Illustrator Jerry Pinkney Took On a New Challenge During the Pandemic

The Caldecott winner decided to challenge himself and try to make sense of the difficult times with pastel portraits of his family.

Jerry Pinkney discusses his family portraits, including pastel drawings of [from left] his daughter, himself, and his wife.
Photos by Kara Yorio

While many took on the challenge of the sourdough starter during the pandemic, Caldecott-winning illustrator Jerry Pinkney picked up pastels and set about creating a series of family portraits.

“I don’t work in pastels, I’ve never worked in pastels,” says Pinkney at his home studio in Croton-on-Hudson, NY. “So the challenge was to take a tool I had not worked with and create these portraits. A pastel for me was always this clumsy stick you held in your hand. I use a No. 6 brush or a No. 2B pencil. Now all of a sudden, I’ve got a piece of chalk in my hand, and it was quite liberating.”

He calls them his “corona portraits” and there are four: a self-portrait, plus pictures of his wife Gloria, daughter Troy, and great-granddaughter Zion.

Troy and Zion came to Gloria and Jerry’s house in the NYC suburbs in March 2020 and stayed for eight months, including two “challenging” semesters of online school for the 14-year-old Zion, according to Pinkney. For Jerry Pinkney, drawing was the way to cope with the pandemic disruption to his personal life and professional process amid the uncertainty and sadness of the situation.

“Everybody had that gnawing pit in the stomach,” he says. “I was trying to make sense out of people that were around me.”

Pinkney took photos of his family members and had each sit for the portrait as well. But then he just observed.

Pinkney’s pastel portrait of Zion is framed and hanging in his studio.

“I would watch them, every little nuance,” he says. “After that first ­photograph, every time I would notice a little tic in their face or something, I would go down and work on it.

“So it was filling space, and it was filling space with people I love and care about and was concerned about at the time. It was a connection with how I was feeling about COVID and feeling displaced. I could find the footing in these portraits.”

It also helped him work through the difficult moments every household was having while stuck at home.

“It’s the idea of expressing what it was like in a visual response to living with my daughter and with my great-granddaughter,” he says. “Whenever I would get really annoyed with [Zion], I would work on her portrait. I would move from that space to this beautiful child.”

While the portrait of Zion is framed and hanging in his studio, the other three remain works-in-progress as he continues to challenge himself with the tools (pastels) and subject matter (family and the pandemic). As accomplished as he is, Pinkney is always looking to push himself and learn more about his craft, as well as his subjects and the world around him.

“There is so much to explore after you learn to draw well,” he says. “Anything you learn to do well opens up a world. Now you have a safety net. You can explore. You can use crayons. You can use pastels.”

Author Image
Kara Yorio

Kara Yorio (, @karayorio) is news editor at School Library Journal.

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