When I was staying with my illustrator friend, Hazel Mitchell, over Christmas, I was asking her about other authors and illustrators she knows in Maine, and she immediately spoke highly of her friend, Jeannie Brett. I reached over to Hazel’s bookshelf and pulled out a copy of Jeannie’s MY CAT, COON CAT. Funnily enough I had been staying with a Maine Coon cat (and its owner) just the week before in New York. It is written in gentle rhyme with glorious illustrations and prompted me to shoot off a message to Jeannie to request this interview.
[JM] Illustrator or author/illustrator?
[JB] I am an illustrator/author. I consider myself as an Illustrator first.
[JM] If the latter, do you begin with words or pictures?
[JB] More and more when starting a picture book, I begin with words and I keep the images in my head or side scribbles until I have something concrete written down. Then, I go back and forth between words and pictures. But, the whole idea of the story/subject comes from a visual in my head, first.
[JM] Where are you from and how has that and/or where you have lived influenced your work?
[JB] I spent my childhood years in a coastal town in Massachusetts and have lived all of my adult life on the seacoast of NH and Maine. I have never lived far from the ocean, so it has been a constant influence on me. The ocean has always been an inspiration; with its changing colors, moods and ocean smells! I gravitate towards blues and greens when painting…. and the clothes I wear, for that matter! The ocean has always been my place to get away, to ponder.
I now spend a couple of months a year in Montana…so we will see where that brings me with my painting palette …..and colors that I wear! With its yellows, ochre, greens and that BIG blue sky. Big sky country. The vastness of the west is now my other place to get away and ponder.
[JM] Tell us a little of your beginnings and journey as an artist.
[JB] As a child I wanted to make art, like most children. Crayons, paper, scissors and glue were always available. I was fortunate to have an extremely creative and artistic mother, who did not mind a mess and gave me lots of freedom and support. That, and spending time outside building forts at the foot of trees (with soft moss floors), investigating the natural world (we had a large field and woods) and spending a lot of time in a nearby cemetery; playing Harriet the Spy, riding bikes and messing about the gravestones. We had a large old livery stable to play in, complete with a dark, damp stone cellar. And of course hanging out with our many pets (horses, a donkey, cats, dogs, rabbits, many guinea pigs and a chicken) gave me a rich base to build upon creatively.
I attended The School of the Museum of Fine Arts, in Boston, MA and also Minneapolis College of Art and Design.
After many years working as a free-lance commercial illustrator and illustrating in the educational field, I tried my hand at children’s picture books. There are many challenges in this business but it is also extremely satisfying. School and library visits tend to be the icing on the cake for me! I enjoy meeting and working with students and their teachers and librarians.
I look forward to illustrating (and writing) many more picture books, exploring new mediums and revisiting old ones, all while I’m on the Maine coast or in the wide open spaces of Montana.
[JM] Do you have a preferred medium to work in?
[JB] Currently I enjoy working with watercolors on 300 lb. Arches hotpress paper. I also work in acrylics and oils. I love using pencil, pen and ink and colored pencils.
[JM] Do you have themes or characters you return to in your art?
Animals and the great outdoors are a constant theme in my work.
[JM] I am so with you on these themes, Jeannie! What does your workspace look like?
[JB] In Maine, I have a second floor studio with skylights and a lot of windows so it has an abundance of natural light. It is filled with objects, photos and pictures. Way too many treasures…but I cannot bear to part with them. It has a wonderful double door (a Mr. Ed door for those of you that remember) and a double window looking down into our family room.
My Montana studio is part of a second floor bedroom and looks out onto a gorgeous flood plain with lots of wildlife, out to the Madison River and then the Madison Range. I am trying to keep my workspace from being cluttered with too many treasures. Ask me in a couple of years and we’ll see how I’ve done!
[JM] Can you share a piece or two with us, maybe of a WIP, and the process of creating them?
[JB] I am waiting, not so patiently, (March 11th!) for my latest book Wild About Bears to be published by Charlesbridge Publishing. Wild About Bears takes you around the world to discover the eight bear species, their habitats, commonalities and unique adaptations.
Currently I am working on the final illustrations for a picture book about horses from different cultures around the world. Dorothy Hinshaw Patent is the author of this non-fiction book.
[JM] As you know, animals are a big feature on this blog and in my writing, so I can’t wait to get my hand son both these books. I am sure you and Hazel have talked about drawing horses! What contemporary artists (picture book or otherwise), if any, inspire you?
[JB] Emily Gravett, Anik McGrory, Ashley Wolff, Gaia Bordicchia, Brooke Boynton Hughes and Carson Ellis. Ask me another day and you will get another list! There are SO many fabulous illustrators out there!
[JM] What would you say to budding illustrators who want to make picture book illustration their profession?
[JB] My advice would be to read and look at tons of picture books, both old and new. Find your own style, “play” with new mediums, practice, and keep at it!
Five Fun Ones to Finish?
[JM] What word best sums you up? Affable!
[JM] If you could live anywhere for a season, where would you go? Italy, Greece, Norway, the Lakes District in England, Scotland, to name a few! Actually, I would be open to many places…..my cats can come, right?
You bet, your cats can come. Thank goodness pet travel has become easier over the past few years!
[JM] What’s your go-to snack or drink to keep the creative juices flowing? Healthy list: water, apples and carrots with almond butter. The other list :-): coffee and chocolate.
[JM] Cats or dogs? Both! Kind of dog? Newfie! But… cats are my soul mates.
[JM] Which literary bad guy do you like the most? Captain Hook comes to mind right away!
Where can we find/follow you and your work?
www.jeanniebrett.com “like” me at Jeannie Brett on fb.
“like” me at My Cat, Coon Cat on fb.
follow me @jeanniebrett on twitter.
Thank you for sharing with us today and I do hope our paths will cross at one conference or another in the future, Jeannie. To your success.