Peter de Sève observed his younger daughter with a certain awe. Sure, he admired his 10-year-old’s powers of concentration on a book, but it was more how she was reading: effortlessly contorted like a pretzel in pigtails, without pain or strain or care.
“Fia was sitting in a chair and, well, she’s a gymnast, but it was this impossible positioning of her arms and of reading through her legs,” says de Sève, his voice rising as he recalls his amazement.
An artist best known for his New Yorker covers and film-character designs, de Sève was searching for an apt visual concept to create the official poster for the 2015 National Book Festival. “My kids love to read, and Fia always has a book in her hand,” says de Sève, whose elder daughter, Paulina, is 15. “Kids in this day and age are conditioned to be distracted, and I think reading is a bulwark against that.”
Tapping his own powers of concentration and imagination, de Sève sketched a young girl who is first relaxing in a cozy chair and then balanced on its back, sunk into its cushions, her legs dangling off one side. In nine elegant panels, he has rendered a silent ballet of the girl and her book. (The eighth panel, when she momentarily disappears, provides a smile amid this graceful story arc.)
De Sève will be signing copies of his poster at the festival, where he also will give a talk about his work. “I have sort of a two-headed career, as both an illustrator and a character designer for film,” he says. “I wanted to reflect that with the poster, as both individual illustrations and a sense of sequential art.”
His print works include such memorable New Yorker covers as one that features the mythical figure Pan literally Pan-handling for money while playing street-corner music. If you’re a fan of animation, you probably know de Sève’s character designs for such films as “Finding Nemo,” “A Bug’s Life,” “Mulan,” “Tarzan” and the “Ice Age” series. “Scrat,” he says of his acorn-crazed, saber-toothed squirrel, “has become my calling card.”
De Sève has a special gift for rendering anthropomorphic animals, even though that wasn’t always his aim. As a kid on Long Island in the 1970s, he “wanted to draw Spider-Man for a living,” he says. “I was drawing for the kid behind me in class, and somehow knew how to draw the funnel cones of Superman’s X-ray vision.”
But de Sève also deeply appreciated Warner Bros.’ Looney Tunes. “I liked Bugs Bunny — he’s such a smart aleck,” he says. “I was never a big Disney fan as a kid.”
De Sève studied at the Parsons School of Design at the New School. Over several decades he has honed his sublime ability to convey personality through posture and line, and character through gesture and movement.
Two professional areas that he has largely left to others, though, are writing and casting. He illustrated the recent children’s book “The Duchess of Whimsy,” but the writing was done by his wife, Randall de Sève. The title was inspired by Randall’s father’s nickname for her mother, an interior decorator. “The book,” the artist says, “is kind of a family album.”
And then there was the time that de Sève offered his opinion on the voice casting for “Ice Age.” He heard the “Everybody Loves Raymond” star doing Manny the mammoth and suggested, “I think you should drop this Ray Romano — he doesn’t sound right.” His advice was wisely ignored, and lesson learned, de Sève humbly acknowledges, “I now practice the suspension of critique.”
Michael Cavna, author of The Washington Post’s Comic Riffs blog, will host the Graphic Novels & Comics presentation, 7:15-10 p.m.
De Sève will talk about his work at 10 a.m. and sign copies of his poster at 11 a.m.