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Journey to Publishing a Picture Book | Part 3

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Before you start reading, if you want to catch up on part one and two just click below.


If you are all caught up let’s begin with part 3. We finished off last way back in time at university. Well now we move forward a bit and it is time for a bit of self exploration. Now it is time for ‘The Elephant Who Forgot What He Was’. This is a beautiful poem I found online by Christopher Ronald Jones (if you are reading Chris please let me know what you think of my adaptation, would love to get in touch). I had decided after illustrating an Australian classic it was time to dip my toes into the water of children’s poetry, and see what my imagination came up with.

This little project took me about a month to develop from concept to completion and is still one of my favourite personal projects to date.

It started like all good picture books do, with a pinch of reading, a dash of pagination and a big dollop of story boarding. I spent about a week figuring out the layout of this 32 page pipe dream and then off I went full steam ahead into the fun of character design and creating an aesthetic for this sweet little story.

Interview with Freya Blackwood | Inspiring illustrators

Inspiring IllustratorsCara Ord
illustration by Freya Blackwood

illustration by Freya Blackwood

Hello Freya, It is a pleasure to have you joining us today. I have followed your work for a few years now and a particular favourite of mine is ‘Maudie and Bear’. Being a published illustrator since 2003 I am sure you have a lot of experiences you could share with us.

You transitioned from effects design to illustration, how did this come about? did your design background and education influence your illustration in anyway?

I studied Visual Communications at UTS, focusing on filmmaking, and then went on to work in the film effects industry. I was making foamed latex prosthetics, but was just blown away by the work the designers did, and really, rather desperately, wanted to draw too. My work would never work for film design but I found a place for myself in children’s book illustration. I think both my basic study in graphic design, and interest in filmmaking has influenced my illustration choices. I love designing my books, both from a graphic design point of view and also as a production designer, creating a look like you might do for a film. I also enjoy deciding how to view a scene and reveal the characters and action. 

Freya, you have a beautiful style using water colours and pencil to create a dream like quality to your images. How did you settle on this style and medium for your work?

I haven’t done much formal illustration training, one semester of editorial illustration at uni, and the odd life drawing class. I’ve instead gathered basic skills and knowledge since childhood, brought up by a painter and art teacher mother. I actually came to use watercolour and a specific paper when an illustrator I approached for advice suggested watercolour might be worth trying. I enjoyed the experience and have gradually taught myself to use it in different ways. I do use other mediums too though, depending on the story and the feeling I’m trying to convey. 

Your characters are very emotive and very distinct in personality, how do you achieve this?

My characters are often based on people in my life - my daughter, friends, neighbours or family. Portraying characters is one of my favourite aspects of illustration, and they end up feeling quite real to me. I wasn’t conscious of my interest in exploring emotions until people pointed it out, but I’ve since noticed that I spend a lot of time trying to get a character’s posture and facial expression looking right. 

I see you now have quite a few books under your belt as well as other illustrated collateral shared in your Etsy store. How many new products to you bring out per year, how do you plan out your production schedule for your creative work?

I have been illustrating about two books a year now since 2003. The only real plan in place is that two books a year is all I can manage! Anything more than that tends to push me over the edge. I take on the odd extra project if it takes my fancy, but the books are my main interest. 

You have done several collaborations with different authors, how do you find working on some one else’s vision? Could you run us briefly through the process of working with authors and publishers in the creation of a picture book?

I love the various collaborations I’ve had with authors. More often than not I feel as though the story actually becomes my own – that I am an equal author in the creation of the book. Ordinarily I work directly with the publisher, rarely getting any direction from the author, so the visuals I create are based on my interpretation of their text, not their vision. 

Different publishers work in different ways. Sometimes I work directly with the publisher, sometimes an editor, sometimes an art director. Occasionally an author is involved at each stage, but often the author doesn’t feel the need to be overly involved. Libby Gleeson tells me she likes handing her stories over to me and seeing what I come up with, and I’m thrilled to be trusted in this way. Normally I meet up and chat with the editor or publisher (or more often than not this takes place over the phone or via email because I live in Orange) about the direction we think the illustrations might take. The author must get to see the book as it is developing, but this always happens through the publisher, and any feedback from them travels via the publisher. I also enjoy working closely with a book’s designer. There have been times when I’ve struggled to solve problematic parts of a book, and know the designer I often work with will be able to look through the book and instantly help me solve issues. 

Working as an illustrator from home, how to you manage to keep up with the demand of your work as well as family commitments? Does your daughter participate in your work practice and enjoy the stories you create?

For the past 11 years I’ve really only worked part time and then during school hours. I only take on as much work as I can manage in that time. My studio is out in the backyard and I rarely return to it after the afternoon extra curricular activities and dinner making duties. As my daughter gets older, I sometimes work longer into the afternoons, or the odd panicked weekend, but honestly, I like school hours and I like being able to take her to her violin lessons, or go swimming together. 

As a younger child, Ivy always enjoyed somewhat louder and more dramatic books than mine, usually containing a dinosaur! However, much of her childhood is recorded in my books, through the characters, their expressions, funny antics and toys.

If you had one key piece of advice that you would give an illustrator beginning their professional journey, what might it be?

I think my illustrations are better when they haven’t been perfected, when I’ve stepped away at just the right moment. In this same way, sometimes the best drawings are those that aren’t necessarily perfect but are fresh and free and have been enjoyed, rather than laboured over. I guess I’d recommend enjoying the process, feeling your way, possibly even embracing the imperfections along the way so the end result is unique rather than stiff and forced. 

What is some of the inspiration behind your work?

My daughter has definitely been my greatest inspiration, but I think our life in general, and what we choose to do with our time has also inspired my work. 

Out of your published works which is your favourite and why?

I don’t have an absolute favourite book - there are aspect of each book that I really love. But there are a few books that I feel really work as a whole. These are: Amy & Louis, written by Libby Gleeson, Banjo & Ruby Red, also written by Libby, and The Runaway Hug, written by Nick Bland. Amy & Louis is such a special story to me, and I worked very hard to get it feeling as close to perfect as possible. I love reading Banjo & Ruby Red out to kids, and witnessing the quiet when Ruby Red is found sick and the relief when she gets better. And The Runaway Hug is such a fun and unique story and I found the illustrations just kind of happened, without too much of an ordeal. 

Cover for Banjo and Ruby Red Illustrated by Freya Blackwood

Cover for Banjo and Ruby Red Illustrated by Freya Blackwood

When you began as an illustrator how did you get your voice heard among the crowd? did you approach publishers, authors or agents, or were you approached to produce a project?

When I first started thinking about picture book illustration, I was living in New Zealand. I built up a portfolio doing single illustrations and spreads for an educational publisher called Learning Media. Eventually I sent out a small portfolio (printed in those days) to publishers in New Zealand, Australia, the US and UK, and there was some minor interest. But I also approached a family friend who worked on occasion as an author and illustrator, and I was very lucky to get a helping hand from him. He sent my work directly to a publisher and she found a text for me to illustrate, which was Two Summers. Several years later I was approached by an agent and I’ve been with her ever since. 

Finally, what is your dream project?

I think my current dream project might be a fairytale-style story told in a modern setting. But I would also love to see my characters animated.

Last Hug Print illustrated by Freya Blackwood

Last Hug Print illustrated by Freya Blackwood

Interview with Michael DiGiorgio | Inspiring Illustrators

Inspiring IllustratorsCara Ord

Following on from last weeks animal conservation theme we have the gorgeous work of nature illustrator Michael DiGiorgio. Michaels work depicts birds in all their beauty straight from our world. He searches for his subject matter and paints them in place using their real appearance, habits and movements to get a in depth idea of his subject matter. 

illustration of birds in brush by Michael DiGiorgio

illustration of birds in brush by Michael DiGiorgio

Hello Michael, Thank you so much for offering to share some of your wisdom with us today. Your work has such fine detail and really demonstrates the beauty of the natural environment around us.

You capture all your nature imagery from life. How did you learn to observe such detail in a moving subject?

When I was a young artist learning to paint birds, I went to see Don Eckelberry, one of the greats bird painters of all time. He saw my work and immediately sensed that I was copying photos. He suggested that I go outdoors and sketch birds directly from life in quick gestural sketches. At first, I was puzzled on how to capture fast moving subjects like warblers, but then as I persisted, I learned how to create simple gestural drawing with observation notes that became a sort of shorthand for me. I know teach my method to interested parties at my courses

What drew you to birds as your main subject matter?

Don’t know? I was born with a fascination of birds, and it’s carried over throughout my life. I guess the combination of color, song, and flight is the main attraction for me. Everything I do in life eventually comes back to my love of birds.

Can you talk us through your field kit? What is your preferred tools of choice when creating your illustrations?

I have a small half pan watercolor kit, a small water container, a soda bottle with water, a stool, and an Arches watercolor pad. Most of the time when I’m sketching in pencil, just a small sketchbook and a pencil. When I’m stationary and painting, I use my angled spotting scope.

How long does it take you to produce a piece such as your ‘Scarlet Macaws’?

Observation and sketches is the first and most important step. Second is photos I take of backgrounds and habitat. Last is the accuracy of the drawing, noting else matters if the drawing is off. Next choosing a style that reflects the subject, and then getting a light source to work with. I use skin I get from Yale Peabody for plumage and photos for the rest of the reference.

Working from life how do you decide what details to keep and which to omit, such as background busy elements or textures?

There are two type of marks you can make on a piece of art: one adds to it and one takes away from it. It is harder to leave the unnecessary out than it is to put the unnecessary in. It takes many years of doing this to know when to stop and how much to put in to bring your subject to life. Unnecessary detail communicates a lack of knowledge of the subject to me. 

Do you go out hunting for a specific subject or do your subjects find you? talk us through the process of your illustrations from idea to finished piece?

When I go out, I’m usually on the hunt for a specific subject. Sometimes on my way I find an unintended subject that is more interesting, and I paint it. But most of the time, I’m after a specific habitat and bird that speaks to me at the moment. If I can’t finish it in the field, I usually bring it home and then try to capture the experience in my studio and finish it. It’s often so much harder to get that feeling of immediacy of the direct observation and the freshness in the studio. It just sort of flows out of you when you’re in front of the original subject.

Have you had formal training in your craft? if so can you tell us a bit about your experiences?

Yes, I have a Bachelors of Fine Art and a Graduate Degree in Art. But most of my education came from Don Eckelberry and going out and learning on my own.
Learning how to paint outdoors with the challenging light, foliage, etc. is the best teacher. Don was very critical when critiquing my work. As he often said, if you want compliments,
ask your Mother.

He taught me how to place the bird in a convincing pose with enough background to suggest it’s habitat, but not too much as to take away from the subject.

does working professionally in illustration diminish some of your passion for the work you do?

No, it augments it. Having to work with world class ornithologist like Bob Ridgely, and working with world class artist like Guy Tudor has only made me better as a bird painter. But there is a huge difference between painting an illustration, and painting my own pieces. An illustration is solely for the audience, and their ability to compare my painting to the real bird. When I work on my own paintings, I’m recalling a personal experience with a bird, and I’m only trying to please myself.

How does your cultural background and environment impact your work?

I guess growing up in a somewhat poor Italian American family, I learned how to keep myself occupied by seeking out solitude in nearby wood lots, etc. My tight family life only encouraged my talent, and I fed off that.

Being a nature illustrator often featuring your pieces is nature journals and books how does your professional life work? Are you commissioned to capture specific specimens and then paid to travel in search or do you create your works and then auction them to publishers?

It takes many years to establish yourself as a capable bird painter. Only by honing your craft and proving that you can interpret your subjects in a convincing way and follow through a project in a timely way do you start getting noticed. It took me many, many years of doing small jobs, free work for nature organizations, and contacting publishers to get a major job as a field guide artist.
The initial contact is not from a publisher, but from the team creating the book; editor and the main artist. He is the one usually responsible for contacting other artists for the project.
Meeting Guy Tudor and Bob Ridgely was my biggest break, and that only came about after seeking such work, and being suggested as a capable artist. Once you get the job, you are usually assigned a group of birds group the editor, and then you work with them to make sure each bird is exactly correct.

Out of your published works which is your favourite and why?

Probably my recent work on the Birds of Brazil by Wildlife Conservation Society. I think they are some of the best bird plates I’ve ever done, thanks to the direction of Guy Tudor.

Part of series 'Birds of Brazil Vol.2' by Michael DiGiorgio

Part of series 'Birds of Brazil Vol.2' by Michael DiGiorgio

When you began as an illustrator how did you get your voice heard among the crowd?

Just ignoring everything and trying to become the best you can be. Being a professional bird painter is a profession next to impossible to make a living, so the ones who succeed are those who don’t give up and do it because they can’t help but to do it. Just find your own voice and learn to become your harshest critic. Once you learn to please yourself, then your ready to have your work out into the publishing world. 

Finally, what is your dream project?

Traveling and painting nocturnal birds like nightjars. They are among my favorite family of birds, and I’d love to travel to Africa and see them in the flesh.
After that it’s to have the time to paint my own work. I never seem to be able to break away from my illustration work long enough to do my own paintings.