Illustrator Interview – Ashley Wolff

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ash@deskI fell in love with a picture book called BABY BEAR SEES BLUE last October and you can read my review here. I tentatively sent a friend request via FB to the author-illustrator, Ashley Wolff, and of course, she accepted. My Wednesday interviews were already booked up until the end of 2013, but as soon as January 1st rolled round I sent off an email to see if Ashley would participate in this series. Isn’t it great that we live in a technological era where we can contact our favorite authors and illustrators with such ease.

[JM] Illustrator or author/illustrator?  If the latter, do you begin with words or pictures?

[AW] 30 years ago I wrote and illustrated A Year of Birds, becoming an author/illustrator with my first book. You’re right, one picture always comes first.

That book began when I saw robins flitting between the tree and the ground in a San Francisco park. That brought back a memory of my mother cutting my hair outside in the spring. As the curls fell, a pair of birds took turns swooping down to grab the locks for their nest. That became the page Robins in April. Then I write the rest!

[JM] I love the story behind A Year of Birds. Where are you from, Ashley, and how has that and/or where you have lived/visited influenced your work?

[AW] I am a country girl, though I have lived in San Francisco for 33 years  I was raised in Vermont and that left an indelible mark on my approach to the world. I’m most at home in the world of nature: animals, plants, weather, outdoor light–all these are my true joys and preoccupations. When I moved from New England to California I discovered a whole new ecosystem and weather pattern. I have loved visiting the desert southwest and setting stories in that environment.

[JM] Tell us a little of your beginnings and journey as an artist.

[AW] Both my parents were artists, though never as a profession-my father was a serious weekend watercolor painter and my mother was in love with crafts, color and design. They made a good contrast for me–one could teach me perspective and anatomy and the other was “Wheeee, anything goes!”

I drew from earliest childhood, though I was no prodigy. I just loved doing it and kept practicing. I can’t think of another way to improve, and I am still practicing. I was a lurker in the Art Room throughout high school and then majored in illustration and printmaking at RISD. I worked in several small newspapers back when they needed paste-up artists. I used a wax machine, made my own photostats and could use Ben-Day halftone dot film like nobody’s business. This was all before this was considered ‘retro.’

In high school and college I painted murals all over Vermont, and then continued when I moved to the San Francisco Bay Area. I painted on sheds and barns and store and warehouses, in fancy, Pacific Heights dining rooms and in dentist’s offices. I loved working large and my specialty was trompe l’oeil. Then, in 1984 I published my 1st book and have been a self-employed author/illustrator ever since. I’ll still paint a mural–in fact a woman just called who had me paint her cats back in the 80s. She has many more to add!

 [JM] I hope you at least have some good photos of your murals! Do you have a preferred medium to work in?

[AW] No.

I have never stuck to the same medium and depending on how you look at it, it has hurt my career.

Linoleum block prints, hand colored with watercolor, is the 1st medium I used , and I have returned to that many times. But that seemed too old fashioned and stiff for the books about Miss Bindergarten and her class, so I used a light pen line with watercolor for those. And then I wanted a painterly realism, so I used acrylic for Only The Cat Saw, and pure watercolor with no line for Come With Me. Then I discovered the joys of gouache and used that with a light brush line for many books. Oh, and then there are my three books done in collage. Scattered or adventurous, you decide!

[JM] Both! Do you have themes or characters you return to in your art?

[AW] Oh, definitely!

BeautifulTulawebLooking at my books as a whole I see I am powerfully drawn to books about some type of cycle or journey. It can be the months of the year, the seasons, dusk to dawn, dawn to dusk, or looking at a character’s life cycle. Goody O’Grumpity, by Carol Ryrie Brink, was about a woman gathering everything she needed to bake a cake and then giving it away to the children of the village. That is a very appealing cycle.

My newest books Baby Bear Sees Blue and Baby Bear Counts One are both dawn to dusk journeys. The hero finds the unexpected and still returns home safely.

Right now I am at work on a book set in the Grand Canyon-what a place for a hero’s journey.

As for characters, I have used a border collie as a main character or bystander since my very 1st book. I often use my friends and family as models, more or less recognizably.

[JM] What does your workspace look like? 

[AW] I have always worked at home except for two glorious years with an outside studio. For fiscal reasons I have retrenched into an upstairs bedroom crammed with bookcases, flat files, two desks and a worktable. I am not neat and have a dozen projects going at any one time, so it is a (somewhat organized) zone of chaos. I do have a several strong lamps, a nice view of the back garden and an old fashioned boom box I use to play books on CD.

[JM] Can you share a piece or two with us, maybe of a WIP, and the process of creating them?

[AW] Here are 4 process photos for my new book with Liz Garton Scanlon called IN THE CANYON.





[JM] What do you enjoy most about being a children’s book author/illustrator?

[AW] I love the freedom and the solitude. Drawing and painting are two of my favorite pastimes, and to be required to do them for my work is amazing. Then, in contrast, I love visiting schools and meeting children. I get a huge charge from their energy and enthusiasm.

[JM] What would you say to budding illustrators who want to make picture book illustration their profession?

[AW] Check your gut and see if you are really a visual storyteller. The 32 page format is not for everyone. It requires following a character(s) over time and space and is quite challenging. If you pick up a piece of writing and begin visualizing the characters and setting, you may have the stamina for a 32 page book!

[JM] What art do you have hanging in your home?

[AW] I have a couple of watercolors by my father, some small woodblock prints I bought in Japan, other prints by favorite artists like Emmy Lou Packard, Holly Berry, Woody Jackson, Sabra Field, Wade Zahares and Bread and Puppet Theater and an Elisa Kleven original.

[JM] Five Fun Ones to Finish

What word best sums you up?

[AW] Observant

If you could live anywhere for a few months, where would you go?

[AW] This is so hard-I’ve never been to SO many cool places. I’d like to live in Scandanavia for the summer when the days are never ending.

What’s your go-to snack or drink to keep the creative juices flowing?

[AW] I am predictably addicted to coffee, and room temperature is fine. I eat a lot of Trader Joe’s nuts during the day to avoid cooking. The roasted, unsalted hazelnuts are my favorites.

Cats or dogs?

[AW] I am a one dog woman.

Ashley & Tula

Ashley & Tula


Which literary bad guy do you like the most?

[AW] Captain Hook!

Where can we find/follow you and your work?                                                                                      pinterest:         Etsy:  Blog: Facebook:

So I need to go back to BABY BEAR SEES BLUE to spot the Collie? What fun! Journeys and Nature are recurrent themes in my work, too, which is a big reason I am sure, that I am attracted to your work. Thank you so much for sharing with us today. To your success!

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18 Responses to Illustrator Interview – Ashley Wolff

  1. So fabulous to see Ashley and her fabulous work here! So glad she’s at Hollins to share her amazing knowledge! Thanks for this interview, Joanna!

  2. Tina Cho says:

    Great interview, Ashley and Joanna. That’s some amazing, detailed work on the hawk! I always enjoyed the Miss Bindergarten series with my kindergartners.

  3. A light permeates Ashley’s work. A constant shape-shifting flow from her big green heart embraces the viewer, and seems to have no static origin.

  4. I love Ashley’s books… thank you for the wonderful interview.

  5. It’s nice to know that Ashley also works in a crammed bedroom! There is hope! Thank you Joanna and Ashley. I love people who make pictures and those who write about them!!!

  6. I really like Ashley’s work. Just checked out her website and enjoyed seeing the variety of books she’s authored and illustrated. Baby Bear See Blue looks wonderful. I enjoyed learning about her intricate four-part process on the current book she’s working on. It looks so tedious, but beautiful when finished. Thank you for highlighting her illustrations today.

  7. Great interview! Dogs rock! 😀 I love her hawk-thingy – it’s awesome! 😀

  8. Joanna says:

    Yeah, the hawk-thingy is too cool! 🙂

  9. Rhythm says:

    Great interview Ms Marple!! Ms Wolff is a fascinating lady. I think she has a large heart.

  10. Thanks, Joanna and Ashley. I reviewed Baby Bear Sees Blue on my blog, also.
    As I said in my review, Baby Bear was on display at the library and I was drawn to Ashley’s art on the cover. Then when I read the text, I was in love. A huggable picture book for sure.
    I loved getting a glimpse at the process of Ashley’s work on Liz Garton Scanlon’s book, IN THE CANYON. I can tell the book will be fabulous!

  11. Pingback: Judith Byron Schachner – Illustrator Interview | Miss Marple's Musings

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