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According to the Library of Congress listings, illustrator Will Hillenbrand's first literary appearance was in 1989; he first came to the Bulletin's notice as a talent to watch with Go Ask Georgio (1992), with his zesty Mediterranean artwork depicting the resident of a small Italian village whose willing disposition leads him to spread himself too thin. Other high points include his eerie cover for Patrice Kindl's Owl in Love (1993), which was moody and evocative in a genre that often fails even to be serviceable. His folkloric interpretation, in The King Who Tried to Fry an Egg on His Head (1994), proved to be glowingly inventive, offering a cast of bulbous royalty and magisterial, personified heavenly bodies. Then he showed himself a dab hand at more homegrown lore in Wicked Jack (1995), demonstrating great control over his irascible hero in an all-animal film-noir-esque mystery (Sam Sunday and the Mystery at the Ocean Beach Hotel) and a vibrant, textured interpretation of an old favorite (The Tale of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves).
One of the intriguing things about Hillenbrand's oeuvre is its stylistic variety. There's consistency throughout, sure, and he definitely sticks to his favored media (oil pastels play a part in just about every work). There's still a distinctiveness to every project: the high-browed eggheads of The King Who Tried to Fry an Egg on His Head, for instance, are a different species from spiky-haired Jack, or wiry Ali Baba, or cheerfully squat Giorgio. Giorgio's Italy of winding streets can't be mistaken for Ali Baba's labyrinthine Baghdad; Sam Sunday's mansion of decayed gentility is hardly interchangeable with Jack's tumbledown shack.
Ultimately the fascination of Hillenbrand's work lies in those old favorites, color and light. One of the great gifts of illustration is to create worlds more enticing, more exciting, more radiant than real life, and Hillenbrand's palette takes his work to that level, enveloping the page with his invented realms. He's got a great sense of balance, so that the results are always luminous and never garish, providing a treasure trove for Ali Baba that truly seems worth killing for or a folkloric kingdom where the people's clothes look as tasty as the food. He employs a livelier line than most artists who work in oils, and his taste for layers and texture (in addition to the oil pastel, he's combined oils with graphite and with watercolor, and his backgrounds have the depth of grounded canvas) gives the colors a life of their own. The red devil appears in near-black silhouette against a yellowing sky, but he doesn't notice that Jack's coals are both blacker and redder than he. In Ali Baba, the watery tints dance across the oil base, giving a highly original, freshly frescoed look to the proceedings, and making Baghdad as vivid as a dream. This is art to conjure with.
Deborah Stevenson, Assistant Editor
This page was last updated on May 1, 1997.