One of the great thrills of living in New York City is that fairly frequently I get to meet in real life one of the many authors and illustrators with whom I am friends on Facebook and/or Twitter. It turns out that Anna and I are both friends and fans of another author/illustrator, Lauren Castillo, and we met at Lauren’s book launch for NANA IN THE CITY at one of my favorite indie book stores here, BookCourt, in Brooklyn last month.
[JM] Illustrator or author/illustrator? If the latter, do you begin with words or pictures?
[AR] Illustrator and aspiring author/illustrator. I’m in the middle of illustrating three picture books in various stages at the moment. It’s a bit of a juggling act—as the early stage of one overlaps with latter stage of another—and is getting in the way of authoring, but I’m not complaining. My book ideas usually start with a single drawing or idea. While working up a dummy, I’ll first quickly write down a bunch of ideas with a rough plot, then pair it all down through a combination of writing and sketching, and rewriting and sketching, and so on, and repeat…
[JM] Where are you from and how has that influenced your work?
[AR] I was born and raised in Connecticut, not too far from New York City, where we visited regularly. As a kid I was always drawing. A friend of my mom’s commented once that I must be a very happy child, since everyone I drew had such big smiles. I don’t recall drawing the smiles as much as struggling to remember where a moustache goes on a face, above or below the mouth.
In addition to all the encouragement at home, I was very fortunate to grow up in a community where art classes were a regular part of public school. And there were a few artists who lived on our street who really fascinated me.
[JM] That is a swell start. Tell us a little more of your beginnings and journey as an artist.
[AR] I always knew I’d wind up becoming an artist somehow (or “commercial artist” as it was called in those days, but I also knew I had to be practical. So when it came time to apply to colleges, I was only looking at liberal arts schools with good art departments. I got accepted to Connecticut College, and graduated with a major in Studio Art, concentrating in graphic design and illustration.
From there I moved to New York City and worked as a designer for about 10 years at various children’s book publishers. My last job before pushing illustration was as a one person art department at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, designing books and other merchandise based on the collection. At some point—after a decade there—I realized I was no longer interested in what I was doing, and that I hadn’t been drawing much at all for a long while. I suppose it was a mid-life crisis. I figured, I could wonder for the rest of my life if I could make a career out of my art, or I could really give it a try. So I applied to the MFA in Illustration at the School of Visual Arts and was lucky enough to get in. That changed everything.
SVA provided me with two years to completely restart myself and a new career. As you can probably attest, going back to school after working for a long time can be an incredibly enriching experience. I felt like I was back in touch with a part of my personality that I’d ignored for a long time, and it was so much fun. Also rather terrifying—but I had a great support group in my family and friends, and this new community of artists in which I now found myself. What seemed impossible in my early twenties, seemed much more doable in my forties.
[JM] Do you have a preferred medium to work in?
[AR] I paint sum ink washes that I collage together in the computer with a few extra details added. A big moment for me occurred in grad school when my advisor, Guy Billout suggested I try drawing in shapes with watercolor and washes, rather than line. I think what he saw was that my best pieces were primarily gestural, where I didn’t overwork a piece by overdrawing. With washes, you have to make the marks, and then put them aside (while it dries). Sounds pretty simple, but for me it was momentous.
[JM] Do you have themes or characters you return to in your art?
[AR] I seem to paint a lot of rodents, not that I’m much of a fan in the real world. Most of my personal work is pretty light-hearted and humorous, and thankfully that’s the kind of professional work I’m offered. The book I’m finishing now (The Wrong Side of the Bed, by Lisa M. Bakos, to be published by Putnam) is full of great animal characters that I really love; they’re so ridiculously oblivious. The next book I’ll be painting (Little Card, by Charise Harper, to be published by Candlewick) has a similar type of main character. He’s so earnest and enthusiastic, sometimes to a fault. The characters present great opportunities for me; they throw themselves wholly into their situations—just as a kid would—and I get to project myself into them. It makes for a great time.
[JM] Did the rodent obsession begin when you moved to NYC? Just wondering!! Can you share a piece or two with us, maybe of a WIP, and the process of creating them?
[AR] In early 2015, Holiday House will release Simple Machines, the second collaboration between David A. Adler and me. Attached are a few images, sketches and the pieces of painting that become the final art.
My other books are still in process, so I can’t show complete images, but since I’ve been posting details to my Instagram feed already, attached are a few details from The Wrong Side of the Bed.
[JM] Please tell us a little about a blog you set up called Ornithoblogical.
[AR] (You spelled it right—no one ever does that, and on the first try!)
When I was right out of SVA, I knew I would have to depend upon my design skills while I tried to establish myself as an illustrator. But I feared that I might fall back on bad habits if I wasn’t forced to draw everyday as I had at school. I needed to create something with an artificial structure and plenty of ground rules that would keep me drawing and accountable, so I decided to start a public blog. It would last a minimum of one year, after which I’d see where I was. As for subject matter, I didn’t want it to be too taxing—just in case I did land some time-consuming illustration jobs—so the images needed to be of the sort that came naturally to me. I was always doodling images of birds, so that’s what became Ornithoblogical. It started out as simple illustrations related to color and character, but evolved into a much more interesting project as I began exploring word-play and bird references in the English language. I wound up with over a year’s worth of illustrations that really showcased my sensibility. And in the end, the blog did its job. One day, I was sitting at my desk, and I got an email from an art director at Candlewick offering me my first book deal. Below are some illustrations from Ornithoblogical.
[JM] What does your workspace look like?
[AR] I work in a corner of my bedroom in my apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Like many New Yorkers, I strive to perfect the art of organized clutter.
[JM] What artwork do you have hanging in your house?
[AR] I’m a huge fan of 20th century ephemera, so there’s a lot of that and some art from friends. I have very little of my own stuff hanging up, but one of my favorite possessions is a letter from Katharine Hepburn, paired with a caricature I drew of her. Years ago, I wrote her a fan letter, and include the drawing. She didn’t keep it, but wrote this amazing little note on her stationery when she sent it back. I love having the two things hanging side by side. The giraffe you see on the far left was one of the rejects from my graduate school thesis. She’s difficult to store, so I just hang her there.
[JM] OO, I love that Giraffe. Tell us, what tips would you give to aspiring illustrators?
[AR] Keep at it, and don’t forget to stand up and go outside. One of our teachers at SVA, Mirko Ilic, stressed that our time away from our desks was just as important as our time at them. I didn’t really know what he meant until I started to notice my ability to solve work problems while I was out and about and least expected it. Sometimes it happens to me in the shower too, so I also recommend showering.
[JM] Five Fun Ones to Finish? What’s your favorite park in the world?
[AR] This falls into two categories for me. Within a city, it’s my neighborhood park—Riverside—which has become an important outlet for me during difficult work days (see note about about getting away from your desk). If we’re talking national park, there are several in Chile and the US that are the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen.
[JM] Cats or dogs?
I equally adore and am allergic to both. So I love them from afar.
[JM] Which island in the world would you like to have a month’s creative retreat on?
[AR] Somewhere near the ocean, but not too far from here since a month is not very long, and I wouldn’t want to waste time traveling. I’m working on a book dummy right? Fire Island, Martha’s Vineyard, off the coast of Maine. Damn, I’m being too practical…
[JM] One word to describe yourself?
[JM] Fiery, I like it! Go to snack/drink to sustain your creative juices?
[AR] At this time of year an apple with peanut butter. Mostly I’m just trying to deny the fact that all I want a cookie.
Anna can be found at the following places: https://twitter.com/annaraffNYC
https://www.behance.net/annaraff Anna’s portfolio site, http://www.annaraff.com
Anna, thanks so much for joining us today and I can’t wait to read and review SIMPLE MACHINES and THE WRONG SIDE OF THE BED. To your continued success.