Young Ted Lewin often dreamed of traveling to foreign lands to see his favorite animals in their natural habitats. Because his family kept a succession of exotic animals as pets, Lewin had plenty of experience in handling and drawing animals. He spent many hours sketching the chimpanzee, iguana, rhesus monkey, and lion the family kept as pets.
After reading the series of Tarzan books by Edgar Rice Burroughs, Lewin’s childhood play included imagining himself as the jungle hero. As he rode on his bicycle with Cheeta the monkey holding onto his neck, he must have envisioned himself as Tarzan swinging on the vines. Tarzan’s climbing ability would have come in handy when the monkey escaped and ascended a church steeple. Cheeta was eventually lured down with her favorite food, however, so that no dramatic rescue was necessary.
Of course, Lewin never became Tarzan; but as a teenager, he followed an older brother into the professional wrestling ring. Wrestling prizes helped to finance his art school education and set him on the path of good body conditioning for life. I Was a Teenaged Professional Wrestler, a book Lewin wrote years later, chronicled his experiences.
The Lewin house in Buffalo, New York, was certainly the most interesting in the neighborhood. Two brothers, a sister, and the assorted pets kept the household jumping with activity; but only Ted could draw. The whole family admired and encouraged that talent; teachers also invariably recognized Lewin’s gift. His high school art teacher pointed him in the direction of her alma mater, Pratt Institute of Art in Brooklyn, where he not only graduated (in 1956), but also won the Dean’s Medal, and then became an instructor at the renowned institution. Best of all, he met and married a Pratt student named Betsy Reilly, who shared his interest in travel, art, and animals.
Never did Ted Lewin aspire to write or illustrate children’s books until he illustrated a true story, Faithful Elephants (1988). Creating magazine, advertising, and book illustrations had been the basis of his career before Lewin succumbed to the lure of children’s picture books. After illustrating The Day of Ahmed’s Secret, the artist dedicated himself to children’s literature.
Success followed with the publication of a steady flow of picture books, including Peppe the Lamplighter, for which Lewin received a Caldecott Honor in 1994. “I poured over archival photos of the period and visited the last of the original tenement buildings in the Tenement Museum in New York City where I took my own research photos of the restored rooms there,” Lewin said, as he recalled his research for the book. “I used my neighbors as models for Peppe and his family, dressing them in period costumes, lighting them by oil lamp, and photographing them in my studio,” Lewin added, demonstrating his meticulous attention to details.
Ted Lewin’s technique reveals his discipline and dedication to quality. “In all my books, research photos taken on location help to ensure accuracy,” the artist relates. “Working in a realistic style, I hope to make my pictures accessible to everyone, to put them in the picture, too. The color slides I shoot and develop are the raw material from which I build my pictures.”
Working in his studio on the top floor of the couple’s Brooklyn brownstone, Lewin views the slides on a screen. “Sometimes it takes as many as 10 or 15 different images to compose one painting,” he explains. “I make full-size 15% up pencil sketches on tracing paper. As I compose the dummy, I move forward and back in space, much like shooting a movie—up close on faces for the emotions in one spread; backing off for a sense of place and mood in another. Then, I transfer my finished compositions onto watercolor paper using a 7H pencil to render careful, finished drawing. The drawing remains and is the foundation on which I build my painting. Working with my watercolor paper flat on my drawing table, I paint with Windsor Newton watercolors and because my under drawing is so complete, I can paint quickly and freely. All of this elaborate set-up is to ensure that as I paint, it’s almost like working from life.”
Using his technique to perfection, Lewin has illustrated a wide variety of books, ranging from a tribute to the artist’s favorite neighborhood restaurant, Big Jimmy’s Kum Kau Chinese Take Out, to a Civil War reenactment in Red Legs: A Drummer Boy of the Civil War.
Ted Lewin dedicated Peppe the Lamplighter to “the American Dream.” Lewin has lived the dream and has fulfilled most of his childhood wishes through his life as an artist. Work has led him to travel the world, always a goal he pursued. Lewin has befriended the exotic animals he admired as a youth, using his art and writing to encourage wildlife conservation and to champion environmental causes. Along the way, Ted Lewin has taken the time to encourage promising young artists to realize their dreams.
Adventures with Ted and Betsy Lewin