“I think new inspirations coming in to an artist’s life all the time and from all kinds of places. As we go along our path we change, new things happen to us – places, people, life. The artists we admire change us and our work too. They all find their way into our personal style. I grew up in England so was very influenced by British art and books in my formative years. I loved anything Victorian, pre-raphaelite and impressionistic. Whistler and Turner informed my painting and drawing, back then. I wanted to be a landscape painter! As I’ve become more involved in making books for children, naturally I’ve been influenced by illustrators. Growing up I loved the work of Quentin Blake, Raymond Briggs, Dr. Suess, Arthur Rackham, Edward Ardizzone, Beatrix Potter to name a few. Ultimately I think Quentin Blake’s freedom of line and colour have stayed as a lasting influence and I strive to achieve that freedom in my work. When I moved to America I discovered a whole new clutch of illustrators I knew little of. I appreciate the work of artists like NC Wyeth, Edward Gorey, Maurice Sendak, Peter Sis, David Small, Melissa Sweet, David Weisner, Marla Frazee among many others. But I find myself going back to study the absolute freedom of Quentin Blake when I am in need of inspiration. He is effortless and genius!”
“My route to my present career has been a circuitous one! I was born in Scarborough, Yorkshire in the UK. At school I loved english and art. After school I attended art college to study fine art. But, after a couple of years, I dropped out. I loved to paint, but something was missing for me. There weren’t many illustration courses around back then and unfortunately I became disillusioned with my course. For a while I worked with horses (I had always ridden since a child). Then I signed up for the Royal Navy! I worked on shore bases in graphics offices and I really felt like I learned my trade. I learned to use the first computers for graphics, I did exhibition work and technical drawing. And I still got to use my artistic skills. And the Navy taught me to be self disciplined and how to get up in the morning, which have stood me in good stead all my working life! Because an artist must also learn to be a business person. After leaving the Navy I ran my own general printing and design business until I met my American husband and moved to the USA in 2000. I had continued all those years to paint and draw and when I came to the USA I started to create local landscapes, portraits enter exhibitions and teach children and adults the basics of art. I’d also started to pick up graphic design and commercial illustration as the internet took off and I worked for clients worldwide, even visiting China at one point for a pottery firm. But I had an itch that I had always wanted to scratch and that was to pursue children’s illustration. I’d no clue on how to enter the field, how to contact publishers or get work. My big turning point was in 2009 when I joined the SCBWI, (www.scbwi.org), started attending conferences and learn about the business. I received a contract for my first book in 2010 from a postcard mailer to art directors and I haven’t been without work since. As this was during the recession I feel pretty good about it now!”
“Working in any creative field requires determination, a love of what you do and persistence. You have to be prepared to keep working at what you love even when times are difficult. The chances are if you love what you do, others will love it too. For a few the path can be straightforward and it seems their rise is immediate, but behind that success are hours of practice, failed projects, the dogged continuation of the art in the face of disappointment. The moments when work sells, you are hired and your efforts are rewarded by recognition make up for that. Although doing something you love is rewarding, everyone needs to live. You may need to decide if your creative life will be a sideline or the way you will make a living. Balance is important. Debt will stifle your creativity. Most freelance artists of any kind will have to supplement their income with other work or teaching unless they have financial means. It’s also hard to pursue an artist’s career without the support of loved ones and your partner. Keeping inspired and having the support of your peers is important too. It keeps you sane! Continuing to learn, go to conferences, take further education, have conversations about art, visit museums and exhibitions, listen to great music, travel if you can locally or widely, observe the world and the creatures and fellow humans in it. Try something different in your art and in your life! Growing as an artist should be something you continue to do throughout your career. But most of all you need to work from your heart and enjoy it! That’s not always easy when things don’t go as you hoped. But for the lows there are great highs. It’s great to win awards and recognition – but the greatest reward is connecting emotionally with people through your work. I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
“If I’m illustrating a picture book written by someone else, I first, of course, read the manuscript. I read it several times to let the sense, theme and story sink in. Then I start to think about how the story flows, how words and pictures will fit together. If it is my own story then sometimes the words come first, sometimes pictures or both together! Illustrating a picture book is like a dance, you must leave space for the words just as the words must leave space for the pictures. I usually first make written notes, noting where to split the words (page turns are very important and can make or break a book! Anticipation is everything !), I note what images are coming to me, think about what the characters look like – are they human or animal or inanimate objects, even? Who are they? Sometimes the art director and editor will include art notes in the manuscript that may direct your thoughts. Most often the ideas are left to you, so you are not confined. Freedom is something we all need as artists and too much input can stifle the process. When I have made notes I will then start to make sketches. Usually I start with ideas for the main characters, the setting, anything else that is important. Depending on the subject of the book I may need to do research into the characters and their world. For example my last book, (‘Imani’s Moon’ for Charlesbridge Publishing by JaNay Brown-Wood), was about a little Maasai girl. I did a great deal of research on the Maasai tribe, their culture, what they wear and the landscape they live in, in Africa. The Maasai are very beautiful and elegant people and have a certain ‘look’. I checked out the animals that are featured in the story and made sure I was drawing ones that live in that region! My research is usually done online and from books. (It would have been nice to go to Africa, though!). Quite often I’ll send the character sketches to the art director to make sure I’m going in the right direction. I feel strongly that one of the things that makes a great book is team work. The illustrator is not working in a void, they are working with the art director, the editor, the designer. The author DOES get input, but that comes through the art director and not directly to me, which works well.
After the characters are worked out I’ll start on thumbnail layout sketches (about 2″ big) of the pages of the book itself. (Very tiny so I can’t put much detail in!) This is really to show the flow and composition of the book, much as you would do for a single painting. I also consider what kind of style the book will be, what is the mood and subject matter, what size it will be (usually the publisher will have ideas about this). Is it happy, sad, funny, dark? What is the age group it’s intended for? I don’t work in one particular style, so this is an important factor for me. Some of my books are very detailed and some much looser. If it’s a chapter book I’ll usually be working in black and white and on single page or spot illustration images rather than continuous pages that tell the story in a constant flow. Next I move on to bigger sketches of each page, trying to keep it loose and fast and rough out what the pages will look like and where the text will go, too. At this point I send the ‘dummy’, (as the drawings are called), to the art director, usually as an electronic PDF.
After any revisions from the publisher I start on the final images for the book. Most picture book are 32 single pages. The medium I use depends on the style of the book. Most often I use graphite, watercolour wash and digital colouring, but sometimes pen and ink and collage. For digital work I use mainly work in photoshop. All my images are usually finished digitally and sent to the publisher that way.
After that I wait for the book to arrive! Then the promotional work begins to help sell the book.”
Q: What have you been up to lately?
A: “Illustrating! I have 4 new picture books coming out in 2015/2016 – ‘Toby’, (as I mentioned before), written and illustrated by me and it’s about my rescued poodle. ‘Where do Fairies go when it Snows?’ from Down East Books, by Liza Gardner-Walsh, ‘Animally’ by Lynn Sutton from Kane Miller Publishing and ‘Kenya’s Art’ by Linda Trice from Charlesbridge Publishing. I also have in progress a couple more picture books I’ve written and a middle grade mystery novel set in England, all of which I hope will find a publisher in the coming year.”
Q: Do you have a favorite work?
A: “I am pretty proud of the illustration work I did recently for ‘Imani’s Moon’ by JaNay Brown Wood, published in 2014 by Charlesbridge Publishing.”
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Originally from Yorkshire, England, children’s book illustrator Hazel Mitchell now lives Maine, USA. She has a dog, a cat and several snow shovels. You can see more of her work at:
Hazel and Toby