I have always received such supportive feedback for these interviews, that I have decided to carry them on through 2014 – one strong reason also being that I have made some fabulous illustrator friends this way! One of the reasons I wanted to live in New York was the opportunity to immerse myself physically in a creative kidlit community. I wanted to rub shoulders and drink coffee with fellow writers and illustrators. And ya know what? I do, especially here in Brooklyn. One of those people is Lauren Castillo. I have had the privilege of attending two of Lauren’s picture book releases (THE READER and CITY CAT) at the BookCourt book store in Carroll Gardens. I love her art and she is a delight, too.
[JM] Illustrator or author/illustrator? If the latter, do you begin with words or pictures?
[LC] Both. I don’t have a ton of author experience just yet, but so far my best story ideas have all grown out of scribbly sketchbook drawings. This always happens when I least expect it.
[JM] What’s your nationality and how has this (and where you have lived) influenced your work?
[LC] I grew up in New York and Maryland in a multicultural family, and was exposed to a potpourri of traditions. We celebrated a patchwork of holidays, foods, and music. I was surrounded by Spanish paintings, patterned walls and tapestries, old Armenian textiles, ornate furniture, beautiful ceramics, and, of course, lots and lots and lots of books—so many rich visuals that helped to expand and mold my visual vocabulary. All of those things continue to influence my work today. It’s important for me to be able to relate the stories I illustrate to my own life experiences. And, I have the most fun when I’m able to incorporate bits and pieces of my world into my art—an occasional pattern from my grandparents’ wall, an old lamp from my parents’ living room, or a hilarious canine (or human) family member. To me, these things add an extra layer of warmth and sentiment.
[JM] I love this melange of influences on your life and work, Lauren. Tell us a little of your beginnings and journey as an artist.
[LC] According to my parents, I’ve been drawing since I was teeny tiny. (My first ever piece of art was a drawing that they say I made while sitting in my high chair— a scribble in the shape of a stick figure on a small block of wood). But my first memories of creating art are from elementary school when my brother and I would pause Disney movies and draw the characters from the television screen in our living room. This was how we spent the large part of our weekends. Back then I dreamed of being an animator.
When I entered high school, I was extremely fortunate to have the most wonderful art teacher, Kurt Bittle. Kurt was a successful working illustrator (the first illustrator I’d ever met!). I learned so much about the field from him, and realized that illustration was what I wanted to study in college.
Thankfully, I got accepted in to the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore, and majored in illustration, but it wasn’t till my junior year that I decided children’s books would be my focus. I began working on a portfolio during my last year of college, but felt like I needed to continue my studies some more, so I applied and got in to a Graduate program at the School of Visual Arts in New York City. It was an incredible program and there I was able to build a solid portfolio to shop around to editors and art directors in the publishing world (No book offers came during that time, but I did receive lots of helpful feedback!).
Directly after graduation, I took an internship at Henry Holt Books for Young Readers, and that turned in to a full time job as assistant art director. I was so fortunate to land that job, and learned a ton about the industry and the many hands it takes to put together a book. Just about 2 months in, I got offered my first picture book deal from Frances Foster at Farrar, Straus and Giroux! And it was a dream project too (WHAT HAPPENS ON WEDNESDAYS, by Emily Jenkins). But after juggling both the book illustration and the day job for about year, I decided it was time to take a leap of faith and begin illustrating full time. Happily, it was the absolute right decision : )
[JM] Do you have a preferred medium to work in?
[LC] My art is usually a mixture of many mediums. Could be any combination of ink, marker, watercolor, colored pencil, salt, digital, acetone transfer (although I’ve tried to lay off the acetone these days – it’s a bit too toxic!)
My last couple books have been completed pretty traditionally, using ink and watercolor on arches hot press paper.
[JM] Do you have themes or characters you return to in your art?
[LC] Cityscapes, dogs and cats are some of my favorite things to draw, so I find ways to sneak them in to my art whenever possible.
[JM] What does your workspace look like?
[LC] I have a studio in the front room of my Brooklyn railroad style apartment. There’s one desk for writing and computer work, and another for drawing and painting. I bounce back and forth throughout the day.
[JM] Can you share a piece or two with us, maybe of a WIP, and the process of creating them?
[LC] Sure! I just completed the final art for a book I wrote titled NANA IN THE CITY. It is being published by Clarion/HMH and will come out on Grandparents Day of this year. The story is about a boy who travels to the city to visit his Nana and needs a little convincing about why the city is a good place [for a Nana] to live. I’m really excited about this one. I had three special ladies — my Nannie, great aunt and editor — in mind when I wrote it. This was the first book I’ve worked on where I actually documented my art process at various stages. Here is some of the art in progress:
[JM] I can see why you are so excited about NANA IN THE CITY, I can’t wait to get my hand son this one. Now, CITY CAT, written by Kate Banks and illustrated by you was released last month. How did you research the cityscapes for that gorgeous picture book?
[LC] I took a few trips! Well, only one real trip. The others were virtual trips using Google Earth. In the book, City Cat travels to 8 different European cities, and many of them I had never been to. When I received the manuscript back in 2009, I decided it was the perfect opportunity to travel to at least one or two. So I planned an adventure through France and Germany with stops in Paris and Munich. I took a ton of photos and filled up many sketchbook pages with inspiration to take back to my New York studio. For the cities that I was unable to travel to, I found Google Earth to be extremely helpful. It even allowed me to zoom in to some of the famous landmarks that appear in the book – next best thing to being there in the flesh!
[JM] What would you say to budding illustrators who want to make picture book illustration their profession?
[LC] One thing that I think is important to keep in mind is to create the kind of art and stories that interest YOU. Don’t try to create what you think will please others (the market). In the end, your most honest work will be your best work.
[JM] What art do you have hanging in your apartment?
Luckily, I have illustrator friends who like trading artwork! On my walls are some beautiful pieces by buddies Jonathan Bean, Shadra Strickland, Taeeun Yoo and Julia Denos. I also have a sweet Sophie Blackall print and an Art Nouveau print by Mucha in my kitchen that makes me happy.
Five Fun Ones to Finish?
[JM] What word best sums you up?
[JM] If you could live anywhere for a season, where would you go?
[LC] Somewhere (ANYWHERE!) along the Mediterranean. Maybe Sorrento, Italy. I did a study abroad there about 11 years ago, and it was such a magical and inspiring town. I’d love to go back!
[JM] What’s your go-to snack or drink to keep the creative juices flowing?
[LC] Coffee! Dark chocolate helps, too.
[JM] Cats or dogs?
[LC] I love DRAWING both cats and dogs, but I’d rather hang out with cute and cuddly dogs.
[JM] Which literary bad guy do you like the most?
[LC] I just read my very old, well-worn copy of How the Grinch Stole
Christmas over holiday break, so he was fresh in my mind 🙂
[JM] Where can we find/follow you and your work?
Online store: http://society6.com/Laurencastillo
Twitter and Instagram: @studiocastillo
Lauren, thank you for kicking off the 2014 interview series so superbly. Now that you mention some of your favorite themes, I see more why i fell in love with your work. Wishing you continued success in 2014!