Sunday, September 18, 2016

Concept to Completion: Illustrator

Welcome to Reading, Writing, and Reaching for Chocolate. The next stop on the road from concept to completion of a picture book is the Illustrator. Today we have an interview with Vanessa Brantley Newton, Illustrator of My Three Best Friends and Me, Zulay, The Hula Hoopin’ Queen, and (one of my personal favorites-literally made me tear up) Sewing Stories. Her most recent illustrations can be seen in Mary Had a Little Glam.

Thank you for joining me Vanessa. So let’s start at the beginning. What happens when you get a call from an art director?

I really love to hear from my art directors, but of late some of them I only get to talk to once or twice on the phone and sometimes not at all.

I prefer a phone call instead of emails. Email sometimes can come across as cold to me. I like to hear the excitement in an art director's or editor's voice. It helps me to understand what they are looking for as well. I like to start all of my projects off with a kick off call. Just to get a feel for who I am going to be working with, what they expect of me and what I in turn want to express through my work.

So when I get a call from art director, they basically tell me what the size or specs of the project are. I am asked if I have any idea of how I will approach the work. If it will be live work (meaning traditional paint, paper, collage) or will it be digital files. We talk about building characters for the stories and if it's historically based, they will sometimes send references and information they have collected to help in the process. Sometimes all I get it the spec of the project and they leave me to created sketches and then after the first round of sketches they will tell me what they would like to see changed and if the author has anything suggestions they include those as well.

 Do you communicate with the art director, the editor, or both?

So, some Publishing houses don't have art directors and it's all left to the editor. I get to work with both and sometimes just one or the other.

What is your process when getting started with a new manuscript? 

I am dyslexic and so it takes a while for me to get through the simplest of stories. I read them to myself and then I have my husband or daughter or someone read it out loud to me so I can picture it in my head. Hearing it read out loud is super important for me. It helps me to grasp the story and the characters or character in the story and what the story feels like.

That’s amazing, and wonderful that your family helps! I like to hear my words aloud by others too, to get a sense of flow.

So once you get the go-ahead from the art director what is your final process?

Every time I start a picture book or middle grade reader, it's like doing it over the first time every single time for me. Some illustrators don't have that situation. I do.  I have been at this for years now and still it's like the very first time every single time LOL!

I usually take a week to just think of how I want to approach the book. During that week, I start to birth the characters. I look through magazines and photos. I visit Pinterest and look at children. I go to Barnes and Noble and watch the children. Collecting information and references all the while. I am a people watcher and this helps me greatly in my illustration work.

Then I starting working out the story and story boarding and doing some rough sketches and then they are sent to the publisher and then they will send them back in a few weeks and then there is usually a second round of sketches and then when approved I take it all to finish. Even after they are all finished and colored and collaged, there is still the process of looking them over and finding anything that isn't working or needs to be adjusted.

When everything has been fixed and adjusted it goes to print for proofing and then F&G's* are sent to me and the author to see what the first print looks like. Before you know it, a box of book are sitting at your doorstep. LOL!!

(Note for newbie’s to the industry-or oldies who don’t do acronyms: F&G means a folded and gathered or an unbound book. This gives those working on the book the first glimpse of what the finished product can be. This is the last chance to catch changes that need to be made before final printing.)

What is your favorite part of the process?

I am just starting to embrace and like the process of sketching, but my favorite part of all is actually creating the character and then creating the finishes! So I have two parts that I love.


As an author-only, I am so jealous of the creation of the character. I’m can’t wait to see what my characters look like ‘in person.’  What is the longest and shortest time you’ve worked on a manuscript?

3 months and 3-4 years.


Do you deal with any other people within the publishing house? If so, who? 

Sometimes when they are wanting to promote the book I will hear from a publicist for the publisher and they will tell me what they have in mind to move the book. Such as book festivals, book signings and other events.

Is there anything you wish authors knew that would make your job easier?

That illustration is a whole other ball of wax. Some illustrators don't like artist notes, but then there are some of us that do. I am one of those Illustrators that do. It's when they begin to interfere with the process that it becomes a problem. I have only had two of those situations. One was with a publisher and another with a self-published job. Nearly drove me crazy LOL! Mostly it's a process and sometimes it goes rather quickly and then sometimes it takes a whole lot longer.

Any advice for aspiring illustrators?

Hone your gift! Draw everything and every day. Try different art supplies. The ones that go together and the ones that don't. Be brave and break the rules and see what comes from it. You may surprise yourself and others too.  When building a portfolio only put the things that you are proud of in there. Don't put half done work in there when you are looking for work. They only want to see what puts a smile on your face and what you are most proud of.

When trying to get a job in children's pub please put children into your folio. Children, moving, dancing, bouncing, singing, being kind or being rambunctious! Create characters that speak to the audience. Give them personality by giving them names and places that they come from and remember there is never any competition unless you invite it in. Nobody can do what you do. Your style is your style and nobody can bring to the creative table what only you can bring so develop your style and then hone it.

What fuels your creative time? Chocolate, coffee, music?

Music, music and music. Oh my goodness I can't go a day without music. I listen to a lot of happy music as to why my illustrations are often happy ones. R and B, Hip Hop or conscious music, gospel, classical, meditative. It creates an atmosphere for me to work in. Music is like paint to me. I have different paints for different illustrations and the same goes for my music.

What wonderful advice and insights. Thank you again for coming out to the blog, Vanessa. I can’t wait to see what you draw up next.

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