Illustrators are always on the lookout for a style to make their work recognizable — a way of working to make their art uniquely their own, distinct from that of other artists. But finding a way to do that has not been an easy journey for me. I know of some illustrators who developed their own style while in college, but my background was in education, so finding my visual “voice” has been a process.
I’ve been inspired by a quote from the artist Henri Matisse: “Creativity takes courage.” For me that has meant persevering.
What has been invaluable to me on my journey has been attending conferences offered by the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI), where I’ve been able to have my portfolio critiqued by excellent art directors. At one conference, the art director commented on my collages as the “standouts” in my collection of work. I had also been working in watercolor, but she encouraged me to explore collage further — and even make it look 3-D.
It was one of those golden moments when a light comes on! In the six months that followed, I reworked my entire portfolio. And at the next conference, I received favorable reviews from agents who wanted to represent my work.
When I became comfortable with collage and realized it felt “right” to me, it became great fun to make my illustrations, and now I can hardly wait to get into my studio each day.
To make my illustrations, I start by choosing a color palette. Often I find the palette by looking through art books until a painting’s color scheme “grabs” me. Then I begin making papers with those colors to use for textures. I experiment with paint and tools, just playing around, to make my papers, and I’m always on the lookout for interesting papers I can purchase as well. Pages from old books, wallpaper scraps, and tickets are all fun to use — it’s amazing what you can find!
Next, I work on rough sketches. I think about the text for each page, the layout, and the emotions of the people in that part of the story. I send these sketches to the art director, and once they are critiqued, I move to the final sketches, often making changes from the original plan. For these steps, it is great to be able to rely on input. Creating illustrations for a book takes a team! (And, by the way, the team at Eerdmans is wonderful.)
In a way, the sketches are the hardest part of the process. It is where the plans are put forth and the decisions are made. But, once those plans are discussed and approved, it is like having a map to follow, and the joy of creating the finished art begins.
I usually choose to do a piece that isn’t too difficult for the first one; I’m eager to get in the groove. Because of this, I don’t usually work on the illustrations in the progression in which they will appear in the book.
I like to make my people and animals look somewhat realistic. (This is probably because I love to do pastel portraits of people.) I take photographs of models who are friends and family members and are willing to pose for me. In creating Mr. Bartlett for Fur, Fins, and Feathers I rented a frock coat and top hat for my friend Joe. Joe was another instructor in the college where I was teaching. He was my supermodel!
In each of my illustrations I begin with the faces of the people I’m making. I know that is what people will look at first. I draw them lightly on the right side of my paper, then render them using colored pencils and pastel. Next, I cut them out using small, sharp scissors. To make the clothing and other items for the people, I make patterns based on my sketches. Each item of clothing is a separate drawing. I turn my patterns over and, using transfer paper, draw them on the back side of the paper I’ll be using (so I don’t have to erase pencil lines on the front). Once all the pieces are cut out, I fit them together using Tacky glue applied with a toothpick. I try to be careful not to let the glue show on my work since the camera will make it more visible when the work is photographed. Once all of the people and animals — the key pieces — have been made, I create the backgrounds. Then I put everything together using sticky foam squares so the work becomes three-dimensional.
It is a somewhat painstaking process; sometimes I lose pieces (a hat or a shoe, for example) as I go along, and then I have to re-cut them. My studio floor looks like a confetti factory by the time I’m finished! But it has its benefits — you can change or remove parts that might not be working — and it is also great fun.
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Cassandre Maxwell has written and illustrated six books for young readers and currently works as an adjunct professor at Cabrini College in Pennsylvania. Here new book is Fur, Fins, and Feathers: Abraham Dee Bartlett and the Invention of the Modern Zoo. Visit her website at www.cassandremaxwell.net.