I arrived at the LASCBWI 11 conference knowing a few people from cyber connections, but no one in person. I had just met my compatriot, the amazing Hazel Mitchell, who had promptly sat me down with a beer and some like-minded peeps, when Debbie Ohi arrived. She greeted me as warmly as all the others at the table, whom she already knew. Her: enthusiasm, joy for her art, zest for life and interest in others are infectious. She has a committed following of fans and friends on Facebook and Twitter (@inkyelbows) and yet, she responds with grace to each individual – a class act, in my opinion. I am so happy to interview Debbie during this special launch week and even happier to tell you that this interview includes a giveaway of a copy of I’M BORED, published yesterday by Simon and Schuster. Every comment on this post will give you an entry into the giveaway, with additional entries for a blog or FB follow. Winner will be announced on Wednesday 19th of September.
- Illustrator or author/illustrator? If both, how do you balance the two creative streams?
[DO] an author and illustrator, and am still looking for the right balance. I began as a writer (novels for young people) and drew just for fun. Now I’m illustrating picture books as well as writing and illustrating picture books, and my creative work time is divided between the two.
Someone recently asked me what my dream occupation would be, if I could do anything. My answer: I write and illustrate children’s books for a living. I am LIVING my dream occupation!
On the writing side, of course, I haven’t forgotten about my novel writing. I’ve written and sent out two middle grade novels through my agent over the years. Although neither sold, I could tell from the rejection letters I was getting that my writing was improving. I ended up setting those first two novels aside and am now working on two new novels: a middle grade and a YA. The latter was nominated for the Sue Alexander “Most Promising For Publication” Award in a SCBWI mss critique and although it didn’t win, I’m even more motivated to get these two projects finished and sent out.
Meanwhile, I’m super-excited about my current writing and illustration picture book projects…some I can talk about (http://DebbieOhi.com/pbcreation) and some I can’t quite yet.
I’m not sure if I’ll ever find the perfect balance between my author and illustrator creative streams, but it’s going to be a lot of fun trying.
- What’s your nationality and where have you lived?
[DO] Japanese Canadian. I was born in Bramalea, a suburb of Toronto, and lived in Toronto for most of my life.
My mother was born in Japan. My dad was born in Canada but his parents both came from Japan. Sadly, I am not fluent in Japanese. My parents only spoke English to us when we were kids because they wanted to make sure we fit in with other kids at school. The only time I heard them speak in Japanese was when they were discussing something they didn’t want us to overhear.
Many years after my mom passed away, my husband and I visited Japan for our wedding anniversary. The experience helped me better understand aspects of my mom’s personality and in turn, aspects of my own.
I definitely need to go back eventually. And I’d love to do a Japanese-themed picture book someday.
- Tell us a little of your beginnings as an artist.
[DO] When I was very young, I took my crayons and drew happy faces around the house: on the wall, on books, on pieces of furniture. My parents were not happy.
In grade school, I remember how much I enjoyed drawing line art but how I hated coloring. Coloring was boring. So I’d draw pictures for my friends to color and embellish: usually girls with billowing tresses and elaborate gowns, I think.
I loved my art classes in grade school, but it never crossed my mind to become an artist. I’m not exactly sure why, but I suspect part of the reason was that I enjoyed it so much. Something that fun couldn’t possibly be taken seriously as a career option, could it? No, I was going into the Maths or Sciences.
I do recall how disappointed my ninth grade Art teacher in high school was when she found out I had decided not to continue taking Art after that year. I ended up doing a B.Sc. at the University of Toronto, with majors in Computer Science and Psychology, and becoming a programmer/analyst. What I realized much later: that it was the creative aspect of programming that appealed to me.
Throughout everything, I kept drawing for fun. I did a lot of webcomics, and my most popular were Waiting For Frodo (about an avid fan waiting in line for the Lord Of The Rings movies; I had fans at Weta Digital!) and Will Write For Chocolate (house full of freelance writers). My art was very inconsistent and unpolished, but I found that what my readers liked and reacted to was the story and characters. That was an important lesson, and one that helped me later on.
My sister Ruth was also a big influence. She’s illustrated over 50 picture books over the years (and written some of these) and was always talking about children’s book illustration, pointing out picture book writers and illustrators she especially liked, encouraging me in my non-digital hobby art efforts. I still have one of the pro grade (is that what you call it?) brushes she bought me when I complained about how the brush I had kept falling apart.
Then came the summer of 2010, when my friend Beckett Gladney (http://artbeco.com) convinced me to enter the Illustration Portfolio Showcase at the SCBWI Summer Conference in LA. I ended up as one of two runners-up in the overall Showcase plus was chosen for the Mentorship Program. One of the judges for the overall Showcase was Justin Chanda, publisher at Simon & Schuster Children’s, and he asked if I’d be interested in illustrating Michael Ian Black’s new picture book.
I said yes, and my career as a children’s book illustrator began. 🙂
- How important do you find it to have interests outside of your writing/illustrating?
[DO] I find it vital to have interests outside of my writing and illustrating. I can always tell when I haven’t been spending enough time on non-work hobbies, in fact, because I get more easily stressed out and don’t feel as inspired. I’m convinced that everything in life feeds into your creativity.
If you spend all your time on workstuff, then you risk nothing new being added to the mix. You may just keep rehashing the same old material and fall into a creative rut.
Another reason I find it important to have interests outside my work: to keep perspective. If everything’s about your work, then if you encounter a problem in a project or something doesn’t turn out the way you had hoped, it’s too easy to blow it out of proportion in your head. You know, the whole “oh my gosh I totally suck and now everyone’s going to know what an imposter I am” mindset.
Ahem, not that I ever went through this myself, mind you. Especially, um, at the beginning of I’m Bored. 🙂 That only lasted a short time, though, because of the great advice and encouragement I received from Laurent Linn and Justin Chanda. Plus I was having so much fun!
- What is your favorite medium to work with?
I never had formal art school training, so never had the opportunity to learn proper techniques with various media under experienced tutelage. I experiment a little on my own from time to time, but so far I’m much more comfortable drawing with my Wacom tablet (I use Photoshop) and on my iPad (favorite app: Sketchbook Pro).
Still, I’m a big believer in pushing beyond your comfort zone on a regular basis to keep yourself from falling into a rut, so I expect I’ll continue to experiment with different media. I’d love to learn how to use watercolor properly, for instance. And figure out how to use acrylics to achieve similar affects to what I can do in Photoshop.
- Has any encounter/event in your life had a significant impact on your art?
[DO] Since I started to seriously pursue children’s book illustration as a career (in particular, starting with the amazing events at the 2010 SCBWI Summer Conference — http://kidlitartists.blogspot.com/2010/09/how-rejection-got-me-book-deal-my.html ), I’d have to point to several encounters/events that have had a significant impact on my art:
– Advice and encouragement I’ve received from my Mentors from the SCBWI Illustration Mentorship program, and the friends I’ve made among some of the other Mentees.
– I’ve been grateful to Justin Chanda (my publisher, who is also my editor at Simon &
Schuster Books For Young Readers) and Laurent Linn (my art director at S&S BFYR) for giving me the opportunity to illustrate my very first children’s book. I learned so much during the process about the craft and business of illustrating books for young people while working with these two, and am thrilled to be working on two more more books with S&S.
– SCBWI Conference Illustration Intensives, especially the one at the 2011 Summer Conference where we got to see pros like David Small, Denise Fleming, Kadir Nelson, Richard Jesse-Watson, Jerry Pinkney and Paul O. Zelinsky at work in hands-on studio sessions.
- Do you have themes/characters that you return again and again to in your art?
[DO] Dancing and other expressions of joy
Red balloons (here’s why: http://debbieohi.com/blather2009/2009/3/31/the-red-balloon.html)
Books and reading
Discovery of magical things in unexpected places
- What books and/or illustrators influenced your childhood?
[DO] Charles M. Schulz
- What does your workspace look like?
[DO] My office is in the basement of our house, and it’s one of my favorite places in the world. I’ve painted things on the wall, like a large tree in one corner, green vines creeping up to the ceiling, a red balloon on the door. I turned one piece of wall into a giant magnetic board, where I display photos of my nephews and nieces as well as fridge magnet poetry.
The rest of my office is packed with loaded bookshelves, craft supplies, musical instruments, recording equipment, sewing equipment, office supplies, a craft desk and a work desk. In the corner painted with a tree, I have a bright red bean bag chair which I use for reading as well as power snoozes.
My main workspace consists of a MacBook Pro with an external monitor and keyboard, an Intuos Wacom tablet and pen, and an iPad with Bluetooth keyboard.
There are two small windows up near the ceiling, but I keep those covered up with colorful scarves for privacy and because I never look outside while I’m working anyway.
- Can you share a piece or two with us from your Daily Sketch Collection?
[DO] Here are a couple of my recent Daily Sketches:
- You’re a bit of a networking pro, Debbie. What tip can you give those of my readers, who find this area overwhelming?
[DO] Thanks for the kind words about me being a networking pro. I always feel vaguely guilty when someone compliments my social networking skills because it’s not something I set out to do on purpose. I’ve always loved online communities and what people now call social networking — I’ve been doing it since before either term became commonplace.
Have a clear idea of what you want to get out of social networking, and be realistic in your goals. I’ve seen so many writers and illustrators hear people say, “you HAVE to be on (insert name of popular social network X here)” and so resentfully join X, not really sure what they’re doing there.
Research and observe before you start posting. Imagine that you’re peeking into a crowded room of industry people, about to join. If you just barged in and started yelling, “Buy my book! Read my blog! Look at my art!”, you likely wouldn’t make a good impression.
I’ve noticed many people view the term “networking” as a negative term, like “schmoozing.” I used to be one of these people, but have come to realize that the work has negative connotations because of the people who equate the term with “how I can use this person to get what I want”?
For me, networking is about making and building meaningful connections. It can be nerve-wracking at first, especially for those who are shy or introverted, but it can also be fun. I’ll be giving a workshop on Networking and Social Media For Introverts at the SCBWI Canada East conference in Niagara in 2013.
My last piece of advice: Don’t force yourself to do anything that truly makes you uncomfortable. I’ve heard some people say that everyone HAS to have a blog and HAS to be on Twitter and HAS to be on Facebook and so on. While I do believe that knowing how to effectively use social media can be a benefit to writers and illustrators, I also believe that you can succeed without them — you have to find other ways to achieve similar results.
I know of some, for example, who are much more comfortable promoting their books in person than online, through school presentations, media interviews, talks and workshops, etc.
In the end, do what works for you.
- What words of encouragement would you give to an unpublished illustrator, just setting out?
[DO] Don’t try to illustrate to what trends you think are popular. Yes, you should experiment and push your own creative envelope on a regular basis. But don’t force yourself to wear someone else’s style just because you think it’ll make you more attractive to publishers.
Draw as much as you can. Draw for the pure fun of it, but also draw to improve your craft. Don’t draw the same things over and over, especially things you already know you can draw well. Keep yourself from getting into a rut by regularly attempting to draw things you don’t normally draw, or from different perspectives, or in a different light.
Develop a thick skin. In order to succeed in the business, you will need to be able to weather through criticism and tactless comments from people who don’t like the way you draw. And there WILL be people who don’t like the way you draw. On the other hand, learn to filter the comments and listen for criticisms that could be valid especially from those whose you trust.
If one of your goals is to illustrate picture books, read as many picture books as you can as often as you can. I’m amazed at how many aspiring children’s book illustrators are eager to get published but aren’t familiar with picture books themselves. Go to the library and go to your local children’s bookstore, ask for recommendations — you can also find lists of award-winning and teacher/librarian/reader picks online as well as in great blogs like Joanna’s.
Read through each book once for pleasure but then again to analyze. Not just the illustrations, but how the illustrations and story complement each other. What works for you? What might you have done differently?
- Finally, a wee plug, remind us when I’M BORED (written by Michael Ian Black and illustrated by Debbie Ohi) is being released?
[DO] I’m Bored will be available on September 4th, 2012. I can’t wait!! (JDM- Yesterday – Woot!) For those interested, I’m writing about the process of creating I’m Bored: http://DebbieOhi.com/boredbook.
- Five Fun Ones to Finish?
What word best sums you up?
If you could live anywhere for a season, where would you go?
[DO] New York or San Francisco. Yes, there are more exotic locales, but these are actually two places that my husband and I have considered for a “live somewhere for a season” working vacation. We love both places. (we are kindreds, Debbie, these are the two cities between which I am hesitating!)
Chess or scrabble?
Cats or dogs?
[DO]– Dogs. I love cats but I’m allergic to them. 🙂
If you could spend a day with one children’s book character, with whom would that be?
[DO]– Harold. I’d ask to borrow his Purple Crayon. (and I am sure he’d share!)
You want want to miss this I’M BORED promotional video music and lyrics by Debbie Redpath Ohi and Errol Elumir.
This is the fourth annual Random Acts of Publicity week, founded by Darcy Pattison as a way to promote favorite books or favorite authors/illustrators. It was a privilege for me to highlight this wonderful author.illustrator for you today. Debbie, thanks for such a lovely insight into your path, heart and focus. I can’t wait to catch up with you again maybe at LA SCBWI 13. I find it so funny that I’M BORED will be your first publication as your life is anything but boring. Oh, and in case the readers are unaware, Debbie is the fifth and final member of that dynamic illustrator group, Pixel Shavings, whom I have managed to interview. To the success of this first release and to many more.
Debbie can be found on: