I first saw Jen’s art work hanging in a gallery in Williamsburg, and she was easily my favorite artist in that exhibition. Then a few months later I met Jen in person in my neighborhood of Brooklyn, in what has now become my favorite writing café, 61 Local. I was introduced through another writing buddy, Marcie Coleen, and as is nearly always the case with other children’s lit writers, we hit it off immediately. You are going to love meeting Jen Hill and her art today!
Illustrator or author/illustrator?
I’ve considered myself an illustrator throughout my adult professional career, but have always loved to write as well. My main thing is creating characters. I’ll be doodling something and all the sudden I need to give it a name and come up with a few pals and a backstory. Sometimes they become books, sometimes they’re just one-offs. I’m an animator as well, and got into that because I loved to design characters and see them in action. It’s all part of the same package.
Agented or unagented? If yes, did you ‘sell yourself’ as an illustrator or author-illustrator?
Agented. I had the good fortune of not having to sell myself at all: I was approached by a few agents after the Perez Hilton book was announced.
For those who don’t know, Jen illustrated Perez Hilton’s picture book, THE BOY WITH PINK HAIR.
What’s your nationality and which and how have certain cultures/regions influenced your work?
I’m an American mutt, but the Norwegian in me tends to dominate all else. Much of my fine art is set in my imaginary Norway. When I was little I had this game I used to play by myself where I pretended I was Norwegian and walked around speaking gibberish.
I love rainy and dark weather and could probably live very well in the Pacific Northwest or northern Europe. I’m the only person I know of who wakes up in the morning and gets excited when it’s dark and gloomy out. I work with more energy and enthusiasm when it’s bleak outside. It’s also tremendously cozy, and I’m really into my comforts.
Tell us a little of your beginnings and journey as an artist.
I can’t remember not wanting to be an artist. I always drew pictures and I always knew I wanted to do children’s books. In the fifth grade I created my first full-length book. It was about a pickle who runs away from home, titled “Dickle Pickle”. It will never be published for obvious reasons.
I went to Rhode Island School of Design and majored in illustration. There was no such thing as a children’s book major, but I took all the classes on offer. My senior thesis was a picture book called “You’re Not Cool” about a girl named Matilda who gets bullied by mean girls. I was fortunate to have David Macaulay as my thesis advisor.
After college I immediately began working at animation studios by day while I worked on my children’s book portfolio at night. I also began showing my fine art from time to time. Still doing various permutations of that practice, but with a lot more studio time as I work strictly freelance now.
For a time I played guitar and sang in a band too, but that’s a different chapter altogether. We were called the Holy Molys and it was Boston at the turn of the century. (How cool is it that we can say “turn of the century” in our lifetime?)
Ha, Do you have a preferred medium in which you work in the present century?!!
Gouache. I’m becoming very digital these days though, and do a lot of hybrid things with scanned paintings combined with digital “painting”. And I love drawing with regular pens in my sketchbook. Public events are great sketch sessions.
What does your workspace look like?
It’s a long Ikea desk in the main room of my apartment. I had a drafting table and a computer station in here but it got too claustrophobic. I’ve streamlined quite a bit over the years.
Can you share a piece or two with us, maybe of a WIP, and the process of creating them?
Here’s a piece from a show I did a few months back.
After scanning all my thumbnail sketches, I compile in Photoshop and develop a color palette. I do a full color digital finish, which I print out to scale and tape to watercolor block. Using graphite transfer paper, I then trace the image to the paper. Here I am working on three images at once:
The it’s just color by numbers, really. (Tho happy accidents do happen.)
Sometimes I change things quite a bit afterwards. I often can’t make up my mind about palettes and need to try various permutations before committing.
Last year’s holiday card is a good example of that.
Initial sketch, digital color, gouache application:
It’s not working. Gonna try something entirely different. I re-paint with a different palette, then scan that and touch up in Photoshop. And voila:
Do you have themes or characters you return to again and again?
Woodland creatures, dumb-looking dogs, mystery forests, characters who may have something up their sleeve, creepy stuff, Ouija boards, a guy with an animal beard…
What books, authors or styles stand out from your childhood?
James Marshall is my all time hero. My mom would read the George and Martha books to us before bed and we would crack up every time. His wry humor is peerless. What impresses me most is his ability to glibly depict the foibles of human nature in a sweet way. He was a genius.
My dad traveled a lot and once brought me a book from overseas called “Bella” about a creepy doll in a French chateau who is possessed by an evil spirit. I loved that book.
Lois Duncan was a favorite. I devoured her Gothic teen stuff like “Down A Dark Hall” and “Stranger With My Face”.
There was this awesome series called “Dark Forces” of about a dozen or more books written by various authors with occult themes. There was one called “Waiting Spirits” about a girl who gets possessed doing automatic writing. I absolutely loved those books. They’re impossible to find now.
So basically I have a penchant for the silly and ridiculous and the dark and scary.
Any tips for those just setting out in this field?
A huge part of success is being friends with people. That person you knew in college may one day be a Creative Director or editor somewhere, so be nice to everyone. Make lots of friends in the field and hang out with them; you will rub off on one another. Intern at a publishing house if you can. Ask an artist you admire if you can visit their studio. Work for an artist as an assistant. Stop being shy. Most importantly: charm your way into things while you’re still young and sweet. And do a lot of good work of course, but that goes without saying.
For those who’ve decided to pursue a picture book illustration career later on down the road, I’d advise to be patient and persistent and work, work, work. And please don’t put watercolors of still-lifes in your portfolio. Do your research. A lot of people think it’s a lark to just be a children’s illustrator, but it’s actually a terribly competitive battlefield where broken hearts bleed themselves dry. I’m being hyperbolic, but not really.
Fabulous advice. 🙂 And now – Five Fun Ones to Finish?
What word best sums you up? Gemini
If you could live anywhere for a season, where would you go? Norway
What’s your go-to snack or drink to keep the creative juices flowing? Coffee in the AM, bubbly water all afternoon. At night I’ll occasionally have a nice Belgian beer while I work.
Cats or dogs?
Obsessed with both, but if I had to choose: Pomeranians.
I confess I always think that Pomeranians look like stuffed toys!
If you could spend a day with one children’s book illustrator, dead or alive, with whom would that be?
Where can we find/follow you and your work?
I also have a flickr, a tumblr, a pinterest and a google+ but I don’t want to overload you.
Thank you, Miss Marple! Delightful to chat with you.
I now have to see DICKLE PICKLE and know if you have actually been back to Norway? I really do hope you get to spend an extended time in Europe some day as from what you have shared I think you would love the quirky slightly creepy side to many European picture books. Thanks so much for sharing with us today, Jen, and I wish you continued success with all your creative projects.
Joanna MarpleIn my 20's, with only my guitar and a rucksack, I wandered the continents, immersing myself in the lives of some wonderful people, projects and stories, which changed the way I view my responsibility to others and this earth. Right now I'm a European transplant in the US who writes books for children and young adults. Stories can help us not only navigate our world but can connect us to others, and allow us to inspire and help each other. I believe that equity and empathy should be at the core of our all actions, words, and stories. I am also a school librarian and I get a kick out of book-matchmaking! And I use the pronouns she/her.
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