typical Brooklyn stuff. I had a brief stint with an art rock band called Antonious Block. Here’s a couple of basement tracks: |

Eventually, I decided that I’d be happier making drawings rather than playing the drums. I have a guitar and pick it up every once in awhile.

 I wrote a song based on one my picture books, “Go To Sleep, Little Farm” and hope to put that out in the world soon. But that’s just for fun.

As far as what I’m listening to now, I really enjoyed Wye Oaks’ new record. Piano composer Dustin O’Halloran makes wonderful music to work to. I’m still a long time fan of The Dirty Projectors. And with the recent 20th anniversary of Kurt Cobain’s death, I’ve even un-earthed my scratched and worn Nirvana CDs. I’m still a sucker for soft rock. I recently found myself googling videos of Karen Carpenter tearing it up on the drums. Man she could shred…

It seems like many freelancers are starting to leave their homes and work from studios or coworking spaces, can you tell me why you decided to start working from the Pencil Factory?

I starting illustrating in 2003 and moved into a studio space a year after working from what was at the time the bedroom of my tiny apartment. I craved interaction and needed an excuse to get out of my pajamas on a daily basis. My first studio was in the flatiron district and had a revolving cast of characters before I showed up including artist Brian Rea and now creative director for Vanity Fair Chris Dixon. The space was rented by designer Andrea Fella (daughter of legendary Ed Fella) and shared by illustrator Grady McFerrin, photographer Gus Powell, Andrea and me. In 2005, a developer bought the building and we were forced to leave. That’s when Grady and I moved to the Pencil Factory in Brooklyn.

What is the most used tool in your studio right now?

My computer, my light box and my pencils.

Everyday that I get to do this stuff is a blessing.

You have worked in so many different realms of the illustration world, everything from editorial, to packaging, to advertising, animation, and books. What’s next for you?

I’ll be doing more school visits and readings. In terms of image making, I’d love to make something for the stage—the ballet perhaps. Of course more books, more drawing, and hopefully something cool that I don’t even know about yet. Everyday that I get to do this stuff is a blessing.



Posted on Feb 9th, 15 by | Twitter: @cccaitb

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