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Lyons Den Books

Deep Blues: Bill Traylor, Self-Taught Artist

(Scribner, 1994 ISBN: 0-684-19458-9)

Illustration on jacket: "Man and Mule Plowing," by Bill Traylor, Collection of Didi and David Barrett, Photograph courtesy Ricco/Maresca Gallery.

Bill Traylor was born into slavery in Alabama in 1856. He was in his eighties when he became an artist. 

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Mean Dog "Mean Dog," by Bill Traylor, Collection of Judy Saslow

Some art critics see the soul of Africa in Bill's art. They say his pictures look like prehistoric rock engravings found in the Sahara Desert. Like Bill, these artists drew agile animals that seem ready to leap off the surface of the rock. Bill's style also reminds people of ancient art from Egypt. Egyptians painted the front view of a face on a body turned sideways. In a similar way, we see only one side of "Mean Dog", though both eyes stare directly at the viewer.

From Deep Blues, pp. 36-37


Materials: Bill liked to draw on the back of old torn cardboard. Smudges of dirt and uneven edges became part of the picture. He used colored pencils, crayons, and charcoal sticks.

Body: To draw the torso of a person or animal, Bill made a rectangle with a pencil and ruler. Then he rounded the edges of the rectangle. In the same way, long triangles became a neck, legs, and paws.

Eyes: All the eyes in Bill Traylor's art are the same: white circles with small black dots.

Colors: Bill liked poster paints, too, though he didn't mix them. Sometimes he added water, but he preferred strong colors. Usually he dipped his brush straight into the jar. His favorite shades were bright reds, dark browns, and deep blues. (From DEEP BLUES, pp. 28-30.)