I met Amber in Brooklyn during my first semester at Stony Brook. We lived in the same neighborhood and would bump into each other in the street. We were able to meet up with other kidlit friends to talk biz, drink coffee/beer and shoot the breeze. I miss her, but I love and admire her adventurous spirit that took her to Utah last year. You will see below in her response to one of my questions just how Amber lives every moment to the max, appreciating the now and all that each season has to offer.
[JM] Illustrator or author/illustrator? If the latter, do you begin with words or pictures?
[AA] I’m an artist who writes. I’m sketchy. I meet characters. They most often come waltzing into my studio through a paintbrush but sometimes they walk right through the door. A few weeks ago I was nearly run over by a six-year-old on a scooter. She was wearing a felted skirt and balancing a mini pie on her free hand; a cowboy hat streaming behind her like a banner. She freighted by belting “What I Did for Love,” at the top of her lungs. I recovered my balance and then pulled out my sketchbook.
So far my stories have always been trumpeted in with a sketchbook cameo.
[JM] Where are you from/have you lived and how has that influenced your work?
[AA] I grew up on a mile long stretch of white on the island of Oahu, Hawaii. Despite years of city dwelling work still teams with the tropics. Between whipping winds and ocean spray, I learned to sketch on the fly.
Rapid scrawling served me well as an uprooted college student in New York City. There were so many things to look at and they all moved so quickly. I wanted to capture everything.
The first night I spent in Brooklyn the traffic raging outside my apartment window roared and crashed like the waves I’d grown up falling asleep to. In that moment I was Home. I have always been split between a desperate need for solace and an insatiable hunger for wild urban life. I am equal parts island girl and city siren. That theme is probably the most present in my work. My characters sit at a crossroad between two joys. They live small and dream big, or visa versa. This year I joined their ranks, uprooting more than a decade of dreamy Brooklyn life and relocating to a tiny cottage nestled in one of Utah’s gorgeous desert valleys. Eventually I’ll stop drawing brownstones.
[JM] I so understand that connection with urban vibes and the lure of idyllic landscapes. Tell us a little of your beginnings and journey as an artist.
[AA] It was as ideal as any artist could hope for. I was in preschool when my fine artist father was recruited for the first Master’s class at the New York Academy of Art. We pulled up roots and moved to Astoria, Queens so he could study the greats. While I’m sure my parents would see it differently, one of the best parts of my dad’s new role as student, artist and brand new New Yorker was the fact that babysitters were in short supply. As a result, my early memories are peppered with long day trips to casting halls in the belly of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
At a time most children would be toddling around the house scrawling on walls with Crayola my dad was rationing me Arches paper and sacrificing Windsor Newton paints. Don’t get me wrong, all my drawings in my younger years look like other kid’s art – they’re just archival.
[JM] Do you have a preferred medium to work in?
[AA] Watercolor is my first love, always and forever.
[JM] Do you have themes or characters you return to in your art?
[AA] Birds tend to push their cameos.
[JM] I know you moved to Utah last summer from Brooklyn. What do you miss most about Brooklyn and what do you love most about Utah?
[AA] I miss everything about Brooklyn. I miss falling out of my apartment in the morning having no idea where the day will take me. I miss getting home at 3am too excited to sleep. I miss my commute, a luxurious time filled with books and people watching. I miss my friends. I miss my brilliant tiny art student, Willa. I miss my tribe. I miss the rituals, the little things that become muscle memory, like the first few days of spring when the entire city bursts with the pride of making it through winter. I miss Burlesque figure drawing. I miss the museums. I miss it all, the whole cannoli.
I love everything about Utah. I love having a routine. I love a full day in the studio. I love being in bed before eleven. I love the ambling way I’m committing to my craft. I love the open spaces; the mountains and sky are always changing. I’m surrounded with a completely different beauty. I love the newness.
[JM] Can you share a piece or two with us, maybe of one of these WIPs, and the process of creating them?
[AA] My art is fueled by my sketchbooks. Never one to travel light, I keep my brain in overflowing crates of about a hundred bound books dating back to Pre-K. Between projects I’ll spend a day thumbing through pages. Half-baked ideas of yesteryear suddenly seem brand new. Earlier this year I found this scribbled on the back of an envelope I had scotch taped into a sketchbook book back in 2013.
Sometimes coming up with a concept is more than half the work. Having a reference that’s actually made by my own hand is freeing. It lets me get excited about the details.
If I have a picture I’ve kept stowed away in a book, bringing it to a final illustration usually happens really quickly. It’s had time to soak. More often than not my process is a search. One of the exercises I try to do at least one or two times a week involves pulling out some paper I’ve squiggled on in the dark. It’s a mess of marbled lines.
I have tons of these. I draw directly on top of them. I print out a stack and set a timer for an hour. Then I sit and squint at them until I see something worth drawing. This activity was my favorite as a kid. I always saw mermaids in sidewalk cracks. When I added this exercise in to my weekly routine I saw an uptick in the playfulness of my drawings.
There’s always a ton technically “wrong” with these drawings. The spontaneity of them is what I love best. I typically pull out my light table right around now, but sometimes I’ll use carbon paper to hold on to the shapes I originally loved. I try to write a word or two on the actual drawing to remind me what I’m trying to achieve. Those words are the directions, they keep me in line. I must have done this drawing at least six times, because each time it was neither delighted nor charming. Here I finally feel like I nailed it.
At this point I’ll cut watercolor paper to size if I don’t have any set aside – my least favorite activity ever. I’ll mix colors. I use a majority of Winsor & Newton watercolors, but I also thin down acrylic paint and toss in brighter speedball inks. They splash together spectacularly, leaving a lot of sediment settling in the colors.
When I was younger I feel like I was overly lectured by professors on the dangers of grit in your paint and blooms left on the page. It turns out I love blooms on a page. I love grit in my paint. It’s so fun being a grown-up.
[JM] Keep the grit n’ blooms, Girl! And I love Bear and Squirrel. Name three artists/illustrators who have particularly influenced you?
[AA] I grew up with Calvin. Instead of a Hobbes I had an Ollie Bear. Bill Watterson has always been an anchor.
Catia Chien can pull me in and spin me right round. The strength of her line and the depth of her color leave me awestruck.
Robert Henri took me by the hand as a teen and lead me safely through to the other side of professional artist, for that I’ll be forever thankful.
[JM] What does your workspace look like?
[AA] I like to keep a minimal color palette. White walls and black floors remind me that I’m responsible for the color.
[JM] What artwork do you have hanging in your house?
[AA] I like the work in my home to be joyful. I am a collector of my dad’s work. This one, The Dreamer, is a newly acquired piece I am thrilled to have in my possession.
Five Fun Ones to Finish? [JM] What’s your favorite park (state/urban..) in the world?
[AA] Laie Point State Wayside, hands down.
[JM] I had to look up the location of this park – it’s in Hawaii, if anyone is wondering, and it looks heavenly!
[JM] Cats or dogs?
[AA] I am a staunch believer in the wisdom of Charles Shultz, “Happiness is a warm puppy.”
[JM] Fact that most people don’t know about you?
[AA] I’m quite the Misfits fan.
[JM] What word best sums you up?
[AA] I’m hopeful.
[JM] Go to snack/drink to sustain your creative juices?
[AA] On a day of drawing a square of Vosges Barcelona chocolate walks a fine line between need and want.
[JM] Where can we find you online?
- I blog at www.shesureissketchy.com
- Tweet at www.twitter.com/shesureis
- And frequent Instagram at www.instagram.com/shesureis
Amber, I love how your passionate spirit and joie de vivre come through in your answers. I feel you opened the door and really allowed us a glimpse of your artist’s soul. I also totally see your animation skills in the way you inserted illustrations in just the right places in this interview. It was very dynamic. Thank you. To your continued success and I am so glad we will get to meet up again at SCBWI LA this summer!
All illustrations on this page are copyrighted to Amber Alvarez.